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Odds and Ends: Power to the People Online
Odds and Ends: Power to the People Online

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian is on a mission to motivate web entrepreneurs


Rick Tulka for CASE



Alexis Ohanian believes the Internet can build companies, grow movements, and even "make the world suck less." (That's one of his personal goals.) In 2005 he co-founded Reddit—the self-proclaimed front page of the Internet—and became a startup success story by selling the site to Condé Nast the next year. A Reddit board member, he's also a founder of, adviser to, and investor in several online companies, including Hipmunk and Breadpig. In 2011 Ohanian played a key role in efforts to protect the open Internet and helped stop congressional legislation that would have limited people's access to online content. Now, as author of Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, he wants to inspire college students and others to experiment, innovate, and create their own Internet startups. He'll make his case this fall on a cross-country book and bus tour of more than 60 campuses.

Why is visiting colleges on this book tour important to you?

I want to give a blueprint for doing great stuff on the Internet. There's only so much you'll get out of an inspirational talk, but I hope it's a kick in the butt for [students]. In college you have unprecedented freedom that you'll probably never see again. You have so much opportunity to tinker, to create, to learn by doing that I'm always encouraging college students to start something, to run a Kickstarter campaign to get financing for a web project they're passionate about. For employers like me, that's the kind of thing that makes a difference. I'm less interested in your major or GPA or even where you went to school. Most tech companies send their recruiters to MIT and Stanford and all the usual suspects, but they sleep on most of these other universities. If you've got a great idea, work hard on it, and execute well, it doesn't matter where you went to school. There's success to be had online.

What do you think about technological disruption in higher education?

I did a panel where one of the questions was about how to teach entrepreneurship, and I borrowed a quote from [Internet investor] Paul Graham about relentless resourcefulness being the defining characteristic of great [startup] founders. I said that it's also a defining characteristic of great employees. But resourcefulness is not something you can easily teach. It's not baked into our concept of education because it embraces failure. You shouldn't be held back if you fail in an entrepreneurial venture. You should learn from it and try again. We are taught to check the right boxes, pass the right tests, advance to the next grade; failure is not an option. We need to think about ways that encourage the spirit of entrepreneurship. It's not a foreign concept; it's just foreign to classrooms and education.

Why do you like to create mascots for your companies?

I love drawing mascots. I really wanted a mascot for Reddit. Part of it is because of how maligned mascots like the Pets.com sock puppet were during the web bubble. Sometimes it's used as a sign of the sort of excess and stupidity of that time, but it's an important lesson for me. It's a reminder that you can have a great mascot, but if you haven't got a great business or product, it doesn't matter.

What are your views on the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, particularly given the dystopian 2025 commencement address in your book?

That was eerily prophetic. I did not expect that to come to fruition so quickly. What I hope comes out of this is an honest public discussion about our digital privacy rights. There's no difference between the privacy of my home's mailbox and my Dropbox [account]. It's physical versus digital, but it's still private; it's still mine. Americans are not willing to give that up. We have a Constitution and a Fourth Amendment for a reason.

—Interview by Theresa Walker

 

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