Making Your Mark

Reddit Founder Alexis Ohanian shares lessons he’s learned as an Internet entrepreneur—and how to build real connections with customers on the cheap.

by Kate Pavao, October 2013


Alexis Ohanian first became an entrepreneur in his early 20s, after helping found Reddit, a social community billed as “The Front Page of the Internet.” Although he never spent more than a few hundred dollars advertising Reddit, it’s been a huge success: Last month the website – which lets users vote and comment on news stories they find the most (or least) interesting -- had nearly 81.5 million unique visitors from more than 180 countries.

“Initially, we only raised $82,000, so we didn’t have ton of capital,” Ohanian remembers. “But that scarcity resulted in a lot of creativity. Scarcity really forces founders to obsess over the product and service that they’re building. It’s the product that ends up doing the advertising if people want to Tweet and Facebook about it, and submit it to Reddit.”

According to Ohanian, Reddit’s story illustrates the power of the Internet as a platform for business innovation and success. And he’s putting his experience to work helping other Internet entrepreneurs: since selling Reddit to global publishing powerhouse Conde Nast (and becoming a millionaire) Ohanian has worked on launching two additional start-ups and invested in more than 60 new technology companies.

Here, Ohanian talks to Profit about his new book Without Their Permission, his experiences connecting with customers on the cheap, and how he hopes to inspire more people to use the Internet to build their dreams.

Profit: Why did you decide to call your book Without Their Permission?

Ohanian: The Internet is a flat network. People can get started on the next great idea from their living rooms or bus stations. I’ve had this experience myself with a couple of different companies. People are also leveraging the Internet to start movements, get their art careers funded, or do a great philanthropic work. I want to deliver this idea beyond tech, and inspire anyone with a good idea to use the Internet to go and do a project, and make the world suck a little less in the process.

Profit: What are some of the ways to connect with customers without a big budget?

Ohanian: People who are willing to take a chance on a new start-up are amazing and wonderful. Making small gestures to them can build these really strong relationships. I remember one Redditor, who was serving overseas, wrote about how much he loved Reddit because it helped him deal with the monotony of life. We were all so impressed by this thread and this discussion that we got his address and sent him a care package.

Scarcity really forces founders to obsess over the product and service that they’re building. It’s the product that ends up doing the advertising if people want to Tweet and Facebook about it, and submit it to Reddit, etc.

We didn’t do a press release about it. We just did it. And most people don’t think, “Oh, that company only has two people in a little apartment.” Most people think, “That co-founder actually cares.” And sometimes these things do bubble back, and you’ll see on there’s a post on Reddit or Twitter saying, “Look at this! I can’t believe that CEO took the time to actually sign a piece of paper. “ When was the last time you got something personal from a CEO or a co-founder?

Profit: Your favorite question for new hires is “What have you built?” Why do you ask this question?

Ohanian: I don’t just use it for hiring, but also for investing. I want to know that you’ve been able to execute something; hopefully well, but we can learn a lot even from failures too. This is not just for developers. If you’re into marketing, go find some people who are doing some interesting, creative stuff, and help them launch their first Kickstarter campaign. Use the wonderful resources of the Internet to figure out the best ways to actually do this, and build a resume that’s filled of things that you have done.

Having things that they care about makes them more well-rounded interesting people. And being able to see that someone has passion allows you to better nurture and develop that.

I have never asked of anyone I’ve ever invested in about grade point average. And the only way the university they went to even comes up is if it’s a rival of my school, the University of Virginia -- then we can trash talk. Otherwise I don’t really care. As employers, what do we really want? Does it really matter if this person has an Ivy League education or that he or she can get stuff done?

Profit: You just turned 30, so are part of the Millennial generation entering the workforce. What should executives know about how to successfully work with this generation?

Ohanian: We hear horror stories, but anyone can work with them successfully. Finding talented people and giving them autonomy is the secret with anyone, but I think especially with this generation. That’s where some really amazing stuff happens. The biggest asset this generation brings is that we were, by and large, raised online, so there is fluency. And the Internet can scale ideas faster than ever before – it’s a huge amplifier for talent.

Right now, I am doing this 150-stop bus tour for the book, which is a pretty huge undertaking. I asked a summer intern who was helping me with some other projects to manage my tour. It’s a little terrifying. He’s 19 years old and he has never done this before, but he is a smart dude who has his stuff together. I’ve never planned a bus tour either, and if I was going to do it, I would have to learn it all, too.

Thought Leader

aohanian-headshot-smReddit founder Alexis Ohanian is author of Without Their Permission

Profit: Ultimately, what’s the most important lesson you most want your readers to learn?

Ohanian: I want them to see the Internet as a platform with amazing potential. It has to be taken seriously, whether they want to go be entrepreneurial on it, or just maintain the success they’ve had. The good news is, we are creating it, so the more that you can be prepared to be one of those creators, the better.

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