Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian: Building a Business Mostly Isn't Fun

Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian: Building a Business Mostly Isn't Fun

Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian

Image credit: Alexis Ohanian Website
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Whatever other goals you might have for your startup, don't put having fun, being loved or even understood on that list, warned Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in a paradoxically enjoyable, loving and easily understood 45-minute talk at the Entrepreneur360 Conference in New York.

Ohanian, an investor in and advisor to roughly 100 tech startups, spent no time discussing the firing of Ellen Pao in July following a revolt by Reddit users over Pao's decision to fire a beloved executive. Instead of placing blame, he took responsibility for the revolt that darkened large sections of the site, which he attributed to years of "failing to update our tools.''

"That was not a fun time for us,'' he said.

Reddit seems no worse for the travail, though. The site swarms with 205 million visitors per month, which Ohanian pointed out (complete with a projected map of South America) is more people than live in Brazil. Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, he noted without elaboration.

Related: Ellen Pao's Tenure at Reddit May Be Over, But the Drama Isn't

At some point in Ohanian's youth, the self-labeled nerd/dork -- who actually seems he could hold his own at the coolest of cocktail parties -- had his sights set on becoming an immigration attorney. He abandoned that unpleasant dream half way through an LSAT examination when he was struck with a revelation: "Don't spend years and tens of thousands of dollars to do what you don't want to do.''

That was just one of several nuggets of advice he offered aspiring entrepreneurs.

Pivot is the polite term for failure.

Ohanian instead spent years, but less money than law school would have set him back, nerding it up in entrepreneurial fashion beginning spring break of his senior year in college in 2003. He and lifelong buddy, to say nothing of eventual Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman, skipped the traditional Cancun debauchery in favor of an opportunity to pitch Y Combinator on a way-ahead-of-its-time smartphone approach to ordering take-out food. They called it My Mobile Menu, to be known as MMM as in "mmm, mmm good."

That idea was unceremoniously rejected, which turned out best for everybody since Y Combinator did support Huffman and Ohanian's next idea, now known as Reddit.

"It really sucked when MMM was rejected by Y Combinator,'' said the self-deprecating Ohanian, who neglected to note that he is now a part-time partner in Y Combinator. "Now they call it a pivot, but in my day we called it failure.''

Everything you've heard about failure is true.

Entrepreneurs are forever exhorting each other to embrace failure. Ohanian is no exception, except he doesn't see failure as some thrilling adventure but more an unavoidable rite of passage. "When it comes to entrepreneurship, and life, there is a lot of failure,'' he said. "Sucking is the first step to being sorta good at something. It's a challenge, taking that ego hit, but you have to know when to quit.''

MMM taught him that quitting one thing is how you begin another. Rather than figuring a way people can harness technology to order take-out food they are likely better off not eating, Ohanian figured computers and the Internet could be a handy means of getting news every day. He and Huffman began designing a site they would have named 'S News, as in "it's news''. Mercifully, the domain name was owned and they couldn't afford to buy it, so they settled for Reddit.

Related: Here's Everything That Can Go Wrong Naming Your Startup and How to Avoid It All

Don't play house.

Reddit's logo brings to mind what a third grader might produce in 30 seconds if offered an ice cream cone for a drawing of a happy robot. It is nonetheless recognized by 60 percent of Americans, according to the company's market research. That remarkable familiarity was achieved on a total advertising spend of $500, mostly for flyers Ohanian plastered around Boston and New York when the company launched.

Polishing your logo and designing raised lettering for business cards, engrossing though they may be, are not to be mistaken for running your business.

"Don't play house,'' Ohanian said. "The unsexy things are what build a business. It's all the things that aren't fun. It's just a grind. It's talking to your customers and tweaking your product.''

People only have to love and understand your product, not you.

Ohanian took an understated pleasure in projecting two news snippets from years past, one in which Tech Crunch all but declared Reddit dead and surpassed by it's now mostly-forgotten rival, news aggregator Digg, and a later news item noting Digg's sale for a trifling $500,000.

"It's hard not to take this personally,'' he said of the cruel words of peers. "But we have a lot of work to do to please our actual customers.''

Reddit recently launched Upvoted.com, which Ohanian described as "the stories behind the stories people are talking about.'' He exhibited a recent Upvoted feature with an enormous arrow pointing to the notation beneath it "discuss on Reddit''.

"You all see that?'' he asked rhetorically, before showing a headline from Wired stating "No Comments Allowed Reddit's New News Site 'Upvoted'."Entrepreneurs need to accept that not everybody will understand your product but that doesn't matter so long as your customers do.

"No one will care as much as you do,'' Ohanian said. "Give a damn. Give lots of damns. This is what separates the world changing businesses from the rest.''

Related: 4 Ways to Rebuild Your Self-Confidence After a Setback

Edition: December 2016

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