3 Approaches to Consider Before Building a Mobile App

By Andrew Sosa, Creative Director at Squareball Studios.

Mobile apps used to be the new thing. Now they’re like underwear — almost everyone has a drawer full.

Statista has been tracking the proliferation of apps in the Apple Store. As of January 2017, there were 2.2 million apps just waiting to be downloaded to your mobile phone. Perhaps “waiting” isn’t the right word — most of these apps aren’t sitting still. According to Smart Insights, 90 percent of the considerable time Americans spend on their cell phones is spent actively using apps. As the creative director of a mobile app design and development firm, I often see people building applications incorrectly by simply looking to cover the needed basic assessments. You shouldn’t jump into getting an app developed without the proper feedback regarding overhead costs.

The good news is that we’ve learned a lot from rolling out all these software options over the years. The bad news is there’s so much competition now, you better not miss a beat — or your app might flounder. So, what should a prospective developer or entrepreneur consider before building and marketing a new app?

The first step in app development is, of course, having the idea. But how do you know if the idea will hold water in an already saturated marketplace? We suggest to our clients that all budding app developers go through a product validation exercise before the build. With that said, we suggest a multi-step planning approach that will take time on the backend but ultimately save time (and money) on the front end.

Identify the demand for the app. 

Google Keyword Planner can help you determine the volume of people who are searching for what you’re trying to sell. You will also be able to see the competition for your targeted product keywords, which will indicate “hotness” (or not-ness) in the market.

Shopify blog contributor Richard Lazazzera suggests using Google Trends to search for a more global portrait of how your product may do long term. At my company, we have standard market validation and business analysis procedures that entail interviewing/job shadowing along with testing several use cases via a prototype to the parties involved.

Identify competitors. 

Starting with a simple Google search, look for direct competitors as well as crossover competition that uses some of the relevant features of your app. SimilarWeb can help you deep dive competitor details like website traffic, organic and paid keywords and social referrals. How long have these competitors been in business and what kind of social media following do they have? All of this data will tell you something about your potential app.

Wireframe it. 

Map the features, flow and user experience of the app. How will users navigate it? How will you track downloads or other analytics on the back end? This mapping process will help you eliminate extraneous functions that will bog down the app. Our team gathers the needed data to create a solution that caters to all parties involved in using the final product to avoid any unforeseen gaps in the future. Remember, if your initial offering is successful, there will be version upgrades. Going to market with a lean and mean version will also save you money.

Product validation is a necessary first step on the road to app development. If you’ve completed these or other product validation steps, you’re one step closer to knocking it out of the app park. Keep in mind that this is just the beginning of a process that stretches across research, pre-testing, go-live, feedback and new feature introduction.

Andrew Sosa is Creative Director at Squareball Studios, a leading Dallas based mobile app design & development firm for startups and large enterprises.

This Tiny Little Change for Amazon Alexa Could Be the Biggest Tech Milestone of the Year So Far

Amazon Alexa can hear you. And she now listens really intently.

For the first time ever, the bot that is changing how we shop, how we use our phones, and how we experience AI is able to engage in normal conversation, not requiring that you say her name after an initial question. It’s a sign of how AI will evolve over time, conversing with us as though the robot is our friend. And it could be the beginning of a much more vital, persistent, and enriching relationship. Here’s how it all works.

If you go to the settings on your phone and find the speaker you’re using, there’s a new option called Follow-Up. You just enable it, and when you say “Alexa” to ask about the weather or traffic, the bot will keep listening for a while. You will know this because the blue light keeps shining on the top. Engineers who announced the new feature said Alexa knows if you’re talking to the bot, likely because of how it parses the conversation. If you stay within the same context of the conversation, Alexa will keep talking.

As a test, I asked Alexa about the weather. Then, without saying Alexa again (which has always been an annoying step if you want to ask multiple questions in a row), I asked about the weather for the rest of the week. After the report, the light shone blue again, so I asked about the news. Then, I asked about the age of our current president, the age of former presidents, and asked Alexa to tell me a joke. I never had to trigger the bot again.

What does this mean? It’s the first time I’ve had a normal conversation with Alexa, without having to say the trigger word. It felt exactly like talking to a friend.

I’ve written before about how bots will replace our phones eventually, especially once they become smarter and more helpful. But this is a big step forward, even if it seems minor at first. Alexa is listening better, and smarter. The next step is for bots to start acting more proactively, to suggest actions and ideas that will help us even when we don’t know what to ask. Imagine a future where a bot can watch us making pancakes. We ask for the recipe, Alexa responds. Then the bot reminds us not to forget the butter and to grease the pan. Can an app on a phone do that? Not at all.

I can also imagine having a bot give me advice throughout the day. We might ask initially about an area of the country where we might move, like California or North Carolina. We’d ask about the weather there and the crime rate. But the conversation could evolve from that point naturally. Alexa might tell us some interesting facts about a business boom in the area, or about some new trends. The bot might alert us the next day that there’s a new house for sale that we might like, one that matches a previous search or interests.

The reason Follow-Up mode is so important is that it is a step away from a mindless bot that sits in the corner and responds on cue. Instead, Alexa is more like a colleague or a friend. It can relay information to us, then keep listening as we speak. Maybe you find this to be creepy or weird, but I like the change. A lot. To me, it means bots are acting more human, providing more help in a way that seems natural, a part of our everyday routine.

They are evolving.

Elon Musk Just Surprised Everyone at SxSW With Yet Another Apocalyptic Pronouncement

When Elon Musk walks on the stage at a tech conference, the first thing you do is grab your phone and start livestreaming. The second thing you do is write an article about it.

The famous entrepreneur, who has made many bold claims about the future of humanity in the past, called on other innovators to figure out how to save us all. He mentioned how the famous Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky once called Earth the cradle of humanity but that the cradle might not last forever unless we do something to save it.

Of course, Musk has a solution, and it might require your participation.

During his stage talk, which was really meant as an add-on at the end of a panel discussing the show Westworld, Musk spoke in a halted way, perhaps because he is passionate about the topic or maybe a little exasperated.

He explained how a Mars colony would be a much better option for saving humanity in the event of a apocalyptic disaster. He’s spoken about this topic before, usually hinting at how AI could destroy us if left to its own devices.

What was most interesting is that he suggested how it will be inspiration that drives us forward, which is where entrepreneurs come into play.

Ingenuity, excitement, and innovation can be the catalysts that help us figure out how to go beyond our solar system (finally). As Musk explained, we can go “beyond the stars” but it will take take a colossal group effort. “Life cannot just be about solving one miserable thing after another,” he said from stage. “That can’t be the only thing. They need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That makes me glad to be alive. I hope you feel the same way.”

Two Instagram videos followed, showing the Falcon Heavy launch and the Starman project, which involved sending a Tesla Roadster into space piloted by a mannequin.

Does blockchain offer hype or hope?

These days, bitcoin is front-page news, as its price’s vertiginous ups and downs elicit glee and despondency by turns among investors. It was not always this way: the now-definitely-in-a-bubble cryptocurrency is making a comeback following years in which its association with crime and darknet drug markets kept it away from the spotlight. During that period, technologists and corporate evangelists had stopped touting the qualities of bitcoin, turning instead to a technology that underpinned the cryptocurrency without being tainted by dodgy connections: blockchain.

The blockchain was born as the digital scaffolding for cryptocurrency transactions. When devising bitcoin, pseudonymous inventor Satoshi Nakamoto’s aim was to create a stateless virtual currency, not controlled by any bank or government.

But without any third-party acting as a guarantor, how could you ensure users did not cheat and spend their immaterial coins more than once? The solution was to entrust oversight to the whole network: all transactions are etched on a public log – the blockchain – maintained by a peer-to-peer swarm of computers (or “nodes”), each holding an identical copy of the ledger. When users spend their coins, nodes take note and update the ledger.

The decentralised structure ensures that there is no single point of failure, making it nearly impossible to hack the network, forge transactions, or freeze them for legal purposes.

Nakamoto added a further wrinkle to the system – “mining”: transactions are clustered in “blocks” and added to the ledger by powerful computers (“miners”), which earn the right to do so after solving mathematical puzzles through an electricity-consuming series of random attempts.

The narrative that started spreading at some point in 2013 was that blockchain technology should be decoupled from bitcoin, and used for more than exchanging digital currency. Cryptocurrency units could be inscribed with additional information and transformed into tokens representing anything from diamonds to title deeds; in this way blockchains could be repurposed as devices to verify property rights, or track products as they changed hands throughout the supply chain. Every sector could adopt a blockchain to move value or information among a multitude of parties, without the need for a mediator. Blockchain would lead to efficiency, transparency and security.

Don Tapscott, an academic and businessman, and author of messianic book The Blockchain Revolution, has called blockchain technology “the trust protocol”. “You don’t need intermediaries to ensure parties will act with integrity, because the very platform you’re transacting on does that for you,” he says. “Trust is not achieved by middlemen but by cryptography, collaboration and clever code.”

New blockchains emerged. Banks and financial institutions – bitcoin’s original designated victims – started experimenting with their own private ledgers, in the hope that they could streamline the transfer of stocks and financial products.

A blockchain called Ethereum came to dominate the open-source landscape: launched in 2015 by Russian-Canadian programmer Vitalik Buterin, it allowed developers to code and run “decentralised autonomous organisations” – applications selling their services in exchange for cryptocurrency, and self-managing themselves according to sets of automatically enforced rules dubbed “smart contracts”.

Advocates recast blockchain as a tool for decentralising the internet itself. The Facebooks and Amazons of the future would be autonomous companies living on Ethereum, and they would store user information across the network, rather than in a data centre in Oregon – an arrangement that would make them less exposed to both cybercrime and government censorship.

That futuristic vision did not survive the appearance of the first decentralised autonomous organisations – unmanned venture capital fund the DAO was launched and immediately hacked in spring 2016. But that did not stop other, more conventional startups from popping up with the promise to crack one of the multiple problems with blockchain.

More recently, an Ethereum feature that allows anyone to mint and sell their own mini-currencies was bent into a crowdfunding tool: developers just had to float their idea for a blockchain venture and sell their tokens with the understanding that they would be of some use on a yet-to-be-built platform. Initial coin offerings (ICOs) were born, unleashing a speculative craze that would foreshadow the current bitcoin resurgence.

The question many are asking now is whether there is much to blockchain apart from hype and speculation. The technology is still too slow to be used on a large scale: Ethereum can only process about 15 transactions per second compared, for instance, to Visa’s 2,000. Mining, the verification process that keeps blockchains trudging on, is a carbon-generating disgrace – Iceland uses more electricity for mining bitcoin than it does in powering its households. And some wonder what exactly a blockchain does, that a centralised tamper-proof digital ledger – a decade-old technology – does not.

“I have seen no use cases for blockchain; there’s nothing that a blockchain in particular brings to the party,” says David Gerard, author of crypto-sceptic book Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain. “The only use case I found for blockchain is cryptocurrency, and the only use for cryptocurrency is illicit transactions. And even for that, bitcoin is too slow.”

Anarcho-libertarians of the Satoshi Nakamoto type might value blockchain for its imperviousness to state interference but Gerard sees no reason why conventional businesses should adopt one. Others think it is just a matter of waiting for the technology to mature. Jamie Burke, CEO and founder of the blockchain-focused fund Outlier Ventures, believes that, in the long run, blockchain could make several industries more automated, transparent and decentralised, and that the ICO model might allow teams behind open-source projects to make a profit. Current scaling hurdles are simply par for the course for a technology that is still in its late infancy. “I don’t think any meaningful application will be built on the blockchain for at least two or three years,” he says. “But then again it’s never the first generation of a technology that delivers the blockbuster hit. It’s always the second, or the third. This is the reality of how technologies are adopted: the only difference is that with blockchain, this cycle is happening very publicly, because of the cryptocurrency hype.”

Linked in: alternative applications for blockchain

Catalan demonstrators in Barcelona, 2017.



Catalan demonstrators in Barcelona, 2017. Photograph: Credit: Matthias Oesterle / Alamy Live News/Alamy Live News.

Voting
Funnily enough, one of the areas where blockchain technology could make the biggest impact has little to do with business, and much to do with politics: voting. Some think the ledger’s decentralised, tamper-proof nature make it safe enough to allow fraud-free online elections: voters would just get vote tokens and transfer them in order to signal their preference. The idea has already been proposed by Ethereum-powered nonprofit organisation Sovereign, and actually piloted and green-lighted in Estonia – although in the apolitical context of e-voting in corporate shareholder meetings. Even the European parliament devoted a short white paper to assessing blockchain-based electronic voting.

More recently, during a talk in Barcelona, bitcoin developer and anarchist firebrand Amir Taaki proposed using blockchain technology for rerunning the Catalan independence referendum online, a method which, he argued, would neutralise the repression of Spain’s central government.

Adding blockchain to the election process could change the way we think about voting, says Michael Mainelli, director of financial thinktank Z/Yen. For instance, he says, blockchain could allow for “continuous voting” – the casting of voting every week or month – and “transferable voting”. “The idea is that I have a vote but I don’t know enough about a topic, so I give my vote to someone who knows a lot about that, and let them make the choice,” Mainelli says. “Of course, this would also work in corporate governance.”

Supply chain

Scanning a tin of tuna using the Provenance app.



Scanning a tin of tuna using the Provenance app. Photograph: provenance.org

How to make sure that the shirt we are wearing was not manufactured using child labour, or that the jewel in our wedding ring is not a blood diamond? Tracking a product’s history through the global supply chain is a tantalising task, given the multitude of parties involved. Some companies think blockchain technology could help make it easier. London-based Provenance, for instance, labels products such as fish or cotton with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that guarantee its ethical and safe sourcing; as the product changes hands, each step of its journey is automatically added to the blockchain; the end customer can then verify the object’s origins through a mobile app. Provenance claims to work with over 100 businesses, including large brands such as Sainsbury’s, and its architecture relies on Ethereum and Linux Foundation’s blockchain Hyperledger. Still, founder Jessi Baker thinks that public blockchains “have a long way to go before they can be applied at scale”. To solve the problem, some of the logging is conducted without relying on a blockchain.

Another London-based company, Everledger, uses the blockchain to guarantee the provenance of diamonds: each stone is assigned a blockchain-based ID, which follows it from mine to jeweller, chronicling its history. This makes it possible to spot and root out diamonds whose provenance is unclear – which are often sourced in conflict zones. Over a million diamonds have gone through the Everledger treatment so far.

Finance and payments

A board at the Australian Securities Exchange



A board at the Australian Securities Exchange, which now uses blockchain. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Australian Securities Exchange announced in December 2017 that it would start using a blockchain to keep track of shareholdings and carry out equity transactions. Its blockchain, though, is to be very different from bitcoin’s or Ethereum’s public ledger: it will be a private, invitation-only network, run by the exchange in compliance with law and regulation. Although finance seems like an obvious field for applying blockchain technology, it is only partially so. In nearly all cases, big banks and financial institutions dabbling in blockchain have ditched the decentralised element and the mining mechanism, preferring – perhaps reasonably – to create a closed, private digital transaction record book.

Something similar happened when companies harnessed blockchain technology to power payments in real-world currency. Take Ripple, a payment system backed by several banks including Unicredit, UBS and Santander. Its open-source ledger is powered by tokens standing in for fiat money – which can be transferred cross-border in a cheaper and quicker fashion than remittances. Ripple’s protocol does not use mining and is pretty centralised; it also allows for payments to be “frozen” for legal reasons.

“Our mission is not to apply blockchain to payments, but to make payments better. We use blockchain only insofar as it provides benefits,” says Ripple’s chief technology officer Stefan Thomas. “Blockchain is going to solve trust problems in transactions, but it comes at a cost: it’s more expensive and harder to coordinate. And it’s not always worth it: how often has your bank stolen money from you?”

Music

Singer-songwriter Imogen Heap



Singer-songwriter Imogen Heap, who wants to use blockchain to tackle royalties. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

British singer Imogen Heap has been at the forefront of an effort to improve the music industry through blockchain. The problem Heap set out to tackle in 2015, through her initiative Mycelia, was that of music royalties. Heap’s initial vision was one of total decentralisation: musicians and artists would get rid of publishers, producers and labels and get paid directly by consumers, through the blockchain.

Over the following three years, though, Mycelia’s mission has shifted, and to less revolutionary aims. Today, it is working on promoting a “creative passport”: a digital document containing a musician’s personal information, professional biography, discography and background – or, as Mycelia head of research Carlotta De Ninni defines it, “a beacon of verified information”.

These passports are to be stored on a decentralised tamper-proof blockchain and could incorporate smart-contract elements for quick direct payments. “Imogen, for instance, receives tens of emails every day from people who want to play her songs at weddings or other similar contexts; answering them all is tiring,” Di Ninni says. “A smart contract included in a creative passport could specify the terms of use for some songs, and automatically authorise the use after payment.”

The organisation plans to launch the creative passport later this year but has not decided on which blockchain platform the project is to run.

Meet the Startups Behind ‘A Wrinkle In Time’

Jordan Soles, a vice president of technology with the Quebec-based visual effects company Rodeo FX, was recently tasked with creating a “red breath.”

As Disney was wrapping up production on A Wrinkle In Time, the latest film from lauded  director Ava DuVernay and an adaptation of the beloved children’s book, out Friday, the production team reached out to Rodeo FX to add finishing touches on a selected scene. This included, as Soles tells Inc., a vague request for a red visual effect to emanate from the mouth of protagonist Meg Murry (played by Storm Reid.) “They had no idea what they wanted the red breath to look like, and of course, we only had a matter of weeks to figure out how to generate it,” says Soles. So his team launched a computer algorithm that simulates the movement of particles, such that they spread out and dissipate in a color scheme that fit with the background of the shot. Despite coming in at the last minute–and hurriedly creating a visual product with little creative guidance–Rodeo FX not only met Ava DuVernay’s vision, she personally reached out to thank them for the project.

While major production companies and distributors, à la Disney, typically get most of the credit for the success of Hollywood films, there are dozens of independently-run startups like Rodeo that contribute in no small part to the success of projects, and without which these films would not look as glossy as they do. Rodeo, alone, has worked on top-grossing projects such as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Black Panther, as well as the award-winning television series “Game of Thrones.” Meanwhile, as the industry continues to grow, “it can be tough to carve out your own niche,” concedes Soles, an early employee and now part-owner of the now 450 person company. It helps, he suggests, that Rodeo is headquartered in Canada, where the company receives a generous tax credit from the government.

CREDIT: Courtesy Company

While Rodeo had red breath on its hands, The Lidar Guys were focused the bigger picture. The Albuquerque, New Mexico startup, specializes in 3D scanning and data capturing. Founder and CEO Jed Frechette, a geologist by training, launched the business back in 2009 when a colleague asked for his help on the post-apocalyptic neo-Western The Book of Eli. Unlike the majority of effects shops, explains Frechette, “we’re at the very front of visual effects, and make digital computer models of any sort of real world object that you [the director] needs.” The five-person company has worked on dozens of projects including The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Parts I and II, where they helped to bring the ethereal ‘Capitol’ city to life.  

For A Wrinkle In Time, the Lidar Guys modeled various shots of the New Zealand countryside, which were then handed off to larger visual effects vendors to generate new imagery to be added. “Sometimes, they wanted to replace the mountains behind the lake, or add more alien geography or something like that. By using our scans, they have good reference for what was physically there and make sure what they add matches up with the computer generated topography,” explains Frechette of his work.

Not all glitz and glam

To be sure, there are challenges associated with being runts in an industry of top dogs.  For one thing, the budget for these types of projects can be scant, and it’s up to the startups to make ends meet.  “For a company of our size, the challenge is resources,” suggests Frechette. “The film industry is very much boom or bust, so we are either dealing with a lot of resources, or we don’t have any work and are still trying to pay our staff.” The Lidar Guys have been able to make it work so far, however, growing revenues by roughly 10 percent annually.

Another challenge is the investment of time that’s required to bring a project to life, which often doesn’t match up with corporate deadlines. “Release dates tend to be inflexible,” explains Soles. “That’s why these days filmmakers are relying more on post-visualization technique in order to get to their director’s final cut.”

Ultimately, the strategy for both firms is to continue building and leveraging relationships. Rodeo, which recently won an Oscar for its work on Blade Runner 2049, is already hard at work on new projects including Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, as well as Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, forthcoming in November. The Lidar Guys, meanwhile, hope to expand beyond film services to launch a commercial 3D scanning service. “I firmly believe that the best tools are built by people who use them everyday,” says Frechette. “Development will become a significant portion of our revenue stream.”

Meet the Startups Behind ‘A Wrinkle In Time’

Jordan Soles, a vice president of technology with the Quebec-based visual effects company Rodeo FX, was recently tasked with creating a “red breath.”

As Disney was wrapping up production on A Wrinkle In Time, the latest film from lauded  director Ava DuVernay and an adaptation of the beloved children’s book, out Friday, the production team reached out to Rodeo FX to add finishing touches on a selected scene. This included, as Soles tells Inc., a vague request for a red visual effect to emanate from the mouth of protagonist Meg Murry (played by Storm Reid.) “They had no idea what they wanted the red breath to look like, and of course, we only had a matter of weeks to figure out how to generate it,” says Soles. So his team launched a computer algorithm that simulates the movement of particles, such that they spread out and dissipate in a color scheme that fit with the background of the shot. Despite coming in at the last minute–and hurriedly creating a visual product with little creative guidance–Rodeo FX not only met Ava DuVernay’s vision, she personally reached out to thank them for the project.

While major production companies and distributors, à la Disney, typically get most of the credit for the success of Hollywood films, there are dozens of independently-run startups like Rodeo that contribute in no small part to the success of projects, and without which these films would not look as glossy as they do. Rodeo, alone, has worked on top-grossing projects such as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Black Panther, as well as the award-winning television series “Game of Thrones.” Meanwhile, as the industry continues to grow, “it can be tough to carve out your own niche,” concedes Soles, an early employee and now part-owner of the now 450 person company. It helps, he suggests, that Rodeo is headquartered in Canada, where the company receives a generous tax credit from the government.

CREDIT: Courtesy Company

While Rodeo had red breath on its hands, The Lidar Guys were focused the bigger picture. The Albuquerque, New Mexico startup, specializes in 3D scanning and data capturing. Founder and CEO Jed Frechette, a geologist by training, launched the business back in 2009 when a colleague asked for his help on the post-apocalyptic neo-Western The Book of Eli. Unlike the majority of effects shops, explains Frechette, “we’re at the very front of visual effects, and make digital computer models of any sort of real world object that you [the director] needs.” The five-person company has worked on dozens of projects including The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Parts I and II, where they helped to bring the ethereal ‘Capitol’ city to life.  

For A Wrinkle In Time, the Lidar Guys modeled various shots of the New Zealand countryside, which were then handed off to larger visual effects vendors to generate new imagery to be added. “Sometimes, they wanted to replace the mountains behind the lake, or add more alien geography or something like that. By using our scans, they have good reference for what was physically there and make sure what they add matches up with the computer generated topography,” explains Frechette of his work.

Not all glitz and glam

To be sure, there are challenges associated with being runts in an industry of top dogs.  For one thing, the budget for these types of projects can be scant, and it’s up to the startups to make ends meet.  “For a company of our size, the challenge is resources,” suggests Frechette. “The film industry is very much boom or bust, so we are either dealing with a lot of resources, or we don’t have any work and are still trying to pay our staff.” The Lidar Guys have been able to make it work so far, however, growing revenues by roughly 10 percent annually.

Another challenge is the investment of time that’s required to bring a project to life, which often doesn’t match up with corporate deadlines. “Release dates tend to be inflexible,” explains Soles. “That’s why these days filmmakers are relying more on post-visualization technique in order to get to their director’s final cut.”

Ultimately, the strategy for both firms is to continue building and leveraging relationships. Rodeo, which recently won an Oscar for its work on Blade Runner 2049, is already hard at work on new projects including Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, as well as Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, forthcoming in November. The Lidar Guys, meanwhile, hope to expand beyond film services to launch a commercial 3D scanning service. “I firmly believe that the best tools are built by people who use them everyday,” says Frechette. “Development will become a significant portion of our revenue stream.”

Steve Huffman Talks About Bringing Reddit Back From the Brink

Moral authority. It’s a phrase that’s become fundamental to Steve Huffman over the past two-and-a-half years.

Huffman co-founded Reddit in 2005 when he was fresh out of University of Virginia, at age 21. He and his close friend and co-founder Alexis Ohanian, along with hacker wunderkind Aaron Swartz, sold Reddit to Condé Nast in 2006.

Huffman departed the company three years later, during which time Reddit grew into one of America’s most popular websites, with message boards about everything under the sun: from kitesurfing to finance to Photoshopping bicycles out of photographs of humans riding bicycles. But Reddit also grew into a site that harbored an unsustainable tension. Its ethos was freewheeling, and held dear the idea that free speech trumps all. After one of the company’s interim leaders, Ellen Pao, attempted to quell some of the hate speech on the site, and after the mishandled dismissal of a popular employee, volunteer moderators turned their Reddit sections off, crippling the site. An online petition called for Pao’s ouster. She wrote in her 2017 book, Reset, that she submitted her resignation after pressure from the board.

Huffman wasn’t entirely ready to return to Reddit. He was building the travel-search startup Hipmunk, leading a team of engineers and helping to secure funding. But when he saw Reddit’s website blacking out as moderators protested against the company, he knew what he needed to do: save Reddit. Perhaps he was the only person who could, and not because he was an experienced leader or a skilled programmer. As Reddit’s founder, though, the one who wrote the site’s original code, he had the moral authority to do so.

When Huffman walked into Reddit’s office one Friday in July of 2015, he was met by a couple-dozen shell-shocked employees, few of whom were happy to see him. Most of those staffers didn’t make it beyond year’s end.

Reddit wasn’t just an ailing company; the Reddit community needed help, too. The hundreds of far-flung volunteer moderators had been deprived of updated tools for years. Hate speech was rampant. Huffman would need to tame the trolls, and deliver a better site to loyal users.

Huffman leaned on his moral authority particularly heavily in making announcements online–when, say, banning communities that trafficked in inciting harm or fear. One of Huffman’s first major actions as chief executive was cutting off overtly racist communities. This time, the communities on Reddit did not revolt. By fall of 2017, he announced even stricter content standards: Anything glorifying, encouraging, or calling for the harm of a person or animal would not be permitted on Reddit.

Still, there were content questions dogging Reddit: certain corners of the site were havens for distribution of conspiracy theories and “fake news,” and Huffman had admitted in March that his teams had pinpointed a “few hundred” fake accounts spreading propaganda and sowing discord in the lead-up to the 2016 election. 

Reddit, the company, is far healthier today. In 2017, Huffman brought in $200 million in new venture capital funding, valuing the company at $1.8 billion. Reddit.com was the fourth most popular site in America, according to data from Alexa, Amazon’s Web analytics arm.  Huffman has in many ways rebuilt Reddit, having added 300 new staffers and moving the company to a spacious new office on San Francisco’s Taylor Street. 

On Monday, March 12, Christine Lagorio-Chafkin will interview Steve Huffman at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas. He’ll tell the story of his dramatic return to the company he founded–and explain what moves he’s made to turn around both an ailing company culture and usher in a new era for the sprawling Reddit community. Check back next week for excerpts from that conversation.