Reddit and its journey 🛣️ to PMF | Product Stories #1
Origin story of Reddit; from a product perspective (part 2 of 2)
I originally intended this newsletter to be delivered every Sunday but amidst this self-isolation phase, I have started to forget which day of the week it is. I am going ahead and assuming that it is Sunday and sending this edition today.
Alright. Now continuing from where I left off in my previous mail, let’s look at some of the other interesting parts of Reddit’s initial journey.
I briefly touched upon the early metrics of Reddit, and to say that they were good would be an exaggeration. Because they were not good.
For a whole month after launch, Reddit had no traffic. Every day Alexis and Steve would wake up, manually submit links themselves on the site and read that news themselves only. In order to fool the users (the total count of which was 2 back then, Alexis and Steve), they would use different fake usernames to post links (in order to create an illusion that there were already a lot of users already on the site).
They reached a respectable size only 16 months later when they reached 1mn MAU (Monthly Active Users), that too at 7% DAU/MAU (a metric popularised by Facebook in its early days to measure user engagement). To give you an idea, in current times a DAU/MAU of 50% means that it is a daily habit, and a DAU/MAU of 20% is considered a decent metric.
Reddit fared much poorer than the current industry benchmark. It took a lot of time for them to reach a state when they became a daily habit. And let’s look at when that exactly happened.
MVP to PMF: No sharp point of PMF
The most interesting thing about Reddit’s journey is that - at no sharp point can you say that they hit a Product Market Fit (a term coined by one of the VCs while analyzing another VC’s investing style 🤷) and everything changed post that. It has always been a relatively slow and steady growth for them. Reddit had only a couple of hundred users within the first 2 months.
Maybe they had the so-called PMF from Day 1 or they never really cared for PMF. They believed their product was what users wanted and kept on building for them not caring much for whether they are pre-PMF or post-PMF.
I believe a lot of startups go through unnecessary self-doubt (and thereafter distracting experiments; often killing startups) thinking that they have not reached PMF while all they needed to do was keep on working for their users.
That being said, Instagram on the other hand got 1 million users within first 2 months of launch.
Snapchat had 127 users after 6 months of founders working on it, but in Dec 2011 when they find their right audience (i.e. high schools in North Carolina and Silicon Valley) they went from 2000 users to 20,000 users in a month. 100k a couple of months later.
Reddit was neither an instant hit or found a sharp turning point in its journey. It has always been steady.
This stark contrast between the three social apps is one of the main reasons why I wanted to start this newsletter. Often times, we get bogged down thinking there is only one path or one trait all successful companies have. As I have tried to study the histories of a bunch of them, it turns out there is none. There is no way we can determine a success formula looking at PMF path of these three companies. The only thing common is that all of their paths were different.
How subreddits came into the picture?
Another important aspect of Reddit’s early history is the growth of different genres inside it.
While it was initially built around solving for the founder’s problem of going through various news websites to find popular trending news, it quickly expanded to other forms of content discovery.
Even though Reddit founders took an already existing idea, they still looked out to solve a unique problem. Since it was the early days of the internet, they could take up vague problem statements like content discovery. This is a luxury Reddit had. Newer startups I believe don’t have this luxury. They need to pick up much narrower problem statements now. I will talk about this aspect in a few of the later editions of this newsletter as well.
The prevalent system of enabling content discovery at that time was “tags”. Some of Reddit’s competitors like Delicious were already using tags. If Reddit had been too fixated on beating competition, they would have introduced the same feature. They thought of their features from first principles and came up with a new content discovery mechanism of “groups”. Instead of categorizing content, they ended up categorizing people. Their rationale was “What might be considered “politics” by one person might be tagged as “left-wing liberal bullshit” by another.” That’s when they came up with “subreddit” as a way of categorizing.
This automatically created all the difference between Reddit and its competitors. While all the other companies remained content discovery platforms and died, Reddit survived because it focused on building communities. It also ended up establishing network effects for them. Now any new company that wants to replicate Reddit, will have to replicate every one of their million subreddits.
Reddit and porn
NSFW was one of the major early subreddits that was started. It still contributes around 10% of Reddit but back then it may have been the reason for Reddit’s continuous growth. Another example of “Do things that don’t scale”? (or probably “solve for your needs first and then find users similar to you”)
“NSFW subreddit” is interesting as it was not a subreddit that users themselves started. It was a deliberate action taken by the founders. They realized that while it might not be something Reddit stands for (at that time which was social news), they still chose to go ahead with it. This may have been because those were very early days of Reddit and they would have been happy with whatever users came as long as it was growing. Which I believe is fine. Sometimes founders become too idealistic in their vision that they don’t try out anything which deviates even slightly from their vision (thanks for all the gyaan of “focus on the vision”). Sometimes at the early stage, you got to whatever it takes to get users and figure out the rest later. Its a fine line and everyone would have different definitions of where they draw the line but can sometimes do wonders. Even if it does not lead to anything meaningful for the product, it might just give enough confidence to the founder to persevere longer.
You can see the chart of various subreddit’s submissions over the years:
Why Reddit succeeded and others failed?
Reddit was not the first social news company that was started. Yes, back then Reddit was called a social news site. It is now called a community / social network.
While the inspiration of Reddit came from the utility of Slashdot (news for nerds community) and Delicious, it grew continuously while others failed.
Every one of them had different reasons for their failure (which can be all individual subsequent posts).
In the case of Delicious, one of the major reasons turned out to be that Delicious was being used more as a utility for bookmarking webpages, which meant its content was generally longer reads which people saved for later (as opposed to current and trending topics on Reddit).
Digg died because of different reasons but one of the major ones being self-promotion on Digg. On Reddit, self-promotion—say, posting your own personal blog and voting it up from multiple user accounts you’d created—was considered spamming. On Digg, however, there were loopholes often gamed by users, networks of friends, and newsrooms. Interesting point to note here is that, Digg was more heavily funded than Reddit at that time.
4chan still exists but it has evolved into more for toxic communities which somehow Reddit has been able to handle in spite of so many unfortunate instances.
Reddit was also self-policing with users themselves downvoting as they considered themselves a part of the community (exact percentage of downvoters however would be an interesting metric which I couldn’t find).
This concludes my attempt at writing about the early history of Reddit. There are a lot of other anecdotes about its early history that are worth mentioning. One of them was Reddit’s failed attempt at building Reddit TV - a video Q&A platform (a classic case of founder misalignment). I will probably talk about that later.
That’s it from my end. If you found this helpful, do share this mail with some of your friends in product-based roles.
Happy Sunday! (Yes, I do realize now that it’s Thursday but I am too lazy to correct my mistake)