Interview with Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit

Thomas Q. Johnson

A&E sat down with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian at Republic in Seven Corners to rap about his book "Without Their Permission" and the epic promotion schedule he's embarking on to spread the world of internet entrepreneurship on college campuses across the United States.

What made you decide to take this trip, traveling to college campuses in particular?

I wrote “Without Their Permission” largely during the SOPA / PIPA fight because I realized how important it was to bring this message to as many people as possible. As it came time to think about the launch of the book, I thought about one of the most important experiences that I had —hearing a talk about how to start a startup up in Boston when I was a senior in college. I thought, let me take this book and this message of internet entrepreneurship to as many universities as I can, as many places as I can. 75 universities later, here we are.

Are you still having fun? You’re not regretting it yet?

No, no, no. We’re learning a lot. It’s usually two events a day — a daytime event with local business or accelerator and the evening event is always at the school. Almost always. We haven’t done this before but there’s so much energy at all of the universities we’ve visited so far. Ultimately I am so jealous of some of these undergrads I meet because they have so many more resources than what Steve [Huffman] and I ever could have had. By the time they’re thirty, they are going to have accomplished so much more. I feel great about that and I want to help it if I can.

Are you learning anything from the Reddit community, now that you're interacting with them so much?

You know, I remember organizing the very first meetups for Reddit. We did a little tour in 2007 and when this was really early. Local subreddits didn’t exist. We basically showed up in a few cities and had an open tab at a few bars. There was a good turnout, but to see how far it has come, to see that there is a strong Twin Cities Social subreddit just dedicated to socializing in the Twin Cities is just so cool. I spent my last Global Reddit Meetup Day in Latvia, and before I knew it I was hanging out with 40 random Reddit users in the middle of Latvia. Traveling now is such a delight because most cities in America now have a Subreddit and a lot of cities in the world have them too. I’ve hung out with Redditors in Bangalore, Latvia. I feel like we’ve been able to make this platform for online communities that’s enabled so many cool and clever and interesting things to bubble up that help people get together. We’re all just still humans, it’s been fun to hear it evolve.

What do you hope college students in particular take away from the message of “Without Their Permission,” especially as cost of college has been increasing, and arguably its value is diminishing?

There’s no easy answer for this. Only the sith deal in absolute. I actually wrote a piece in slate about this the other week: There’s no doubt that the rising tuition costs year-after-year-after-year totally unrelated to the economy has to stop. That can’t sustain itself. What’s impressive is how many new things have sprung up in recent years offering an education around web developing. They’re offering programs that cost a fraction of what tuition at a year of most colleges would cost. They don’t give you accreditation, but they do give you a job. Their placement rates are basically the same. They are going after a real weak spot which is that one of the most viable skills in this country is learning how to code, and there aren’t many curricula that are actually preparing you for the actual needs of employers.

It’s an interesting time because people are really starting to question what the role of education is, especially when you’re paying as much as you are and we — millennials — are told, don’t worry, take on this student loan debt, and you’re going to have a job. That was the promise we were sold. And by in large that is not the case, and I don’t think that’s going to come back.

We as millennials have an opportunity to really look at this stuff critically. A lot of these institutions — get a degree, get a job, 9-5 workdays are the way they should be — are things that at one time other, carbon based life forms decided were a good idea. So, as other carbon based life forms we can look at these and wonder that maybe they don’t have to be that way. So many millennials, especially in college, are realizing that they’re going to have create their own career to some extent. They look at college not as a GPA or for a degree, but for an opportunity to actually get stuff done. As an employer and an investor, I can’t remember the last time I looked at a GPA. I don’t even really care what your degree was. Unless you were a school rival of mine so I can make fun of you, I don’t really care. If you can show me a portfolio of what you’ve done – projects you’ve completed, Kickstarter campaigns you’ve launched, whether it’s an Etsy store you’ve managed, or a blog you’ve maintained, being able to actually show what you’ve done, to have ideas and execute them, that’s, I feel, the skill that more and more college students/millennials are taking advantage of developing. You have the opportunity to do this in school when cost of living is so cheap, most of your stuff is taken care of and you have time.

What do you hope people take away from the talk?

I hope someone walks out of a talk and says, “I’m going to learn how to code.” Something I’ve really wanted to do — I’m an art major — I’m going to start a club  that meets every week and we analyze a different Kickstarter campaign and see what they did right and wrong, and we’re all working on long term projects that we all have a goal by the end of the semester to launch a campaign. Do it! Go do it! Check up with yourself every week and share your knowledge. This is all stuff that’s happening in accelerators, but it can happen right now at the University of Minnesota without anyone’s permission. Just go and do it. Students have always been resourceful, just apply that resourcefulness to actionable skills.

Have you had much interactions with the students at the U on this trip?

I’ve met a couple of students here. There’s one who has his own ambitions to start his own accelerator here in Minnesota, in Minneapolis. At first I was like was like, “dude, first and foremost, you’ve got to have one really big startup thing to make this work. It’s going to be a lot easier than if you’re just fresh coming out of college,” but then I stopped myself and I was like, “dude, you don’t need my permission to do this. If you can hustle, find the capital and get this accelerator going, just do it. Prove me wrong.”

I have these conversations every night on the tour at every campus across the country. This shit is happening everywhere.

Have you ever been to Minneapolis before?

No, it’s my first time.

How do ya like it?

I have only been here for about 8 hours, but the thing I have noticed is the Minnesota nice, is that really a thing?

I hear it is, though sometimes it’s probably closer to Minnesota passive aggressive.

Alright, well. Everyone has been very Minnesota nice to me, so I’ll take that for whatever it’s worth.