tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:/posts Making the World Suck Less 2016-05-17T07:07:05Z Alexis Ohanian tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/863248 2015-05-30T21:24:03Z 2016-05-17T07:07:05Z My infamous talk at Howard High school that got me removed from the building by the Principal

14 years ago, I gave the Howard High Class of 2001 Commencement Speech.

This was my chance to say the things I wish I'd known to say back then. Unfortunately, I was told by the Principal that she was embarrassed by my language and told me I would never be invited back. This is the same language I use in most of my talks and in my bestseller, Without Their Permission, so it's how I addressed this room of Juniors and Seniors. Needless to say, I was disappointed when my dad & I were escorted out of the building by order of the Principal. I wanted to stay and take some more selfies with students, but so it goes.

I've since gotten tremendous support via facebook, twitter, instagram and reddit -- including from many of the students and their parents. Thank you. I'm going to keep speaking my mind and you all will go and be amazing, just be true to yourself and give lots of damns about whatever it is you do.

And even though I'm never coming back: Go Lions.
Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/863079 2015-05-30T07:15:47Z 2015-07-25T03:50:10Z July 11, 2005 - the day we learned about digg I know I've told this story on stage more than a few times and even wrote about it in my bestseller, Without Their Permission, but sometimes even basic truths needs repeating. Sunlight will always win in the end.

I wrote this email minutes after discovering digg, which was three weeks after we launched reddit. I still have it and revisit it for a laugh from time to time. We were so young. Steve and I had just graduated from UVA a few weeks earlier. This was almost 10 years ago. Wow.

You can tell I was nervous. As soon as I learned about them, I sent this company-wide email out (to Steve) and we took an emergency meeting in the conference room (kitchen) to discuss the venture-backed, celebrity-founded, Silicon Valley startup that would be our chief rival for the next few years: digg.

Fortunately, we'd already launched (back on June 23rd) and Steve & I were building something fundamentally different -- a platform for communities, rather than a single community's democratic frontpage.

I'm so proud of how a little project two naive college kids started grew to become the platform that sets the global agenda, but we have so much more to go and now we have a much larger and more capable team of amazing people with whom to do it!

Onward to the next 10 years.

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/770382 2014-11-16T01:57:59Z 2016-03-19T21:39:31Z The Email I Sent Steve That Kicked Off reddit

(You can read more about this in my bestseller, Without Their Permission)

I spent a formative summer after my junior year abroad in Singapore, competing on behalf of UVA at an international Technopreneurship Conference (oh, bless the Singaporeans and their "technopreneurship" conferences).

One of my favorite teachers, Professor Mark White, invited me to go on this all-expenses paid trip. I even turned down an internship at Ogilvy because I like free travel even more than I like unpaid internships in the most expensive city in America.  It was there in Singapore on our first night that I pitched Mark the idea Steve and I had cooked up for our startup.  Mark’s was the first unbiased feedback I'd gotten on the idea (my parents had always been ludicrously supportive of whatever I told them I was up to) and he thought we'd be able to pull it off.

His optimism may've just been a combination of the jetlag and the Singapore Slings, but I was thrilled.

I wrote Steve this email the very next morning.  Here it is in its original form for authenticity. Please forgive all the typos; those keyboards in Singapore aren't QWERTY.  Apparently there's also a button on those keyboards that kept inserting "bro" everywhere -- sorry about that. In fact, imagine a great big [sic] around this whole thing.

hey bro,

i'm in singapore at this technepreneurial seminar, and am basically spending a week learning how to create a tech start-up.i spoke to Mark White (a professor in the comm school, the guy who took me to South Africa, and who recruited me to come here, as well as a generally good guy and technophile) over some drinks last nite, and pitched him on our idea...from his feedback—and let me remind you that he gets pitches every couple of months from students, and was very candid and honest with his thoughts, but basically said it was one of the best he's heard, period.

Not only that, but he wants to be on the board of directors, and already knows some people to hit up for starting capital...

I've got plenty of more details, but I am seriously considering putting off law school for this, but i need you, and we'll both need to be doing this full time for about a year to get it off the ground....but the potential he saw was in the millions my friend...we need to talkseriously.i am coming back the 20th so if we could have lunch around 1pm i could meet you whereever you'd like... let me know.

honestly, this is the kind of thing that could change our lives—and his motivation has really spurred me.but i need you and the same kind of commitment.

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/767430 2014-11-09T19:31:20Z 2015-09-15T01:34:45Z After three weeks of programming, the first version of reddit went online looking like this As you can see, Steve downvoted my first submission (the first ever submission on reddit).

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/762128 2014-10-29T16:26:02Z 2015-11-09T05:15:32Z Small Empires: Season 2 is HERE SEASON TWO of Small Empires. Huge upvote to everyone on the team at The Verge for putting together what I already know will be an amazeballs season. I couldn't do it without you.

Dear viewers, there's still time to revisit all of Season 1 -- I'll be here when you finish.

This Season we're touring North America to revisit some of the best stops from the Without Their Permission bus tour to profile startup communities, one of their startups, and the folks who make them awesome.

First up, Atlanta!

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/753210 2014-10-09T20:01:57Z 2016-04-19T12:43:39Z NYRD Radio: For creators, by creators

I've started a podcast & here's a sneakpeak! Not just the people making the next reddit (or similar platform) but the people who will make those platforms awesome (e.g., artisans on etsy, creators on patreon, filmmakers on vhx). The internet enables entrepreneurship on a scale the world has never seen before and we're all writing the blueprint as we go.

Join me for weekly conversations (subscribe on iTunes) with some of the most awesome creators in the game (Episode 1 stars Baratunde Thurston!). We'll talk about how they hacked it to get here and where they're going. Every episode also features Office Hours where I work with an entrepreneur through their challenges -- guests could be a veteran CEO planning a huge product launch or a high school student figuring out how to best launch the crowdfunding campaign for her art.

If you'd like to do on-air office hours with me, click here to sign up. 

This is going to be unlike anything your ears have heard before and -- like everything I'm doing these days -- I hope it scales all the ideas I preach. The future favors the creators.

I want you to be one of the ones who changes the world. Don't worry, I'll take credit for it ;-)

Speaking of which, there's just one week left to apply for the Winter batch of Y Combinator. Do it!

If you're not ready yet, I hope you're tuned in to the free class Y Combinator is teaching at Stanford (How to Start a Startup) and a shoutout to my alma mater (University of Virginia) for a very generous profile on me in the latest alumni magazine.

Similarly, I made the CNBC Next List alongside some awesome entrepreneurs: Elon Musk, Sal Kahn, and Marissa Mayer to name a few.

Time to earn it. I'm headed back to the hustle. Let me know how you like NYRD Radio (leave a review!!) -- it's the only way I know what to improve.
Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/751291 2014-10-05T21:04:12Z 2015-10-31T04:36:11Z My story: from my first PC to cofounding reddit The following is an excerpt from my national bestseller, Without Their Permission.

“Yes, I’d like to upgrade my dad’s season tickets. Oh, front row, fifty-yard line, please–the best you have.”
—Me, approximately three minutes after we sold reddit

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, but on October 31, 2006, all the hard work Steve Huffman and I had put into starting reddit (with lots of help from our first hire and good friend, Dr. Christopher Slowe) had quite literally paid off.

The first thing I did after the money showed up in my checking account was to call the Washington Redskins ticket office and upgrade my dad’s tickets to something a bit better than the nosebleed seats we had. I then made a sizable donation to my mom’s favorite charity and got back to handling all the inbound press. It was a blur of a day, but once it ended, I was able to take stock of just how far we’d come in only sixteen months.

When Steve and I looked at each other, there were no cheers of joy, just a shared sigh of relief. We’d pulled off something statistically improbable—just barely—and we knew it. And after everything we’d been through…wow. Grateful, we went and shared a pizza at Mike’s, the same place where we’d been ordering pies since we moved to Somerville, Massachusetts. There, we caught our breath after an entire day of interviews.

For my parents, it was a day when their only child had become a millionaire before he was twenty-four. But they always just wanted me to be happy. Neither one of them really understood the PC they brought into the house not long after my tenth birthday, but they let me do whatever I wanted to it as long as I didn’t break it.

Actually, I almost did break it on several occasions, but then I wound up putting it back together. That computer was my gateway to another world once we got a dial-up Internet connection. I campaigned hard for that 33.6Kbps connection, and when I finally got to hear those now-antiquated sounds of the modem, it seemed like magic to my adolescent brain.

This is actually my cousin BJ’s computer, but if you thought I looked happy playing on his, imagine how excited I was to get one of my own. 

I built my first website on GeoCities. I think it was /siliconvalley/hills/4924 (the WaybackMachine link only goes back to 1999 and by then I’d turned it into a MIDI collection website with some banner ads — I kind of hate myself for making this, but there you go). It was originally my fan page for Quake II (fun-fact: Masters of Doom was the book that made me fall in love with the idea of entrepreneurship). There wasn’t much going on there beyond some photos of rocket launchers and railguns with a few tacky animated flaming skulls. I really liked that game. But at the footer was a counter that showed how many people had viewed the website (I’d later learn that most of those “views” came from me reloading the page).

But at the time: what power! I could build something from my suburban bedroom and millions (okay, well, hundreds) of people all over the world could see just how much I loved a video game. That’s how I got interested in making websites. There was no turning back.

A company called Sidea was my first non-familial-employer (I suspect the real reason my dad wanted a kid was that he needed someone to do all his yard work—and for well below minimum wage, I might add). I later worked a lot of random jobs between high school and college: Pizza Hut cook and waiter (some of the best customer-service experience one can get), deli counter attendant (I was terrible at this and hated smelling like cold cuts after work, despite how much my dog liked it), FedEx warehouse grunt (great exercise, though not very mentally stimulating), and parking booth attendant (get paid to read books? Yes, please! Until the robots replace humans, that is).

But the job with Sidea was one of the most pivotal I ever had–even if the company went bankrupt a year after I started (not my fault!), a victim of the dot-com bubble bursting.

My job was simple: I had to man a booth in the middle of a CompUSA store, armed with a headset microphone and a large computer monitor. I was to demo software and hardware every thirty minutes—regardless of whether or not anyone was listening. Want to give a fourteen-year-old experience in public speaking? Tell him he has to demo random computer products to an entire CompUSA full of people ignoring him.

I can’t tell you how many demos I gave to no one. But I did every one of them as though my boss were watching. In between demos, I killed time browsing the Internet for the latest in Quake II news. For this job I was paid a ludicrous ten dollars per hour. I think I know why Sidea went bust.

But damn if that wasn’t a fabulous way for me to start public speaking. If you’ve experienced the embarrassment of the public speaker’s worst-case scenario (speaking to a roomful of people who are both ignoring you and hating you) before you’ve finished puberty, things are probably going to be okay.

One day I was approached by a man trying to decide between two different mice. I don’t recall the details, but there wasn’t a big difference between them, save the color and maybe another minor feature. I pitched him on his two options with a quip about the bonus “feature” of a different color. He laughed and offered me a job. He handed me his card and said he’d like to hire me for sales. I kept that card in my wallet for years until it finally disintegrated. Fortunately, I scanned it before it did.

Thank you Carlos & Steve. You have no idea how much you did for me. 

I didn’t have the heart to tell the man I was only fourteen. When I told my parents about the offer, they told me to finish high school first. I never called Steve Harper, general sales manager for Stanley Foods, Inc., but I had a hunch I was on the right track. I was always tall for my age, and weighing 260 pounds at the time also helped age me up, as much as being heavy may’ve sucked the rest of the time.

Being the tallest guy in the class and having a name that’s usually given to girls (in fact, I was named after a three-time title-winning boxer, Alexis Argüello) are enough to make a person stand out in school, but make him one of the most overweight as well and you’ve got a recipe for something. It easily could’ve gone the other way—self-loathing and depression—but I cared too much about video games and computers to realize how not cool I was.

Pure swag.

I overcame my weight by making jokes about it before bullies could. Girls were trickier, though. I nearly failed geometry because of a cute girl named Erin, who told me (well, she told my best friend, but so it goes in eighth grade) that I was too fat to go to the dance with.

Like a lot of my not-popular-but-not-pariah peers, we developed personalities and pursued hobbies that interested us, because “just being cute” wasn’t an option.

We tinkered on our computers and spent way too much time playing video games with each other. I started a nonprofit called FreeAsABird.org (I’m really regretting the WaybackMachine) that built free custom websites for small nonprofits that had little or no web presence. I e-mailed all my clients cold, and as far as I know they had no idea I was a teenager. After earning a 4.0 my freshman year, I did as little work as I could but still kept my grades up in high school so I could maximize my time spent gaming and running the competitive gaming teams I managed.

Thank goodness, too. Because that was a long-term investment in myself. Most schoolwork felt awfully irrelevant when compared to work that was actually affecting real people and giving me leadership opportunities (albeit digital ones), nurturing the community management skills that would come in handy later.

Of course, all that time in front of a monitor began to take its toll, as my metabolism wasn’t nearly as fast as my buddies’. Our fast-food binges may’ve done nothing but fuel LAN parties (that’s where lots of people bring their computers over to someone’s house to connect directly to a local area network—for gaming). True story: I’d never attended a party that didn’t have “LAN” in its name until college.

This pattern of eating wasn’t healthy. I got tired of being fat by my junior year of high school and decided to do something about it so I could get in good enough shape to play football before I graduated.

Thanks to regular exercise and the abolition of soda and junk food, I lost fifty-nine pounds. My pediatrician (who was always kind of a jerk) couldn’t believe it when he read it on the chart. And to this day I can’t believe how differently people treat me. To have been the “pear-shaped fat kid” for all those formative years and then join the ranks of the easy-on-the-eyes crowd is like turning on another life cheat code. One random night, I bumped into Erin (remember—from eighth grade?) at a movie theater—she literally didn’t recognize me. It felt great. I may have danced a jig when I got back to my seat to breathlessly tell my friends what had just happened.

There Are Nerds in College

I applied to only one college, the University of Virginia. At the time I didn’t give it much thought, but I can’t help wondering how much different life would’ve been if I hadn’t made that seemingly insignificant decision. I had no contingency plan aside from the local community college, much to my parents’ dismay. I included along with my application a CD-R with my “digital portfolio” on it. It’s rather embarrassing, but I’ve now uploaded it for your viewing pleasure. I’ll wait while you go look.

If you were drinking a cup of coffee at the time, I imagine you did a spit-take. If not, please don’t tell me, as I’d like to preserve the image.

Much to my parents’ relief, I got in to UVA. But that’s not the important part. The decision that defined my experience there and made reddit possible was checking the box for “old dorms” on the housing questionnaire. I didn’t know what this meant at the time; old dorms just sounded cooler than new dorms, which were really suites—I wanted something that looked like the colleges I’d seen in movies.

The day we moved in, I spotted a blond-haired guy playing Gran Turismo on his PlayStation 2 across the hall from my new dorm room. His name was Steve Huffman. I was thrilled because I’d worried that no one played video games in college—that this was something I’d have to leave behind as a relic of my childhood. Steve was much less excited to meet me, because he’d seen my name on the door and thought he was living on a co-ed hall. So I was excited that he played video games; he was bummed that I wasn’t a girl. He got over that, and we became best friends. Picking old dorms and ending up across the hall from Steve was one of the best, albeit most random, things that ever happened to me.

You’ve Got to Be Willing to Disrupt (and Be Disrupted)

My dad has been a travel agent for more than thirty years. I distinctly remember dinner-table conversations around the time the Internet started to disrupt the travel industry. As a high school student with a particular interest in computers and technology, I was especially enthralled with all the buzz around the “dot-com bubble.”

Dad, on the other hand, was watching his commissions from airlines get cut all the way to zero. Travel agents used to make good money from bookings that now were going to OTAs (online travel agencies). Because of this disruptive technology, people were now booking their own flights and hotels, cutting out the middlemen—people like my dad.

Just a few years before, my dad decided to leave his position at a large agency to start his own small travel agency. A first-time entrepreneur, he was now facing a dramatic shift in the way his industry did business—and there was no stopping it. The Internet was changing the fundamental business models for the travel industry.

One night he came home from the office particularly frustrated. He’d just learned from a major airline that they, too, would finally be eliminating travel agent commissions altogether. After years of being gashed by these airlines, my father sent them a fax to articulate just how he felt as his business was being eroded.

“Fuck you.”

He doesn’t remember if he put a cover sheet on that fax, but I like to think he did.

Unlike people in other industries, he couldn’t call his lobbyist on K Street and ask him to get a law passed that would make sure all travel agents get a commission. He had to adapt his business model. And he did. To this day, he continues to operate with a focus on business and first-time travelers (usually boomers taking their first cruise). It’s not an enterprise I’ll be likely to take over, especially given hipmunk, but it’s one he and his employees will, I hope, continue to run for years to come.

But those dinner-table conversations made an impression on me. The Internet was a powerful tool, and I wanted to be sure I knew how to use it. The free market is ruthless. But it has to be. It’s up to us to make the most of it.

We must be opportunistic—when disruptions happen we need to identify the new business models and adapt, as my dad did. Or better, we need to be the ones doing the disrupting.

I knew I wanted to be a disrupter.

Sometimes You Just Have to Stand Up

My commercial law professor at the University of Virginia, Professor Wheeler, one day commented in class on the fact that I always volunteered to be the demo person in front of the class when he needed human props. He said how important it was to show up, to stand up—lauding my effort. I just thought it was fun to be that guy in a class of hungover undergrads. It wasn’t that I thought I might get better grades, but I figured I had two legs, so why the hell not get up and use them?

I’d never expected to give a TED talk, let alone at twenty-six years old, but then again I’d never expected to be in Mysore, India, which is where I was in October of 2009 as an attendee of TEDIndia, one of the yearly TED presentations that the organizers host all around the world.

A month or so before the conference I was included on a massive e-mail blast from Chris Anderson, curator of the TED Conference, that included this attention-grabbing nugget:

It is commonly said that TED attendees are every bit as remarkable as those appearing on stage. It happens to be true. That’s why at every conference we invite you to consider whether you have something to contribute to the program—and possibly later to the wider TED community, through the TED.com site.

So there at my laptop I raised my virtual hand—so to speak—and submitted a pitch for a three-minute talk to TED. These are the palate cleansers in between the more heady and often very emotional eighteen-minute TED talks. I figured I’d better get right to the pitch. Here’s what I wrote:

The tale of Mister Splashy Pants: a lesson for nonprofits on the Internet. How Greenpeace took itself a little less seriously and helped start an Internet meme that actually got the Japanese government to call off that year’s humpback whaling expedition. People manage to sell entire books on the subject of “new media marketing” but I only need three minutes—with the help of this whale—to explain the “secret.”

How could they resist a name like Mister Splashy Pants? Splashy to his friends.

I figured they must’ve been totally floored with awe, because I didn’t hear back for a month. Was this just their way of saying no? I was already in India at this point, so I sent a quick “ping” e-mail to see if I could get a yes or no.

“Congratulations. You did get accepted.”

Hot damn, I had twenty-four hours to write and rehearse a talk people practice for months…

Better turn on some South Park.

Thanks to VPN, I could watch South Park from south India. The episode was called “Whale Whores” (season 13, episode 11), and it satirized the Animal Planet documentary-style reality show called Whale Wars (oh, puns!), which features the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization that harasses Japanese whalers in an effort to protect marine life.

In the episode, after hordes of Japanese storm the Denver aquarium during Stan’s birthday and slaughter all the dolphins (am I really writing about South Park right now? I love this country), an enraged Stan implores his friends to join him in protecting the dolphins and whales, which the Japanese seem so intent on eradicating.

Stan’s friends are not interested until Stan joins the cast of Whale Wars, at which point Cartman and Kenny pretend to be whale-loving activists in order to milk some of the fame associated with the show. They volunteer, despite admitting earlier that they “don’t give two shits about stupid-ass whales.”

I grabbed a screen capture of Cartman, in a Save the Whales shirt, proclaiming his love of whales; Kenny is beside him, dolphin lover (sic) scrawled on his chest.

That image reminded me of what was then one of the biggest events on reddit—voting for the name for a humpback whale that Greenpeace was tracking. This event has since been eclipsed by other events, such as the “money bomb” donation of over half a million dollars to DonorsChoose.org or fund-raising for three-year-old Lucas Gonzalez, who needed a bone marrow transplant. But the story of Mister Splashy Pants was a special moment in reddit’s development and proved to be a prophetic tale of the power of social media: for an idea to truly become mainstream, it needs to go beyond the early adopters—in this case, whale lovers like Stan—and also include those who want to join the trend.

A lot of people rag on PowerPoint (often rightfully so). But in the right hands, this much-maligned communication tool can actually be incredibly entertaining (and even informative). The problem is, most people don’t understand how to use it, which sets the bar for PowerPoint presentations really low. Here’s my philosophy: lots of big pictures, text, and tons of slides. For my TED talk, I had room for no more than a few words on each slide—and they had to be in 86-point type, minimum. Forty-two slides—a good sign, even though it meant I had only a little more than four seconds for each slide.

There was going to be a giant TED sign on the stage behind me. This could make or break my public speaking career. And I was going to be on the same stage where the brilliant statistician Hans Rosling, using beautiful data, emphatically demonstrated how India ascended to economic superpower status—meanwhile, I was going to talk about a whale named Mister Splashy Pants. No pressure.

I finished before sunrise and took a power nap. When I awoke I began feverishly practicing with my timer. I missed all the morning talks. I was terrified of Chris Anderson, who famously cuts off speakers when they go on too long. As someone who routinely talks more than I should, I didn’t want my talk punctuated by a giant cane pulling me offstage.

I’d later learn that TED does not in fact use a giant cane.

I don’t remember the talk before mine, because I was so busy trying to remember what I was going to say.

Why are my hands shaking?

Chris Anderson introduced me as Alex. I hate being called Alex, but I smiled and took the stage, trying hard not to trip on the way. When you’ve grown up embracing your unisex name (okay, it’s predominantly a woman’s name here in the United States), it’s incredibly vexing to hear someone shorten it to the male version. I’m a dude named Alexis; please call me by my name. Now I was thinking about Alexis Argüello, the three-time world champion boxer my father named me after, and I wondered if he ever had the same issue growing up in Nicaragua—shit, I’m supposed to give a talk right now.

Remember, it can’t go worse than a giant room of CompUSA shoppers actively ignoring you.

That got me started. Get to it, Ohanian.

“There are a lot of ‘Web 2.0 consultants’ [I made air quotes with my fingers] who make a lot of money—in fact, they make their livings on this kind of stuff. I’m going to try and save you all the time and all the money and go through it in the next three minutes, so bear with me.”

I breathlessly shared the story of Greenpeace’s dogged efforts to raise online awareness of their effort to stop Japanese humpback whaling expeditions. They wanted to track one particular whale on its migration and humanize it with a name chosen by their online community. Greenpeace staff chose about twenty very erudite names—like Talei and Kaimana (which means “divine power of the ocean” in a Polynesian language)— and then there was Mister. Splashy. Pants.

I enunciated each word one at a time for full comedic effect. Laughter. They’re not hating this.

Once a reddit user discovered the poll and submitted it to reddit.com, a surge of votes flooded in for this obvious favorite. Who doesn’t want to hear a news anchor say “Mister Splashy Pants”?

Greenpeace wasn’t pleased. They insisted on rerunning the voting process, which only galvanized us. I changed our reddit logo from a smiling whale to a more combative version.

For any scientists reading this:

This time, polls closed with Splashy having an even more commanding lead.

Oh no, I’m running out of time. Please let them be gentle.

Eventually they relented and let the online favorite win (sometimes you just have to let yourself be disrupted, remember), but at this point they’d inadvertently created a brand that excited far more people than just Greenpeace fans—the message had spread far beyond whale lovers. In fact, the Japanese government actually called off the whaling expedition.

Everyone who creates something online has lost control of their message but in the process has gained access to a global audience. Mister Splashy Pants is a story about the democratization of content online—starring a whale—and it demonstrated how little control we have over our brands. It turns out we never had control, only now we realize it. Before the social web, we had little idea of what people actually thought about us—now we know, and when like-minded people band together, they wield a really big stick.

The talk is over. Applause. Even a few “Woo!”s from the crowd.

Nailed it. I’d given a few non-CompUSA talks before then, but once the video of my TED talk hit a million views and was front-paged on reddit, I became a known “public speaker.”  In a brilliant illustration of my argument, the video was submitted to reddit with the following headline: “Nutjob mistakenly allowed to give TED Talk, he rambles for over four minutes before being carried off the stage.”

I have a lecture agent now and get paid more for a speaking gig than I did for an entire year’s work at Pizza Hut. It’s a little bit insane, but then I remember that I’m still getting paid less than Snooki [1], which makes me really question things.

I still get nervous before I get onstage—I just know how to better handle the nerves now. In truth, it really is all about practice. Once you’ve been onstage enough times and make sure you’re always well rehearsed and armed with the feeling that you really know what you’re talking about, it then becomes all about polish. Listen to yourself. I listen (not watch; I want to focus on the words) to every talk I give once afterward to see where the “ums” and “you knows” crept in. I’ll pay attention to jokes that didn’t work and others that worked better than expected—was it the joke or the delivery? Then I put that talk out of mind. Test, analyze, and repeat.

The Internet offers a wealth of great speeches, all freely available with just a few keystrokes. Find your favorite speakers and study them. I notice the way Jon Stewart disarms an interview subject with a joke before hitting him with a knockout punch. President Obama really knows how to hit the Pause button at the right moment for maximum impact. When used well, silence is powerful. And when I learned that Louis C.K.— easily one of the best comics of our generation—trashes all his material every year and starts anew, I knew I needed to keep from getting lazy and recycling entire talks. Louis does it because, he says, “The way to improve is to reject everything you’re doing. You have to create a void by destroying everything; you have to kill it. Or else you’ll tell the same fucking jokes every night.”

Being a stand-up comic is infinitely harder than giving a talk or a speech, so if he can stay that on top of his game, why can’t I?

There Are Much Harder Things in Life Than Being an Entrepreneur

Growing up, I had the words “lives remaining: 0″ written on the wall of my room. If life were a video game, that’s how it’d indicate this is the only chance left.

I’m lucky because I got that lesson when I was twenty-two years old and just a month or so out of college, feeling about as immortal as someone could.

But then everything changed with a phone call.

Why’s Mom calling me? She should be getting ready for her vacation trip to Norway.

She’s crying.

Max, our wonderful mutt, had to be put down.

Because I’m an only child, Max became my mother’s favorite when I left home for college—a position in her heart I could never reclaim. She absolutely adored him, and our family did everything we could to help him fight the Cushing’s disease that had finally taken its toll.

My mother was understandably distraught. I told her I loved her. I understood why she had to do what she did to our beloved dog and, although it didn’t work out that I could be there, I was grateful that she was. She had some more errands to run before meeting up with Dad and heading to the airport. She’d try to get through them the best she could, but I knew it was going to be hard for her to go on vacation.

At least it happened before she got on the plane.

My dog had just died. It was going to be a rough day in Boston. Startup life is extreme enough—every morning one wakes up thinking today’s the day you’re conquering the world—or today’s the day you’re doomed.

I got through that awful morning. I don’t remember what I was doing at the time, but my phone started buzzing again in the late afternoon.

Why’s Dad calling me? He should be at cruising altitude with Mom.

They’re in the hospital.

Howard County General.

On any other night Mom would be working there; she’d been a pharmacy technician there on the night shift for the last seventeen years.

Now she was missing the vacation she and my dad had planned for years.

She’d had a seizure in the dressing room of a department store, and an attentive clerk had called 911.

At least it happened before she got on the plane.

The initial brain scans revealed a tumor. The culprit in her skull was an insidious monster called glioblastoma multiforme. Such an ugly name. They were going to keep her overnight for more tests. She’d likely have surgery soon thereafter. I never should have done the Google search, but I needed to know what my parents would inevitably struggle to tell me.

I bought a ticket for a flight down first thing the next morning, but until then I was stuck in Boston. That night Steve and I tried to get our minds off things and went down to a local bar to watch our favorite team play their archrivals on Monday Night Football. Our Washington Redskins versus the Dallas Cowboys.

It was a really boring game. And we were losing it. So much for even a brief respite from the shittiest day of my life.

By the fourth quarter, there weren’t many TVs with the game still on (we were in Boston, after all). Back in Columbia, Maryland, my dad had already called it a night. He didn’t need any more heartache.

Steve and I had nowhere else to go and needed distraction—any distraction—so we kept watching. It was fourth and fifteen, and we were down 13–0 with less than four minutes left (non–football fans: just know that this means an exceptionally dire situation). Just then, Mark Brunell, a quarterback not known for his arm strength, hurled the ball downfield more than fifty yards to Santana Moss in the end zone.

It was 13–6!

But no one on the field was celebrating—and with good reason. There was hardly any time left, and we were still losing. Even the Cowboys’ mascot was taunting us with a dramatic look at his wrist to remind us that there wasn’t enough time left for our touchdown to matter.

But Steve and I kept cheering. What the hell. They had finally given us something to cheer about. That was our first touchdown of the season! And we’d been drinking, which always helps. We made the extra point, and it was almost a ball game. But that jerk in the Cowboys costume had a point.

Dallas ended up punting quickly, thanks to a stingy Skins defense, and we had the ball again (football novices: that’s our time to go on offense and score points).

First and ten from our own thirty-yard line. One of the commentators, John Madden, couldn’t even finish his run-on sentence before Brunell threw the exact same pass fifty-plus yards down the field right back to Moss, who again beat the coverage.

“And Santana Moss for a touchdown! Wow!” Al Michaels couldn’t believe his eyes as Moss hustled into the end zone.

At this point Steve and I were screaming. We were also the only two people still watching the game, I think.

Suddenly it was 14–13 and we were winning.

Winning? What?

Even when all hope seemed lost—see what happened there—we had to keep hoping, because that was all we had. As much as I wish I could affect the outcome of sporting events from my seat, there’s nothing I can do but cheer at the right times.

But it wasn’t over. Life isn’t a storybook. And what happened next is going to be exceptionally difficult to describe for non–football fans.

The Cowboys weren’t about to be upset so spectacularly in their own house on national TV. They briskly marched down the field, nearing field-goal range as the time kept ticking down. They didn’t need to reach the end zone; they needed to get just thirty-five yards or so from it. As long as they could kick a field goal, they could walk off the field as victors and dash our hopes.

They were that close, but only for a second.

A third-down completion to Patrick Crayton secured a first down and also put the Cowboys in field-goal range. Crayton got a step beyond the marker and then…contact.


You could hear the pop on the television broadcast. Sean Taylor, a lean and hungry safety, delivered a brutal—and legal—tackle that popped the ball loose, resulting in an incomplete pass.


I started yelling. Spilling beer. Probably also spitting a little. It was obnoxious because they kept replaying that hit and I kept yelling BOOM! louder with every replay.

Steve was yelling, too. Everyone else in the bar was hating us. We didn’t give a damn.

Later, I got my hands on the high-def footage of Taylor during and after that hit. He pops up, electrified. That fire. That heart. It’s something awesome when you watch a human—just another carbon-based life-form— doing what he does so well. And loving it.

That hit took all the air out of Cowboys Stadium, from the fans to the field. The Cowboys turned the ball over on downs, and Redskins players poured Gatorade on Coach Gibbs. Not a typical week-two celebration, but we thought it was appropriate.

Steve and I went home singing our fight song, and I had the joy of surprising my dad with the news the next morning. He’d never walked out on a game before and never would again.

I don’t believe in signs, mostly because I don’t think I’m worth all the trouble. But I was inspired.

Sean Taylor saved the day that night, doing what he loved and doing what he was so clearly talented at. It gave me a little bit of happiness on the saddest night of my life and confirmed that it’s never over until it’s over.

So I’d better not give up. And if I can find something I’m good at and love doing, I’m going to put everything I have into it.

Sean Taylor died two years later. He was shot by an intruder while at home with his girlfriend and daughter. He was twenty-four; just a few weeks older than I was at the time.

We often use words like bipolar and all-consuming to describe startup life. Fools compare it to combat, and over drinks even the more reasonable among us still veer into hyperbole about how hard it is to face the day some mornings. I’ve never lain in bed in self-pity, though. Even after that night I didn’t, because I knew back in Maryland my mother and father were dealing with a very different kind of morning. Perspective. My mom, the kindest person on earth, had been told she would die before seeing her grandchildren, and yet the first words out of her mouth when she saw me were “I’msorry.”

That’s the kind of person she was. I knew I’d lived a rather stress-free life until that point, and I knew that that would have to change. I just didn’t think it’d happen all at once. My mom came to this country when she was twenty-three because she was in love with my dad. After a few years of living together while she was still an undocumented alien, they secretly married at City Hall in lower Manhattan, and only later did they have the “public” wedding for their families (surprise, Grandpa!). Eventually the cost of trying to raise a child in New York City (even in the boroughs—Brooklyn and then Queens) proved to be too much, and my parents moved to the suburbs of Maryland, where my dad’s modest income could go much further.

My father had a degree in urban studies and architecture from Antioch College, and my mother wound up getting her GED in 1980, just three years before I was born. She went on to work night shifts as a pharmacy technician, sleeping only a little so she could be present for more of my waking hours.

After all that, my mother—who had supported me my entire life, filled me with confidence, and loved me dearly—was telling me she was sorry she’d inconvenienced me by getting terminal brain cancer because it was something else I’d have to deal with?

Being an entrepreneur was the best decision I could’ve made, because not having a boss gave me the freedom to make my family a priority without compromising my work. I got a lot of use out of that 3G USB stick and laptop. As long as I had those two things, I was in the office, whether it was bedside at Hopkins or in the reddit headquarters in Somerville.

I write this all as a precursor to my story—to hell with chronological order—because as empowering as the Internet is (and boy, is it empowering), we must all still succumb to a common mortality.[2] I would trade anything to have my mom back, but in lieu of that, I can only work to honor her a little bit more every day.

To be reading this book, thinking about how to use this great platform, the Internet, to share your world-changing ideas, ideally from a comfortable seat somewhere, is itself a great luxury. We’re living in a time of unprecedented opportunity across the globe that happens to coincide with a time of tremendous misfortune.

Let’s make the most out of this great hand we’ve been dealt, eh?

More stories from reddit, hipmunk, breadpig and beyond are in the book, available in book-book or e-book form, as well as on audible. Read some reviews on Goodreads (or leave your own!)

  1. This is a cultural reference from the early twenty-first century. Readers in the mid-twenty-first century and beyond will probably know her as President Snooki. I mean no disrespect.
  2. Except for the sentient robots. They’re going to be fine. Don’t shed a tear for them, because they wouldn’t for you—and they can’t; that’d be a lot of needless engineering.
Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/738765 2014-09-09T16:31:52Z 2015-01-24T21:04:02Z The Next 2 Days Are Very Important for the Open Internet Howdy,

I'm nervous, but also excited. Mostly excited, but still a bit nervous. The next two days are going to be big.

New Yorkers: Teachout Wu FTW!

If you're a New Yorker, or know one, please vote (or tell them to vote) in today's primary for governor and lieutenant governor -- and vote for Teachout + Wu. I formally endorsed them yesterday at an event where they unveiled their tech policy for New York State. It made me so happy to see people who actually understood these technology issues (as I said, "Wu is an O.G. of the open internet") and cared so deeply about serving New Yorkers.

This is the first time I've ever endorsed a candidate. I'm going to be dancing all the way to the polls today. 

Internet Slowdown Day is tomorrow

There hasn't been an internet-wide protest like this since SOPA/PIPA and the internet needs your help to survive. I published an op-ed on The Verge about this very subject. 

All of your favorite websites are going to be very slow tomorrow to make sure the FCC realizes the fate of the open internet is in their hands as they have a chance to reclassify broadband as Title II (the public utility we all know it to be) and put an end to what John Oliver aptly described as "Cable Company Fuckery."

Please spread the word about Internet Slowdown Day and demand an end to "fast lanes." There's still time left to file a comment with the FCC (here's mine on behalf of Y Combinator!)

SOPA 'em!

Just a couple years ago we were in a similar situation with SOPA/PIPA, but against all odds, we the people prevailed. And we shall again.


Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/721886 2014-08-01T23:49:01Z 2014-09-03T13:28:31Z Me & Two Future Y Combinator Founders on Fox Talking iOS Game Development Had such a great day visiting the MakeGamesWithUs Summer Academy and then bringing a couple of the students over to FOX for a TV appearance talking about educating this new generation of app developers. So excited to see where they all go from here.

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/717593 2014-07-23T14:50:25Z 2014-09-12T14:53:49Z 30 signed copies of Without Their Permission auctioned for BlackGirlsCode! My last 30 signed copies of Without Their Permission are part of a "silent auction" Crowdtilt to benefit BlackGirlsCode - get 'em while you can!

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/714971 2014-07-17T00:13:09Z 2015-02-27T04:58:48Z My comments for the FCC, on behalf of Y Combinator, about Net Neutrality

Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington D.C. 20554

July 14, 2014

Re: Open Internet Remand, GN Docket 14-28

Dear Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners Clyburn, Rosenworcel, Pai, and O’Rielly:

Y Combinator is Silicon Valley’s premier early stage investor. Y Combinator has been investing in early stage startups since 2005 and now has a portfolio of over 700 companies valued at over $20 billion and creating over 3,000 jobs at quickly growing companies, many of whom are aggressively hiring. Y Combinator was an early investor in Dropbox, Airbnb, Stripe, Scribd, Heroku, Pebble, Twitch, Loopt, WePay, Crowdtilt, Teespring, Codecademy, Hipmunk, Coinbase, Cloudkick, Wufoo, ZenPayroll, SocialCam, Parse, and reddit.

The New York Times called Y Combinator “Silicon Valley’s Startup Machine”; the Times also described Y Combinator’s demo days, where our early stage companies present their products and services to “450 of the world’s richest and most influential technology investors” as “a biannual milestone, Silicon Valley’s version of the N.F.L. Scouting Combine.” We were the subject of a book by the Times’s former Digital Domain columnist, The Launch Pad, in which Eric Ries called us “a national treasure, a Silicon Valley seed fund that is mass-producing new startups,” and Marc Andreessen declared we were the “white-hot center of the new Silicon Valley startup ecosystem.” Within Silicon Valley, receiving funding from Y Combinator often carries more credibility than a degree from Harvard or Stanford. We receive thousands of applications from companies for fewer than 60 investments -- an acceptance rate lower than any of the nation’s top universities.

I was lucky enough to be in the very first round of Y Combinator’s investments and created reddit.com with my college roommate Steve Huffman. We were two recent college graduates with no connections and $12,000 in funding, raised from Y Combinator, building something from a pair of computers in a small rented apartment in Medford, MA. Today reddit is a top 50 website with over 110 million monthly unique visitors -- more traffic than CNN.com or NYTimes.com. We lived the American Dream thanks to the open internet and today I’m a partner at Y Combinator.

How? The world isn’t flat; but the world wide web is. It must remain that way.

We need the FCC to keep the level playing field that let me--and so many others--succeed as entrepreneurs. The reason so much innovation and wealth creation has happened in tech over the last decade is that any American with her laptop and Internet connection could build a startup and compete with incumbents (and even beat them) without a team of lawyers and without a large budget to pay for priority from ISPs.

Let me be clear: we need a bright-line, per se rule against discrimination, access fees, and paid prioritization on both mobile and fixed.

Title II of the Communications Act seems the most appropriate way to properly define broadband ISPs to be offering telecommunications. Speaking on behalf of Y Combinator, I’m urging you to adopt such a rule.

The rule you have proposed, based on Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, would not suffice. We know Section 706 cannot support a rule against discrimination, access fees, and paid prioritization because the appellate court in Verizon v. FCC ruled on these matters. The Court wrote: “We think it obvious that the Commission would violate the Communications Act were it to regulate broadband providers as common carriers. Given the Commission’s still-binding decision to classify broadband providers not as providers of ‘telecommunications services’ [under Title II] but instead as providers of ‘information services,’ … such treatment would” violate the Act. The Court held that, absent reclassifying broadband providers as Title II carriers, the FCC would be treating broadband providers as common carriers unless it left open room for “substantial room for individualized bargaining and discrimination in terms.”

Therefore, the FCC cannot impose a nondiscrimination rule--unless it classifies broadband providers under Title II. The Court also held that, without classifying broadband providers under Title II, the FCC could not ban charging fees for priority access, even though the FCC recognized such fees would be a “significant departure from historical and current practice.” The FCC could not ban such fees without Title II because banning the fees would leave “no room at all” for individualized bargaining and discrimination, which is necessary under Section 706. The Court simply couldn’t have been clearer: so long as the FCC refuses to classify broadband providers as “telecommunications services” under Title II, the FCC cannot ban ISPs’ technical discrimination, access fees, or paid prioritization.

While the Chairman has sought to protect innovation through a “commercial reasonableness” test and a “minimum” service guarantee, unfortunately neither would provide startups any relief. No startup has the funds and lawyers and economists to take on billion-dollar ISPs in an FCC action based on the vague legal standards in the proposal. Indeed, the startup ecosystem needs a bright-line, per se rule against discrimination--rather than a multi-part, totality-of-the-circumstances standard with a case-by-case approach or even a mere presumption against discrimination. Anything less would cause considerable uncertainty for entrepreneurs and investors and provide little comfort, as startups and small businesses are resource-constrained and need to know that access to the Internet will remain neutral, as it has been in the past.    

And, even with access to at least minimum service (often metaphorically referred to as a “slow lane”), startups would struggle to compete against those who were able to afford paying for a fast lane--or an exclusive fast lane. Even the slightest discrimination or paid prioritization significantly affects startups, as microseconds matter with both webpage-loading and real-time content. That discriminatory treatment harms startups is reflected by the outpouring of dissent from startup founders and investors alike. The fate of reddit may have been very different if Comcast had discriminated against our little two-person-startup in favor of the NBC.com news portal and the sites of other news giants.

Only reclassifying broadband as Title II will protect an open and neutral Internet. In pursuing reclassification, however, the FCC should choose to forebear from regulations unneeded to promote competition and innovation. As recommended by the EFF, the FCC should “explicitly reject any telecommunications regulations beyond specific and narrow prohibitions and requirements designed to create a fair and level playing field for innovation and user choice.”

Over 190 companies, 100 investors, and hundreds of thousands of average individuals have already spoken up to oppose the Chairman’s plan and call for nondiscrimination and a ban on new tolls. Even before initial comments are due, several companies have called for Title II reclassification; these include Kickstarter (doing so in the Washington Post), Etsy, Codecademy, Dwolla, General Assembly, CodeCombat, Contextly, and OpenCurriculum. Leading investors in technology startups, including Union Square Ventures and, now, Y Combinator have also urged the Commission to pursue Title II.

Competition is the fuel of the free market. We demand it not only as investors looking to invest in the next multi-billion-dollar American job creator, and not only as entrepreneurs who want to start it, but also as consumers who want to see innovation continue to thrive. Our sector requires a level playing field in order to lead the world, create jobs, and produce tremendous value for the United States economy.

Mr. Chairman, you say you oppose a two-tier Internet and want to preserve Internet openness, so let’s reclassify broadband as the public utility we know it to be. Ensure that the Internet thrives as a platform for free commerce and speech for generations to come. May the United States of America continue to lead in innovating on the greatest free market the world has ever seen.


Alexis Ohanian
Partner, Y Combinator
Startup founder, reddit

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/713421 2014-07-12T21:13:47Z 2015-04-02T21:06:43Z There's still time to grab my upcoming quarterly shipment! valued at over $100 worth of goods I've curated to maximize the awesome of your summer!

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/710949 2014-07-05T17:52:07Z 2014-07-17T07:00:30Z My SXSW14 keynote + interview with Secret cofounder Chrys Bader ]]> Alexis Ohanian tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/697298 2014-05-28T21:55:46Z 2014-09-20T01:30:35Z My Commencement Speech to the Carthage Class of 2014  
Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/691322 2014-05-15T02:36:42Z 2015-11-21T15:44:26Z The Secret to All My Press (Personally, and how I did it for reddit & hipmunk & more) Traction: Everyone wants it, here’s how I think about generating “buzz”

Below is an excerpt from my national bestseller, Without Their Permission -- if you dig what you see here, I think you'll really like the rest of the book! I get asked about "traction" on an almost daily basis so it made sense to publish this for anyone to read. Enjoy!

I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.
Jay-Z, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”

I believe in startup karma.

Being the kind of person who’s always asking for favors and hustling others is a reputation that not only gets around, it sticks. It’ll work in the short term, and perhaps there are some exceptions to the rule who have made it work in the long term, but being someone who’s always asking for favors makes the already difficult job of starting something new immeasurably harder.

Instead, look at every meeting as a chance to do someone a solid. This especially matters when dealing with representatives of the media, because just buying them a coffee doesn’t mean you’re getting a front-page story. Look at every meeting as a long-term investment. She’s not writing about your startup? That’s okay!

Be helpful. What’s she thinking about right now? Some kind of trend is going on in X that’s not been covered yet, and she’s looking for a founder doing Y. If you can connect the dots, make the introduction for her. You’ve just helped two people with one e-mail. Cha-ching. More good karma.

Over the years, you can build a reputation as a connector in your field. Connectors are a journalist’s trump card when they need to get a lead on an unreported idea, or when they need an introduction in order to land a useful interview. This is a valuable position for you to be in, because it means you’re going to stay at the tops of their minds. When your journalist friends are writing about something in your field, whom do you think they’re going to reach out to first?

Never Turn Down Cannoli

In between bites of cannolo (yep, that’s the singular form of cannoli), I was explaining to Rachel Metz, freelance reporter for Wired, why reddit.com was going to become the front page of the Internet. She seemed interested, but she could’ve just been enjoying her cannolo.

I’d taken the Fung Wah bus down from Boston to meet with her in downtown Manhattan because a few weeks earlier, I’d met a friend of hers named Jennifer 8. Lee. Jenny had attended a Halloween party that Steve and I had thrown at our Somerville home and office—which should explain the above photo—and we hit it off. We discussed the subject of her book proposal, which happened to be, of all things, Chinese food. I managed to impress Jenny with my knowledge of Chinese cuisine, so we got to talking that night and that led to her introduction to Rachel.

A few days later, Rachel would confess to me that while she initially wanted to write a story about reddit, she felt we’d become friends and that it wouldn’t be professional for her to pursue the story. That was fine by me. No Wired story came from that, but I got a new friend in Rachel, one who happened to mention reddit to her editor at Wired, Kristen Philipkoski. Kristen, the wife of Kourosh Karimkhany, was doing business development for Conde Nast and heard from Rachel about a pair of plucky founders in Boston working on something interesting called reddit.

And then one day (February 22, 2006, to be precise) this e-mail popped up in my inbox:

I’m a friend of Rachel Metz. I’m also the director of biz dev for CondéNet, the internet arm of Condé Nast, which, as I’m sure you know, publishes magazines like Wired, GQ, Vogue, New Yorker, Vanity Fair, etc. I’m intrigued with your technology and was hoping to set up a time to talk about possibly working together. I’m open the rest of the day today and Thursday, but will be traveling for a week starting Friday. Do you have time for a phone call? Also, are you based in Boston?

Little did we know that exactly one year after that fateful party on Halloween, Steve and I would be celebrating the acquisition of our company. As if you needed more reasons to throw a Halloween party. Or eat cannoli.

Everyone Is the Media

The traditional public-relations industry model is broken. Good riddance.

The only time I ever wrote a press release was when Condé Nast made me do it for the announcement of our acquisition, and I wasn’t about to argue with the company that had just bought my company. Full-disclosure: Since writing this book, I’ve had to edit a press release the PR firm hired by my publisher wrote on my behalf. But the truth is, I’m not certain that press releases are as relevant as they were in the twentieth century.

These days, everyone you meet is part of the media. Every relationship you enter into, whether it’s with a customer or a writer at The Wall Street Journal, is a long-term investment. No self-respecting journalist wants to feel like all she does is publish press releases as “news,” although some do. The idea that a press release is magically going to compel someone to talk about what you’re working on is absurd. At a time when none of us have enough time to pay attention to all the content the Internet produces, you can be sure the professionals who are pitched every minute of the day certainly don’t have the spare cycles. This means you’re going to have to make yourself known. Here are some things to keep in mind as you do that. 

Be Helpful

If you’ve been doing your job as a founder, by now you should be an expert in your industry (and maybe even in a few others as well). Use that to your advantage when talking to the media. It gives you insights on bigger trends that are valuable to journalists, so be helpful—even if it’s not directly helping you or your company, it is actually still helping you and your company. Anything you can do to help someone else do his or her job better is going to win you that valuable startup karma. Noticing a trend in X meets Y, offer an introduction to some other experts in X meets Y. Be helpful!

Remember the RentHop team from chapter 4?1 While Lee Lin was getting his broker’s license, he found himself noticing trends. He validated that hunch when he and his co-founder, Lawrence Zhou, started mining mountains of New York rental-price data that revealed everything from how much more people are willing to pay for a doorman to how much less an apartment is worth for every block it sits away from a subway stop. At first, they had no plans to publish any of what they’d learned. Once Lee started promoting RentHop, however, he realized that these data were a tremendous resource. Whether it was a blog post he wrote charting the optimal time of day to search for rentals in New York (spoiler: between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.) or a statistic a journalist could cite for an article, it was a piece of added value that bolstered his company’s reputation as experts in apartment rentals.

Every time Tim does a great job breaking down exactly how he does everything he does, it’s being helpful. Over time, he becomes known as the guy for getting things done (not always in 4-hours, mind you) then turns around and does solids for people like me. Building for the long-term.

Speaking of which, I’ve got an entire class on online brand building (lessons from reddit, breadpig, and hipmunk) with specific examples of everything from low-cost social media campaigns I used to make people love our hipmunk chipmunk to the sticker strategy that spread reddit aliens all over the world. Grab some popcorn, it’s long. 


Pitch the Right Journalists the Right Way (by Not Pitching)

Okay, you’ve found them. Warm introductions to mutual acquaintances from people who know you both well always help, but there’s nothing wrong with a cold pitch. Just be concise. I try to write e-mails in fewer than five sentences. Precision with impact is one of the most effective writing skills one can have. The best way to get coverage is to not pitch your product. Journalists are human beings. Whether they write for [insert your favorite, most venerable news organization here] or they just launched their first blog yesterday, they do not exist just to write about you or your big idea. Sorry, but it’s better you hear it from me now. In order to earn their attention (and their goodwill), you’re going to have to give them something. Pitch by not pitching—be helpful. You know what they’re into, so send them a link to a breaking yet underreported story you think they’d appreciate. If you can introduce them to a fellow founder who’s working in a sector they’re covering, offer it to them. Know they love futuristic watches? Let them know when NOOKA is having a sale. When and if the time comes to make a pitch (you’ll know it when it happens), then do it well. 

Tell Stories Around a “Peg”

Pardon the jargon, but it’s helpful to know how journalists think. Big trends, things that people are talking about, are “pegs” that you ideally want to anchor to your pitch. It could be as blatant and timely as the Olympics, or it could be more subtle. During the famed billion-dollar acquisition of Instagram by Facebook, Michael Seibel, CEO of SocialCam, a mobile video-sharing app and portfolio company, rode the wave of media attention surrounding the acquisition. It was no surprise that over the next few days, articles buzzed about who would be “Instagram for video.” It didn’t surprise me one bit when SocialCam was there in every discussion.

Over time you’ll develop an eye for it. If you’re reading about a particular idea that’s got everyone’s attention, find a way to connect your own story to it. If you don’t get written up, or quoted, or appear to have gotten anything in return for your time, don’t fret (and remember what I said about these people not existing to do you a favor). There’s always value in taking the time to meet someone. You shouldn’t always be pitching, anyway. Build long-term relationships and they’ll pay long-term dividends.

Don’t Forget to Document Your Startup 

Take photos around the office, screenshots of early builds, et cetera. No matter how things turn out, you’ll appreciate having these memories later. In the meantime, it’ll be useful in a blog post or tweet. And if things turn out really well, people will come to really value those behind-the-scenes photos or embarrassing early builds.

For instance, here’s a photo of Steve and me from just days after we’d launched reddit.

The first photo taken of Steve + me as “reddit founders” – photo courtesy of Trevor Blackwell

Please, please have a decent high-resolution photo of your founders readily available. I’ve had to arrange last-minute photo shoots for founders who were about to land some great press but didn’t have a single decent photo to send. Your smartphone won’t cut it. Borrow the nicest digital camera you can find from your nicest friend and take some photos. If nothing else, you can send them to your mom.

For good measure, record the stages of your product, too, even if it’s only so you can look back on them with a hearty laugh. No matter how your company turns out, you’ll appreciate having a record of its evolution. I use this first version of reddit as an example of just how embarrassed you should be by your first version.

Attentive readers will notice I managed to get –1 karma, because Steve is a jerk.


Once You Get Press, Make a Note of It, Then Get Rid of It

This has been my policy since the day we finally got a taste of attention from the mainstream media. It was a different Internet back then, and it took me months of hustling to finally get someone to write about us. Oddly enough, it was a British newspaper, The Guardian, that wrote the first story—six months after we’d launched. It was great to see the increase in our traffic when a digital publication would write about us, but there’s something to be said for that palpable version of the news. The Guardiankindly sent us a few print copies. I reread the article, imagining better quotes I could’ve used, and brought it with me on my next trip back home. My parents had hoarded just about everything I did since I was a little kid (only child, remember), and my mom was thrilled to see her son’s name in print (I couldn’t tell her that it was less exciting than digital, which would have enabled us to actually get click-throughs to our site).

This started a tradition I continue to this day. Even though Mom is gone, I personally send my dad all the press I ever get, because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to think about it for more than a day. It’s a twenty-four-hour rule. I think I heard a football coach talk about this once in an interview. Feel good about the win for twenty-four hours, and then get your mind off it and think about next week. Same goes for losses, too. But I especially don’t want to dwell on past accomplishments, and I recommend the same for my portfolio companies.

Complacency, especially in this industry, is toxic. Remember what I said about your milk shake—forget that kindergarten advice and don’t share it.

Spreadsheets Are Your Friends

As a startup founder, you’re a cheerleader. You should always have a recent e-mail, or tweet, or quote from one of your users who love you readily at hand. Go a step further and keep a mailing list of those superfans who love you so much they’ve said they’d be willing to be interviewed about your business. List those people on a spreadsheet that you share among your team, and when you encounter a superfan, ask her if she’d be willing to be contacted by the press at some point and have a testimonial on record.

Each superfan should have his or her own row on your spreadsheet. Establish columns for a favorable quote, home address, occupation, and e-mail address. Always respect a person’s privacy and explain why these tidbits are so helpful; years later, when this list gets long and you’re trying to help a journalist who’s writing about graduate students in the Bronx using [insert your type of product or service here], you can get him connected to the perfect person.

Keep another spreadsheet for press hits, designating columns for important sort criteria like name, e-mail, publication, a pull quote from the piece, and the URL. This becomes your press contacts list. PR people will brag about the size of these as though they were in a locker room, but, as always, it’s not about size—it’s about how you use it. You’re building relationships. It does not matter how many people you have on this list if none of them give a damn about what you have to say.

Start small. As I said earlier, it took six months before any mainstream media wrote an article about us, and until then I was reaching out to anyone who had a blog in tech or media. As you grow beyond your niche, you’re going to be forced to connect your idea to bigger trends and find ways to humanize it with real people telling real stories.

Traction starts with a product people want; as word spreads, you’ll start seeing the week-over-week and month-over-month growth that gets investors pulling out their checkbooks and briefcases full of money.

Actually, most investments are done via duffel bags full of cash—or via wire transfer.

Get started being awesome. None of us know what we’re doing, but trying is how we learn.

This was an excerpt from my book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, which is also available in audiobook form if you hate reading.

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/690560 2014-05-13T16:59:21Z 2014-08-09T06:00:00Z Our Crowdtilt-funded ad campaign for #NetNeutrality is live across DC! Check it out and tweet @alexisohanian if you get a photo of one in the wild!

And if you'd like to print your own, here you go (creative commons, ftw!)

Fun fact: This campaign is running at 30 locations that generate 2.7M weekly impressions (and we're running for 2 weeks so that's 5.4M impressions total!).

The benefit of having a digital ad is that we can change the messaging almost instantly -- depending on the FCC announcement on Thurs, we can adjust our messaging ASAP and feature a new ad in that spot because it's digital, making us more nimble and newsworthy. That would be impossible with traditional printed advertising. 

Bonus fact: The average 18+ adult walks an average of 18 blocks in the city each week, so they are more heavily exposed to this type of advertising. There aren't a lot of billboards in DC proper, and this was the more effective way of reaching government workers and the FCC and it looks pretty damn cool, too.

The Verge broke the story.

Thanks to all of you who helped make this campaign a success!

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/685678 2014-05-02T15:51:15Z 2014-05-04T18:02:41Z Fundraising to strengthen Queens Tech with a new generation of makers We're about to tilt! So happy to have donated my 31st to the Coalition for Queens.

Access Code 2013 from Coalition for Queens (C4Q) on Vimeo.

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/674930 2014-04-09T00:50:38Z 2014-06-28T05:12:00Z I believe I was the first person on Meet The Press to use the term "O.G."   ]]> Alexis Ohanian tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/673739 2014-04-06T20:42:13Z 2014-04-27T21:04:49Z Apparently I've always been an optimist -- and a terrible speller.

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/660362 2014-03-04T02:35:53Z 2014-04-14T03:31:15Z On being a proud non-technical founder a recent commentary on the YC Female Founders conference, so I thought it'd be wise to bring some evidence to the discussion:
Then there was Jessica Livingston’s keynote itself… Oh Boy. There was one point where she told us ‘when you’re the nontechnical cofounder, your job is everything that’s nontechnical’ including grocery shopping and errand running. I don’t know why this comment struck me as odd … maybe it’s because the only people I know who identify themselves specifically as “nontechnical cofounders” are women. Male cofounders rarely volunteer that information or qualify themselves that way. Every time I hear Alexis Ohanian speak he is the cofounder of Reddit, as if he wrote every line of code himself. To get a male founder to admit he doesn’t write the code his startup depends on you have to twist his arm. With a female founder it’s the second sentence out of her mouth. As if to say “PS - don’t take me seriously”
You'd be hard pressed to actually find one time where I made it sound like I "wrote every line of code myself."
In my book, Without Their Permission, pg 60:

Steve and I would have brainstorming sessions with pens and notebooks, which I’d take to PaintShop Pro 5.0 so that I could mock up designs and layouts, sometimes even for random ideas that had no chance of coming to fruition anytime soon. We only had one developer, of course, and that was Steve, who was responsible for everything technical. Thanks to him, those pixels I doodled actually became something useful.  

and on page 110:

Long before the glorious day of our acquisition, we were just grateful that Y Combinator had let us into their exclusive program after a dramatic rejection. This program, with Paul at the helm, was oriented toward key developers, who really do have all the leverage in this industry. I was one of only two “nontechnical founders” in the program. Despite having programming experience in high school and college, I was devoting my time to doing “everything else” at the company, though that assertion was met with quite a bit of skepticism. A running joke that Steve had to endure at Y Combinator meetings was “What does Alexis do?” One of the advisers in the program even overheard me speaking German (I’m proficient, thanks to my mother) and remarked to Steve, “Alexis sounds much more intelligent in German.”

I didn’t think I sounded that dumb in English. Fortunately, as a guy who grew up with the name Alexis, I quickly learned that it’s those with the lowest self-confidence who belittle and bully other people. When it comes to put-downs, I ran out of “fucks” to give back in grade school, so now I just embrace it.

I don't expect everyone to have read my book, though, so I took a minute to search "alexis ohanian nontechnical" and found pages of results -- here are a few from my recent speaking tour and interviews:
Here it is in an interview I did with Lambdaphant. I declare myself one comment on my book chapter excerpt on fourhourworkweek.com. It was a common theme during my 200-stop book tour, here's a few instances in interviews from my Syracuse University and University of Waterloo Without Their Permission book events.

In fact, it's even in my linkedin profile.

I'm not sure I can make it more clear: I'm a proud nontechnical founder, but that means a lot more work if you want to be valuable to an early stage tech startup. The reason I've gone across this country encouraging people to code is because in the internet age, makers have all the power.

Jessica is absolutely right when she says "when you’re the nontechnical cofounder, your job is everything that’s nontechnical’ including grocery shopping and errand running" and it's the same advice I've given for years and especially in the last five months on tour, using myself + Steve in founding reddit as a casestudy. 
Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/656716 2014-02-20T22:34:30Z 2014-02-20T22:34:31Z Meanwhile in Venezuela. Follow along via this reddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/vzla

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/652549 2014-02-09T21:58:53Z 2014-07-16T18:45:20Z My 2013 in Review: Year of the Entrepreneur

I did this for 2012, so here goes my 2013 year in review! And what a year it was -- thanks to all of you for making it my best yet!

My book dropped! People liked it!

Without Their Permission is a WSJ Bestseller - #4!

I love startups. It's been a great year for investing

Fortunate enough to invest in dozens of amazing new startups (full list here) -- here are some with big updates:
  • Grupo Regalii - Mobile platform for cross-border remittances with a focus on Latin America. These guys are holding it down in Washington Heights, NYC -- a NY tech startup to watch!
  • Mobileworks - Crowd-sourced work platform I've been using thoroughly for the last few months to outsource complex tasks like lead generation and large research projects.
  • Envoy - Saving the world’s time through automated receptionist kiosks -- you've probably seen this at some top tech frontdesks, including airbnb and yelp.
  • Frontback - Mobile app and social network for selfies. Seriously. I can't get enough of this. I've even made a subreddit for them.
  • Secret - They've just launched and are exploding. iOS (for now, Android to come) app for sharing anonymously with your friends. I haven't been this addicted since reddit.
  • AeroFS - It's a Dropbox-like file synchronization platform that allows individuals and companies of all sizes to run their own Dropbox on their own hardware they control, either behind the firewall or in the cloud. Privacy ftw.
  • Teespring - I love this startup so much because we made a janky version of it a couple years ago on breadpig (a brilliant Christina idea) and we sold a ton of shirts. Teespring went ahead and built that as a polished platform. It's magical.

My Show & Love Letter to NYTech Debuted

My show, Small Empires, debuted on The Verge and you wonderful people really liked it. We're working on Season 2, which should start shooting not long after I return from the book tour in May 2014. I've got some pretty awesome surprises planned.

2014 is going to have a few really exciting media developments for me. 

So much press -- everywhere!

Interviewed on The Colbert ReportCharlie RoseMeet The Press, and just about every news network.

Breadpig keeps soaring


I've got even bigger plans for 2014 and I won't be able to do it without all of your support.

Thanks especially to all the people on "team Alexis" without whom none of this would've happened: Asa Solomon, Christina Xu, George Rohac, Joseph Kristoffer, Michael Pope, and Richie Siegel.

-- Alexis

PS. My latest Teespring campaign has only a few hours left for you to get a special limited edition "HYE FTW" shirt. Let's be twinsies - you don't have to be Armenian to look fabulous!
Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/651357 2014-02-06T21:52:14Z 2014-02-06T21:54:31Z Video of me "Cooking Inspiration" at USC on #WTPbook tour

Cooking Inspiration - WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION from DOCUinc on Vimeo.

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/646587 2014-01-27T15:44:42Z 2014-12-04T00:05:06Z Speaking frankly about guns & reddit My parents left Brooklyn in the eighties to raise me in Columbia, MD—a charming Baltimore suburb. Two days ago, tragedy struck a mall there. In the town I grew up in, at a place I wandered regularly as a kid, someone shot two people then turned the gun on himself.

Seeing footage of people hurt and afraid at our mall was surreal and unsettling. Memories of this place—a childhood friend meeting his wife, camping out at Electronics Boutique, enjoying lazy afternoons with friends—were tarnished with images of innocent people fleeing for safety.

What happened in Columbia was shocking, saddening, and occurs all-too-frequently. Even more disturbing is the lack of coverage of prevalent gun violence in urban communities: there were 12 separate shootings just twenty minutes away in Baltimore last week alone. That these tragedies don’t get nearly the same attention is baffling.

While I do not own guns or particularly like them, I have shot them (even earning a rifle shooting merit badge in Boy Scouts). I also occasionally visit gun ranges with friends. That said, I firmly believe our right to bear arms is inseparable from responsible use and smart regulation. The shooting in Columbia is another sad example that we’re not there yet in terms of stemming senseless gun violence.

To get there, we need honest debate, civil discussion, and bi-partisan legislation. I hope healing and tangible action will come from the pain inflicted on my hometown, but what happened to me a day before was a step backward.

On Friday, while on my book tour for internet entrepreneurship, I sat down with FastCompany’s Adam Popescu, who requested an interview to “talk about Reddit's commerce market.” Since the only reddit marketplace is the reddit gifts marketplace, I interpreted Mr. Popescu's invitation as an opportunity to discuss that platform. Reinforcing my assumption was Mr. Popescu’s desire to connect with Dan McComas, the reddit marketplace’s founder. It turns out Mr. Popescu wanted to talk about guns.

Based on a video Mr. Popescu posted about our t-shirt cannon at a talk I gave prior to the interview, it's obvious to me he had an agenda. Mr. Popescu later admitted to "being vague" in order to get the interview, but I’m a guy who’s definitively refuted bogus allegations with loads of sunlight and spoken candidly about heated topics like “donglegate” and the tech community’s role in them. I’m OK talking about controversial issues, let’s just do it honestly.

Right now, people are using social media platforms to legally arrange gun sales to other people. These social platforms are not commerce sites—there is no actual purchasing happening on the platform. Last fall, the headlines were all about instagram being used for this. Now, it’s reddit.

During this interview, Mr. Popescu pointed to “more than 400 redditors” involved in gun sales.” Out of 100,744,653 monthly users, this is .0004% of the userbase. He also implied that Condé Nast allowed the reddit logo to be sold, which is false. The logo was not sold: people were given permission to use it (in a transaction the aforementioned Mother Jones article already addressed was a “not-for-profit-buy”). I pressed him for facts and he backtracked, saying he’d follow up later.

This simplification continued into a plea that I say something, mobilizing the masses like he claims I do for internet freedom issues. Sadly, I’m not an expert on guns or gun laws. I’m an expert on tech, which is why I speak as much and as often as I have on tech policy issues like SOPA, PIPA, CISPA, TPP, and net neutrality.

In my view, new technology platforms aren’t the problem -- it’s the law. If we turned the internet off tomorrow, these exchanges would still happen on corkboard bulletin boards. Legislation is the way to solve this. The law currently leaves private, in-state gun sales virtually unregulated. We had a chance to change that last April, but Senate Republicans blocked it.

I asked him to work toward convincing people to act by engaging their representatives to pass the stricter gun laws a majority of citizens demand instead of going after hyperbolic headlines. Let's drive honest discussion instead of pageviews. He rebuffed me, saying regular people can’t make a difference -- that it’s up to people with “followings” like me to rally everyone. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This was remarkably naive and simplistic.  

He went on to insist that regular people don’t have much of a voice or the time or inclination and if it isn’t easy they can’t do it to actually make a difference. It was so condescending. As I’ve always said, it was precisely these regular people who defeated SOPA and PIPA. I was one of millions of private citizens who accomplished this. It’s how movements happen online -- from the bottom up. We didn’t defeat SOPA and PIPA because I led the way, it’s because I followed millions of people.

I understand many people still associate me with running reddit, despite not being involved with daily operations since leaving the company in 2010 (I do sit on the board). I’m happy to share my personal views, but that’s what they are: my personal views. After addressing how disappointed I was that he misled me into this interview, he implied he got what he needed. I have no idea what his FastCompany piece will entail, but I wanted to take the time to put forth my own views in my own words.


Finally, Mr. Popescu, I do own pink socks (and love them) but the ones I was wearing that day were actually orange. During our interview, you called my childhood friend and crew manager Asa Solomon a “little guy,” which was rather unprofessional (sure, he’s a little shorter than average, but why the petty putdown?). And lastly, there’s no reason to insult our bus driver, Bruce, for owning a bag that didn’t meet your high-fashion expectations.

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/625300 2013-12-01T17:35:35Z 2013-12-01T17:36:03Z reddit could've been called "hotlex" or "voxaloo" I found these gems in an email I sent to Steve back on April 22, 2005. These are just a few of the names we tossed around before I discovered "reddit.com" -- good thing I did....


More stories from the early days of reddit can be found in my WSJ bestseller, Without Their Permission.

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/620855 2013-11-18T18:59:43Z 2014-05-04T06:12:50Z A night with Stephen Colbert

I can't tell you how nervous I was, but I think it turned out OK despite me not realizing Stephen pre-dated Stewart on The Daily Show (fail).

Watch the clip.

Sure enough, Without Their Permission had another surge thanks to the Colbert Bump! I can't possibly thank Stephen and the entire team at The Report enough for making this all happen & being so freaking accommodating to me and my guests.

Keep up with everything WTP tour-related on our WIRED destination site.

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/609421 2013-10-16T04:28:50Z 2014-04-26T16:46:30Z Russian Magazine Cover Whoa.

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/608349 2013-10-13T01:16:34Z 2013-10-13T01:16:34Z I don't need a pop-up for every new song, iTunes Why is this default?

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/607356 2013-10-09T13:17:56Z 2013-10-09T13:20:41Z Talking about digital privacy rights with Chris Hayes on MSNBC

Alexis Ohanian
tag:alexisohanian.com,2013:Post/606643 2013-10-06T15:40:53Z 2013-10-08T17:31:04Z ABC goes old school and asks me to write answers to some interview questions This was fun.

Alexis Ohanian