(OK, this took longer than a week. Sorry about that.)
Preparing for Business
I'd talked Steve out of a very tempting software job offer from a company he'd enjoyed working with through most of college. And thanks to waffles with Jack, my plate was clear of law school delusions. So, I spent the better part of our last year at UVA learning what I could about starting a company, even incorporating an LLC, and researching the market we'd be building this phone-ordering software for.
Then we hit ctrl-alt-delete on all of that after a call on my cell phone from Paul Graham asking us to be in Y Combinator, his unique seed-stage venture firm -just with another idea. But I'm getting ahead of myself, let's go back to early 2005.
A Chance Talk with Paul Graham Leads to the Pitch
As we were approaching spring break, a time when most normal college seniors are planning weeklong benders of booze and sunburns, Steve's girlfriend found an announcement that Paul Graham would be giving a talk at Harvard called "How to Start a Startup." (Aptly named, no?) I'd never heard of him, though I did know of his great "Why Nerds are Unpopular" essay. Steve, on the other hand, was a longtime fan. He was the computer science student who was known for turning in projects in Lisp, just because. He had been an avid reader of Paul's essays, as well as his books. She knew this, so when she saw the name, she mentioned it to Steve and he sent me this:
Subject: check it out
One of my favorite programmers of all time is giving a talk at Harvard over spring break called "How to Start a Start-up." This guy, Paul Graham, started a company called Viaweb and sold it to Yahoo for $40 million a while back.
To which I responded:
And no I'm not kidding.
I just wish I knew someone in the city... any ideas?
I've only spent a day in Boston -- nice town.
Good find Huffy.
Why not? Steve obviously wanted to go and we were serious about starting this company and doing it right. Besides, I never really liked beaches, anyway. Too much screen glare.
So we took the train from Charlottesville to Boston (a hearty train ride) and crashed at a mutual friend's apartment in Cambridge (thanks, Felipe!). We were hanging on every word of Paul's talk, the transcript of which you can read here. Little did we know that in that same room was Chris Slowe, who would also be in our Y Combinator class and ultimately be the first person to join our team after his startup with Zak Stone folded and they returned to grad school after that YC Summer.
When the talk ended, Steve joined the queue to get Paul's signature on a copy of one of his books and I followed with only a proposition that went something like this:
Me: "Dr. Graham, Steve and I came up from Virginia"
PG: "All the way from Virginia?"
Me: "Yes, Virginia, we came up because we're starting a startup and it'd totally be worth the cost of buying you a drink to could get your opinion on our idea."
PG: "Sure. Do you know the kiosk?"
Me: (thinking it was a bar, not a literal 'kiosk') "Oh, yeah, no problem."
PG: "Great, me there at 10."
Steve and I (well, OK, maybe just me) danced a jig in the hallway when we left.
We schemed over a burger at Mr. Bartley's about how we should do the pitch. Steve should start, to establish credibility with his programming chops and Lisp interest. Then, I'd swoop in when the timing was right and give him the elevator speech for our startup. It was perfect.
It took us a while to find the kiosk, rather, to find out that it was a giant kiosk in the middle of Harvard Square, but we arrived with ample time. Steve was pacing. This was serious. We never imagined we'd actually get to pitch Paul Graham on a startup idea, let alone get him for a drink and feedback on it.
Paul arrived and suggested we go to Café Algiers, which has since become my favorite work spot in Cambridge. We sat down, were handed menus and Paul looks at us and asks, "So, what's your startup?"
Damn, that was fast.
No time to establish credibility, I just gave him the pitch. He didn't let me get further than that. Paul really liked the idea. In fact, we spent the next 45 minutes or so riffing about all the product extensions and variations, like when we could walk into a store, photograph a barcode, and get price comparisons I hear that idea is doing well on the iPhone. But what mattered most was that we left there with unimaginable confidence. Paul Graham thought we had a decent shot -- admittedly, he still reminded us of the high failure rates most startups experience (seriously, you'd have to be a little irrational to start one). We were thrilled.
Applying to Y Combinator
I'd been bugging Steve to followup with PG, thanking him for the chance, and watched him knock out a quick email to Paul not long after we returned to Virginia. Paul responded quickly, remembered us (joy!), and even went so far as to mention this "Y Combinator" he had announced. He said we had a pretty good chance given that he'd already met us and had his own interest piqued.
Well, we debated it for longer than I should be willing to admit and submitted an application near the deadline. We were called up for an interview that I thought went pretty well. But when it came time for final decisions, our call was inauspiciously late. Paul said that although they'd liked us (the founders), they wouldn't be able to accept our idea. Dejected, we drank away our sorrows with Mexican beer and went back to Virginia on the next morning's train hungover and dejected.
Reddit is Born
Now back to where we began: somewhere in Connecticut, my cell lights up and it's Paul. They had a change of heart and he wants us to be in the program, as long as we come up with a new idea. We didn't give it much thought and got off at the next stop. We went back to Boston and spent about an hour brainstorming with Paul, the result of which was the idea to "build a front page of the web." (credit Paul for that gem of a slogan)
And so began reddit.com.