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Reddit Co-Founder to Appear at Notre Dame

| Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian will appear IRL (in real life) tonight in the Mendoza College of Business to speak with students about the prospects of internet entrepreneurship, in an appearance presented by SUB.

Ohanian, whose stop at Notre Dame is one of many on a three-month tour of colleges around the country, has a straightforward goal for his appearance.

“The goal of the book tour is to give as many people a blueprint of how to start being entrepreneurial and making the world suck less, which is what I wish I had when I was in school,” Ohanian said.

reddit

His book, “Without Their Permission,” allows him to answer questions and give tips to aspiring entrepreneurs and startups that he’s gained in his experiences with Reddit as well as Breadpig, a producer of merchandise aimed at geeks that donates proceeds to charity, Hipmunk, an online travel company, and his work in venture capital and internet activism.

“I wrote ‘Without Their Permission’ because people, especially aspiring startup founders, were asking me a similar set of questions all the time. I decided that I could put a lot of the lessons I’ve learned along the way into a format that’s accessible, partly because I got a bit tired of saying the same things, but mostly so that the stories and advice in the book could reach a bigger audience,” Ohanian said.

In each of the stops on his tour, a graduate of the university currently doing innovative work online will join Ohanian on stage to talk about their experiences as well. Andrew Parnell, Notre Dame alumnus and CEO of Birdfeud.com, will speak to students tonight. Parnell’s company says on its website that it helps “startups and businesses drive growth with innovative digital solutions.”

“Our only criteria for the alums is that they are doing awesome stuff related to technology online. Other than that, there are no rules and so far we’ve had a really awesome range of people who have come back to their schools to tell their story,” Ohanian said.

Ohanian will take the stage at 7 p.m. in Jordan Auditorium in the Mendoza College of Business, followed by a reception and book signing. Students can submit questions for Ohanian on Notre Dame’s subreddit page, reddit.com/r/notredame.

Read the full transcript of the interview below:

First of all, what are your goals in your speaking tour? What do you hope to achieve?

“The goal of the book tour is to give as many people a blueprint of how to start being entrepreneurial and making the world suck less, which is what I wish I had when I was in school.”

How does your book tie into what you want to talk to college kids about?

“I wrote “Without Their Permission” because people, especially aspiring startup founders, were asking me a similar set of questions all the time. I decided that I could put a lot of the lessons I’ve learned along the way into a format that’s accessible, partly because I got a bit tired of saying the same things, but mostly so that the stories and advice in the book could reach a bigger audience. Books scale easily, humans don’t. Also it gave me a chance to include plenty of my doodles!”

How did you choose the alumni speakers that you’re bringing in to speak at the colleges you visit?

“Our only criteria for the alums is that they are doing awesome stuff related to technology online. Other than that, there are no rules and so far we’ve had a really awesome range of people who have come back to their schools to tell their story.”

What’s your message for kids who want to follow in your footsteps and become internet entrepreneurs even as the field becomes more crowded and the job market in general looks more uncertain?

“The best thing to do is launch something. So many people talk about the ideas they have and what they are going to do, but far fewer people actually act on their interests and put something into the world. Until you launch something, you will never know if it works, no matter how much planning you do. And don’t let not knowing what you’re doing stop you—no one knows what they’re doing, especially when they start. “Suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.” Many traditional career paths won’t come back, but that’s OK, the sooner you realize life is not a paint-by-number, the better. Invent your career.”

How can your experiences give perspective and guidance for college students that want to pursue a career that by definition means they won’t necessarily be internet entrepreneurs, but who still want to innovate in their field?

“A number of the amazing people I write and talk about are not themselves “internet entrepreneurs” but they’re using the internet to be awesome in entrepreneurial ways. Software is eating the world and the internet is delivering it and reshaping so many industries. A little code goes a long way.”

You’ve had the chance to accomplish a lot at a very young age, how do you keep that momentum going into the next phases of your life? What do you still want to accomplish?

“When Steve Huffman and I started reddit, I had a “wall of negative reinforcement” on the wall beside my desk with all the negative blog posts and feedback I got about me and our product and company. That was my way of dealing with the haters, but even as a kid I had this idea of “Lives Remaining: Zero.” That’s where a lot of my drive comes from. We only have one chance to make a difference. We might as well make the most of it, and hopefully make the world suck less.”

I’ve seen your activism against SOPA and PIPA in the last few years; do you think there are possible reasonable measures that could be done to slow down piracy? Do you think Congress should be attempting to exert any kind of control on the internet?

“The internet is hardly a lawless place, people are still governed by laws—the internet is just a new medium for communication. The best laws Congress could enact would encourage internet access for more Americans—millions of whom can’t get broadband and millions more can’t afford it; yet we all believe every American should have a reasonable chance at electricity. SOPA and PIPA were done in the name of piracy, but as the success of companies like Netflix, Spotify, and Valve indicate, piracy is indeed a service problem. The way to fight it is not with legislation, but with innovation. My message to the entertainment industry: innovate don’t legislate.”

I saw you worked with Lester Chambers on a Kickstarter campaign to produce a new album, which seems to be a popular new way for artists to both reach fans and get the funding they need to make the art they want. But with the backlash that someone like Zach Braff got from his Kickstarter for his film project, is there an ethical problem or a line that artists shouldn’t cross with these Kickstarters? Some people complain that artists are asking fans to help pay for projects that the artists will then sell back to them, how do you counter that sentiment?

“I found that backlash against Zach pretty ridiculous. Artists have always asked us to pay them money (say, for a new album) and then again asking you to pay for the concert, and again for the swag at the show, and again…. What crowdfunding enables is artists who otherwise wouldn’t have been ‘approved’ by gatekeepers to make their art, reach their audience, and get paid for it.”

With a totally open internet outlet like Reddit, how do you handle a situation like what with happened after the Boston Bombings, where Redditors speculated and identified an innocent college student? How can future internet entrepreneurs lift up the internet community so that it rises above some of the nastiness that it can sometimes get into?

“What happened in Boston was horribly tragic, but the result was not specific to reddit, or even technology. The NYTimes investigation revealed it was a Buzzfeed reporter who tweeted a link to the then-unnoticed reddit thread misidentifying that innocent man, thereby legitimizeing it to his twitter audience of 90,000, which sent it viral. The point is, when you give everyone a megaphone, offline or online, good people and bad people will use it. We as internet citizens should do our best to post, upvote, tweet, like, and share responsibly.”

What will Reddit look like in fifteen years?

“Probably the same, only more cats. We just hit 100 million monthly visitors, so if we keep doubling every year like we have been….”

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About Kevin Noonan

I'm a senior from Kansas City studying Marketing with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. I've written for The Observer since I was a freshman, and now serve as editor for Scene.

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