Alexis Ohanian, 30, is co-founder of the popular online community Reddit, travel comparison website Hipmunk and Breadpig, a digital publishing site. In his new book, Without Their Permission, Mr. Ohanian discusses his many successful ventures, how the Web has empowered every individual to “make the world suck less,” the growth of startup communities and the continuing fight over Internet freedom.
You sold Reddit to Condé Nast Publications in October, 2006, for an undisclosed sum, only 18 months after you and Steve Huffman founded the company. Does any part of you wish you were still at the helm?
I’ve never regretted it, and that largely has to do with what was going on in my personal life. For me to have the chance 15 months after graduating from college to have this life-changing amount of money, to know that I could go to both my parents and say, ‘Listen, it was not in vain, thank you for believing in me,’ was totally worth it. So I’ve never regretted it.
Reddit was largely created with the help of Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley-based startup incubator. When you entered the program in 2005, accelerators were relatively new. Today, it seems like they’re a dime a dozen. Do you think accelerator programs have outlived their usefulness?
The thing I always try to stress is that these accelerators and incubators, no matter how prestigious they might be, none of them are guarantees to success, and none of them are prerequisites. Where they are still extremely valuable is stimulating startup activity and community in places that aren’t Silicon Valley. … For the Internet 2012 Campaign Bus Tour (to promote the Open Internet) we were in the heartland, and we stopped at a ton of accelerators and incubators that were the nexus of startup communities in Lincoln, Neb., or St. Louis, and that’s where I think it’s really valuable.
Well, it’s no longer the best-kept secret. I think it was a secret maybe five years ago, and then we started noticing that the applications that were coming into Y Combinator from Waterloo, it was just on a different level. It’s not even fair now because the reputation precedes every single one of these graduates. It’s just a factory for entrepreneurial engineers, and it’s amazing.
Are there any Canadian startups you’re particularly excited about?
I could talk about companies like Thalmic Labs out of Waterloo – you basically just have to watch their YouTube video and be amazed at the magic they’re doing. … The other one that I could not help but give a couple of shout-outs to in the book is Pebble. Here’s a company that went through Y Combinator, still had trouble raising money afterward because people were skeptical of hardware, and they went to Kickstarter, and really put that startup on the map when they raised $10-million. It was a real turning point.
In the first few chapters of your book you discuss how the Internet is in a large way a fruition of American values, yet in the latter chapters you discuss how the American government tries to control it. Why do American lawmakers seek to limit Internet freedom with policies like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA)?
The glib answer is because lobbying dollars get them re-elected, and lobbying dollars tell them how to vote. The more nuanced answer is that we have a disconnect between what the American people want, and what our politicians want. SOPA/PIPA illustrated that very well. … The notion of building a place where someone with a good idea can have a level playing field with the largest businesses in the world, and any idea, any blog post, video, business, non-profit, all of those things are created equal, that’s a powerful idea. We don’t yet have a government that fully understands the technology.
Before you went to Washington to argue against SOPA and PIPA you took to Reddit for suggestions on how to fight back against a $94-million (U.S.) lobbying effort. Who has more power today, a highly paid Washington lobbyist or a community of online hobbyists?
I still have to give leverage to the lobbyists for now, but it makes sense that an issue as vital to the Internet as SOPA and PIPA would be the one that showed us our true strength online. … The future, though, assuming all links remain equal, assuming Verizon doesn’t get its way, assuming we don’t screw this up – whether it’s big business or big government – assuming those things don’t happen, more and more leverage will come back to us as citizens.
Is your book meant to be a call to action?
At various points in the book I encourage people to just put it down and get started, and I really mean that. I literally want people to put this book down and start doing whatever that thing is that they want to do. The big reason why I wrote it is because I want people to achieve their maximum potential for awesome, because I want better stuff, I want better businesses, I want better non-profits, I want better art, I want better politicians, and the way that happens is by doing stuff. … I hope it inspires a lot of people to do great things.
Alexis Ohanian is on a 150-stop book tour that includes several Canadian appearances. He’ll be hosted by The Globe and Mail on Oct. 18, 2013, at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. For tickets, go to Globerecognition.com