reddit’s Alexis Ohanian on Making the World Suck Less

You know you’re on to something when Forbes Magazine christens you Mayor of the Internet. Alexis Ohanian is definitely on to one, two, three – many things. On a mission to “make the world suck less”, Alexis started the social news site reddit in 2005. Now part of Conde Nast, reddit continues to carry Alexis’ mission, with redditors making a difference in the world, from raising money to saving a life one day, to firing up grassroots movements against unconstitutional government policies that stifle free speech the next.

Since reddit’s sale to Conde Nast, Alexis has kept himself busy advancing what he calls “permissionless innovation” as an entrepreneur, advisor, investor and activist. Among his many roles today, Alexis is an advisor to online travel startup Hipmunk (started by reddit co-founder Steve Huffman), founder of the non-profit Breadpig, angel investor at Das Kapital Capital, and as Forbes says it best, Mayor of the Internet with his ongoing fight against legislations like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate companion bill, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) that overregulate what he believes should be an open web.

A few weeks before he visits UPenn on December 2 as part of his 150-stop, 75-college, 5-month long tour for his new book “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will be Made, Not Managed”, we sat down with Alexis to learn more about the reddit story, his beliefs regarding the rise of this permissionless innovation, and the secrets to startup success for today’s tech entrepreneurs.

Wharton Journal: You’ve accomplished something big with reddit, which has truly become the “front page of the Internet” today. Tell us how the idea behind reddit came to you and Steve. How did you get started?

Alexis Ohanian: It happened because Steve Huffman and I got rejected from Y Combinator for a totally different idea—a mobile app that would let people order from their phone instead of waiting in line. It was called MyMobileMenu (MMM!) and after we got rejected, they called us back the next morning and offered us a chance at being part of the first round of YC as long as we changed our idea. We took a train right back to Boston, met with Paul Graham, who insisted we focus on solving our own problems (in a browser, not on mobile) and by the end of the meeting we decided we’d work on building “the front page of the internet”—pretty ambitious for a couple recent UVA grads, but as long as YC was investing in us, we figured we’d give it a go.

WJ: How do you see social media evolving in the next few years and where does reddit fit in that picture?

AO: It’s amazing to see an industry – social media – that didn’t even exist when we started reddit in 2005. It’s going to keep evolving with new platforms and the maturing of existing ones (like the usually suspects: facebook, twitter, tumblr, pinterest, and of course reddit). What gets me most excited about reddit is that we’re the most popular social media platform among hispanics (more than any of the aforementioned) and reddit itself is more popular among Latinos than any other ethnic group. It’s a great signal that our platform continues to thrive as well as over 6000 subreddits exist and counting!

WJ: Since the reddit sale, you’ve moved on to a number of different roles, including being an advisor to Hipmunk, founder of Breadpig, and an angel investor with Das Kapital Capital. What keeps you going, and what about each of these specific roles excites you the most?

AO: I joined Hipmunk a week before we launched and the chance to create and grow another brand from scratch was too appealing to pass up, especially with a product that’s totally anti-social (searching for flights and hotels is far from sharing links and discussions about cat photos). I’m an advisor now, having moved on to fight SOPA & PIPA, but it’s been amazing to watch it continue to grow. My dad has run a small travel agency for the last decade and a half, so that’s a bit awkward, but I guess you could say travel is in my blood.

Investing is a total delight because it let’s me help this next generation of founders just like Paul Graham and Y Combinator helped me. Naming a company Das Kapital Capital guarantees every bank visit is entertaining.

I’m hungrier at 30 than I was at 20, but I think that’s just because I’ve gotten a taste for what’s possible and I’ve always felt like a clock is ticking and there’s still so much to do.

WJ: You devote a big part of your book talking about secrets to startup success in the 21st century. Can you summarize these in a few sentences for the entrepreneurs at Wharton?

AO: The TL;DR for the book would go something like: write code, get users, and know that none of us have it figured out—we’re all just hacking it along the way. Don’t let your inexperience, or lack of connections, or fear of failure stop you from reaching your maximum potential for awesome.

WJ: You talked about how value creation is shifting from “well-connected MBAs” to “innovators” in your book. How do you see the value of an MBA today, and do you think business schools like Wharton are giving entrepreneurs the tools they need to succeed? What’s missing, and how might places such as General Assembly (where you’ve taught classes like Make Something People Love) fill those gaps?

AO: I chose the subtitle “How the 21st century will be made not managed” on purpose, because the most valuable skills you can learn for success in this century are not management, but creation. The former is still valuable, but the latter is the roadblock for so many “wantrepreneurs” who are still just sitting on a “great idea.” The best thing you can do is learn how to build (and then build) whatever it is you want.

I’ve never taken an MBA class, but I know they’re not cheap, so when I counsel aspiring founders deciding between getting an MBA and starting a company, I suggest they consider taking the tuition money for two years and investing it in themselves and their new company. What someone will learn, even if the company fails after two years, is in my humble opinion more valuable to an entrepreneur than what’ll come from a classroom.

As for General Assembly (I’m an investor, too), it’s just one of the many new education platforms that’s teaching actionable skills like writing code and turning total neophytes into builders in a matter of months.

WJ: You’ve been very vocal about your fight against anti-piracy legislations to the extent that Forbes has called you the “Mayor of the Internet” after you mobilized the reddit community to stand against SOPA and PIPA last year. What worries you the most about these censorship issues and their implications on future of the Internet?

AO: Too many of our politicians are technologically ignorant. The only way we get something like SOPA and PIPA is because we had enough politicians who didn’t understand how important the open internet is to all of their constituents (that’s why we created the Silicon Prairie Film and toured the heartland on a bus tour last fall). Well, that and the $94 million in lobbying dollars from Hollywood.

I do believe we’re turning the tide, though, especially as more and more citizens become engaged in the debates, not just about copyright overreach, but also our right to digital privacy (in light of the NSA revelations).

WJ: Any parting thoughts or advice for Wharton entrepreneurs?

AO: You don’t need my advice—and certainly not my permission—to be entrepreneurial, just do it. If I’ve learned anything over the last eight years since I walked into that first Y Combinator meeting, it’s that above all, a founder needs to be able to just get shit done.

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