Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of reddit, visited Portland last Friday, Jan. 31 to share the insights he’s gained from his own entrepreneurial journey and to promote his new book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will be Made, Not Managed. Three lucky folks won tickets from OEN to attend; here’s a recap of five key takeaways for the rest of you:
1. Make a mascot
First things first: Ohanian created a shirt featuring the reddit mascot before he had created reddit. The reddit alien, Snoo, came about when Ohanian was bored in one of his marketing classes at University of Virginia. Though he does not advise others to follow the “mascot first” practice, he does point out that mascots are valuable marketing tools. Plus, you can dress up as them and get away with anything.
2. Sometimes you have to trust your gut—literally
Often it’s our gut, not reason, that leads us down our entrepreneurial paths. As a sophomore at UVA, Ohanian “walked out an LSAT prep course and walked into a Waffle House.” Ohanian’s gut told him that wanted waffles more than he wanted to take the LSAT—which led him to the realization that given those priorities, he probably shouldn’t be a lawyer.
3. Eat the haters for breakfast
The only thing Ohanian likes for breakfast more than waffles is haters. A few months after founding reddit, he and his co-founder Steve Huffman were invited to meet with a Yahoo! exective. During the meeting, they were asked about their traffic numbers and responded that they had about 10,000 users. The Yahoo! executive’s decidedly condescending response? “You guys are a rounding error compared to Yahoo! What are you even doing here?” The next morning, Ohanian printed out the words, You are a rounding error, and hung them up over his desk. Over the years, he has added to what he calls his “Wall of Negative Reinforcement.” He found it motivating to be reminded of everyone he was proving wrong. Constructive critics are invaluable, Ohanian says. Haters can be too, if entrepreneurs use them for motivation.
4. You won’t always know what you’re doing, and that’s okay
Ohanian says of reddit’s early days, “We had no idea what we were doing. No clue…. Everyone who thinks they have everything all figured out is either lying or delusional. We’re all just hacking it.” In the beginning, he and his co-founder just wanted 100 people to care about what they were making. They wanted to solve a problem for a few people. Now reddit has 100 million unique visitors a month (a rounding error, Yahoo!?), but of course, that’s not where they started. They started with a janky website launched out of an apartment in a suburb of Boston.
5. The second you start copying and stop innovating is the second you start failing
When they launched, Ohanian and Huffman weren’t aware of their chief competitor, Digg, which had already been around for about seven months. Initially, Ohanian spent a lot of time worrying about Digg, which seemed to be doing everything right. For one, they were in Silicon Valley, “a land of term sheets and unicorns,” and had millions in VC funding. But eventually Ohanian learned not to worry about the competition. “There’s always going to be competition,” he says. For instance, his spirit animal, Grumpy Cat, “faces more competition every day than we will all face in our entire lives… So be great at whatever it is you’re going to do and do not care about the competition because Grumpy Cat don’t care.”
See the full talk here: