Steve Huffman is the co-founder of Reddit (a popular social news site) which was sold to Conde cast almost 5 years ago and Hipmunk (a new travel search site that aims to take the agony out of travel planning). Steve graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Computer Science in 2005.
In this interview, Steve talks about his new startup – Hipmunk.
Here’s the full interview.
Can you give the readers some background information about yourself?
I graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Computer Science in 2005. My college roommate, Alexis Ohanian, and I started reddit.com. 17 months later we sold reddit to Conde Nast. I worked at Conde Nast on reddit for another three years and left in the fall of 2009. In the summer of 2010, Adam Goldstein and I started Hipmunk to improve the travel search experience online.
Why did you decide it was time to leave reddit?
My contract with Conde Nast was for three years. When it expired, I left. Working at Conde was very frustrating for a number of reasons, so I wasn't inclined to stay longer.
Now you're working on Hipmunk, what is the story behind it? Most importanlty, what convinced you that the idea was worth pursuing?
My friend Adam Goldstein called me in the spring of 2010 wanting to talk about startups. He was about to graduate from MIT and wanted to work on a travel search product. I was initially against it because I thought the market was saturated and too startup-hostile. Adam was persistent and convinced me to give it a shot. I figured we'd be dead in a few months and would move onto another project. In the meantime, however, I committed to giving it a real shot.
Why the travel industry? Didn’t you feel like the market was already competitive?
Yep, that was my initial argument to Adam. However, it was obvious that the travel space could use serious improvement. The best solution on the market at the time was Kayak, and even they were pretty bad. I had spent my three years at Conde Nast flying cross-country every couple of weeks to visit my then-girlfriend/later-fiance/now-wife and knew firsthand what a horrible experience buying plane tickets online was.
What has been some of your biggest challenges along the way since starting the company and how have you dealt with it?
One of the initial challenges was getting the industry to pay attention to us. No-one wanted us to exist. Adam was persistent and got us our first couple of deals. As we've grown the challenge has morphed. Now that we have access to data and relationships with airlines and hotels, we need to figure out how to grow even faster.
What is an average workday like for you?
I usually spend my first hour every morning slogging through email. I detest email so this is generally the worst part of my day. I try to spend the rest of my day programming and working with the other developers. I have a hard time concentrating, so I moved my desk into a corner and try to spend as much time as possible with headphones on.
How is Hipmunk being funded so far?
We've raised about $5MM from a handful angels and Ignition capital.
Are you guys profitable at the moment?
What advice can you give to those founders who find themselves looking for angel funding? especially those looking to get accepted by Y Combinator?
The most important thing you can do is build something. Investors, including YC, are looking for teams who can execute their ideas. A prototype, or even better, traction with actual users, is a thousand times more important than the specific idea, degrees, or anything else.
Which aspect of your business strategy would you say is more important at the moment and why?
Growth is the most important issue for us at the moment. We have a great product. When people see it, they love it. So, we need to get more people to see it.
How do you market your products or services?
Until now we've benefitted greatly from great press and word of mouth. We've spent very little on traditional marketing. Given that growth is the most important issue for us, we'll need to spend more time in this department. Alexis, my co-founder at reddit, recently joined us full-time to help with this endeavor.
How many employees do you guys currently have working in the company, do you have any future plans to increase the workship?
There are 10 of us. We'll likely add a few more, but growing too fast is a quick way to ruin a company, so we'll play it conservative.
How is Hipmunk different from other online travel website and how do you try provide a better service than your competitors?
It starts with our philosophy. Our goal isn't to make as much money as possible from every visitor. Our goal is to help people find the plane ticket or hotel they need in a short amount of time with as little stress as possible. This means we don't litter our site with ads like all of our competitors do. We don't open bunches of new windows, misrepresent prices, or needlessly force users to click through multiple pages.
What we do is present flight and hotel results in a clear and intuitive manner. Unlike our competitors, we don't sort results by how much money we make. We sort flight results by Agony and hotel results by Ecstasy. We realize shopping for travel is about making tradeoffs, and we do our best to help our customers make the right decision.
How would you describe your experience at reddit compared to the experience running Hipmunk?
Hipmunk is much more planned than reddit. With reddit, we didn't really know what we were building or where we were heading. WIth Hipmunk, we have a clearer idea of what our product is and where it's going. Also, simply having the experience of a startup under my belt helps dramatically.
It seems that everyone from Reddit is moving to Hipmunk? Was it like working together with the old team at reddit on Hipmunk?
It's great to have the team back together. Chris, David, and I have been writing software together for years. It certainly makes hiring easier.
What advantage would you say running Reddit has given you since starting Hipmunk?
Experience and reputation. It's a lot easier to raise money with a successful startup in your past. Technologically, I know much more this time around, so that has made much of this process more straightforward.
What experience would you say has been your most memorable moment so far?
Our launch day was very exciting. The first person using us to buy a plane ticket was an incredible sense of relief. I really wasn't sure if people would use us at all, and was quite nervous going into things.
What has been your most valuable lessons learnt as an entrepreneur so far on your journey as an entrepreneur?
The most important lesson is that there are many paths to success. There are so many ways of building successful companies that it's hard to distill things down to One True Way. Just because something worked for someone else, doesn't mean it will work for you, and vice versa. One of the great things about building a company is figuring out what strategies you want to use and watching them work (or not).
Is this another 4-5 years Project or are you looking to stay in the company for much longer?
We've got a long way to go, and things can change so fast. I try not to get caught up in figuring out whether we've got another year, five more, or longer.
Alright, what’s your pitch to Complex readers on why they should try Hipmunk?
It's very simple. If you've bought plane tickets or hotel reservations online, you know it sucks. There's no reason to be abused when you're trying to spend $500 or more on something. If you're tired of being abused, give Hipmunk a shot the next time you travel.
What advice could you impart on our readers looking to launch a start-up?
Get to work!
What should users expect in the future from Hipmunk?
They should expect us to continue to make their lives easier by innovating online travel search.