From Dot-Com Zero to Hero: One Man’s Story

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“Yes, I’d like to upgrade my dad’s season tickets. Oh, front row, fifty-yard line, please–the best you have.”
—Alexis Ohanian, approximately three minutes after he sold reddit

Preface by Tim

I first met Alexis Ohanian through education non-profit Donorschoose.org, as we both sit on their advisory board.

Years later, he still impresses the hell out of me.

Alexis is the sharp and affable co-founder of Reddit (stylized as “reddit”, which is how it’ll appear in this post henceforth). He has made millions of dollars, fought Washington and won, created the largest Secret Santa program in the world (92 countries, almost 20,000 participants), and been on The Colbert Report for massive fundraising through reddit.

He’s kicked a lot of ass.

That said, few people know the backstory. His journey has involved failure, pain, self-doubt, and much more. In other words, he battles the same challenges that you do. He has learned to be an entrepreneur, just as you can.

The following guest post from Alexis is an exclusive peek behind the curtain. His new book, Without Their Permission, inspired me to ask him to spill the beans. He generously obliged.

ALSO: From 9am-1pm PST (12pm-4pm EST) today, Tues., Alexis will answer any questions you pose in the comments! Just wait for things to start and ask away.

Enjoy the lessons, and gird your loins (and emotions) for the ride. Business and life are full-contact sports…

Enter Alexis

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, but on October 31, 2006, all the hard work Steve Huffman and I had put into starting reddit (with lots of help from our first hire and good friend, Dr. Christopher Slowe) had quite literally paid off.

The first thing I did after the money showed up in my checking account was to call the Washington Redskins ticket office and upgrade my dad’s tickets to something a bit better than the nosebleed seats we had. I then made a sizable donation to my mom’s favorite charity and got back to handling all the inbound press. It was a blur of a day, but once it ended, I was able to take stock of just how far we’d come in only sixteen months.

When Steve and I looked at each other, there were no cheers of joy, just a shared sigh of relief. We’d pulled off something statistically improbable—just barely—and we knew it. And after everything we’d been through…wow. Grateful, we went and shared a pizza at Mike’s, the same place where we’d been ordering pies since we moved to Somerville, Massachusetts. There, we caught our breath after an entire day of interviews.

For my parents, it was a day when their only child had become a millionaire before he was twenty-four. But they always just wanted me to be happy. Neither one of them really understood the PC they brought into the house not long after my tenth birthday, but they let me do whatever I wanted to it as long as I didn’t break it.

Actually, I almost did break it on several occasions, but then I wound up putting it back together. That computer was my gateway to another world once we got a dial-up Internet connection. I campaigned hard for that 33.6Kbps connection, and when I finally got to hear those now-antiquated sounds of the modem, it seemed like magic to my adolescent brain.

This is actually my cousin BJ’s computer, but if you thought I looked happy playing on his, imagine how excited I was to get one of my own.

 

I built my first website on GeoCities. I think it was /siliconvalley/hills/4924 (the Wayback Machine link only goes back to 1999 and by then I’d turned it into a MIDI collection website with some banner ads — I kind of hate myself for making this, but there you go). It was originally my fan page for Quake II (fun-fact: Masters of Doom was the book that made me fall in love with the idea of entrepreneurship). There wasn’t much going on there beyond some photos of rocket launchers and railguns with a few tacky animated flaming skulls. I really liked that game. But at the footer was a counter that showed how many people had viewed the website (I’d later learn that most of those “views” came from me reloading the page).

But at the time: what power! I could build something from my suburban bedroom and millions (okay, well, hundreds) of people all over the world could see just how much I loved a video game. That’s how I got interested in making websites. There was no turning back.

A company called Sidea was my first nonfamilial employer (I suspect the real reason my dad wanted a kid was that he needed someone to do all his yard work—and for well below minimum wage, I might add). I later worked a lot of random jobs between high school and college: Pizza Hut cook and waiter (some of the best customer-service experience one can get), deli counter attendant (I was terrible at this and hated smelling like cold cuts after work, despite how much my dog liked it), FedEx warehouse grunt (great exercise, though not very mentally stimulating), and parking booth attendant (get paid to read books? Yes, please! Until the robots replace humans, that is).

But the job with Sidea was one of the most pivotal I ever had–even if the company went bankrupt a year after I started (not my fault!), a victim of the dot-com bubble bursting.

My job was simple: I had to man a booth in the middle of a CompUSA store, armed with a headset microphone and a large computer monitor. I was to demo software and hardware every thirty minutes—regardless of whether or not anyone was listening. Want to give a fourteen-year-old experience in public speaking? Tell him he has to demo random computer products to an entire CompUSA full of people ignoring him.

I can’t tell you how many demos I gave to no one. But I did every one of them as though my boss were watching. In between demos, I killed time browsing the Internet for the latest in Quake II news. For this job I was paid a ludicrous ten dollars per hour. I think I know why Sidea went bust.

But damn if that wasn’t a fabulous way for me to start public speaking. If you’ve experienced the embarrassment of the public speaker’s worst-case scenario (speaking to a roomful of people who are both ignoring you and hating you) before you’ve finished puberty, things are probably going to be okay.

One day I was approached by a man trying to decide between two different mice. I don’t recall the details, but there wasn’t a big difference between them, save the color and maybe another minor feature. I pitched him on his two options with a quip about the bonus “feature” of a different color. He laughed and offered me a job. He handed me his card and said he’d like to hire me for sales. I kept that card in my wallet for years until it finally disintegrated. Fortunately, I scanned it before it did.

 

Thank you Carlos & Steve. You have no idea how much you did for me.

 

I didn’t have the heart to tell the man I was only fourteen. When I told my parents about the offer, they told me to finish high school first. I never called Steve Harper, general sales manager for Stanley Foods, Inc., but I had a hunch I was on the right track. I was always tall for my age, and weighing 260 pounds at the time also helped age me up, as much as being heavy may’ve sucked the rest of the time.

Being the tallest guy in the class and having a name that’s usually given to girls (in fact, I was named after a three-time title-winning boxer, Alexis Argüello) are enough to make a person stand out in school, but make him one of the most overweight as well and you’ve got a recipe for something. It easily could’ve gone the other way—self-loathing and depression—but I cared too much about video games and computers to realize how not cool I was.

Pure swag.

I overcame my weight by making jokes about it before bullies could. Girls were trickier, though. I nearly failed geometry because of a cute girl named Erin, who told me (well, she told my best friend, but so it goes in eighth grade) that I was too fat to go to the dance with.

Like a lot of my not-popular-but-not-pariah peers, we developed personalities and pursued hobbies that interested us, because “just being cute” wasn’t an option.

We tinkered on our computers and spent way too much time playing video games with each other. I started a nonprofit called FreeAsABird.org (I’m really regretting the WaybackMachine) that built free custom websites for small nonprofits that had little or no web presence. I e-mailed all my clients cold, and as far as I know they had no idea I was a teenager. After earning a 4.0 my freshman year, I did as little work as I could but still kept my grades up in high school so I could maximize my time spent gaming and running the competitive gaming teams I managed.

Thank goodness, too. Because that was a long-term investment in myself. Most schoolwork felt awfully irrelevant when compared to work that was actually affecting real people and giving me leadership opportunities (albeit digital ones), nurturing the community management skills that would come in handy later.

Of course, all that time in front of a monitor began to take its toll, as my metabolism wasn’t nearly as fast as my buddies’. Our fast-food binges may’ve done nothing but fuel LAN parties (that’s where lots of people bring their computers over to someone’s house to connect directly to a local area network—for gaming). True story: I’d never attended a party that didn’t have “LAN” in its name until college.

This pattern of eating wasn’t healthy. I got tired of being fat by my junior year of high school and decided to do something about it so I could get in good enough shape to play football before I graduated.

Thanks to regular exercise and the abolition of soda and junk food, I lost fifty-nine pounds. My pediatrician (who was always kind of a jerk) couldn’t believe it when he read it on the chart. And to this day I can’t believe how differently people treat me. To have been the “pear-shaped fat kid” for all those formative years and then join the ranks of the easy-on-the-eyes crowd is like turning on another life cheat code. One random night, I bumped into Erin (remember—from eighth grade?) at a movie theater—she literally didn’t recognize me. It felt great. I may have danced a jig when I got back to my seat to breathlessly tell my friends what had just happened.

There Are Nerds in College

I applied to only one college, the University of Virginia. At the time I didn’t give it much thought, but I can’t help wondering how much different life would’ve been if I hadn’t made that seemingly insignificant decision. I had no contingency plan aside from the local community college, much to my parents’ dismay. I included along with my application a CD-R with my “digital portfolio” on it. It’s rather embarrassing, but I’ve now uploaded it for your viewing pleasure. I’ll wait while you go look.

If you were drinking a cup of coffee at the time, I imagine you did a spit-take. If not, please don’t tell me, as I’d like to preserve the image.

Much to my parents’ relief, I got in to UVA. But that’s not the important part. The decision that defined my experience there and made reddit possible was checking the box for “old dorms” on the housing questionnaire. I didn’t know what this meant at the time; old dorms just sounded cooler than new dorms, which were really suites—I wanted something that looked like the colleges I’d seen in movies.

The day we moved in, I spotted a blond-haired guy playing Gran Turismo on his PlayStation 2 across the hall from my new dorm room. His name was Steve Huffman. I was thrilled because I’d worried that no one played video games in college—that this was something I’d have to leave behind as a relic of my childhood. Steve was much less excited to meet me, because he’d seen my name on the door and thought he was living on a co-ed hall. So I was excited that he played video games; he was bummed that I wasn’t a girl. He got over that, and we became best friends. Picking old dorms and ending up across the hall from Steve was one of the best, albeit most random, things that ever happened to me.

You’ve Got to Be Willing to Disrupt (and Be Disrupted)

My dad has been a travel agent for more than thirty years. I distinctly remember dinner-table conversations around the time the Internet started to disrupt the travel industry. As a high school student with a particular interest in computers and technology, I was especially enthralled with all the buzz around the “dot-com bubble.”

Dad, on the other hand, was watching his commissions from airlines get cut all the way to zero. Travel agents used to make good money from bookings that now were going to OTAs (online travel agencies). Because of this disruptive technology, people were now booking their own flights and hotels, cutting out the middlemen—people like my dad.

Just a few years before, my dad decided to leave his position at a large agency to start his own small travel agency. A first-time entrepreneur, he was now facing a dramatic shift in the way his industry did business—and there was no stopping it. The Internet was changing the fundamental business models for the travel industry.

One night he came home from the office particularly frustrated. He’d just learned from a major airline that they, too, would finally be eliminating travel agent commissions altogether. After years of being gashed by these airlines, my father sent them a fax to articulate just how he felt as his business was being eroded.

“Fuck you.”

He doesn’t remember if he put a cover sheet on that fax, but I like to think he did.

Unlike people in other industries, he couldn’t call his lobbyist on K Street and ask him to get a law passed that would make sure all travel agents get a commission. He had to adapt his business model. And he did. To this day, he continues to operate with a focus on business and first-time travelers (usually boomers taking their first cruise). It’s not an enterprise I’ll be likely to take over, especially given hipmunk, but it’s one he and his employees will, I hope, continue to run for years to come.

But those dinner-table conversations made an impression on me. The Internet was a powerful tool, and I wanted to be sure I knew how to use it. The free market is ruthless. But it has to be. It’s up to us to make the most of it.

We must be opportunistic—when disruptions happen we need to identify the new business models and adapt, as my dad did. Or better, we need to be the ones doing the disrupting.

I knew I wanted to be a disrupter.

Sometimes You Just Have to Stand Up

My commercial law professor at the University of Virginia, Professor Wheeler, one day commented in class on the fact that I always volunteered to be the demo person in front of the class when he needed human props. He said how important it was to show up, to stand up—lauding my effort. I just thought it was fun to be that guy in a class of hungover undergrads. It wasn’t that I thought I might get better grades, but I figured I had two legs, so why the hell not get up and use them?

I’d never expected to give a TED talk, let alone at twenty-six years old, but then again I’d never expected to be in Mysore, India, which is where I was in October of 2009 as an attendee of TEDIndia, one of the yearly TED presentations that the organizers host all around the world.

A month or so before the conference I was included on a massive e-mail blast from Chris Anderson, curator of the TED Conference, that included this attention-grabbing nugget:

It is commonly said that TED attendees are every bit as remarkable as those appearing on stage. It happens to be true. That’s why at every conference we invite you to consider whether you have something to contribute to the program—and possibly later to the wider TED community, through the TED.com site.

So there at my laptop I raised my virtual hand—so to speak—and submitted a pitch for a three-minute talk to TED. These are the palate cleansers in between the more heady and often very emotional eighteen-minute TED talks. I figured I’d better get right to the pitch. Here’s what I wrote:

The tale of Mister Splashy Pants: a lesson for nonprofits on the Internet. How Greenpeace took itself a little less seriously and helped start an Internet meme that actually got the Japanese government to call off that year’s humpback whaling expedition. People manage to sell entire books on the subject of “new media marketing” but I only need three minutes—with the help of this whale—to explain the “secret.”

How could they resist a name like Mister Splashy Pants? Splashy to his friends.

I figured they must’ve been totally floored with awe, because I didn’t hear back for a month. Was this just their way of saying no? I was already in India at this point, so I sent a quick “ping” e-mail to see if I could get a yes or no.

“Congratulations. You did get accepted.”

Hot damn, I had twenty-four hours to write and rehearse a talk people practice for months…

Better turn on some South Park.

Thanks to VPN, I could watch South Park from south India. The episode was called “Whale Whores” (season 13, episode 11), and it satirized the Animal Planet documentary-style reality show called Whale Wars (oh, puns!), which features the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization that harasses Japanese whalers in an effort to protect marine life.

In the episode, after hordes of Japanese storm the Denver aquarium during Stan’s birthday and slaughter all the dolphins (am I really writing about South Park right now? I love this country), an enraged Stan implores his friends to join him in protecting the dolphins and whales, which the Japanese seem so intent on eradicating.

Stan’s friends are not interested until Stan joins the cast of Whale Wars, at which point Cartman and Kenny pretend to be whale-loving activists in order to milk some of the fame associated with the show. They volunteer, despite admitting earlier that they “don’t give two shits about stupid-ass whales.”

I grabbed a screen capture of Cartman, in a Save the Whales shirt, proclaiming his love of whales; Kenny is beside him, dolphin lover (sic) scrawled on his chest.

That image reminded me of what was then one of the biggest events on reddit—voting for the name for a humpback whale that Greenpeace was tracking. This event has since been eclipsed by other events, such as the “money bomb” donation of over half a million dollars to DonorsChoose.org or fund-raising for three-year-old Lucas Gonzalez, who needed a bone marrow transplant. But the story of Mister Splashy Pants was a special moment in reddit’s development and proved to be a prophetic tale of the power of social media: for an idea to truly become mainstream, it needs to go beyond the early adopters—in this case, whale lovers like Stan—and also include those who want to join the trend.

A lot of people rag on PowerPoint (often rightfully so). But in the right hands, this much-maligned communication tool can actually be incredibly entertaining (and even informative). The problem is, most people don’t understand how to use it, which sets the bar for PowerPoint presentations really low. Here’s my philosophy: lots of big pictures, text, and tons of slides. For my TED talk, I had room for no more than a few words on each slide—and they had to be in 86-point type, minimum. Forty-two slides—a good sign, even though it meant I had only a little more than four seconds for each slide.

There was going to be a giant TED sign on the stage behind me. This could make or break my public speaking career. And I was going to be on the same stage where the brilliant statistician Hans Rosling, using beautiful data, emphatically demonstrated how India ascended to economic superpower status—meanwhile, I was going to talk about a whale named Mister Splashy Pants. No pressure.

I finished before sunrise and took a power nap. When I awoke I began feverishly practicing with my timer. I missed all the morning talks. I was terrified of Chris Anderson, who famously cuts off speakers when they go on too long. As someone who routinely talks more than I should, I didn’t want my talk punctuated by a giant cane pulling me offstage.

I’d later learn that TED does not in fact use a giant cane.

I don’t remember the talk before mine, because I was so busy trying to remember what I was going to say.

Why are my hands shaking?

Chris Anderson introduced me as Alex. I hate being called Alex, but I smiled and took the stage, trying hard not to trip on the way. When you’ve grown up embracing your unisex name (okay, it’s predominantly a woman’s name here in the United States), it’s incredibly vexing to hear someone shorten it to the male version. I’m a dude named Alexis; please call me by my name. Now I was thinking about Alexis Argüello, the three-time world champion boxer my father named me after, and I wondered if he ever had the same issue growing up in Nicaragua—shit, I’m supposed to give a talk right now.

Remember, it can’t go worse than a giant room of CompUSA shoppers actively ignoring you.

That got me started. Get to it, Ohanian.

“There are a lot of ‘Web 2.0 consultants’ [I made air quotes with my fingers] who make a lot of money—in fact, they make their livings on this kind of stuff. I’m going to try and save you all the time and all the money and go through it in the next three minutes, so bear with me.”

I breathlessly shared the story of Greenpeace’s dogged efforts to raise online awareness of their effort to stop Japanese humpback whaling expeditions. They wanted to track one particular whale on its migration and humanize it with a name chosen by their online community. Greenpeace staff chose about twenty very erudite names—like Talei and Kaimana (which means “divine power of the ocean” in a Polynesian language)— and then there was Mister. Splashy. Pants.

I enunciated each word one at a time for full comedic effect. Laughter. They’re not hating this.

Once a reddit user discovered the poll and submitted it to reddit.com, a surge of votes flooded in for this obvious favorite. Who doesn’t want to hear a news anchor say “Mister Splashy Pants”?

Greenpeace wasn’t pleased. They insisted on rerunning the voting process, which only galvanized us. I changed our reddit logo from a smiling whale to a more combative version.

For any scientists reading this:

This time, polls closed with Splashy having an even more commanding lead.

Oh no, I’m running out of time. Please let them be gentle.

Eventually they relented and let the online favorite win (sometimes you just have to let yourself be disrupted, remember), but at this point they’d inadvertently created a brand that excited far more people than just Greenpeace fans—the message had spread far beyond whale lovers. In fact, the Japanese government actually called off the whaling expedition.

Everyone who creates something online has lost control of their message but in the process has gained access to a global audience. Mister Splashy Pants is a story about the democratization of content online—starring a whale—and it demonstrated how little control we have over our brands. It turns out we never had control, only now we realize it. Before the social web, we had little idea of what people actually thought about us—now we know, and when like-minded people band together, they wield a really big stick.

The talk is over. Applause. Even a few “Woo!”s from the crowd.

Nailed it. I’d given a few non-CompUSA talks before then, but once the video of my TED talk hit a million views and was front-paged on reddit, I became a known “public speaker.” In a brilliant illustration of my argument, the video was submitted to reddit with the following headline: “Nutjob mistakenly allowed to give TED Talk, he rambles for over four minutes before being carried off the stage.”

 

I have a lecture agent now and get paid more for a speaking gig than I did for an entire year’s work at Pizza Hut. It’s a little bit insane, but then I remember that I’m still getting paid less than Snooki 1, which makes me really question things.

I still get nervous before I get onstage—I just know how to better handle the nerves now. In truth, it really is all about practice. Once you’ve been onstage enough times and make sure you’re always well rehearsed and armed with the feeling that you really know what you’re talking about, it then becomes all about polish. Listen to yourself. I listen (not watch; I want to focus on the words) to every talk I give once afterward to see where the “ums” and “you knows” crept in. I’ll pay attention to jokes that didn’t work and others that worked better than expected—was it the joke or the delivery? Then I put that talk out of mind. Test, analyze, and repeat.

The Internet offers a wealth of great speeches, all freely available with just a few keystrokes. Find your favorite speakers and study them. I notice the way Jon Stewart disarms an interview subject with a joke before hitting him with a knockout punch. President Obama really knows how to hit the Pause button at the right moment for maximum impact. When used well, silence is powerful. And when I learned that Louis C.K.— easily one of the best comics of our generation—trashes all his material every year and starts anew, I knew I needed to keep from getting lazy and recycling entire talks. Louis does it because, he says, “The way to improve is to reject everything you’re doing. You have to create a void by destroying everything; you have to kill it. Or else you’ll tell the same fucking jokes every night.”

Being a stand-up comic is infinitely harder than giving a talk or a speech, so if he can stay that on top of his game, why can’t I?

There Are Much Harder Things in Life Than Being an Entrepreneur

Growing up, I had the words “lives remaining: 0″ written on the wall of my room. If life were a video game, that’s how it’d indicate this is the only chance left.

I’m lucky because I got that lesson when I was twenty-two years old and just a month or so out of college, feeling about as immortal as someone could.

But then everything changed with a phone call.

Why’s Mom calling me? She should be getting ready for her vacation trip to Norway.

She’s crying.

Max, our wonderful mutt, had to be put down.

Because I’m an only child, Max became my mother’s favorite when I left home for college—a position in her heart I could never reclaim. She absolutely adored him, and our family did everything we could to help him fight the Cushing’s disease that had finally taken its toll.

My mother was understandably distraught. I told her I loved her. I understood why she had to do what she did to our beloved dog and, although it didn’t work out that I could be there, I was grateful that she was. She had some more errands to run before meeting up with Dad and heading to the airport. She’d try to get through them the best she could, but I knew it was going to be hard for her to go on vacation.

At least it happened before she got on the plane.

My dog had just died. It was going to be a rough day in Boston. Startup life is extreme enough—every morning one wakes up thinking today’s the day you’re conquering the world—or today’s the day you’re doomed.

I got through that awful morning. I don’t remember what I was doing at the time, but my phone started buzzing again in the late afternoon.

Why’s Dad calling me? He should be at cruising altitude with Mom.

They’re in the hospital.

Howard County General.

On any other night Mom would be working there; she’d been a pharmacy technician there on the night shift for the last seventeen years.

Now she was missing the vacation she and my dad had planned for years.

She’d had a seizure in the dressing room of a department store, and an attentive clerk had called 911.

At least it happened before she got on the plane.

The initial brain scans revealed a tumor. The culprit in her skull was an insidious monster called glioblastoma multiforme. Such an ugly name. They were going to keep her overnight for more tests. She’d likely have surgery soon thereafter. I never should have done the Google search, but I needed to know what my parents would inevitably struggle to tell me.

I bought a ticket for a flight down first thing the next morning, but until then I was stuck in Boston. That night Steve and I tried to get our minds off things and went down to a local bar to watch our favorite team play their archrivals on Monday Night Football. Our Washington Redskins versus the Dallas Cowboys.

It was a really boring game. And we were losing it. So much for even a brief respite from the shittiest day of my life.

By the fourth quarter, there weren’t many TVs with the game still on (we were in Boston, after all). Back in Columbia, Maryland, my dad had already called it a night. He didn’t need any more heartache.

Steve and I had nowhere else to go and needed distraction—any distraction—so we kept watching. It was fourth and fifteen, and we were down 13–0 with less than four minutes left (non–football fans: just know that this means an exceptionally dire situation). Just then, Mark Brunell, a quarterback not known for his arm strength, hurled the ball downfield more than fifty yards to Santana Moss in the end zone.

It was 13–6!

But no one on the field was celebrating—and with good reason. There was hardly any time left, and we were still losing. Even the Cowboys’ mascot was taunting us with a dramatic look at his wrist to remind us that there wasn’t enough time left for our touchdown to matter.

But Steve and I kept cheering. What the hell. They had finally given us something to cheer about. That was our first touchdown of the season! And we’d been drinking, which always helps. We made the extra point, and it was almost a ball game. But that jerk in the Cowboys costume had a point.

Dallas ended up punting quickly, thanks to a stingy Skins defense, and we had the ball again (football novices: that’s our time to go on offense and score points).

First and ten from our own thirty-yard line. One of the commentators, John Madden, couldn’t even finish his run-on sentence before Brunell threw the exact same pass fifty-plus yards down the field right back to Moss, who again beat the coverage.

“And Santana Moss for a touchdown! Wow!” Al Michaels couldn’t believe his eyes as Moss hustled into the end zone.

At this point Steve and I were screaming. We were also the only two people still watching the game, I think.

Suddenly it was 14–13 and we were winning.

Winning? What?

Even when all hope seemed lost—see what happened there—we had to keep hoping, because that was all we had. As much as I wish I could affect the outcome of sporting events from my seat, there’s nothing I can do but cheer at the right times.

But it wasn’t over. Life isn’t a storybook. And what happened next is going to be exceptionally difficult to describe for non–football fans.

The Cowboys weren’t about to be upset so spectacularly in their own house on national TV. They briskly marched down the field, nearing field-goal range as the time kept ticking down. They didn’t need to reach the end zone; they needed to get just thirty-five yards or so from it. As long as they could kick a field goal, they could walk off the field as victors and dash our hopes.

They were that close, but only for a second.

A third-down completion to Patrick Crayton secured a first down and also put the Cowboys in field-goal range. Crayton got a step beyond the marker and then…contact.

BOOM!

You could hear the pop on the television broadcast. Sean Taylor, a lean and hungry safety, delivered a brutal—and legal—tackle that popped the ball loose, resulting in an incomplete pass.

BOOM!

I started yelling. Spilling beer. Probably also spitting a little. It was obnoxious because they kept replaying that hit and I kept yelling BOOM! louder with every replay.

Steve was yelling, too. Everyone else in the bar was hating us. We didn’t give a damn.

Later, I got my hands on the high-def footage of Taylor during and after that hit. He pops up, electrified. That fire. That heart. It’s something awesome when you watch a human—just another carbon-based life-form— doing what he does so well. And loving it.

That hit took all the air out of Cowboys Stadium, from the fans to the field. The Cowboys turned the ball over on downs, and Redskins players poured Gatorade on Coach Gibbs. Not a typical week-two celebration, but we thought it was appropriate.

Steve and I went home singing our fight song, and I had the joy of surprising my dad with the news the next morning. He’d never walked out on a game before and never would again.

I don’t believe in signs, mostly because I don’t think I’m worth all the trouble. But I was inspired.

Sean Taylor saved the day that night, doing what he loved and doing what he was so clearly talented at. It gave me a little bit of happiness on the saddest night of my life and confirmed that it’s never over until it’s over.

So I’d better not give up. And if I can find something I’m good at and love doing, I’m going to put everything I have into it.

Sean Taylor died two years later. He was shot by an intruder while at home with his girlfriend and daughter. He was twenty-four; just a few weeks older than I was at the time.

We often use words like bipolar and all-consuming to describe startup life. Fools compare it to combat, and over drinks even the more reasonable among us still veer into hyperbole about how hard it is to face the day some mornings. I’ve never lain in bed in self-pity, though. Even after that night I didn’t, because I knew back in Maryland my mother and father were dealing with a very different kind of morning. Perspective. My mom, the kindest person on earth, had been told she would die before seeing her grandchildren, and yet the first words out of her mouth when she saw me were “I’m sorry.”

That’s the kind of person she was. I knew I’d lived a rather stress-free life until that point, and I knew that that would have to change. I just didn’t think it’d happen all at once. My mom came to this country when she was twenty-three because she was in love with my dad. After a few years of living together while she was still an undocumented alien, they secretly married at City Hall in lower Manhattan, and only later did they have the “public” wedding for their families (surprise, Grandpa!). Eventually the cost of trying to raise a child in New York City (even in the boroughs—Brooklyn and then Queens) proved to be too much, and my parents moved to the suburbs of Maryland, where my dad’s modest income could go much further.

My father had a degree in urban studies and architecture from Antioch College, and my mother wound up getting her GED in 1980, just three years before I was born. She went on to work night shifts as a pharmacy technician, sleeping only a little so she could be present for more of my waking hours.

After all that, my mother—who had supported me my entire life, filled me with confidence, and loved me dearly—was telling me she was sorry she’d inconvenienced me by getting terminal brain cancer because it was something else I’d have to deal with?

Being an entrepreneur was the best decision I could’ve made, because not having a boss gave me the freedom to make my family a priority without compromising my work. I got a lot of use out of that 3G USB stick and laptop. As long as I had those two things, I was in the office, whether it was bedside at Hopkins or in the reddit headquarters in Somerville.

I write this all as a precursor to my story—to hell with chronological order—because as empowering as the Internet is (and boy, is it empowering), we must all still succumb to a common mortality. 2 I would trade anything to have my mom back, but in lieu of that, I can only work to honor her a little bit more every day.

To be reading this book, thinking about how to use this great platform, the Internet, to share your world-changing ideas, ideally from a comfortable seat somewhere, is itself a great luxury. We’re living in a time of unprecedented opportunity across the globe that happens to coincide with a time of tremendous misfortune.

Let’s make the most out of this great hand we’ve been dealt, eh?

Ask Me Anything!

That’s the end of my first post on this blog. Round two is coming soon. But in the meantime…

You may have heard about a little thing we do on reddit called an “AMA” (Ask Me Anything). Tim did one a little while back that went quite well, watch his answers here. Now I’d like to open up my brain to all of you here in the comments section of this post. Ask me anything between 9am-1pm PST (12pm-4pm EST) here in the comments section and I’ll answer you — promise!

###

Large parts of this post were adapted from Alexis’ book: Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.

About the author:
Alexis Ohanian is a startup guy making the world suck less: reddit, breadpig, hipmunk, Y Combinator. Investor, speaker, host of Small Empires, and loves his cat Karma.


  1. This is a cultural reference from the early twenty-first century. Readers in the mid-twenty-first century and beyond will probably know her as President Snooki. I mean no disrespect. 
  2. Except for the sentient robots. They’re going to be fine. Don’t shed a tear for them, because they wouldn’t for you—and they can’t; that’d be a lot of needless engineering.] 

Posted on: September 17, 2013.

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170 comments on “From Dot-Com Zero to Hero: One Man’s Story

    • Crystal ball is broken at the moment, but my gut is telling me it could be something that starts out as seemingly ‘simple’ as snapchat or frontback. It’s almost certainly mobile-first, too. What’s most interesting to me is that we’re approaching near-ubiquity for these devices and we haven’t yet seen a ‘social network’ that takes full advantage of the fact we have such powerful internet-connected-devices on us at all times.

      Like

      • I think it would have to be something big (a game changer), something more integrated than a phone. I think bio-implants (or something like Google Glass) will be the next big thing in social. The platform itself IMO won’t change too much, it’ll be one of the big two platforms but it will be how we interact with it. Just think about “search”, Google is still king and how long have they been king 15+ years, unless policy changes the way we use them they will continue to excel. The results are what we want. By policy I mean privacy and I think the only platform that has a chance to unseat Google is DuckDuckGo but the real difference is policy not results. I think the same holds true for social, Facebook and Twitter are king and queen and unless policy changes, I expect them to remain on top. The change will be how we interact with social platforms not the platform itself they will evolve and change with the way we interact with social. The other game changer might be a Pensive like Dumbledore has :) Just think about how you record (and interact with others) in your life right now it’s, pictures, video and words. If a bio-implant can change that it might be fun.

        Sorry for hijacking your thread. Thoughts?

        HTTR!

        Like

    • Apple splitting into two or more self financing entities, and so allowing creativity to be unleashed.
      Creativity flurrishes when resources are limited, it pushes thought to do more with less, and new ideas to form.
      Apple is an innovative company, which has excelled in periods of adversity. Rather than wait for the company to fail, artificially create this restitive environment, by putting the ideas people back into the garage, and let them dream, make things and have fun, away from the constraints of managers and accountants.

      Like

  1. Alexis… what an incredible story. I hope that someday I’ll be able to inspire people the way you will with this post.

    It is amazing how you are able to pick certain points in your life as defining moments for how much your life was shaped. It’s also amazing that it comes down to skills you may or may not be comfortable learning…. presentations at 14? I know many, many 20-somethings that have deathly fear of presentations.

    Do you think becoming an entrepreneur allowed you to value things differently in your life versus if you had to work for someone else? I mean all things… valuing time, freedom, family time, possessions, money, etc.

    I find it interesting to think that creating value for the world is akin to betting accessing things that are valuable. Tim clearly does this with Time, and does it well. I wonder how you feel about this.

    Thanks for sharing. Look forward to part 2.

    PS — Reddit was the platform I used to launch my now bestselling course on Udemy. It’s a beautiful, ethical, system. Cheers.

    Like

    • Thank you, Justin!

      I absolutely think so. The thing I reflect on most often is how much differently my life during my mom’s illness would’ve been if I were working for someone else. I’d have likely resented the work I was doing and was keeping me away from my family. I was lucky to be my own boss.

      That said, there are values I know I haven’t developed as much because I’ve never had to work for someone else (aside from a bunch of part-time jobs in highschool and college).

      One thing I really believe is changing — in part because of people like Tim — is the modern workforce is adapting to the reality that 9-5 with cubes isn’t the best way for most (all?) people to be productive. It’s extant throughout tech culture and I really believe is inevitable for most industries to attract and retain talent. We can’t keep using a 20th century playbook if we want 21st century results.

      And congrats on your udemy course! What was it? Plug that sucker!

      Like

  2. Hi Alexis,

    This is quite a story and I really enjoyed reading it.

    My question is – how to cope with tough times when you don’t have any kind of support at all? Not from family since they don’t want to hear about your entrepreneurial endeavors and friends only can do as much. At the end of the day, you are alone and even the strongest of us cannot do it by themselves. I know success is possible and reachable, but where to turn when you stuck? What is your take on this?

    Like

  3. Hi Alexis! :) Thank you for sharing your story. I really enjoyed reading about your journey to “now” and appreciate your humble humor. I had to crack up about your lamenting of the “way back machine.” Don’t we all feel that way!

    I’m hoping you’ll answer my question even though it’s before your 9am-1pm pst window time. (I’m leaving for a trip and I won’t have time to ask my question later — Please pick me!)

    Question – It’s a 2-part-er:

    What are your 5 essentials for being a successful entrepreneur? (Maybe they are thoughts, tools, ways of thinking, etc.)

    What are the 5 biggest lessons you’ve had to learn on your way to “success”? (They could be about anything: life, business, health, etc.)

    Thank you for your time!
    – Em

    ps. I actually like Alexis *better* as a man’s name.

    Like

    • Thanks, Em! I’m pretty fond of Alexis as a dude’s name, too :)

      Wow. OK, lemme think..

      5 essentials for being a successful entrepreneur?

      1. determination, like, crazy relentlessness. you have to give LOTS of damns about everything.

      2. humility. because everyone has great ideas, but to turn them into something you have to accept that you’ll need to convince EVERYONE to use your new app, or show them your cat photos are worth their time, and generally accept that you’re going to be failing a lot along the way.

      3. failure-tolerance! speaking of which… I wish this were something being taught more in schools. From the day we enter school we’re taught to avoid failure, to pass tests, to advance to the next grade, etc. Most of us basically *don’t* fail until we get into the world and learn, oh, right, this is life. It’s especially important in founders, but useful for us all.

      4. be an animal – this touches on 1 & 2, but what I’m really thinking about here is willingness to do whatever it takes. Fixing bugs at 2am on a saturday night without hesitating, because entrepreneurial life is not what The Social Network may lead one to believe. Except for the Justin Timberlake, that dude is always around.

      5. And the most important is probably the internet! The number of resources for a founder in ANY industry (especially tech) in 2005 (when we started) compared to now is VASTLY different. With an internet connection and a device, you can now watch talks from the world’s brightest minds, read advice from people who are in the game right this minute, push yourself by seeing innovation every time you refresh your browser. This is the world’s greatest library & stage and it’s getting larger and richer with content every day.

      5 biggest lessons you’ve had to learn on your way to “success”?

      1. You know why everyone says some version of ‘success is loving what you’re doing’? That’s because it’s true. I really don’t feel like I’ve worked a day since graduating from college. I hope to live in a world where one day we can all feel that kind of success + pride in what we do for a living. But in the meantime, I know the shit my folks and relatives had to put up with to provide for me, so I’m not going to squander this.

      2. You’re going to die. Sorry, I hope Kurzweil is right, but I’m not counting on it. So what the fuck are you waiting for?

      3. Be kind. Vonnegut said it best: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

      4. Take care of yourself. I’m working on this one myself. I’m 30 now and I know I do better work when I’m well-rested, well-fed, and well-exercised (is that a word?). But I’m always finding excuses to work some more instead. I’ve gotta dust off my 4 hr body.

      5. No one knows what the fuck they’re doing (and that’s OK!) I actually gave a fun talk about this a couple weeks ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GGxUlRVnZM

      Like

  4. Alexis,

    Thanks for sharing parts of your books. I am looking forward to finding out where you will take this with your follow-up posts here on Tim’s website.

    3 parts in the above text stick out (IMO). They are:

    “when disruptions happen we need to identify the new business models and adapt, as my dad did. Or better, we need to be the ones doing the disrupting.”

    “And if I can find something I’m good at and love doing, I’m going to put everything I have into it.”

    “I got a lot of use out of that 3G USB stick and laptop. As long as I had those two things, I was in the office, whether it was bedside at Hopkins or in the reddit headquarters in Somerville.”

    No further questions at this point in time :)

    Best regards from Greece,
    David

    Like

  5. Alexis – thank you for building reddit!

    How do you go about building a supportive network offline and creating your own personal network?

    You got lucky in the dorm and met Tim through Donnors Choose. But what did you do deliberately to build your network when you were starting out and what do you do now?

    Like

    • Sure thing, James! Thanks for redditing.

      Surround yourself with people who motivate and inspire you. This is easier in a setting like college, but I’ve met founders who’ve collaborated at a hackathon and turned a fun hack into a business. Meetup.com is a legit place to find these folks. And fwiw, I wasted a good bit of time early in reddit going to events and meetups for the sake of meeting people…these rarely turned into anything valuable, so once you’ve got positive people in your network — focus on making AWESOME stuff.

      Because if you’ve made something awesome, you can just write that in a subjectline and get someone’s attention. Especially because it’s getting easier and easier to make and launch stuff online. Steve and I were two nobodies out of UVA when we started, but there’ll be more on ”how we did it” in tomorrow’s post….

      Like

  6. I have a 4 year old kid. More than anything I would love to give her an entrepreneurial spirit. What do you think I could do to help her think and approach life in the way you have?

    Like

  7. I am starting a mobile performance ad network using Adzerk as my adserver, How can I get publishers and advertisers as a solo entrepreneur for now with VERY little capital?

    Like

    • OH! Say Hi to those cats for me. reddit uses them. It’s gonna be a slog, that’s for sure, but I’ve got a lot of specifics for this in the post coming tomorrow (sorry to shirk it for a day but honestly, tomorrow’s piece is going to help a ton).

      Like

  8. Hi Alexis, truly phenomenal story – thanks for doing this!!

    I’m fascinated by the early-stage community building process and thoroughly enjoyed reading your ebook ‘Make Something People Love’ – loved how you guys spent your Friday nights stuffing envelopes and hand-signing a bunch of notes to surprise and delight your early Hipmunk users… it’s immensely inspiring to see lengths that you went to in the early days to spread delight in your community of users!

    I have 3 questions (sorry to be greedy):

    1. It appears the problem for many early stage companies is getting more users, not turning them away (especially when content creation is concerned). How important do you think it is to actively curate/design your early community for success in the long run? (e.g. using a Dribbble/Medium model of exclusivity)

    2. Hand written letters and swag are awesome, but apart from that, what do you believe are the most effective (or most interesting) methods for encouraging creative participation within a community? (e.g. Youtube used competitions in their early days, Pinterest held a Blogger ‘Pin-it-forward’ event etc.)

    3. I read that spent some time volunteering in Armenia for Kiva – in what ways do you think your experience out there and getting to know the Kiva entrepreneurs gave something back to you, shifted your perspective, or shaped the person you are today?

    Thanks in advance!

    Like

    • Thanks for reading MSPL!

      1. Very important. Those early content creators will set the bar on a user-generated content site. One could argue having PG send reddit its first dose of traffic was a huge boon because it brought his readers, who tended to be smart and interested in quality content.

      2. DOING things. Here’s the the first community project I orchestrated for reddit based on an idea spawned on reddit http://blog.reddit.com/2013/09/im-putting-reddit-alien-on-bus-and.html
      Over time, redditors realized they didn’t need me or any admin to pull this stuff off — they could just do it. You know your community better than anyone. Do stuff the people want, show them, give credit, repeat.

      3. Yes! I loved that three month respite from the tech industry, I left reddit, and went to the motherland to get some perspective. I’d never been, despite being half Armenian, and always felt a bit disconnected culturally because I didn’t grow up speaking the language and never really was a part of the community (we roll deep in certain cities – e.g., Glendale) because I grew up in suburban MD.

      There are amazing entrepreneurs EVERYWHERE in the world, I knew this from years of traveling before, but in Armenia I realized my genetic cousins would have been there (my relatives fled during the Armenian Genocide) with the same entrepreneurial ambitions as me, but in a system that was much much harder to succeed in (corruption, bureaucracy, etc). Microfinance is a part of the solution, but there is still so much more to be done and until then I’ll continue to be grateful for having the life lottery ticket of being born in the States.

      http://pages.kiva.org/node/5087

      Like

  9. Hello Tim, my question is what is your method for compiling new information on a subject that you are trying to learn about. You seem to be every effective at doing this. A piece of advise if your going to start a podcast the most important thing by far is to put new ones out on a consistent schedule.

    Like

  10. How would you market an online private community dedicated to exploring emerging markets in China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Brazil and so on… for those who are not actively social online?

    Like

    • I don’t know enough about those markets, but I’d start with one at a time. I know enough that Brazil and Burma, for instance, are at VERY different stages — not to mention vastly different cultures, governments etc.

      Start with the one you know best and get over there. Start talking to the people who’d be using this service and decide how you’re going to be fundamentally different (better) than anything on the market today.

      Like

  11. I am just curious about how you acquired the skills to start making websites on your own at a young age? Was it self exploration via online resources? What is your take on online education?

    Like

  12. I was invited to be a 99U fellow, at the 99U pop up school that your speaking at this week in NYC. I fly in today and was wondering if I can buy you dinner and pick your brain sometime this week in person?

    Like

    • Awesome, Joe! Congrats. I’m in San Diego right now, though, and unfortunately a bit swamped with my book launch on the 1st. I’m leaving shortly after my 99u talk for another event for the city of NY to boot. I do hope we can chat before/after the talk, though!

      Like

  13. Hey Alexis,

    Truly inspiring story, could not imagine how tough some of those days were on your heart. I really appreciate you opening yourself up to us with that.

    On another note, outstanding geocities page and online portfolio. Those brightened my day.

    What advice would you have for cofounders applying for incubators who don’t have an MIT degree to tack on their application that requests our biggest achievements or qualifications? And what would you suggest we say if the idea and product is there but we don’t have legitimate domain experience? Should we just focus on the customers and product and let our work speak for us? Would appreciate your input.

    Thanks so much,
    Andrew

    Like

    • Thanks, Andrew! Gotta love the wayback machine…

      Good news! Most YC applicants don’t have MIT degrees either! You should be building things. Launching things. Doing things! Raised $100K on kickstarter for a thingy? Awesome. That shows you took an idea and brought it to fruition. MOST people never get that far.

      Many great tech disruptions come from outsiders, since they’re not inhibited by the status quo of ‘this is how things have always been done’ but you’ll indeed have to show that — traction speaks for itself. You can be nobodies but if you’ve got a product that people in industry X clearly can’t get enough of, you’re the kind of founders we want to invest in.

      best of luck!

      Like

  14. Alexis, I have an idea for a non-profit startup and will pursue it whether it provides a source of income or not, but how do non profit, like Reddit make money? I know I can probably find the answer to this question on the Internet, but hey you offered:)

    Brent

    Like

    • reddit isn’t exactly profitable, but the way we’re aiming to do it is with reddit gold: https://ssl.reddit.com/gold

      advertising hasn’t changed in decades and the current online model isn’t going to be sustainable in the long-term (it also tends to make a crappy user experience).

      So, you’re doing a non-profit, which is awesome, and I’d highly recommend you think about it like a business. Build it to be sustainable, so you’re not spending your time fundraising, but actually making the world suck less. Watsi.org is the newest example of this (YC backed too) but donorschoose.org, kiva.org, charitywater, and a few more are the future of nonprofits because they’re totally transparent, low overhead, and using the internet to make people feel empowered by a donation of $5 just like they were giving $500,000.

      Let them be your guides, then be better! :)

      Like

  15. Hi Alexis,

    Thank you for sharing your story, I will definitely be looking up your 3-minute TED talk on Mister Splashy Pants. I am a fellow Redskins fan (looks like we’re back to our normal selves this season), still have hope as always.

    I have two questions for you. I am currently stuck in a 9 to 5 job and I am interested in making a living as an entrepreneur. I have several ideas that I am passionate about and I am looking to get going, but don’t know exactly where to start. I have started my own blog as a preliminary step in starting a t-shirt company, (millymaker.com if you want to check it out), but I am not sure how to reach more people. What are your suggestions for how to become an entrepreneur and leaving the 9 to 5? and driving more traffic to a blog?

    Thank you for taking the time to read this and respond!

    Danielle

    Like

    • Hi Danielle!

      I took a look — I dig what you’re aiming to do with millymaker.com. Unfortunately, there’s no formula or overnight way to get (sustained) traffic. It takes time to build an audience, but the way to do that is by consistently putting out quality content.

      I like what you’re doing with those profiles of athletes. There’s an audience for that and over time you want millymaker to be the brand people think of — it’s going to take a lot of hustle. Everyone always asks me how to get on the #1 spot of reddit and my answer is always : don’t submit your own work. All the other social media platforms are great places to self-promote (but don’t overdo it) reddit is more like a cocktail party.

      There are some great subreddits (communities) that you should read for content ideas and chime in on comments just as you would showing up to a conversation at a cocktail party: http://www.reddit.com/r/TwoXChromosomes/

      http://www.reddit.com/r/xxfitness/

      (You wouldn’t come up to a few people talking about fitness saying “I STARTED MILLYMAKER AND YOU SHOULD BUY OUR SHIRTS” you’d add value to the conversation.)

      Oh, and I did a nifty little profile for linkedin on a t-shirt design co you may find interesting: http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130914202457-4421225-30-days-of-awesome-frank-jan?trk=prof-post

      best of luck!

      Annnnd I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention teespring.com (YC + portfolio company) for prototyping your shirt ideas without any risk!

      Like

      • Thanks Alexis! Appreciate you taking the time to respond! The advice and links are very helpful. Teespring looks awesome – excited to see where this all will lead. Thanks again and go skins!

        Like

  16. Alexis,

    Do you have any suggestions for starting to build a user base for a bootstrapping paid service site. This is now at a minimum viable product.

    I know now that all the advice says build the audience first, unfortunately that advice didn’t come until it was mostly built.

    Thanks!

    Like

    • Nice avatar, James.

      Yes, this is the classic cold start problem. Many startups get over this the old-fashioned way: cold-calling (or cold-faxing even!) and getting in the office of clients. If you’ll permit me, ZocDoc started this way and the founder spoke with me about this in the first Small Empires episode: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CE2TphJPgs

      It will not scale, but it’ll often get you those first customers. If it doesn’t, there’s a good chance you need to take a critical look at the product and figure out how to make it something people want.

      Like