Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Reddit Co-founder Alexis Ohanian speaks at UMass

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Conor Snell/Daily Collegian

Conor Snell/Daily Collegian

On Sunday, online entrepreneur, Reddit co-founder and self-proclaimed “President of the internet” Alexis Ohanian visited the University of Massachusetts to discuss his new book, “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed,” which he is supporting through his current 200-stop, 77 university tour. The event, which was supported by TedX UMass Amherst, UMass Dining and the Isenberg School of Business’s Center for Entrepreneurship, began at 7 p.m. the Commonwealth Honors College Events Hall.

In about an hour, Ohanian, in a TED-style talk rich with memes, references to online jokes and a casual approachability, ran through his own experience as an entrepreneur in the online sphere and gave his advice for those looking to follow a similar path. He also held a “fireside chat” question-and-answers session with UMass alum Steve King, one of the first 15 people to be employed by Facebook.

“Software is changing the world,” said Ohanian, speaking to a packed event hall with young and old spectators filling the seats and lining the walls, “And most of the incumbents … have no idea.”

Ohanian graduated from University of Virginia in 2005 as a business and history major. His sights set on becoming a lawyer, he turned his focus toward his studies and began preparing for the LSATs.

One day, however, during a chance visit to a Waffle Hut as an alternative to class, Ohanian decided not to follow the path he was on. Shortly thereafter Ohanian convinced his UVA roommate and best friend Steve Huffman (who was at the time set up with a job prospect at a software company) to do the same. Together in a small Medford apartment in 2005 the two began working on “building something,” with the goal of “living like college students forever,” according to Ohanian.

The first project from the duo was “My Mobile Menu,” or “MMM,” an early food-delivery app, which the partners had conceived and begun to build. That same year Ohanian and Huffman pitched the app to then-new digital startup support organization Y Combinator which, although not sold on their first idea, would soon partner with the two young post-grads on another project, to be called Reddit.

“You don’t have to wait to graduate to start doing things,” said Ohanian, speaking of his experience as an early online entrepreneur. “As a teenager with an internet connection, I felt like a god among men … And you all sit with an amazing opportunity because most of you have had access to this technology even longer than I have.”

He went on to stress the “level playing field” provided by the internet for individuals to become online entrepreneurs, citing specific examples like Brandon Stanton, the amateur photographer behind the successful photo blog “Humans of New York” and 14-year-old Maya Shea Penn, whose eco-friendly online apparel line “Maya’s Ideas” has been successful enough using to build into an effective non-profit, earning her national attention and her own Ted talks.

As for competition in the world of online entrepreneurialism, Ohanian discussed early competitors of Reddit and how he and his business partners overcame adversity during the site’s early days.

“[Your competitors] will not beat you, you will beat yourself, so pay attention,” said Ohanian. “And remember, failing is an option … [for college students] this is the time, because you are surrounded by people who are hungry and who are learning and who are going to want to learn with you, and suck with you.”

As a method of motivation, Ohanian also handed out “Without Their Permission” postcards, on which he urged guests to write their goals for the coming few months. Upon his return to Brooklyn this spring, Ohanian plans to send out the postcards to all who filled theirs out.

Ohanian then called Steve King on for the subsequent “fireside chat,” during which the two discussed early failures in their respective careers, even when things felt positive, and the way in which this influenced (and, as they argue, helped) those early years.

“Don’t limit yourself. Think big, and don’t be afraid to think big. And don’t be scared to take a baby step in that direction,” said King, who said he never felt “smart or special” in school but felt he could accomplish great things anyway. “The scale at which stuff is happening is mind boggling. It’s incredible.”

“So the advice I can give everyone here, the advice I wish I got, is to believe in yourself. It sounds so trite, and so simple, but it’s true,” said King.

Ohanian and King invited all to join after the presentation for a meet-and-greet in the Campus Center, at which he and King signed books, networked and responded to further questions.

In closing, Ohanian gave one final urge to those in the audience to be active in pursuing their goals.

“Whatever it’s gonna get you an IPO, or whether it’s gonna get you a Nobel Prize, like, awesome. Just let me know, ok? Give me a shoutout,” said Ohanian with a wry smile, “…because I’m gonna take all the credit for it.”

Conor Snell can be reached at [email protected] and followed at @snellofsuccess.

 

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