Reddit co-founder and Internet activist Alexis Ohanian stopped by Fisk Hall on Wednesday night to headline an event sponsored by EPIC and the Kellogg E-Club. He was joined by recent Northwestern alums Mike McGee, co-founder of the Starter League, and Kat Manalac, Director of Outreach at Y Combinator. Northwestern is one of seventy-seven campuses that Ohanian has or will visit on his barnstorming tour for his new book Without Their Permission.
Ohanian has the stage presence of a stand-up comedian. His routine included taking jabs at everything from Google+ to Thomas Friedman to the University of Chicago (unless of course you don’t think it’s weird that the students there answered the “library” when asked where their favorite place to drink is). Perhaps this isn’t surprising for the man behind the site that has turned Business Baby and Grumpy Cat cultural icons. Yet, to think that this is all Ohanian is would be a gross underestimation–even if his self-deprecating nature causes him to self-identify as the “guy who creates funny animal mascots for all of the companies I join.”
Before there were “all of the companies,” Ohanian was a student at the University of Virginia who, despite experimenting with the programming “drug” as a teenager, was set on a career as an immigration lawyer. That is, until the he walked out of a LSAT prep course because he couldn’t resist the temptation of the nearby waffle-house. This proved to be a watershed moment in Ohanian’s formation: “I realized if I wanted waffles more than the LSAT, I probably shouldn’t be a lawyer.”
The waffle-house incident not only convinced Ohanian that he didn’t want to be a lawyer; it was the inspiration for his first start-up. Working with a classmate of his at UVA, Steve Huffman, the two conceived of what can now be understood as a precursor to GrubHub: My Mobile Menu, (or “Mmm…”). The problem: it was 2005, just before the exponential growth of smartphones. Nonetheless, they pitched the idea to Y Combinator, an accelerator that the New York Times now calls “Silicon Valley’s Start-Up Machine” but which was in its inception when Ohanian and Huffman first applied. The idea failed to impress the admissions committe, but Ohanian and Huffman did, and they were invited to California so long as they committed to doing something else. The two spent that night drinking in Boston, “where they ran into some Hahh-vard students who were bragging about the jobs they had gotten at Lehman Brothers.”
“Software is EATING the world…and the incumbents have no idea,” proclaimed Ohanian in his best Bain impression, “They merely adopted the Internet. We were born into it.” This is the thrust of his book, Without Their Permission. It’s his belief that those who code are learning “the most valuable skill of this century.” However, no matter what one’s doing, college students “should all take advantage of the fact that you are more creatively free than you’ll ever be.” The fact that the preliminary result of such creative freedom might be “janky” is something to be embraced, not feared.
To emphasize his point, he showed Reddit’s Minimum Viable Product, which they launched before Steve Blank popularized the term. At the time, Ohanian remembered being terrified of Digg, not only because they had a “celebrity founder (Kevin Rose)” and “Silicon Valley money,” but because “they actually knew how to use CSS.” As, well, “minimalist” as the first Reddit homepage was, it was still far and away better than Twitter’s first crack at it. Upon unveiling this, Ohanian asked “Are you fucking kidding me? This is now a publicly traded company”–the crowd laughed in agreement. “I still don’t know what I’m doing. No one does.” The point, according to Ohanian, is just to go ahead and start doing something. After all, “entrepreneur is just French for, has ideas, does them.”
Ohanian and Huffman sold Reddit to Conde Nast in 2006, with Ohanian staying on as a member of its Board of Directors. Since then, he has helped launch Hipmunk, a travel search website, and breadpig, a publishing company with a strong social enterprise bent. He has also been one of the most public advocates of the “Open Web.” In 2011, Ohanian harnessed Reddit to pressure Congress not to sign its Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect IP Act (PIPA). This came at the same time that Aaron Swartz, who joined Reddit as a co-founder at Y Combinator, was downloading JSTOR documents from MIT’s computer network. His intent was to make them publicly available, but a criminal investigation ensued, and Swartz, who had struggled with depression, committed suicide.
Although he didn’t bring up Swartz, Ohaninan concluded his presentation by encouraging everyone to live like they have “0 lives remaining.” Then, as if to set an example, he called his childhood friend Asa on to the stage, who began shooting Without Their Permission paraphernalia into the crowd out of a t-shirt cannon.
Photo Credit: Daniel J. Sieradski, via Flickr