Reddit Co-Founder Comes to UCI

By Anna Albaryan

Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of a popular social news website called Reddit, visited UC Irvine last Wednesday to speak to students about his initial struggles in the start-up industry, his triumphs thereafter and why college is the best environment for students to direct their ideas toward fruition. The University of California, Irvine was Ohanian’s eighth stop on the second leg of his nationwide book tour that began late last year in an effort to share his agenda with college students across the country.

The event was held in the Donald Bren Hall and reached capacity well before anyone stepped onstage. It was led by Bill Maurer, the dean of social sciences and professor of anthropology and law here at UC Irvine, and featured David M. Ochi, a fellow entrepreneur and UCI alumnus who was interviewed by Ohanian during his presentation. The talk was also projected directly through a live feed for the overflow of people in two other rooms.

“I really want to help be a voice and hopefully a kick in the butt for a whole generation of doers — of people who want to do stuff,” Ohanian said after his presentation.

The 30-year-old entrepreneur and investor at Y Combinator tacked on another title to his name in early October of last year when he authored the memoir, “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.” His book stresses the importance of coding in an era that allows the internet to serve as a democratic platform for our society, where ideas can foster and grow into successful companies like Reddit.

Since then, Ohanian has taken on the role of a rock star, trekking across the country in a red and black tour bus, and stopping at 230 campuses.

“My publisher was like, ‘You are crazy — I’ve never heard of a book tour that big’ and I was like, ‘Awesome! That’s why I want to do it,’” Ohanian said.

Joseph Kristoffer works alongside Ohanian as his publicist, and recalls a past tour experience which involved “shooting T-shirts [out of a canon] at Times Square,” prompting Ohanian to share the story.

“We drove the bus into Times Square and shot T-shirts off the roof. It’s amazing to see people react to a T-shirt being shot out of a canon, you’d think we were shooting money out of it, they just flip out.”

Even without the enthusiasm that a T-shirt canon would surely ensue, those in the lecture room in the Donald Bren Hall were given postcards. Ohanian’s team had distributed the cards to attendees at the start of the event, who were then asked to fill the blank spaces with a goal they would want accomplished.  Halfway through his presentation, Ohanian announced that these postcards will be sent back to their owners within a few years. This holds the author accountable for the goals she/he wrote down.

Ohanian marked our college years as the perfect time for students to consider start-ups, because it is a creative time, with no real responsibilities or major let-downs. More importantly he explained that even if there are let-downs, failing is fine.

When Ohanian and Reddit’s additional founder, Steve Huffman, met as freshmen at the University of Virginia, neither of them anticipated Reddit’s success. Their first attempt at a start-up didn’t even actualize until the end of their senior year. Huffman’s idea was to create a mobile app which would allow users to order through the mobile menu and avoid lines while picking up food. But it was too early for its time, so it marked the first rejection the two would receive.

“Something we got to learn, luckily by pivoting or switching to another company was, timing is huge. I say execution is everything — a big part of execution is timing,”  Ohanian said. The idea, which never found its fruition at the time, exists on many platforms today. Ohanian and Huffman even invested in one that is called OrderAhead and essentially solves the exact problem the Reddit founders were trying to solve at the time.

“I don’t think either one of us feels pissed off, we’re just happy it exists now because we think waiting in lines is silly,” Ohanian said.

According to Ohanian, creating software which solves problems that people don’t even realize they have, is what the 21st century is about. All that is left to do is start.

“I absolutely think programming is going to become the third leg of literacy,”  Ohanian said. “Software inherently removes humans from the equation of repetitive work, and long-term there is a reality that, the reason why it’s so important to get this kind of education into as many minds as possible is because there are going to be jobs made obsolete by software that humans won’t be able to do the way they have for generations and that’s why it’s so important.”