Internet entrepreneur and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian stopped by campus Thursday afternoon to speak about his experience working on start-ups in the digital age.
Brought in by Yale lecturer Brad Rosen, Ohanian — who was in town promoting his new book on a 160-stop tour that includes 77 university campuses — spoke to roughly 100 audience members in Sudler Hall about the founding of Reddit, telling students to be bold, unafraid and assertive when pursuing passions and new ventures.
“There are people among you doing amazing stuff,” Ohanian said. “All of us have the potential to do this kind of stuff, but some of us are the ones who raise our hands [and do it].”
The story of the creation of Reddit — a social media site that aggregates user-submitted links and posts, self-proclaimed as “the front page of the Internet” — began when Ohanian was making his first website in high school. Within a few months, Ohanian was making websites for nonprofit companies.
After high school, Ohanian went on to attend the University of Virginia, where he met Steve Huffman — a classmate and the eventual co-founder of Reddit — on freshman move-in day. Huffman and Ohanian eventually combined their talents to propose a mobile application known as “My Mobile Menu,” which aimed to reduce lines at restaurants and cafés by allowing users to order food through their cell phones. They sent the application to Y Combinator, a company that provides seed money and advice for certain start-ups in exchange for a percentage of their profits.
But Ohanian and Huffman were rejected — at least until Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator, reached out to the two of them personally and offered the duo a chance to come up with a new idea. After some brainstorming between Ohanian and Huffman, Reddit was born.
“We had no idea what we were doing. We had no business starting something that would be the front page of the Internet,” Ohanian said. “This was before we had 90 million unique visitors a month. We had two.”
Though Reddit was accepted by Graham and Y Combinator, there were “haters” of the project, as Ohanian called them, from the start.
About four months after Reddit’s official launch, employees at Yahoo got wind of the site’s existence and invited Ohanian and Huffman out to Silicon Valley. But at the meeting — which served as an opportunity for Ohanian and Huffman to pitch their website to Yahoo for potential collaboration — Ohanian said things quickly went sour. Though Ohanian explained that the site was new and that its web traffic was growing rapidly, the Yahoo representative in the meeting was not impressed. His remark, Ohanian said, quickly became Ohanian and Huffman’s motivation to succeed.
“I printed out [his quote]: ‘You are a rounding error compared to Yahoo!’” Ohanian said.
Switching to different topic midway through the talk, Ohanian also provided students with tips on how to succeed as an entrepreneur. He stressed exactly how much the Internet has broadened the scope of individual ventures that talented people can pursue.
Ohanian cited Brandon Stanton, creator of the popular Humans of New York photo-blog, and Zach Weiner, of “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal” fame. He used these two individuals, among others, as examples of people who “are using the Internet for awesome.”
“Sucking is the first step to being good at something,” Ohanian said.
Of the crowd assembled in Sudler Hall, many audience members said they were there because of a personal interest in start-ups and entrepreneurship.
Matt Levine SOM ’14, who was spontaneously brought on stage by Ohanian at the start of his talk to exemplify Ohanian’s point about all individuals having innovative ideas, said he shared the speaker’s proactive stance toward entrepreneurship.
“It’s not just a fancy word, it’s about getting out there and doing it,” Levine said. “That’s something I’ve always believed.”
Aly Moore ’14 agreed, adding that one message from the talk particularly resonated with her — the concept of entrepreneurs being people who both have ideas and decide to execute them.
April Koh ’14, who is planning to start a company with Moore, focused on a slightly different message.
“He really shattered the notion of elitism that we have at this university,” Koh said. “It doesn’t really matter what your background is, or what your skills are. If you really want to do something, then you can accomplish it.”
According to the web traffic data collector Alexa.com, Reddit is currently the 30th most popular website in the United States.