You don’t need to be a cut-throat jerk to be successful in the business of capitalism. Alexis Ohanian doesn’t stand out in a room; other than being tall enough to play NBA defense, he’s usually the unassuming guy in a corner making new friends with a big smile and a buddy-buddy attitude. Ohanian also happens to have founded one of the most influential websites in existence: Reddit.com, a popular news aggregator, snags over 1 billion page views a month and has the power to turn a news story into a viral sensation.
Ohanian’s new book, Without Their Permission, reveals the origin story of Reddit as the earnest project of a do-good entrepreneur. Most importantly, it proves that there are many paths to unlocking the Internet treasure chest and at least one doesn’t involve selling your soul.
Before the days of social media dominance, a 22-year-old Ohanian had a simple theory: “the old model for news aggregation, when it was printed on a dead tree, wasn’t suited for the Internet age,” he writes. “An entire building full of editors, no matter how smart or tireless they are, can’t match the speed or efficiency with which” a robust Internet community can discover important news.
The sheer wide-eyed idealism of Ohanian is notable; we see it a lot from fresh-faced Silicon Valley newbies, but it’s still encouraging to hear it spelled out.
“I’m motivated by all the awesome people whose ideas we’ve never benefited from because of where they were born or because of their race, sex, or other characteristics,” he gushes. “All the bullshit that holds amazing people back doesn’t suddenly disappear online, but the open Internet does technologically level the playing field for everyone.”
It’s an imperfect utopian lens. Social media is as famous as it is infamous for the spread of patently false information: rumors of untimely deaths (video below); false information during a school rampage; and Photoshopped images of a catastrophic storm.
The Reddit community, itself, wrongly identified the Boston bombing suspect after some misguided vigilante sleuthing (Reddit execs would eventually ban the practice of crowdsourcing manhunts on the site).
But, none of these disaster scenarios deterred Ohanian from his newfound mission. After being rejected from his university entrepreneurship class, Ohanian bum-rushed noted tech entrepreneur, Paul Graham, after a talk he gave at Harvard. Graham was eventually convinced to seed the idea of a user-controlled content aggregator, which set Ohanian on the path to garage tinkering.
The staple of Reddit, the up and down voting arrows that control the fate of story, were hand-coded out of brute-force simplicity and a dash of intuition. “Neologisms like upvote and downvote came into existence without any forethought—I just liked the way an up-and-down arrow looked.”
The simple tools for crowdsourcing interesting content would eventually help Reddit become among the top 40 websites. President Obama did an “ask me anything” forum, the community helped galvanize a worldwide protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act, and raise over $100,000 for Donor’sChoose.org.
Hypothesis test about marketplace of Ideas: True.
Being A Nice Guy -> Mo-ney, Mo-ney, Mo-ney, Mo-ney…Mon-NEY!
“Look at every meeting as a chance to do someone a solid,” advises Ohanian, who argues that starting a successful company starts with building good karma. Help out as many people as you can, and eventually it’ll come back.
Before Reddit’s fame, he met a Wired reporter, Rachel Metz, who was interested in a story. Metz and Ohanian hit it off over Chinese food, to the point where Metz could no longer objectively cover the growing startup. “That was fine by me. No Wired story came from that, but I got a new friend in Rachel.”
But, that set in motion a very lucrative chain of events. Metz “happened to mention reddit to her editor at Wired, Kristen Philipkoski. Kristen, the wife of Kourosh Karimkhany, was doing business development for Condé Nast and heard from Rachel about a pair of plucky founders in Boston working on something interesting called reddit.”
Eventually, Condé Nast would acquire Reddit for an unknown (but pretty large) sum of money, turning Ohanian from a startup founder to investor overnight.
Without Their Permission reads mostly like business advice; if it can convince more people to make money by being a nice person and believing in humanity, it will have accomplished a noble goal.