It was an unscripted moment: beginning a talk Monday night at the Photonics Center, Alexis Ohanian, founder of the popular news and discussion site Reddit, asked his student listeners if any had ideas for a tech start-up, then plucked out of the audience one who’d raised a hand.
“Sir,” Ohanian asked the student, who identified himself as Matt, “would you mind coming up here and pitching to everyone what you’re working on?” Matt obliged—after an elbow in the ribs from a friend in the adjacent seat—and reported that he had developed an app that lets DJs take partygoers’ song requests on their mobile devices.
“You had the courage to put your hand up,” said Ohanian, explaining that that’s essential to becoming a web entrepreneur. “The people who are going to change the world are those who are willing—sometimes with ribbing—to put their hand up.”
Ohanian has the credentials to back his suggestions: he cofounded eight-year-old Reddit while still a University of Virginia undergrad. Now at age 30 a tech elder statesman, he was at BU to pitch his advice (and his new book, on the internet’s potential for good, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed,). Attired in a slate sport jacket, jeans, and an untucked checked shirt, the rock star in the start-up world drew more than 200 students to hear his talk and fireside chat (the screen on stage had a photo of a burning log) with two successful alumni, Todd Dagres (GSM’85), a founder of Boston venture capital firm Spark Capital, and Rebecca Norlander (CAS’91), founder of the wellness site Health123.
Reddit, which posts topics from politics and entertainment to conspiracy theories, claims 80 million-plus global users monthly; President Obama answered voter questions on the site during his reelection campaign. A year after founding it in 2005, Ohanian and partner Steve Huffman sold Reddit to Condé Nast (Ohanian is still on the site’s board) for a reported $10 million to $20 million.
Part motivational speech, part dribbling practical breadcrumbs of advice, Ohanian’s talk mingled humor, activism (he concluded with a plea that his audience work to spread access to the Net), and a pat on the back to his fellow millennials, whose grasp of online technology, he said, confers inestimable advantage in an increasingly technology-driven economy.
“Eight years ago, I graduated from college. Eight years ago, YouTube did not exist,” he marveled. “In the next eight years, you’ll accomplish more than Steve and I could have. That makes me jealous. You guys are Lewis and Clark.”
He exhorted the students not to fear failure, citing a cautionary tale. When he and Huffman first pitched to a venture capitalist, their idea was to create an app for ordering food on mobile devices. “We did an amazing job” at the interview, he recalled. “And that night, they rejected us.” After drowning their sorrows with some Harvard students (“They had just gotten great jobs with Lehman Brothers,” he said to appreciative laughs over the now-defunct investment firm), he and Huffman were on the train home when the venture capitalist called and said, “We still don’t like your idea. But we like you guys.” He asked them to pitch something else, and Reddit was born.
“Sucking is the first step to being sort of good at something,” he said. “Go forth and suck. Don’t take that out of context.”
In the subsequent chat, Dagres and Norlander shared their wisdom, including:
- Greatest goofs. “I invested in a company that was going to be YouTube,” Dagres said. “The only problem was, it wasn’t YouTube.”
- Advice to leverage the learning available online. “I’ve told my kids, you want to take Spanish? Screw Spanish. Go take Python,” the programming language, said Dagres. (He isn’t totally antilanguages: “Maybe Chinese,” he added.)
- Get a life outside tech. “No matter where you go for your next break—it’s going to be hard—spend four hours without technology, preferably outside,” Norlander urged. “Just to give yourself a different perspective.”
The three mingled with students to discuss their ideas after the event, which was sponsored by BU’s Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, the College of Communication’s Emerging Media Studies Division, and the College of Engineering’s student government. ENG student president Harvin Vallabhaneni (ENG’14) said that when Ohanian inquired about a BU event as part of his book tour, “I jumped at the opportunity.”
“Many BU students are entrepreneurial, and many more don’t know what it means to start a start-up. I hope that this event becomes a spark plug for students all around the University,” he says. Ohanian “only became successful because he was willing to take a leap of faith and was not afraid to fail.” His fellow panelists also succeeded, and “if their stories inspire just one student to consider entrepreneurship, I’ll be proud of the event.”