How Reddit Built Its Empire On 500 Bucks, Stickers, And Giving People What They Want

The short answer: alien swag. The somewhat less-short answer: putting users first.

Back in 2005, my college friend Steve Huffman and I got $12,000 from Y Combinator and moved into an apartment in Medford, Mass. In our wildest dreams we couldn't have imagined that now, six years later, our website, reddit, would be getting 35 million unique visitors and over 2.8 billion pageviews per month (at the time of this writing).

We launched the site without any categories--just one big front page of links about anything the community wanted. Today, the community is made up of thousands of awesome subreddits, ranging from topics like cute animal photos to politics to male fashion advice. And this marvelous community of communities owes its existence to a massive advertising budget of...$500. To date that is the sum total of money that has been spent advertising reddit. Five hundred dollars, and every dollar of it spent on stickers. 

Yes, stickers (pictured on the lamppost, right): the soundest investment I ever made. I used to travel around the country a lot (thank you, Chinatown bus), and everywhere I went I took stickers with me. I put them on signs, poles, and even other advertisements.

"Please sticker responsibly!" we would say, and hand out these stickers at events, meetups, just to random people on the street. This may not sound like a major or even strategic marketing approach, but we kept at it. The focus was on building a great product and a community online--the stickers were just an excuse for people to show their allegiance. Stickers have now become a currency for startups. But don't be limited by just this ubiquitous swag.

Whether it's a sticker, a t-shirt (the standard startup swag), or a luggage tag (see the benefit of starting a travel company with a cute mascot? Finding luggage just got way easier--and cuter), make the process of giving someone swag something special. No one is going to show off a sticker, or anything else, unless they feel an attachment to the brand. Even something as simple as giving someone a chance to 'earn' the item makes a difference (e.g, "Show me how much you love hipmunk by doing an impression of the chipmunk 'flying' with its arms").

Within a few months we started seeing photos uploaded to the internet of people stickering with our stickers...often stickering in ways we'd never expected:

(Yes, that's Wil Wheaton.)

And it wasn't long thereafter that we started seeing our first fan art. So we sued every single one of them. Just kidding! Who would do that? People were taking their time and energy and using it to create their own representations of our brand, of our reddit alien, because they cared so much about this community. (Perhaps they also had some spare time and extra art supplies, who knows.)

No, the stickers alone didn't do the job, and they didn't make reddit what it is today. But the fact of the matter is, with $500 we went from stickering street signs to inspiring--with our little community--people like Fernando Takai from Brazil to get a reddit alien tattooed on his torso.

I doubt that Fernando ever even saw one of those stickers, and it doesn't even matter, because we didn't have to convince him that reddit was something he should love. We didn't need to promote the idea that people should love reddit because we were focused on actually building something that they should love. We let the community, which made reddit everything that it is, handle the rest. Without any direction from us, they created the same kind of excitement and same kind of love around our brand that we felt. And there's your takeaway: to look for and support that sense of community wherever you see it.

Everyone talks about putting users first, and that's their problem. Don't talk about it, don't market it. Just do it. That's the most compelling thing you can do. And it's even more important if you've got a user-driven website, because your website is going to be worthless unless you've got users.

The Pareto Principle applies here: about 80% of all the traffic and all the content on reddit is generated by 20% of the user base or less (and this holds for every user-generated site out there). The majority of people visiting the site are never even logged in. That means almost all of the valuable content on your website is generated by a very small percentage of your user base. In fact, it's now widely considered to be the "1% rule" where 1% of traffic is actually creating content online.

When you get your first hundred users, treat them well, because these first hundred will make or break your product. Somewhere in this first hundred, there will be a handful of people who are actually going to drive your product, and you can't afford to alienate any of them. Who knows which user will be the one who drives your website, the one who catapults it into something that gets 35 million unique visitors a month? If someone is going to take the time to write you a feedback email one week after you've launched, you had better respond to them as quickly as possible, because that's a potential power user, someone (other than your mom) who saw something in your website and cared enough to write an email to some random person they've never met and tell them how they think your website could be better. You need to treat these people like gold, because that is exactly what they are. And you need to make sure they know it, too.

Remember: they are your website, not you. It's very tempting to think “Ah ha! These thirty people are here because they really care about what I had for breakfast.” The reality is they came for the cat photos. They don't care who you are. They probably don't even know who you are. And that's how it should be.

Think of the best party hosts you've ever seen. They're not spending their time talking about how awesome they are--they don't have time for that stuff. Instead, they're spending their time introducing other awesome people to one another, and helping find some common ground between their guests. At reddit, we always thought of ourselves as something between party hosts and janitors. We wanted to keep the party going by making sure everyone had drinks and, you know, keeping the riff-raff out, making sure the toilets didn't get clogged, whatever.

When we saw that the party was getting bigger, we started opening up extra rooms for our guests to kind of spill over into. We knew that if we put the basic tools in place and gave our community the power, they would start to take responsibility for their own party experience, creating all the sub-communities, these "subreddits," within the site. We launched the first subreddit, /r/programming, because programmers were upset that their favorite links were no longer showing up on the front page. We slowly started rolling out subreddits that we ourselves managed and seeded for months before finally opening them up to users. Even then, it took quite some time; I made countless house ads promoting then-nascent communities like /r/gaming and even quite a few of our own submissions to prime the community for new users. But eventually our users were actually just as excited about making reddit successful as we were. And when you've got users who are just as invested in the success of a company as its founders, you know you're throwing a really, really good party.

Excerpted with permission from Make Something People Love: Lessons From a Startup Guy, by Alexis Ohanian, published by Hyperink. Download a copy and receive a 50% discount by using the promo code "FASTCOMPANY." 

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[Top image: Flickr user Sean Welton. Other images: reddit]

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