When A Founder Boomerangs Back: Alexis Ohanian On Returning To Reddit

Source | FastCompany : By JARED LINDZON

Recent studies have suggested that both employers and employees are more open to the idea of boomeranging, but rarely do startup founders get the opportunity to return to the helm of a successful company they’ve created and walked away from.

That’s exactly what happened to Alexis Ohanian, who cofounded Reddit with Steve Huffman in 2005. Their social media company was acquired by Condé Nast one year later. Ohanian, named one of Fast Company‘s Most Creative People this year, left Reddit in 2009 to launch a number of new ventures, become a partner at Y Combinator, and a net neutrality activist. He returned to Reddit in 2015.

Fast Company caught up with Ohanian at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Portugal, to discuss what it was like to boomerang to a company he cofounded a decade prior, whether he ever regretted leaving in the first place, and why he decided to return.

Returning to Reddit after it was acquired might imply some seller’s remorse. Do you still think it was the right move to leave when you did?

We started Reddit right out of college. We were pretty naive, but we managed to build something that people really liked, and it grew. When we found ourselves 16 months later in a position to sell it for life-changing money, it felt like we were getting away with something. So there was a discussion, but it wasn’t a very long discussion, because it seemed to be too good to be true.

While I don’t regret it at all, you could certainly make the case that we sold early, given that Reddit continued to grow after we left.

Why did you decide to return?

Because it was the opportunity of a lifetime. For five or six years Steve [Huffman] and I were gone and the site didn’t really change. Usually in business if you don’t evolve you’re going to have a tough time. In tech, you’re especially going to have a tough time. This miracle that Reddit kept growing in spite of no change showed us that there was clearly something here, and we owed it to Reddit to get it right and let it live up to its full potential.

At any point did you feel like the website and its reputation were at stake, or on the brink of collapse? Was there a sense that it needed to be saved?

I don’t want to be too hyperbolic about it. In spite of a lot of things, the site kept growing. Growth is the core engine, especially for a consumer platform like Reddit. But there was a strong sense that it was not living up to its full potential, and we felt like Reddit was never going to live up to its full potential unless we boomeranged.

Did the Reddit community itself play a role in that decision? Did you miss having that user base behind you?

A little bit, but I also got regular exposure to it, because when I would travel I would say like, ‘Hey R/Birmingham, I’m here in town, lets do a meet-up,’ or I’d just crash a meet-up a community was hosting.

I still felt very physically connected to users because I’ve spent more face time with Reddit users than I think anyone over the last decade. But I didn’t wake up and go to bed thinking about Reddit anymore. That was a little weird because that was our baby, that was the thing we woke up to and went to bed thinking about every night for years.

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