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Q&A: Alexis Ohanian on creative entrepreneurship, and giving lots of damns

The cofounder of the social news site reddit is the author of “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made Not Managed.”

Alexis Ohanian
Courtesy of the Walker and Tanya Kechian

The Line

On Thursday evening, Alexis Ohanian spoke to a sold-out audience at the Walker Art Center on “Creative Entrepreneurship: Making the World Suck Less.” Ohanian is best known as the cofounder of the social news site reddit. But the Brooklyn-based entrepreneur is also the founder of Breadpig, which has been described as a “Newman’s Own for nerds” as profits from its webcomic-based books and geeky novelties are donated to worthy causes. He also works with hipmunk (a travel planning site) and Y Combinator (a startup program for digital entrepreneurs).

In 2011, Ohanian joined the coalition fighting against SOPA and PIPA, becoming a public face for the movement, which quashed both bills in an unprecedented display of citizen power. His show on The Verge Video, “Small Empires,” features the founders of New York tech startups. An avid angel investor, Ohanian has more than 80 tech startups in his portfolio. He’s also the author of the bestselling book “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made Not Managed.

The Line talked with Ohanian about his messages for Twin Cities audiences, writing a book in the digital age, where he finds his inspiration, and his advice for startups. His Walker Art Center lecture will be available on the Walker Channel soon.

The Line: You spoke at the University of Minnesota in October 2013 about your book, “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made Not Managed.” What were the key messages you imparted to the largely college-age audience during your first visit to Minnesota?

Alexis Ohanian: The message of that stop, and really the whole tour, was that entrepreneurship can manifest itself in many different forms, and not just in the tech industry. It’s more of a mindset that says, “I’m going to make the world suck less, as opposed to waiting for someone else to do it.” It’s the talk I wish I had gotten when I was an undergrad at the University of Virginia — or even earlier.

TL: What did you discover — and what impressed you — about the Twin Cities during that visit, especially about its tech, economy, startups, and social and arts philanthropy?

AO: It was a short visit, but it didn’t take long at the event, the signing, or at the /r/twincities meetup afterwards to see how much buzz there was going on about how the Internet was changing all of the above!

TL: Conversely, what did you find lacking? What does the Twin Cities need — and/or need to do — to surge ahead in entrepreneurship and innovation in 2014?

AO: Every startup community needs role models. The more the Twin Cities can celebrate its success stories, the better. A nonprofit like the Longonot Education Initiative, based in Minnesota, resulted after this hugely successful fundraiser viareddit. These are the sorts of homegrown stories that inspire.

TL: You’re the genius energizer bunny when it comes to startups. Where do your drive, your inspiration, and your energy come from?

AO: When Steve Huffman and I started reddit, I had a “wall of negative reinforcement” on the wall beside my desk with all the negative blog posts and feedback I got about me and our product and company. That was my way of dealing with the haters, but even as a kid I had this idea of “Lives Remaining: Zero” (something else I had on my wall, but ever since I was a kid). That’s where a lot of my drive comes from. We only have one chance to make a difference. We might as well make the most of it, and hopefully make the world suck less.

TL: What are the “seven habits” of the highly effective and successful Alexis Ohanian?

AO: Stay hungry (not literally). Eat. Drink (water, too!). Sleep. Laugh. Try to be kind. Give lots of damns.

TL: Why did you decide to write and publish a book, “Without Their Permission,” in the digital age? And did you crowdsource, via reddit or your website, any content or editorial decisions while writing?

AO: I wrote “Without Their Permission” because people, especially aspiring startup founders, were asking me a similar set of questions over and over again. I decided that I could put a lot of the lessons I’ve learned along the way into a format that’s accessible, partly because I got a bit tired of saying the same things, but mostly so that the stories and advice in the book could reach a bigger audience. Books scale easily, humans don’t. Also it gave me a chance to include plenty of my doodles!

As to the crowdsourcing: I was regularly talking to people via reddit + twitter about the book and its content. I even got feedback from the /r/design community about the cover, which helped it become one of the New York Times‘ Best Book Covers of 2013.

TL: What’s capturing your attention lately on the Internet? What efforts toward disruptive innovation, social good, and entrepreneurship should we pay attention to and why?

AO: Crowdfunding is still in its infancy. We’re still figuring it all out. And I’m excited to say it’s going to mean great things for a lot of people with new ideas.

TL: What are the keys to developing a community around an Internet site? How much, really, is social media a factor?

AO: Give lots of damns! I wrote a whole e-book about what I did to build reddit + breadpig + hipmunk and it boils down to this: Give lots of damns and the social media (whatever the platform) buzz will follow. But it’ll never happen without something people love.

TL: What’s your key piece of advice to anyone initiating a startup or entrepreneurial venture?

AO: Launch! So many people talk about the ideas they have and what they are going to do, but a much smaller number of people actually act on their interest and put something into the world. Until you launch something, you will never know if it works. And don’t let not knowing what you’re doing stop you—no one knows what they’re doing, especially when they start. Suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.