Alexis Ohanian Drops Some Knowledge on Whirlwind Tour of Boston

Tuesday Dec 10, 2013 by Dennis Keohane - Staff Writer, VentureFizz

Alexis Ohanian stopped into town for his book tour for Without Their Permission, his book about his adventures founding reddit and Hipmunk, the lessons learned along the way, and some of the ideas that are shaping his worldview these days.

Ohanian bounced all around Boston on Monday; stopping at a few local universities, heading to Kendall Square for our VentureFizz/General Assembly event, and then ending the night speaking at BU.

In the packed room at ImpactHUB, with a video of logs burning on a fire serving as the backdrop to his talk, Ohanian told a few stories about how his experiences in life shaped him as an entrepreneur.

Here are a few of the highlights:

-"The internet is empowering all of us with great ideas to change the world. Whether that's by starting companies, or nonprofits, or movements, or art projects. Opening a laptop today has the power of opening a factory during the industrial revolution."

-"I actually wasn't allowed into the entrepreneurship program at UVA. I even offered to audit it, I asked if I could just show up and be quiet and just listen, and they said no."

-In regard to what is going on at colleges these days: "The reality is that most curricula are still using the twentieth century playbook and we are living in a twenty-first century world. That's why I'm so excited by all the new things that are popping up that allow people to learn the skills that they can use right now to do amazing things and actually take ideas and do them. But more important than just having an idea is getting out there an doing it. Ideas are great and wonderful, but worthless. Execution is everything."

-"There are a lot of things that we need to make suck less, and I want all of you to work on doing that," Ohanian said.

-"We were rejected in our first round at YCombinator, because we had a product called 'MyMobileMenu', it wasn't quite ready. But the next morning we got a call back: 'Hey, we want you to be in this program, just change your idea.' So we jumped at the chance. We 'PIVOTED'; back then it was just called 'failed'. That's okay, failure is an option."

-"Life does not have a syllabus, life is not paint-by-number, life is about dealing with failure all the damned time. The sooner you can accept that and realize that, and 'get good at that'-not the failure per se-but dealing with the setbacks, the better."

-"There's a good Adventure Time quote for that, 'sucking is the first step at being good at something'. And that's what I'm telling all these college students every freaking day, 'Go suck, go forth and suck'."

-When Atlas Venture's Fred Destin asked him what was the "defining, darkest moment as an entrepreneur which you rose to the challenge...to become the man you are today?", Ohanian responded, "I'm still a work in progress."

He then said, "Life is full of ups and downs. The thing that I was lucky enough to get a lesson in, very early in my life, far earlier than I would wish on anyone else, is just how real mortality is. I got a taste of it, very early on, with someone very close to me. And that experience, while it was happening during reddit, made me realize how not bad my worst days were. Because I had terrible business days, but my worst business day never involved doing a round of chemo, my worst business day never involved actually considering my own mortality."

-"Just by virtue of the fact that we are having this conversation right now, puts us at a level of privilege that on a global level we can barely comprehend. So on a United States of America-level, it's already amazeballs because we are in the one sector of the economy that's growing, that hiring, every one of us is hiring developers. Holy shit, like it's crazy, this sector is one of the healthiest parts and we really do have the technology that can do amazing things. So take full advantage of it and don't be too down that we have bad days because they're not too bad."

-In reference to some of the bad (hate speech, porn) that reddit is being used for, Ohanian explained, "I've talked to a number of Twitter people about this recently because we share a common problem in that we built this megaphone, which allows anyone with an internet connection to use it. If you build a megaphone, you build a megaphone assuming that most people are reasonable. I still think that most people are reasonable. This megaphone has tremendous potential because it can amplify and spread things faster. But sometimes people use that megaphone to shout awful, awful shit. Reconciling that is tough...The problem with these platforms is that we have to rely on humans to use them; that's great because humans are capable of great stuff. They are also capable of shitty stuff."

"I really hope and have seen that more and more often that they are used for good things, or at least benign things. Benign things never get talked about, good things sometimes do. We have a tendency to focus on the awful stuff, it exists, it needs to be chastised. But the people need to be chastised, not the megaphone."

"We are all still figuring this out, but I really do hope that in the end the good in the world wins. This has been a challenge posed every single time there has been a new form of mass communication that allows people democratic access assuming they have internet access and the tools."

He concluded the talk by talking about how he learned how important is was to delight customers while starting Hipmunk. Ohanian said that Hipmunk taught him how easy it is to show that you care, which goes a long way.

Overall, the event was great, and most people left with a sense that Ohanian, in his brief talk, is looking to create some impactful positive change in the world.

Dennis Keohane is a staff writer for VentureFizz. You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.

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