Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

The reason two tech whizzes rejoined Reddit after selling it at age 23

Reddit co-founder on driving growth
Reddit co-founder on driving growth

Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman sold Reddit to Condé Nast when they were 23. Then both — in stages — came back to the company. Why? According to Ohanian, because of a single and rare thing that was happening at Reddit and almost never happens in the technology industry.

"In spite of us being gone for half a decade, the company had not really changed," Ohanian told CNBC from the Net/Net event on Tuesday. "It kept growing. That's rare. In any industry, lack of innovation will hurt you. In tech it almost guarantees it will kill you," he said. "We saw something in Reddit in the half decade we were gone. ... The site was not changing, but it kept growing. Growing despite not changing," Ohanian said.

(Ohanian came back as executive chairman of Reddit in 2014, and Huffman returned as CEO in July 2015.)

There was something else, too. The Reddit co-founders were young. Even if they did enough right to put the site in a position to grow without constant change, they were wrong to sell in the first place, Ohanian conceded. "We had the chance of a lifetime to come back to a company we sold too early, frankly. We were 23 — we didn't know any better," he said.

The two Reddit co-founders originally met each other on move-in day at the University of Virginia. Reddit now has 250 million active users, or a population of commentators that is larger than the population of Brazil.

We saw something in Reddit in the half decade we were gone. ... The site was not changing, but it kept growing. Growing despite not changing.
Alexis Ohanian
executive chairman of Reddit
Alexis Ohanian
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Ohanian shared with CNBC some additional thoughts on managing Reddit's growth and its goal of getting to Facebook's 1 billion monthly active-user mark.

1. Any web business that has success must prepare to defend itself from hacks — while doing everything else to roll out product improvements and new platforms.

Reddit was among the U.S. websites hit by the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) hack last week. For 30 minutes Reddit users had trouble accessing the service or couldn't access it at the speed they expected. Ohanian said cybersecurity is a cost that any successful website needs to address. "When you're the eighth in the United States in web traffic, you're going to be a target," Ohanian said.

A "meaningful portion" of investment being made by Reddit is in security, but Ohanian said that there are "no shortage of things to be working on."

Nevertheless, speaking to CNBC from the Net/Net conference later on Tuesday, Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyberspace policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said there is not enough investment in security from the companies creating technology products. "We knew this kind of attack would come. If you link something to the Internet it is vulnerable ... all these DVRs and cameras linked to the Internet. ... and on the defensive side, companies are not spending enough," Segal said. He added that there is also a "massive vulnerability" created by centralizing control of the Internet through companies like Dyn, which suffered the DDoS attack last week. Companies have been focused on "keeping people out, not on resilience," he said.

"What happens if the system goes down," Segal asked. "How much business continuity do you have in place?"

In terms of core services, Reddit has been focused on mobile desktop, mobile web and new apps for iOS and Android. Ohanian said those apps "took us a while."

"Security is part of it. It has to be factored in," Ohanian said. "There is a broad spectrum of things any modern tech company needs to work. It's an important part especially for us, given Reddit's influence in public opinion and getting people informed."

Ohanian said Reddit has shipped more code and product improvements in the past year than in the past half decade.

2. Reddit is not as conspiratorial or controversial as you've been led to believe.

Ohanian said that with a content platform that has a quarter-billion monthly active users, there are lots of discussions happening on Reddit he may not personally agree with. Reddit has established a content policy in the past year laying out "the rules of the road." It has also added a safety and trust team to flag users violating the new guidelines and "put them in time out" or ban them, he said.

But Ohanian said all the talk about conspiratorial and controversial content on Reddit isn't supported by the data. Only 0.02 percent of the content produced by its 250 million users gets reported by users as being problematic.

"That's a lot of discussion. The population is bigger than Brazil, and the vast majority is quite reasonable," Ohanian said.