Video courtesy of Empower Northeastern.
When Reddit co-founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman applied to Y-Combinator during YC’s first ever batch of funding, they were turned away. “We applied, gave a great interview, and the next morning we got called back—work on something else,” Ohanian said.
The Y-Combinator team didn’t like the pair’s original idea—an application that allowed hungry customers to order food on their phones called My Mobile Menu—and wanted them to come up with something totally new.
So instead, they built Reddit.
And when Ohanian was invited to visit Yahoo during Reddit’s early days, an executive called Reddit’s visitor count “a rounding error” compared to Yahoo’s web traffic. Ohanian used the experience constructively and hung a poster on his wall, reminding himself to prove the executive wrong. “I made this wall of negative reinforcement. Do not let your haters get you down,” Ohanian said.
Ohanian’s narrative during his January 14th campus visit to Northeastern’s Entrepreneurs Club in Blackman Auditorium was a story of both early failure and current success. The fundamental message: don’t get discouraged.
Today, in addition to his investing activity, the man behind Reddit is also behind other successful startups such as Hipmunk and Breadpig. He also advises numerous other startups, and travels the world evangelizing entrepreneurship and net neutrality.
Ohanian also just published a book, Without Their Permission, which he is currently promoting through a national book tour. He’s visited almost 100 universities nationwide to talk to budding entrepreneurs and share his stories.
To the audience, Ohanian encouraged students to take full advantage of the internet—“the greatest library and stage the world has ever seen”—and build something that will change the world. He reminded students to be risky and step outside of their comfort zones. “We are all perpetually in a state of figuring it out. You should never let ‘I don’t know’ stop you,” Ohanian said.
Ohanian also spoke to a Northeastern alumnus, Michael Norman, on stage about his crowdfunding angel investment platform, WeFunder. The site allows regular people to invest as little as $100 in startups they care about. The founders of the platform had to work to petition the government to circumvent laws prohibiting raising funds from non-accredited investors.
While at Northeastern, Norman was involved in community organizing and specific initiatives to improve the world around him, but noted that that he now opts to spend time building platforms on “the most powerful force in the universe”—the internet—rather than focusing on specific organizations or programs, so his efforts can scale. “In order to make the impact I wanted, I realized needed to be focused on infrastructure.”
Norman echoed Ohanian’s message that a life of entrepreneurship is a risky lifestyle, and that being involved in new things is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. “We all have dark times, and I think those are the times that shape you. Entrepreneurship is the same way,” Norman said.
And yet, for some people like Norman, a life of entrepreneurship is the most rewarding and only lifestyle they would choose. “I’ve always liked getting new things off the ground. It’s by far the most gratifying experience.”
“Life doesn’t have a GPA. Life is going to be full of failures and setbacks, and that’s okay—especially if you’ve chosen a life of entrepreneurship,” Ohanian said.