Clearly he is articulate, with loads of business savvy, but what I first noticed about Alexis Ohanian was that even though he works nonstop, he loves to have fun. He may be just 29, but he has more experience than many executives twice his age in transforming ideas into startups and investing in others.
It began while he was a senior at the University of Virginia in 2005, when he and Steve Huffman pitched a mobile phone food ordering app to startup incubator Paul Graham. Graham turned down their idea but called them back to Boston while they were still traveling home on the train. Fledgling Internet entrepreneurs Ohanian and Huffman then came up with the idea for a social news site called reddit, a concept Graham called the “front page of the Internet,” where readers control the site by voting stories above the fold. It became so popular that publisher Condé Nast acquired it in 2006.
Ohanian left reddit in 2010, although today he’s on the board of directors. His next venture, social enterprise Breadpig, publishes popular Web comics and geeky novelties. In early 2010, he also spent three months in Armenia as a Kiva Fellow. That same year, inspired in part by his travel agent father, he helped to launch Hipmunk as an “agonyfree way to search for a flight or a hotel.” For a year he ran marketing and communications efforts for Hipmunk. Fun fact: he doodled the logos for all three of his startups.
When Congress began to consider the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), Ohanian used TV appearances to speak out against the Hollywood-supported bill, arguing that its requirement that websites police themselves for copyrighted content would hinder companies. A week before he testified at a congressional hearing about SOPA, Ohanian asked, ‘What if reddit turned itself off in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., as a protest of the censored Internet?’ Reddit blacked out its homepage on January 18, followed by Wikipedia and Mozilla, while Google linked to a page protesting the bills. Legislators were swamped with 10 million petition signatures, eight million calls and four million emails, and the bills died.
To ensure it does not happen again, Ohanian and the nonprofit Fight for the Future formed the Internet Defense League, to build a “bat signal for the Internet.” Website administrators can embed a code on their site that can be triggered if an issue arises to display proactive messages, like a banner ad that asks users to phone their representative to a call for a boycott. Reddit
and Cheezburger Network
are all on board.
Ohanian has not slowed down. He works as an investor, sits on the board of reddit, is the Y Combinator ambassador to the East, a Hipmunk advisor, co-founder of the non-profit Institute on Higher Awesome Studies (IHAS), and is writing a book called Without Your Permission. Oh, and he was named to Forbes’s and Inc.’s “30 under 30” list in 2011.
How did you become so entrepreneurial?
Halfway through college I had an epiphany at a Waffle House and realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Growing up, my father started his own travel agency just before the dot-com boom, and that undoubtedly had an impact on me. It made such an audacious-sounding thing as working for oneself seem possible. I’ll also point out that unlike other business people you may have heard of, when world-changing technology like the Internet came along and disrupted his industry, my dad didn’t start lobbying Washington, D.C., to pass laws to preserve outdated business models—he adapted his business and survived the huge shift to online travel agencies.
The first time around, ignorance is both a gift and a curse. It means you don’t know just how hard it’s going to be or what you’re missing by not having a 9-to-5 with a nice salary and vacation time, so you can give yourself to your company with gusto. On the other hand, I found myself saving countless hours during [the development of] Hipmunk thanks to experiences learned during reddit.
How did you come up with the idea for reddit?
Steve and I had applied to Y Combinator (a revolutionary seed-stage venture firm) with an idea to let people order food from their mobile devices. But it was way too early for that back in 2005, so we were rejected. The next day, after a night of drowning our sorrows, we got on a train headed back to Virginia. Somewhere along the way, Paul (Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator) called me back and offered us a chance to do Y Combinator as long as we changed our idea, which we agreed to do. We jumped off the Virginia-bound train, headed back to Boston and met with Paul for an hour to brainstorm. In that meeting we decided to solve a problem we had finding out what was new and interesting online, using some kind of crowdsourcing. All the functionality came later during the first month Steve and I actually started building reddit.
What is innovation?
Hopefully making the world suck less by doing something never done before.
What is your book about?
The Internet is both the greatest library and stage the world has ever seen. It’s educating and empowering people all over the world to create and share their ideas like never before. I want there to be more awesome things in this world (businesses, nonprofits, politics and art!) and I hope this book can be a blueprint and inspiration for people with passion.
Can you talk about your bus tour for a free Internet?
The Internet 2012 bus tour was a crowd funded, political-style campaign bus tour, only we were promoting Internet freedom. The bus was literally half red and half blue to show how bipartisan this issue is, with support coming from all Americans. We brought along a half dozen press and a documentary crew to show off just how important this issue is to Americans from Denver to Danville, Ky. The heartland of America is full of startup founders and farmers, students and artists, who all count on the open Internet to do what they do and will fight for it.
Erik Martin (reddit’s GM) and I wanted to dispel the myth that it’s a fight between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Innovation and job creation is happening all across this country thanks to the Internet. Without a free Internet, not only do we stifle today’s job creators, but also generations more who would never even get the chance to begin.
How effective is crowdfunding for startups?
It’s still super early, but Kickstarter has taken the lead in popularizing this model, albeit largely for creative projects. More importantly, it’s validated the model that if you can pitch a compelling enough idea, strangers from all over the world will fund it. My team worked closely with the folks behind Pebble Watch (the famous Kickstarter that first broke $10 million raised), and although Kickstarter has since curtailed the types of pre-order campaigns like the Pebble, it proved that a company (even with Y Combinator pedigree) could find an alternative to standard venture investment. In fact, they’d had no luck raising money even with things like AngelList because of hesitations around hardware.
As crowdfunding matures, and more platforms emerge (we’ve yet to see the impact of the JOBS Act), it’s going to get mighty interesting. Instead of banking on “if you build it they will come – hopefully,” companies can identify demand before coming to market and more ideas will come to fruition than could’ve before.
What policies are you most passionate about?
I want to see a day when our online rights are protected as explicitly as our offline rights. Things like privacy and free speech are baked into our Constitution for a good reason, but our founders couldn’t have predicted the digital age. So we need to get our rights up to speed with technologists—not lobbyists—at the table helping write them.
What was your biggest failure?
Where to begin…. I’ve made some dumb startup investments, plenty of products haven’t lived up to their full potential, and I’ve made one (thankfully just one) absolutely awful hiring decision. But our industry champions failure—as long as you’re learning from it. And I plan on doing just that, because if I’m not failing, I’m probably not trying hard enough to innovate.
Who inspires you?
It’s cliché, but my father and mother, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and Jay-Z.