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How to use Reddit to incubate your million-dollar idea

These days, virtually anyone can start a website or other online business with just an idea, a little investment, a bit of technical know-how, and some good ol’ fashioned gumption. Of course, growing a successful business takes much more than that, but just getting your entrepreneurial feet wet has never before been easier – at least, that’s what all those SquareSpace ads that saturate every single NPR podcast have taught me.

Problem is, figuring out if you have even a drop of what it takes to be successful can be a tricky endeavor. And it’s possible to blow through hundreds or thousands of dollars just to find out that your ideas suck, or that you simply don’t care enough to make your idea work. But what if I told you that there’s a way to test out your ideas, one that gives you access to millions of built-in users, and costs zero dollars?

What if I told you that there’s a way to test out your ideas, one that gives you access to millions of built-in users, and costs zero dollars?

Enter Reddit. One of the most popular sites on the Web, Reddit has a unique feature that allows anyone to start their own community, called a subreddit. (Indeed, Reddit is essentially the sum of all its different subreddits.) Doing this can be a great way to see if you have the time, energy, and savvy to turn an idea in your head into something other people want to be part of, without dropping a dime. 

At least, this is my theory. Two years ago, I launched a subreddit called r/germanshepherds, devoted to my favorite breed of dog. There were already a slew of other dog breed-specific subreddits, but none existed for German shepherds. Seeing an unfilled niche, I created r/germanshepherds in about 10 minutes.

As the founding moderator, or “mod,” of my own subreddit, I quickly became responsible for a slew of tasks and decisions that I never thought about when I clicked “create subreddit” – responsibilities that I now see could have significant value, if I ever choose to launch my own online business. Here is a quick run-down of a few  experience and lessons I’ve learned so far.

Vision and flexibility: While the name of my subreddit basically says all you need to know about it, I had to make a few key decisions at the start, which would guide its direction. For example, would I try to limit the community to only purebred dogs, or should people with GSD mixes be welcome as well? (I decided they are.) Further, should I limit the types of content people can post (e.g. no picture posts, only picture posts, etc)? On that front, I placed no limits. As a result of its loose restraints, the community has grown to a respectable 6,600 subscribers – and most posts are just pictures of people’s dogs. Had I been more restrictive, I believe it’s unlikely that r/germanshepherds would have been as successful as it is thus far.

Community: Just as it’s important to have a clear vision for what you want your subreddit (read: online business) to be, it’s also key to pay attention to how people use what you’ve given them. Being a mod has taught me to listen to what other users are saying, and act according to their wishes. If, for example, I suddenly tried to limit the number of photo posts on the subreddit, many of my users would likely unsubscribe. Further, were a growing number of users annoyed by a certain type of post, or even a certain user, it would be wise to find a remedy to that situation. This process of navigating the desires and complaints of your users/audience/customers can become valuable later on, when you have money on the line.

Marketing: Simply creating a subreddit doesn’t mean users will find it. So, just like any other endeavor, you have to find ways to get your name out there. Reddit is unique in that its system already has a number of avenues for promoting a new subreddit, such as asking the mods of related subreddits to post a link, or submitting it to other subreddits devoted to new communities. Given that all of this is free, marketing your subreddit is a low-risk endeavor, but it still helps you figure out what works and what doesn’t.

“Hiring”: Reddit mods should not take or pay money for anything – that’s one of those unwritten laws of the land. But as a mod, you will find yourself needing to build out your team by adding other users as co-moderators, just as a business owner would hire new employees.

Of course, running a business and running a subreddit are two entirely different beasts.

Because other mods have the power to help or hurt your subreddit, picking the right people is key. The process of adding (or, more often, denying) people to the list of mods has taught me to figure out what skills I lack, and who I need to “hire” to make my creation better than it could be with my abilities alone. It has also taught me to use my research skills and intuition to find out when someone is claiming they are something they are not. Going through this process in the low-key context of a subreddit gives you some first-hand experience with bringing in good people – and can show you exactly what can go wrong when you let the wrong ones in.

Innovation: Any good idea that becomes popular will eventually face competition from someone who thinks they can do it better. Even little ol’ r/germanshepherds has competition in the form of, you guessed it, r/germanshepherd (no “s”).  Because of this, I’ve had to come up with new ways to keep people from preferring the other community to my own, through added features, better design, and better community engagement.

Of course, running a business and running a subreddit are two entirely different beasts. Nothing but proper schooling and doing it for real will teach you about the far more complicated aspects of being an entrepreneur: Financial costs and risk, inventory management, laws and regulations, human resources problems, on and on. Still, testing the waters with your own subreddit can a least help you turn the first page in what could become an exciting chapter of your life. And besides, with a subreddit, you really have nothing to lose 

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.