How chatting with reddit’s founder got me thinking about vegetables

Nov 19 2013

What does our project have in common with a website that has 70 million monthly readers?

We have to worry about the same questions: sticky, “I don’t want to, but I have to,” vegetable kind of questions.

Last week, I had the chance to interview Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of reddit.com. We talked about plenty of the enjoyable, “dessert” questions: how he’s inspiring the next generation of startup founders, his sources of inspiration, and why your early twenties is the perfect time to found a startup.

He had some great advice (Check out our video).

It was a question about three “-abilities,” though, that that made me realize he was in our shoes not too long ago.

When asked which he valued most — feasibility, viability or desirability — Ohanian’s answer was probably what you’d expect: Desirability.

“It’s something that gets drilled into every startup’s head,” he said. “You have to start with making something people want because if you don’t you’ll never be viable. Because people are never going to pay for it or there won’t be enough users to somehow make it valuable enough.”

I’m a little wary of Ohanian’s answer. It makes it sound like desirability leads to automatic viability. If you build it, they will come.

They may come, but will they pay?

Is having “enough users” a guarantee that a product will be valuable enough to be viable?

Reddit’s value has been estimated as high as $700 million. Despite this, the current CEO announced earlier this year, the company is operating at a loss. Without serious reconsideration of alternative business models, I’m not sure how long reddit could sustain itself. (To Ohanian’s credit, he’s definitely given some thought to this.)

I’m not saying that viability is more important than desirability. On the contrary, as Ohanian pointed out, desirability is the foundation of any good startup.

My team has created a product that is even more desirable than I could have hoped for: 39 of the 40 teachers – who are potential users of our product – we surveyed said they would use it in their classroom.

But we have to ask ourselves, as entrepreneurs, “Will they pay?” Or, in our case, “Can they pay?”

It’s a hard truth, but oftentimes for media companies, the answer is “No.” But that’s no reason to give up.

A better approach, in the case of reddit and of Greetings From, would be “Who will pay?”

Teachers have said that they want to teach global connectivity. But they don’t have readily available resources to teach this without interrupting preparation for standardized tests. Our product, Greetings From, would make this possible. Kids from around the world write postcard-style reflections about something happening in their communities. NGOs help the children send this to our office, and we edit it and send it out to subscribers both in and out of the classroom.

I’ll admit, our business model is just as complicated as reddit’s, or maybe more. We’re still exploring how well our dual-revenue stream (subscribers in and out of classrooms) would work, the best way for teachers to get funding, and if we could pay the NGOs enough to make it worth their time.

I’d much rather spend my time with the “dessert” questions like what our product will look like and what features would be fun to add. But the vegetable questions (that, let’s face it, usually have to do with money) are necessary evils of the startup world, so I’ll keep tackling them.

Because I believe that if someone wants it, it’s our job to find a way to make it a reality.



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