Interview with an Internet Innovator: Alexis Ohanian at Syracuse University

Last night, Alexis Ohanian – co-founder of Reddit and author of Without Their Permission – visited Syracuse University’s campus during his 150 stop, 77 college, 5 month long book tour speaking about entrepreneurship and the Internet. I was fortunate enough to attend the event and even sit down with Alexis for a one-on-one interview before he hit the stage. After a smile, a handshake and a simple exchange of hellos, I could already tell how this man was able to help save the Internet from SOPA and PIPA.

Alexis Ohanian and Otto
Otto stopped by to say hello to Alexis!

Admittedly a bus tour does not seem like the most cost effective way for someone who lives on the Internet to share a message, but Ohanian acknowledges the difference that personal interactions can make. He refers to the bus tour an “un-internet” way of doing things, but wouldn’t trade the experience of meeting students and grabbing a drink at their favorite bar for 1’s and 0’s.

“What’s been especially fun is revisiting places we stopped at from the 2012 [Internet campaign] tour just to see how much it has changed in only a year,” says Ohanian. “Lincoln, Nebraska has a burgeoning startup scene that a year later has new bars, restaurants and startups downtown…. The original company that was the foundation of it, Hudl, continues to grow, hire and expand. It’s great because these stories are happening everywhere. Not just in the Bay, not just New York, but everywhere.”

Alexis Ohanian and logos of reddit, hipmunk and breadpig
Alexis shared the beginnings of the three startups he helped create: reddit, hipmunk and breadpig

Ohanian encourages us to live by the guideline that all links are created equal – or as he likes to say all bits are created equal, which is a more accurate perspective. His message derives from the fact that we’re all on a level playing field when it comes to the Internet. Whether it’s, or the most recently created Tumblr, they are all equally accessible. The world is not flat, but the Internet most certainly is.

With a commanding stage presence, Ohanian was able to captivate an audience of nearly 300 through personable jokes and embarrassing teenage photos. Encouraging words hit home, as audience members would nod in agreement, exchanging motivated looks with friends and neighbors.

 There are many lessons to takeaway for future tech innovators and entrepreneurs from Ohanian’s experience… I keep a few of these in my iPhone:

Raise your hand – Don’t wait and don’t be shy. In the grand scheme of things, how much do you have to lose by being the first to share an idea or perspective? Without being willing to fail, you will get nowhere. Use feedback to be better the next time around.

Learn to code – One of the most useful skills to have is coding. Ohanian refers to himself as a ‘nontechnical’ team member, but still understands the basic coding language. To work within the tech industry you need the respect of those who possess coding abilities, and being able to understand even the basics is an opportunity not to be missed.

Ideas are worthless – Everyone has an idea, and no one goes around sharing bad ones. In the end it’s about execution. When beginning to work on Reddit, Ohanian found a competitor that was far more complex at that point in time. His advisors said, do not worry about the competition, you will only beat yourself.

Alexis Ohanian's book Without Their Permission
Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will be Made, Not Managed. Available on Amazon.

Above all else, Ohanian emphasized that when in doubt, invest in yourself and you cannot go wrong. Entrepreneurs should not necessarily limit themselves to learning within a classroom for an MBA. Spending the money for school on personal endeavors will lead to insurmountable… besides, neither of the Reddit founders have an MBA. 

Ohanian will continue to tour until April, sharing his message to utilize amazing tools accessible through the Internet. “There is such little awareness outside of tech, not just to business but to education and every facet of life,” Ohanian explains. “So I figured [the book] was a good way to get the figures to scale and hopefully make sure the internet is open and awesome for as long as possible so we can get better stuff out of it.”

Once the tour is completed Ohanian plans on finally taking his girlfriend on vacation, and hopefully not be called back early to attend congressional meetings and save the Internet… but if you want to hear that part of the story pick up a copy of Without Their Permission

Have you read Without Their Permission? Did you attend last night’s talk? What were your takeaways?  Share in the comments!

Zach Schatz

I like to read about tech. I like to write about tech. And I like to share my thoughts with anyone willing to listen. Email me. Tweet @ me. Connect on LinkedIn.

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