Reddit’s CEO on building community and dealing with crisis

Photo of Reddit CEO Steve Huffman

Earlier this year, we traveled to The Gathering in Banff, Canada to meet with marketing leaders from the world’s most-coveted brands and learn how they guided their companies to cult status. While we were there, Shane Steele, Head of Global Brand Marketing at Dropbox, had a chance to chat with Steve Huffman, CEO and co-founder of Reddit.

Since launching in 2005, Reddit has achieved tremendous user growth, attracting approximately 330 million visitors every month. So how did they build such a massive community without massive marketing efforts? We sat down with Steve to find out how he and his team are transforming the front page of the internet into an iconic brand.

Working at a leading tech company in Silicon Valley, what kind of shift have you seen in terms of marketing approaches?
One of the the really powerful things marketing can do is help you grow your user base. Reddit has always kind of grown on its own. But we do have like a lot of ground to catch up in terms of explaining what Reddit is, closing what we like to call the perception gap or the relevance gap… getting people to understand that even if you’re not a Reddit user, you probably actually have a home on Reddit somewhere.

As the founder of Reddit, Hipmunk, and other companies, you’ve built several successful teams. What’s the secret to harnessing the collective genius of teams?
The strategy is different at different companies. At Reddit, we have the luxury of having a mission that people can get really excited about. We’re bringing community and belonging to everybody in the world. For a lot of the people who work at Reddit, Reddit has touched their lives in some way, so there’s a kind of close relationship. That’s a nice element for hiring.

At Hipmunk, we’re doing travel search. Convincing people to sling plane tickets, with the exception of their CEO, I think that wasn’t anybody’s childhood dream. So there, the pitch was more along the lines of let’s save people time. It doesn’t sound glamorous, but we can save people a few minutes a day and that adds up. “Come work with really smart people. Come work in a really great culture.” All of those things were kind of how we brought people together.

As new technologies emerge, they sometimes affect our ability to focus on meaningful work. How does your team use technology to collaborate more effectively?
That’s a great question. There are technologies for sharing and communicating that can be really effective. We use Dropbox at Reddit. I think you just have to be careful about not conflating technology tools with work. Technology can help you do work, but just using it doesn’t actually make you more productive. Whether it’s email or Slack or shared documents… It’s the content that matters. I think sometimes it is easy to lose sight of that. It’s also handy how technology’s enabled this whole kind of generation of people being able to work remotely and hire around the globe and have more freedom.

“When you’re in those moments of flow, you’re feeling really productive… You can make decisions all day long. You feel creative all day long. I think you have an infinite supply.”

At Dropbox, we think of creative energy as a resource that can be depleted or replenished depending on the work environment. In your career, when have you felt the most creative energy?
The times of my life where I’ve been the most productive are when the pressure is the greatest. When you find yourself saying, “That is just not important right now I can ignore it.” The way you can do that is when you have something that’s really important in front of you. The first couple of months of every company, I think it’s always like that. When I’ve been in times of crisis, it’s like that. The reality is, there are probably only a few things that are actually important in any particular moment…

But I do want to attack the question a little bit because I’ve heard of this concept of creative energy and being able to running out of it. Over the years, [I’ve talked] about decision fatigue: “I can only make decisions so many times a day.” Or people talk about discipline fatigue. I actually think that thought is not productive. When you’re in those moments of flow, you’re feeling really productive. You can work all day long. You can make decisions all day long. You feel creative all day long. I think you have an infinite supply if you want to have an infinite supply. You just have to play the mental gymnastics to have an infinite supply.

When you say you feel most in flow in moments of crisis, do you mean those circumstances make you more focused?
Yes, exactly. I’s not always negative. Crisis, I think, has a negative connotation. But when you know where you want to be and you want to be there immediately and you have that clarifying focus, that direction, it’s really powerful. The goal at work is to have that every day. Not just at work, but in your life—to know where you want go.

Have you ever felt that happening as a team, where there’s a collective flow and alignment with a group of people who are working together to solve that crisis?
Of course, all the time. There’s always something fun to chase down and work on. And we’ve got a bunch of big projects going on. The Reddit community itself is always doing something interesting. I think that’s what makes work fun. One of the things I talk about a lot when I think about business in general is… you know how the human genome is 99% the same as that of the fruit fly? I think companies are the same way. Most companies are 99% the same, and that 1% that’s different is a prize… The fun of working, the fulfillment of working is solving hard problems with your team. You can do that anywhere—at work or in your personal life. I think just having that in mind— the reward is the journey—can be really effective.

At Dropbox, we talk about the problem of “work about work,” where you’re just dealing with the processes or bureaucracy. How do you try to reduce that work about work?
There are a couple tactics. One is this notion [that] process becomes culture. A lot of times with teams, if you feel like the discipline isn’t there, and you’re not getting the results you want, you can put some process in, put some discipline in. Regular meetings, regular emails, whatever it is. Then eventually, it becomes second nature. This is the hard part—how you can shift the process so the culture will stay intact.

For more tips on taking the work out of getting work done, download our eBook, Friction to Flow.

Banner for Friction to Flow eBook