Communities

Alexis Ohanian: Entrepreneurship is ‘all about execution’

Alexis Ohanian, best known as co-founder of reddit, delivered a lively presentation at the University of Miami on Feb. 16 to an audience of 575 students, local startup entrepreneurs and technology enthusiasts.

Refresh Miami, a Knight Foundation grantee that connects South Florida’s tech and entrepreneurial communities, organized the event, which was part of a five-month book tour for Ohanian’s recently published “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will be Made, Not Managed.”

Ohanian, along with Steve Huffman, co-founded reddit in 2005 as a social news and entertainment website where registered users submit content in the form of links or text posts.

In his appearance at the University of Miami, the gregarious Ohanian spoke about his early days as a startup entrepreneur. “I was bored,” he said. “It wasn’t about Silicon Valley. We were in a little apartment in a suburb of a suburb of a suburb of Massachusetts.”

Tech ventures started early for the now 31-year-old Ohanian, who as a kid used a dial-up modem to build a website on Geocities. “My life changed,” he said. “I felt like a superhero. I was this dork who would build websites for nonprofits. It was very empowering.” Beginnings are often humble for tech entrepreneurs. Ohanian admitted to the crowd that he had no idea what he was doing. “I still don’t know what I’m doing,” he confessed. “Failure is an option.” But mistakes lead to success and the path often diverges from traditional routes. “Ideas are worthless,” he said. “It’s all about execution. I walked out of a law school exam preparatory class just because I wanted waffles.”

He joked about his food craving that day, but the choice was pivotal in the road he would eventually take that would lead to reddit.com.

The “waffles epiphany” – as he called it – paid off. In January, reddit recorded 112,809,633 unique visitors from 196 different countries, tallying 5,468,422,345 page views.

Ohanian said his zest for technology is driven by his desire to support humanity through community building. “Making the world suck less” is his motto.

During his appearance, Ohanian urged the crowd to go out and change the world through entrepreneurship and not to let self-doubt slow them down. He also emphasized the importance of developing an organic following and cultivating those supporters.

“Tech Crunch took 18 months to write about reddit,” he said. “But really only care about the people who care about you. Treat your following like the gold they are.”

In the beginning, Ohanian walked uncharted territory more as a salesman than a coder, drawing the now famous mascot logo before reddit even had a product.

Ohanian said the company was barely 6 months old when Yahoo invited the reddit team to a meeting in Silicon Valley and a Yahoo executive called the venture a “rounding error” due to its low number of visitors.

Condé Nast bought the company in 2006, and later spun off reddit, which became an independent division of their parent company, Advance Publications.

Ohanian, who still sits on the board at reddit, went on to help launch hipmunk and is Y Combinator’s ambassador to the East. He also became an investor in and adviser to more than 70 tech startups.

He shared much of that wisdom with the audience, encouraging to not let competition or fear of failure deter technological innovation. “When you start, only your mom cares about what you’re doing,” he said.  Focus, determination and passion are key:  “Look at Grumpy Cat; he has to be grumpier than every other cat on the Internet.”

The evening, which was sponsored by Knight, Park Jockey and The Launch Pad at The University of Miami, included a brief speech by Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who recently made headlines for saying Miami Beach “is never going to be a high-tech hub.” After his talk, Ohanian interviewed Stephen Spiegel, a University of Miami alumnus and founder of Crewhu, on stage.

Following the event, one of 200 stops on his five-month book tour, Ohanian said Miami is as fertile as anywhere for growing new ventures. “The world is not flat,” he said. “The World Wide Web is. You can just open a laptop and potentially start the next billion-dollar, world-changing tech company. That’s powerful. You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to do this. There are startup communities everywhere and Miami is no exception.” “And,” he added, “In Miami, you can do this in your shorts.”

Maria de los Angeles is a South Florida freelance journalist.