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Ohanian Tells Students: This Is The Time To Try New Stuff'

By: Diane Stirling
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When you’re a millennial, spending your days in college, being in a learning environment, surrounded by people who seem knowledgeable and successful in the entrepreneurial space, there’s an important thing to keep in mind, an unabashed Alexis Ohanian, entrepreneur, co-founder of top social site reddit.com, and book author told a full-house crowd in Syracuse last night.

“We’re all still just hacking it,” he confided. “If the thought of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ is stopping you, don’t let that hold you back, because everyone is always feeling that way,” he advised. “This is something I can’t stress enough. We had no clue—no one does. I still don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. Anyone who fronts like they have it all figured out is either lying or delusional,” he humorously told the quickly-charmed audience of appreciative students, faculty, business people and entrepreneurs.

Ohanian visited Syracuse University as one of the 200 stops on his current Without Their Permission book tour, 77 of them taking place at universities. He is using his cross-country bus caravan to promote his views about internet security, net neutrality, and an anticipated wave of entrepreneurship. His visit was sponsored by the School of Information Studies.

Start Something Now

Echoing themes from his book, “Without their Permission, How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed,” Ohanian encouraged students to test their ideas and try their entrepreneurial wings—now. “This is the time to be trying new stuff, because you have the safety net of college and the creative freedom now that you probably will never have again—so start,” he advised. Here is the “spoiler alert,” he said: actions are everything in today’s easy-entry entrepreneurial environment. “Ideas are worthless; everyone thinks they have great ideas. But in a world where the barriers are as low as they are, the skill is to do them; [so] implement.”

‘Net as Stage, Library

Contending, “As long as we have net neutrality, the Internet is the world’s largest stage and library in one,” the author cited how the internet’s global reach has allowed people who might otherwise have remained in the shadows to grow into their “maximum potential for awesome.” He referenced TV host and comedian Zach Anner, who has cerebral palsy, and who Ohanian said “knows in how many other eras he would not be likely to live this life;” Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton, a history major who worked through early failures to become an Internet sensation and best-selling author and photographer; and 73-year-old rock legend Lester Chambers, who used an online Kickstarter campaign to make an independent music album and connect with a new generation of fans.

Discussing his own mentors and backers, Ohanian offered advice to those “who may be wanting to start something now:”

  • Accept the fact that the first version of anything is “always janky.”
  • Do not care for a second about your competition. “They will not beat you, only you will beat yourself.”
  • The people you should care about are the ones who are willing to use the thing you’ve created. Build for an interested user, “not for TechCrunch.”

A New Fluency

Now is an optimal time for those with ideas to act on them because the future is so wide open, Ohanian explained. “There is a different kind of fluency we have with this technology. That makes us the perfect explorers in the new frontier. I don’t pretend to know where it’s going, but those of you who can build in this new frontier have tremendous power because you’re not just exploring, you’re building it under our feet.”

As his tour winds through the country, Ohanian said he is highly encouraged by the enthusiasm and the abilities of the students he meets. “I see a hunger and excitement from my fellow millennials. These students are living the ideals of this book. They are not waiting for permission, not waiting to graduate to make great stuff. They have the Etsy stores, the Kickstarter campaigns, the things I wish I’d had before I ever got out of school. I said when we started reddit that we were standing on the backs of giants. What’s so exciting is that in the last eight years [since his own college graduation] there has been so much innovation–the general capability of what people are doing now is so much more. I can’t wait to see what they’re going to come out with.”

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