To Alexis Ohanian, Success Came After a Series of Setbacks

To Alexis Ohanian, Success Came After a Series of Setbacks

Alexis Ohanian could still be standing in line waiting for a sandwich.

Most entrepreneurial journeys aren't linear, but few zig-zagged as much as that of Ohanian, the founder of social site Reddit.

Reddit, the vast, influential social networking site, has its roots in something much different: a desire to not wait in line to pick up food.

Speaking at Entrepreneur's Accelerate Your Business event in Miami last week, Ohanian recalled that he and his co-founder, Steve Huffman, applied to be part of the first class of accelerator Y Combinator with a company called My Mobile Menu, which was an order-ahead concept designed to work with the first generation of smartphones, like the Palm Treo.

"It was the letters 'MMM," he told the crowd. "Get it? Mmmmmmm." 

Funny, but not enough of a business to impress Paul Graham, who was putting together Y Combinator. In words that seem out of place today, Ohanian was told a mobile-only strategy didn't have legs. (This was 2005, before the explosion of apps, after all.)

Ohanian and Huffman boarded a train from Boston, where they had pitched the idea to Graham, back to their homes in Virginia. Along the way, the phone rang, and Graham told them if they could come up with a desktop idea, they could be in Y Combinator. They got off the train in Connecticut, turned around and came up with a whole new company.

'Snew.

"We named it so that if someone asked, 'What's 'Snew,' we would say, 'Exactly,'" he said.

Related: 4 Reasons to Be Excited by the 'Internet of Things'

Before the company even had more than a rough plan, Ohanian himself drew the iconic robot that would become Reddit's mascot, had it printed on a T-shirt, and joined the accelerator, hoping to create a better way for people to get news and discuss it. Reddit would replace 'Snew as the name shortly thereafter. "We wanted people to say they read it on Reddit," Ohanian said.

The rest, of course, is entrepreneurial history. Ohanian sold Reddit to Conde Nast in 2006, and left three years later. He returned, working side by side again with Huffman, last year after a management shakeup. He is also an investor and advisor to about a hundred startups.

Ohanian said the rough start helped shape his philosophy. For one thing, he admits that he spent too much time on little things, "playing house" instead of managing a business. "I can remember spending a whole day designing business cards," he said. "For what?"

But he also learned that those mistakes were helpful in success down the line. "Sucking is the first step to being sorta good at something," Ohanian said, stealing a phrase from the cartoon show Adventure Time.

And people should cut themselves a break, he told the audience. Every experience is different in its own way. "When you're an entrepreneur, this isn't paint by numbers," Ohanian said.

Ohanian was one of two keynotes at the Accelerate Your Business event, which moves to Chicago on March 31 and is presented by Microsoft Corp. Jon Levy, a human-behavior and adventure expert, talked about influencing customer behavior and was joined by a surprise guest, retired NBA star Shane Battier.

Also speaking were small-business experts Carol Roth and Gene Marks, as well as South Florida entrepreneurs Ellen Sova of business consultancy Derflan and Greg Shugar, founder of fashion-bedding startup Thread Experiment.

As for Ohanian, would he ever go back and try to revive MMM, even after the success of Reddit? "I'm actually an investor in a company that is trying to do that, so it might still happen," he said.