Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of the social news website Reddit and the venture capital firm Initialized Capital, spoke at an event hosted by FastForward U, an initiative within Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV), on Friday. This event, hosted in Hodson 110, kicked off Alumni Weekend 2018 and was open to alumni, students and faculty.
Ohanian discussed his experiences struggling to start a business, his successes over the years and insight into what makes a startup work. He also signed copies of his best-selling book Without Their Permission: The Story of Reddit and a Blueprint for How to Change the World.
University President Ronald J. Daniels introduced the event. He explained that JHTV has put into place a system of support to aid our community’s young creators and entrepreneurs in transforming their visions into reality. JHTV provides financial support to full-time undergraduate and graduate entrepreneurs through Spark Grants, awards which range between $500 and $1000.
As a child, Ohanian became interested in technology because of the constant upgrades he had to make on his desktop computer to play a video game. Ohanian would get his computer upgraded at a local shop until he eventually realized he was paying for a service he could do on his own.
“This device is something I had power over. I could buy individual parts, install and take other parts out. Very quickly, I looked at the games I was playing and saw that these were things I could build too,” Ohanian said. “That’s what got me into programming.”
At 15 years old, Ohanian began emailing small nonprofits asking if he could help build their websites.
“No one knew I was this dorky kid in my parents’ house in Columbia. They just knew I was someone who had a skill they didn’t have,” he said.
Ohanian relayed advice to young entrepreneurs during the event, urging students to follow their passions. He spoke about how he used to think he would become a lawyer. However, after one LSAT prep class he realized it wasn’t something he enjoyed.
The presentation also touched on his failures in entrepreneurship. Ohanian reflected on the early days of his first business startup called “My Mobile Menu,” an app intended to track meals and suggest future places to eat.
He ultimately decided to drop the project.
“There is so much uncertainty. Starting a company sucks,” Ohanian said. “It is really hard and I’m thrilled that it’s glamorized and everyone wants to do it. But know it’s hard,” Ohanian said.
Despite being his first failure, Ohanian learned from the project. Months later, alongside co-founder Steve Huffman, Ohanian created what is now the sixth most visited website globally: Reddit.com.
Ohanian also discussed how importance agreeability was when starting the website.
“Be willing to do the work, to be helpful and go into every meeting with the mindset of what can I do for this person,” he said.
Ohanian was named on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and has also been dubbed “Mayor of the Internet.”
Ohanian also touched on Initialized Capital, a venture capital firm that he co-founded. During his time with the company, he has listened to many business pitches. To Ohanian, the founding members of a company are the cornerstone of any startup.
“If a founder can’t explain what they’re building and why concisely, then they haven’t gotten it figured out themselves yet,” he said.
In addition to these skills, Ohanian said that the best way to be successful is to recognize personal strengths and weaknesses. He said that in order to improve these weaknesses, people have to work internally to improve. He said that his wife, Serena Williams, the professional tennis player, has helped him understand this.
“I’ve got a good person to talk to about wanting to be the best,” Ohanian said. “She’s incredibly good at understanding the stuff she’s very good at and the stuff that she isn’t, and delegating the stuff that she isn’t. But you can’t delegate winning grand slams, so then it’s just drilling down and training the things where there is any weakness.”
He added that although he is not in the position to speak for his wife, he thinks that if she were to play the way people tell her and not play her own way, she would not be so successful.
His final advice to the crowd was for the students, and he encouraged them to think of college as the time to try new things.
“It’s an amazing time to learn and learn by building,” he said.
Ohanian believes that the future is very bright, and entrepreneurship is currently on an upward trend.
“I strongly believe that your generation is the first generation to label themselves not just as receivers, but also creators,” he said.
Freshman Eric Rong was very impressed by how approachable Ohanian was during the book signing. He realized that good communication skills are an essential tool for helping entrepreneurs in the business world.
“I think the ability to communicate effectively with charisma and with logic makes for a good entrepreneur,” Rong said.
Correction: The original article stated that the event took place on Sunday. The event actually took place on Friday. The original article also stated that Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV) hosted the event. FastForward U, an initiative within JHTV, was the specific host.