Alexis Ohanian Q&A: Reddit Founder On The New Internet Renaissance, New Book ‘Without Their Permission’

on October 14 2013 1:32 PM
alexis-ohanian
Alexis Ohanian has built one of the world’s most popular social sites (reddit), an easy travel accommodations site (hipmunk), and is one of the sole reasons we still have a free and open Internet. His new book, "Without Their Permission," is part-biography part-guide-to-save-the-world-with-the-Internet. Courtesy / WithoutTheirPermission.com

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Alexis Ohanian was built by the Internet, for the Internet. In the last decade alone, the 30-year-old New Yorker has built one of the world’s most popular social sites (reddit), an easy way to book travel accommodations (hipmunk), and is one of the sole reasons we still have a free and open Internet, thanks to his work successfully leading the protest to overturn the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) in January 2012.

Ohanian’s big plan in 2013 is to “make the world suck less” by teaching everyone and anyone how to find success on Internet. His new book, “Without Their Permission: How The 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed,” is part-biography part-guide-to-save-the-world, in which Ohanian uses anecdotes and experiences to validate the power of Internet entrepreneurship. “The Internet helps people help themselves,” as he says in his book, which is “enabling and empowering innovation that simply wasn’t possible because the markets governed by supply and demand never met the need for it so efficiently.”

To help get the word out, Ohanian is launching a 150-stop, 70-college bus tour across the U.S. for the next five months (check out the full list of tour dates); as of this writing, the prominent Internet entrepreneur has visited four local schools in the New York City area already. On Friday, Ohanian spoke to IBTimes about lessons within his new book, how young entrepreneurs can counteract ageism in the industry, and the new start-up companies that are giving him hope for the future Internet age. The following is a full transcript from the conversation.

IBT: How's life on the road for you? Have college students been receptive to your message?

Alexis Ohanian: Yes. To be fair, the bus has not shown up yet, the bus will be showing up on the 19th, but I've just visited four schools all here in New York because I can get to them from the subway. The exciting thing is Cooper Union, Columbia, NYU and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine up in the Bronx -- all very different audiences, but all equally receptive. It speaks to the amount of influence the Internet is having in our lives and in our industries. So whether I'm talking to a room full of 100 scientists or grad students in the field of science… there's this hunger or this appetite, it's been very exciting.

We also beta tested a lot of this format, because New York is the right market to come up with creative things and try them out, so instead of doing an author reading, which is kind of lame -- people can listen to my audiobook if they want to hear me talk about words that I've written -- we've abolished the author reading and instead, we're doing fireside chats. I'm basically using all the fun things I learned shooting “Small Empires” on The Verge and interviewing alums from each of these schools who have gone on to have success on the Internet doing various things. If I can't inspire a room full of these kids, that's fine, I'm not going to take it personally, but if I put an alum -- someone who was in that same auditorium less than 10 years ago -- in front of them, and talk to her about what she did in order to get where she was, and her favorite places to hang out while an undergrad and the best and worst things that came out of the experience going to school there, and all the things she wished she knew, all that stuff, if that doesn't inspire them, they're probably in the wrong room. But it's been a great response so far. And we haven't even gotten the t-shirt cannon yet!

IBT: Well that didn't end up well for Maude Flanders, so just be careful.

AO: Yes, absolutely.

IBT: I wanted to talk about you for a second. You're a young entrepreneur. You started reddit at a very young age... have you experienced ageism at any time or have you ever struggled to be taken seriously?

AO: Oh, great question. So I'm a little lucky because I've always been a little ogre-ish. Like, I've actually benefited from being big at a young age. This is one of the anecdotes that, as I was writing it for the book, it made me smile because I realize what an impact it had on me -- I was lucky because being such a big kid, I was doing a job being a demo person in the middle of the CompUSA showing off software and hardware with the headsets, every 30 minutes doing a pitch. And this guy came up to me one day and asked me about two different mice, and I gave him some response that I guess he found amusing, and he offered me a full-time job on the spot as a sales guy. I couldn't tell him I still need to graduate high school, you know? But it made me laugh because it was really one of those things that I think gave me a lot of the courage and confidence that I would use later.

But I'll tell you, the best hack, the most actual thing, a college student can do -- and this is very "Art of War" here -- but use this perceived weakness as a strength. And what I mean by that is if you have most of your conversations with someone over email, or even over the phone, they don't really have a sense for how old you are. If you're articulate, if you're smart, they really don't know. At Hipmunk, Adam [Goldstein] was just out of MIT, and the idea of some fresh-faced MIT whiz kid trying to do a deal with United Airlines doesn't exactly happen. What Adam was able to do was use that weakness as a strength because he would work his way to the right decision maker using the phone and email, and when they finally met, he would show up and they'd look at him and they'd be like, "Holy s**t! We thought you were at least 35! You were so mature and so articulate and so thoughtful and smart." Now it becomes a huge strength, whereas if someone had met him from the very start they might've much more easily dismissed him before he even opened his mouth. That's the best advice I can give. That's one of the beauties [of the Internet], is that you can conduct so much business without someone actually knowing whether you're an undergrad or a 45-year-old -- they're not mutually exclusive, but you know what I mean.

IBT: Your book is very funny and personal -- it's part biography, part guide on how to change the world with ideas and the Internet. But what parts of the world do you believe are ripe for social change? And in the same way you mention Airbnb disrupting the travel industry, what do you think are some Internet projects you've seen that are, or can be, truly disruptive?

AO: The thing to remember is even "experts" don't know. I've got some hunches... I think what is exciting to me right now would be any kind of industry that's currently solving problems doing really ugly hacks. Technology is affecting them, but the solutions people have to come up with are very inefficient or inelegant, and that's usually a good place to find a software solution. It shows there's already an appetite for improvement -- it's not just "hey I want to make an app that lets people share cat photos" -- it really is, "hey look, we're doing business this certain way and right now it's really, really inefficient."

You can look at Airbnb, which is one of those great examples. The reason that was so powerful was because people had long been renting out homes -- the "b-and-b" itself was nothing new -- and people had long been using the Internet as a way to crash on people's sofas. Couchsurfing (precursor to Airbnb) was a pretty widespread non-profit, at least at first. I like stuff like that because the trends and the signs were already there.

I could certainly name some portfolio companies… Here's a fun one. There's a company called FlightCar, it actually has Brian Chesky (founder of Airbnb) and I as investors, they realized flying into an airport, they would see two massive parking lots -- there would be a parking lot for long-term parking, and there'd be a parking lot for rental cars. And if Airbnb has shown us that people are willing to let total strangers into their homes, why not let total strangers rent your car?

And that was the model of FlightCar: What if, instead of dropping off your car for long-term parking and paying a lot of money to have your car sit there, you just rented it out to someone and actually got paid for parking your car, essentially? And someone who got off the plane could then save a lot of money and a lot of hassle getting picked up by someone right at the curb and just be off renting a car for a lot cheaper than they would at Hertz or one of the major car rental companies.

It's exciting to me because it's a more efficient use of stuff, which is always a good thing, and in a lot of ways, Airbnb, which has become the poster child for the sharing economy, has proven at some of the most intimate levels people are willing to share with strangers. It doesn't get more intimate than our homes, and as it turns out, millions of people really love sharing their homes with total strangers, and vise-versa. That's cool because just by existing and being as successful as it is, you're not opening up the potential for so many entrepreneurs to look at other things that are inefficient, and find ways to get people sharing.

Hopefully, the long-term repercussions of this look like a world where we have a lot less excess stuff. Like, do I really need a garage full of power tools? Some people probably use them every day, but if they're anything like me, I need a cordless drill once a month. You can start looking at different areas -- I don't actually know of a start-up that's actually letting me lend out my cordless drill, but I have no particular attachment to my cordless drill and I would love to have an efficient way for my neighbors to be able to borrow that from me -- you can see where this is going.

So that's really interesting to me, but what's so great about this industry, and the Internet in particular, is because the world isn't flat but the World Wide Web is, there are more and more startup communities all over the country -- I saw a lot of them firsthand when I did the “Silicon Prairie” documentary and a bunch more on this tour. But what's so clear is that there are these startups that are coming up that simply could not have come up in Brooklyn because it was just not the right market, as much as I love Brooklyn.

And if you look at AgLocal, which I'm not invested in but I'm very good friends with those guys, it's a marketplace for meat that started in Kansas City in the Midwest because where do you think all that meat comes from? They get to work with farmers all over the country, family farmers who can now use their marketplace in the same way a jeweler uses Etsy, they can use their marketplace to sell their meat to anyone in the world, whether it's individuals who just want really responsibly-raised delicious ribs, or local grocery stores, or restaurants that basically don't want to have to always do business with the large agri-business companies but instead want to deal with family farms who can produce higher quality meat, and who can finally compete on a more level playing field with mega abri-business firms.

It's cool because, look, as much as I love New York tech -- and I'll throw the Bay Area in there, too -- there's not a lot of hipsters in skinny jeans on the coasts that aren’t going to come up with a great way to sell meat -- they're not going to do it from Williamsburg or the Mission [District], because you have to actually be talking to your customers. You have to be going out to farms, stepping over piles of cow poop, and that's great! It's exciting because as those companies grow -- the successful ones will grow and they'll grow fast -- they're going to be a part of a much bigger revitalization. You're already seeing it.

Downtown Lincoln Nebraska last year was amazing, because there's a startup there called HUDL, I think they employ over 150 people, and what happens when you have 150 fairly young people -- recent college grads, whatever -- all working in downtown Lincoln, all of a sudden, bars start filling up, and restaurants start showing up, and cafes start showing up, and more apartments start showing up. And all the sudden, you're talking about revitalization. You actually have, at the heart of a lot of these communities, a sort of renaissance where it's actually not a place that twenty-somethings are trying to leave and go to Chicago or the coast. No! It's a place where twenty-somethings want to stay because they love living there, and because now there are some amazing jobs there, and there's no reason why a startup in Lincoln can't change the world just as easily as a startup in Silicon Valley, or just as easily as a startup in Medford, Massachusetts -- I mean, that's where Steve and I started reddit. Medford! I mean yeah, obviously Boston has a storied tech scene, but this will continue to be a trend, and all it takes is gonna be one.

The Facebook, the Twitter, the IPOing tech company that comes out of fill-in-the-blank-somewhere-not-on-the-coasts, or not the traditional location, is going to make a mark. Groupon was out of Chicago, but there's going to be a startup that's going to IPO in the next 10 or 15 years that's going to come from an unexpected city, and it's going to put that city on the map. Maybe it'll be Des Moines with Dwolla, maybe it'll be Boulder -- Boulder already has a big startup reputation but I don't think the rest of the country appreciates it. But all it's going to take is one, and it puts it on the map and it sets a precedent, and it makes everyone else look around and say, "why the hell can't we do that?"

IBT: So many of your projects depend on large crowds of people -- reddit, for one. The ecosystems that you've created on the Web really feel like personal grassroots movements. How have you connected with people via those sites, and do you believe crowdsourcing is sustainable as a business model?

AO: I'll tell you what: The difference between launching reddit in 2005 and hipmunk in 2010 was night and day. Hipmunk is a totally antisocial website: You search for a flight or a hotel and you go away. It was an amazing challenge to build that brand and build a community around that, but it was possible, and I felt like we did a really good job because of social media. I have seen firsthand, whether it was doing it myself or working with portfolio companies, I've seen startups use these platforms -- Twitter, reddit, Facebook, Pinterest, you name it -- to build a relationship, and it's definitely gotten a lot harder to build something that is user-generated just because there's so much more competition for people's attention. Even though Snapchat is the thing, it's more of a private service. Pinterest from last year would've been the last example. But for every one of those that breaks out, there are hundreds -- even thousands -- that never do. A lot of it was the benefit of timing, in that we came up right as people were discovering and talking about platforms that allow you to do this. The areas of the most growth now, or the paths of least resistance, are sites that are not driven entirely by user-generated content, just because it's harder to capture people's attention and make them want to be a user.

IBT: I'm sure you've learned so much, just in the last 10 years as an entrepreneur and an activist. But if you could go back in time, which is totally possible, would you have created any of your Internet companies any differently?

AO: Well, if you'd given me a time machine, the first thing I would do is kill Hitler. Isn't that what anyone would do? The next thing I'd do is just give myself a sports almanac, no need to do any more startups. But yes, there are so many things I'd do differently. Some of it is technical fundamentals, like making sure everyone's stock invests -- it's the difference between "here you go, here's all your equity" and what is now mandatory almost, is every person gets their stock and invests over a period of time so you get a quarter of it, say, every year for four years, so that way if you leave after two years you just get half and everyone's happy.

But you know, the best thing I could've done for myself is continued programming. I stopped programming pretty much once we started reddit, I just stuck to doing design, HTML and CSS. And that's the biggest regret, and I know I could start learning right now -- I should actually pick up Code Academy and get my hands dirty. Everyone has great ideas, but if you can actually execute them, if you can actually build them, in this century, you have all the power.

For more information on the life and projects of Alexis Ohanian, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. Ohanian’s first book, “Without Their Permission,” is now available in hardcover, e-book and audiobook formats.

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