It’s 6:36PM on a Monday night, and I’m taking a break from studying to see Alexis Ohanian, one of the guys who founded Reddit, speak. He’s promoting his new book, and as we wait for him to come in, the projector says: “BE AWESOME, WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION”. Sounds like my kind of talk. I haven’t read his book, and have a lot of work to do, but this is important. Like, he’ll probably never come back to WashU important. Like, this could be my only chance in my entire lifetime to hear this guy speak important.
The crowd goes silent, and a WUSTL student introduces Alexis, who will be discussing the open internet and its future. We clap him in, and a young-looking guy in jeans, a plaid shirt, and a gray blazer comes in. Don’t worry, I took a picture to compensate for my struggling descriptive skills. After introducing himself, he hints that this won’t be a typical book talk, because “those are kind of lame.”
For those time-pressed readers out there, I’m going to list the most memorable quotes of the talk, along with some pictures. For those with a few more minutes to spare, I’ve written up the talk below, as close to word for word as I could manage. The 8 most memorable quotes, in chronological order:
1. Anyone in this room can create something that can compete with any website in the world.
2. As college students, the best thing you can do is to build stuff, to start stuff, and get over being embarrassed.
3. Do not worry about your competition. They will not stop you. They will stop themselves.
4. Accept the fact that there will always be failures.
5. Sucking is the first step to being sort of good at something
6. Entrepreneur is just French for: ‘Has ideas, does them.’
7. Working on what you love to do doesn’t feel like work.
8. If you have an idea, just build it. You may not make anything worthwhile the first time, but you’ll continue to improve every time.
Ohanian’s first question is “Does anyone have a project that they’re excited about working on?” For better or for worse, I was slow to the draw, because Ohanian called the first guy up and had him pitch to us his idea. He was a student who’d created a weather app that had over 6 million views, and went up their and improvised the pitch. Ohanian gave the bold student a signed copy of his book, and moved on to talking about his companies.
Ohanian started talking about the cute logos of his companies, reddit, hipmunk, and breadpig. Then things got crazy. The following paragraphs are me attempting to add some semblance of meaning to the things he said, in relatively real time.
The world isn’t flat, but the world wide web is. Anyone in this room can create something that can compete with any website in the world. This makes the internet like the world’s biggest library and stage all in one. Learning to code is one of the most important things you can learn in the 21st century. Everyone thinks they have a great idea, but ideas are worthless and execution is everything. The Forbes list won’t be full of MBAs and business people; it’ll be full of people that code.
Alexis told us about his big failure story. He just took the LSAT, and walked into a Waffle House, which changed his life, because he said to his roommate: “We need to start a company together. I don’t know what we will do, but we need to start something.” They were working to find a way to avoid waiting lines: “My Mobile Menu”, or MMM. They worked on it, and got a notice that an internet entrepreneur, Paul Graham was going to give a talk. They pitched their idea to him, and he said it was actually not terrible. A few weeks later, Paul announced Y Combinator, which gave company founders $6,000 to live in Boston and work on their start-ups. They applied, and got into the interview. They knew they had a shoe-in because they’d met Paul and he liked them. They got a call that night, and were rejected for the position.
This was big for Ohanian because he had never really been rejected before. That kick of reality hurt. On the train ride back home, they got a call from Paul Graham saying that if they were willing to forget MMM, and to start a new company, he’d let them in Y Combinator. The choice took about 5 seconds. Graham told them “you know what, you guys need to build the front page of the internet.” With more emotion than actual ideas, they said they’d do it, but as Ohanian admitted, he had no idea what he was doing. Not knowing what you’re doing is absolutely ok. As college students, the best thing you can do is to build stuff, to start stuff, and get over being embarrassed.
Three weeks into Y Combinator, they got a call from Paul saying that “You are either working too hard to make it perfect, or are incompetent. Either way, you’re hosed.” They immediately launched it. They quickly found their competition: digg.com. After worrying about it, Graham reminded them “Do not worry about your competition. They will not stop you. They will stop themselves.” Within a few months, they got offers to get bought by Google. Remember, this is 4 months after they graduated from college. Next, they got asked to Yahoo to pitch to them. After 2 minutes in the pitch, the guy from Yahoo told them: “you are a rounding error”, meaning they were nothing compared to Yahoo.
Ohanian printed that quote on his wall, along with articles and emails from all the other “haters” out there, using the criticism to fuel him. Reddit was never even written about by TechCrunch before it was bought. As Ohanian said, don’t build your program for TechCrunch. Build it for your users. Accept the fact that there will always be failures. You need to convince everyone else that your product is worth their time.
“Sucking is the first step to being sort of good at something,” Ohanian tells us as he recounts the story of the University of Georgia dropout that decided he’d move to New York and start taking pictures of people. He went on to be the founder of the photo-blog Humans of New York, which has millions of daily views.
“Entrepreneur is just French for: ‘Has ideas, does them.”
Ohanian next welcomes a “fellow bear” (another WUSTL student) to “motivate us”. A young man comes forward, and Ohanian has him talk about his story. He found an internship he wanted, and relentlessly emailed the hiring manager until he was offered the position. He commuted every day from Philadelphia to New York City. He found that “working on what you love to do doesn’t feel like work.” This is the dream: when the thing you love to do actually pays bills. When asked: “how are the resources at WUSTL here around to help students do that?”, he mentioned The Hatchery, which helps students create and launch their startups.
The “fellow bear” told us about his early failures, such as the launch party for the site, which offered free food and drinks, that no one came to. After that failure, they realized their site may not have been as good as they thought, so they rebuilt it. The second time, they had another launch party which attracted a few more people. Now, they’re working on a new company, called Skip, that uses RFID tags to allow people to wirelessly buy items without having to check out. As economics and technology have advanced, there is a huge opportunity to change the retail scene.
When asked what advice he’d give to other WUSTL students, the fellow bear said: “If you have an idea, just build it. You may not make anything worthwhile the first time, but you’ll continue to improve every time.”
Next, Ohanian ended the session with a few minutes of Q & A time, where he talked about how he was pleased that Reddit has managed to balance content and advertising well, how frustrated he is that so little of the world has access to broadband internet, and again emphasized how open the internet makes the world. He ended the session by shooting off t-shirts into the crowd and signing books.
This was a topic I didn’t know much about beforehand, making me even more glad that I attended the lecture. I may have lost 90 minutes of study time, but the inspiration and new perspective on the world were completely worth it.