Off the Cuff

Wealthy, Savvy and 29 Years Old. One Entrepreneur’s Tale

Off the Cuff

“I was always a weird kid. My dad can certainly attest to that,” Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, told “Off The Cuff.” “He's still waiting for me to outgrow a lot of that, but it's not happening. I'll be thirty in a few months. Nothing’s changed.”

In addition to Reddit, Ohanian founded a social enterprise website, Breadpig, and helped launch Hipmunk, a travel-search website. He founded an investment firm, Das Kapital Capital. He’s invested in more than 60 other tech startups. He’s a multi-millionaire—and yes, he’s only 29 years old. If that makes him weird, we’ll have what he’s having.

Ohanian had intended to become an immigration lawyer. In his junior year of college, after suffering through an LSAT preparation test, he and a friend went to a Waffle House to commiserate. Those must have been some waffles, because Ohanian had a life-changing epiphany there: He wouldn’t be a lawyer, he would be a “startup guy.”

In 2005, he founded Reddit with Steve Huffman, his college roommate. Reddit is a social news website where content submitted by users (‘redditors’) is voted on by the community. The stories that receive the most votes rise to the top and front pages of the site.

Three months after founding Reddit, Ohanian’s mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. “Her first words to me were, ‘I'm sorry, I know how much this is going to affect you. I know how important it is right now for you to start your company.’ I am looking at her unable to comprehend how this woman, who had already given me so much, was now apologizing for having terminal brain cancer,” Ohanian recalled.

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"I would obviously trade anything for that not to have happened,” he continued. “But it made me want to make sure that this was not going to fail…that this was going to have to succeed, if for no other reason than to justify the sacrifices that they had made in supporting me. I still don't feel like I have lived up to everything she did for me, and the woman that she was.”

Reddit has succeeded. Ohanian says the number of users has grown steadily since its launch. In February 2013, the site received more than 55 million unique visitors, which makes it one of the most popular social-networking sites in the world. But Reddit is not without its critics. The site is controversial, and most of its content is unregulated.

“This is a communication platform for people to share links and have discussions,” Ohanian said, “so long as it is legal, we will let people use it for that. If you create an open communication platform, it means someone now has a platform to say the things that he or she may not have been able to say before. And that can be a great thing. The curse side of it is sometimes those ideas are extremely offensive. I can live with that paradox. But I want to know that we're making sure we're enabling more people to say the stuff that they want to say, behind a keyboard. As well as combating the jerks who use that same platform for their a---holish behavior.”

Ohanian doesn’t believe that all digital content should be free, but he’s been an outspoken proponent of the open Internet. In 2011, one of Ohanian's co-developers at Reddit, Aaron Swartz, an Internet folk hero who had helped create the RSS web feed format, was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only digital archive of academic journals. He faced 13 felony charges, a possible prison sentence of up to 35 years, and up to $1 million in fines. Swartz committed suicide in January 2013.

“The people who owned this content said: ’We're not going to charge him.’ That was very telling,” Ohanian said, of the case against Swartz. “A significant amount of this research was publicly funded. Our tax dollars paid for it. So it calls into question, do we the people own the research that our tax dollars produce? Should it just be locked up for people who can afford the expensive licenses? It’s a weird kind of sponsored monopoly of data. There are certainly instances of national security where one could make a pretty compelling argument that there is a more of a need-to-know basis. But those are few and far between. There's also the question of—do the penalties for this infringement really match up to the crime?”

Ohanian said he hopes Swartz’ death will not be in vain. In February 2013, the Obama administration directed federal agencies to develop plans to make the published results of federally funded research “freely available to the public.”

Ohanian left Reddit in 2009 and now sits on its advisory board. The website’s front page has remained stubbornly retro. “It's been like this for years because we didn't have a ton of developers,we didn't have the resources to really change it. We didn't have a good way to on-board new users,” he said. “Reddit has now grown into this massive network. Yet the user experience is set from 2005.” He says he believes Reddit will change, however. “A new user's experience should look more like, say, Twitter. That is the kind of user experience that I hope the site can have, moving forward - where every user's front page is different because they are subscribed to the sub-reddits they like.”

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Ohanian is writing a book, “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will be Made, Not Managed,” which will be published in October 2013. He describes it as, in part, a blueprint for other aspiring start-up entrepreneurs. The key, he said, is to consider “what is the problem you're trying to solve? What is the simplest version of a solution that you can create and get out to the world and start getting feedback on? The great news is, with developing on the Internet, the cost of creating it is virtually zero. It's pretty much just your time, assuming you've got a roof over your head, Internet connection, and some Ramen, you can be creating.”

“Without Their Permission” is also a clarion call for the democratic future of the Internet. “Until we have access for everyone, we still can't see the Internet live up to its full potential,” Ohanian said. “Because I want there to be more books going forward that aren't written by people who look like me, who are straight, white guys. If we can get people access and the tools they need, we can get better ideas. And with those better ideas, we're going to get better businesses and better nonprofits, better art. We’re going to get better politicians, even.”

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