Alexis Ohanian Talk on Without Their Permission

Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit, spoke at Powell's yesterday about the founding of Reddit and his new book Without Their Permission.

It was a fun talk: He's a good speaker, clearly knows and enjoys his subject matter, and has plenty of fun anecdotes. His basic message is that we need to become entrepreneurs because its good for us personally and good for the world. The barrier to gain attention and achievement is high, but there are no gatekeepers stopping us from pursuing our dreams as there were even just ten years ago.

Here are my full notes from the talk:

Alexis Ohanian
Cofounder of Reddit
Author of Without Their Permission
  • The fear of being embarrassed holds people back.
    • Reddit started as an incredibly barebones html site. If being embarrassed had held them back, they would never have done it.
  • The fear of not knowing what you're doing holds people back.
    • The secret is that nobody really knows what they're doing if they're trying anything new.
  • The world is not flat, but the world-wide-web is flat. It's all equal. Two guys with a laptop and an internet connection can anything.
  • Reddit started in a suburb of a suburb of Cambridge, which is a suburb of Boston, which is not at all silicon valley.
    • great burritos in silicon valley, but no need to be there.
  • The enemy is the back button -- Paul Graham
    • The enemy is whether people leave your site. 
    • You have to be better than cat photos.
  • So much is competing for our attention.
    • If you have ideas you want to spread, the bar is high to compete.
    • But word of mouth is just as important as it ever was
    • Watercooler conversations have just moved online
    • It's so exciting to see people doing philanthropy, art, and getting their message out.  
  • Gatekeepers vs. no gatekeepers
    • Anecdote about Gary Larson and The Farside. He just barely managed to get syndication, and only then because he went on vacation and managed to get a deal. 
    • What about all the other Gary Larson's out there who got filtered out because the gatekeepers said no?
  • All the web comics out there today could only exist in this era. 
    • xkcd only exists because of the internet. 
    • it's a business that earns a living for their creator. 
    • there's no way that the math joke from the programmer drawn with a stick figure would have been put on the page next to family circus.
  • Kickstarter has now given more money to art than the National Endowment for Art.
  • Choose your own adventure version of Hamlet.
    • No traditional publisher would have backed this. If they had, it would have been a meager, several thousand dollar advance.
    • On Kickstarter, he got $600,000 to write this.
  • Alexis would have been an immigration lawyer if he hadn't had a fateful conversation in a waffle house.
  • If you are a programmer today, you have the most valuable skill possible.
    • And, you can be entirely self-taught. 
    • All the knowledge you need is available for free.
  • Paul Graham gving a talk about how to start a startup.
    • Alexis and Steve heard of this talk, realized it would be during spring break.
    • Decided to go there, rather than the beach.
    • Went from Virginia to Boston. 
    • Introduced themselves, talk him that they wanted to pitch their business (Mmm… something mobile using text message) to him.
    • He said "you have a slightly better than awful chance".
  • Soon after, Paul formed Y combinator.
    • They interviewed for it.
    • Were rejected that night.
    • Decided they would prove him wrong.
  • Out that night with a bunch of Harvard guys
    • Harvard guys bragging about their bank jobs
    • They lied, bragged that they got into Y combinator
  • On the train back the next morning, get a call from Paul.
    • He hated the idea because it was based on phones (not smart phones). Said he'd let them in if they did something on the web instead.
    • They got off at the next stop, turned around, went back to Boston.
  • Had discussion about their experiences using Slashdot, reading newspapers, etc.
    • Paul said yes, on the right direction…build the front page of the internet.
    • A lot of pressure, when all they wanted to do was continue to live the college lifestyle.
  • Humans of New York -- Brandon
    • failed out of University of Georgia
    • bounced around different finance jobs
    • suddenly decided he wanted to move to NY and become a photographer
    • his friends told him he was crazy. he didn't even own a camera, didn't know anything about photography.
    • But he goes to NY. his photos sucks.
    • He reads how to get better. A few days turned into a few weeks turned into a few months.
    • In four years went from having never taken a photo in his life, to being a worldwide celebrated and viewed photographer
    • From no fame or credibility to worldwide credibility, making the world suck a little less.
    • Hilarious and moving.
    • Ten years ago, that never would have been possible.
  • "Dude, sucking is the first step to being kind of good at something." -- Adventure Time
Questions
  • "Nobody does know what they're doing. It all seems like its luck."
    • Malcome Gladwell's book Outliers -- chance is still the biggest component of the equation.
    • The idea that all web links are equal. True only on a technical level. In the real world, still subject to luck: which link gets attention. 
  • "A lot of luck is part of it, but it also seems like dedication is part of it. You need talents like design, development, ideas, etc. What do you think your talents are that got your over the hill?"
    • The ability to build the thing is probably the most important.
    • My talent is the willingness to do anything/everything else: get takeout, call the wireless provider, anything…
    • Tenacity
      • Airbnb: founders ate nothing but cereal for a year and a half to keep costs down. They just wouldn't quit.
        • Aside: Airbnb one day discovered that really good, attractive photos make people far more comfortable to rent an apartment. That discovery helped them turn the corner, turn into a billion dollar company.
    • Be comfortable with failure / negative feedback. Alexis has a negative reinforcement wall:
      • "You are a rounding error to Yahoo. Why are you even here talking to us?"
  • "What's appearing to you about bit coin?"
    • It's a digital crypto currency for the internet.
    • I'm cautiously optimistic about it because it's just absurd how much money financial institutions make just moving money around. they're a drain on the economy/world/money.
    • Even though silk road is shut down, we still see bitcoin transactions at roughly the same level. Good sign that it's being used for legitimate stuff.
    • He gets bitcoin donations from people who torrent his book.
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