It takes five hours to read Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s new book, according to a stamp on the cover. At least, that’s how long it took Ohanian’s grandfather to read Without Their Permission. The book tour, on the other hand, will take about five months. Ohanian plans to make 150 stops across the country, including at some 70 colleges, with breaks in between. He’s pitching advice on entrepreneurship to the next generation. Senior Editor Diane Brady recently spoke with him.
Why do so many business leaders get beat by some kid in a dorm room?
It almost always boils down to, there’s a tremendous opportunity for the upstarts. You have no name recognition, no budget, but you can take an insane amount of focus and put it towards solving a particular problem.
Before you hit the college circuit, can you give some advice to big companies?
Let’s say a large hotel company sees that Airbnb is a multibillion-dollar company and never had to put down a single brick, yet now they’ve got more rooms than Hilton. So what do you do with that? They’ve got an incredible brand. Airbnb is going to win on price and maybe experience. But they don’t have the brand of something like W [Hotels]. Why not take the brand value you have to become a listing service for premium high-end home rentals. We’ll do the due diligence. We’ll make it easy. We’ll give you points. Why not?
Should we be telling every kid to start their own business?
Being entrepreneurial is the ability to have an idea, a little bit outside what you normally do, and do it. Figure out how to get it to completion. Learn and repeat. That doesn’t just make for a great founder. It makes for a great employee.
So your message is: “Just do it.”
Exactly. I get e-mails from people who say, “I have this great idea.” It doesn’t matter what they say after that. Until they’ve actually built something, it’s worthless. We want more doers. That’s how you get better founders, better apps for sharing photos of cats, which I love.
How old is your cat?
She’s 2½. It’s a little ridiculous, I know. A dude who loves his cat.
I’m sure a lot of single women with multiple cats are happy to share the spotlight with someone like you.
Full disclosure: I’m 60/40 dog, but with my lifestyle and living in New York, I’d feel bad having a dog.
You could afford a dog walker.
I know, but it’s a bigger commitment. And I wouldn’t want the dog to have a better relationship with the dog walker than me.
So cat owners make better entrepreneurs?
There’s no set path. Reddit wasn’t a canonical success story. We went to UVA [University of Virginia]. We didn’t go to Stanford or MIT. We started our business in Medford, Mass. We weren’t in Silicon Valley. The democratizing power of the Internet means more and more success stories will be springing up in Des Moines or Juneau. Who knows?
If it’s so democratizing, why does the income gap grow wider each year?
The technology is democratizing. Unfortunately, our society isn’t perfect. We stand to see an even bigger gulf if we don’t have more people with access and the skills to take advantage of this technology. The very nature of writing code is about reducing the need for human labor. You have billion-dollar companies now with a few hundred employees. There’s no easy answer. Without digital fluency, you don’t stand a chance.
Besides tweeting and posting pictures of your cat on Reddit, then what?
Learn to code. That’s low-hanging fruit. And if you have an idea, do it. The Internet isn’t just for people who code. There’s huge opportunity for digital creatives—the people who make all the cat pictures and products and other stuff on the Internet. It’s so cheap and so easy to do awesome stuff there. You just have to do it.