December 7, 2011
Q&A, Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, founder of Breadpig
While researching Generation Go, one of our 10 Trends for 2012, we talked to Alexis Ohanian, a 28-year-old who describes himself as a “startup guy” who would “like to make the world suck less.” Generation Go refers to the idea that an unprecedented entrepreneurial mindset is emerging among Millennials as a response to continued joblessness or discontent with the status quo—and Ohanian embodies this ethos: He co-founded the social news site Reddit after graduating from the University of Virginia in 2005, then founded Breadpig, a U.S.-based nonprofit that sells sustainably developed products and donates the proceeds. Ohanian also helped to launch Hipmunk, the flight and hotel search site; serves as “ambassador to the East” for tech startup incubator Y Combinator; is an angel investor at Das Kapital Capital; and is a contributor for Bloomberg TV. Over email, he shared some thoughts on his own experience and that of his generation.
First, could you tell us about the book you’re working on, Without Your Permission? It seems very on topic.
I’m writing Without Your Permission because the Internet levels the playing field for all who can step on it—and not just for minting new millionaires but for anyone with an idea they want to share. It’ll be half informational (“The world isn’t flat, but the World Wide Web is”—probably my favorite quote from the proposal) and half inspirational (the most successful online innovators didn’t ask for permission—this is the kind of thing at the core of most of my public speaking).
I want this book to be a revolutionary manifesto—with doodles! Yes, I’ll doodle in it, just like all my startup mascots (Reddit, Breadpig, Hipmunk).
Why do you think such a large percentage of Millennials are drawn to entrepreneurship?
Not having studied any data on the subject, I can only speculate that it’s part necessity and part access. One of the most exciting things about growing up online is the tremendous access you have to information—both sending and receiving it. When you know the world is only a few mouse clicks away from seeing what you’ve produced, you should feel entrepreneurial.
Do you see a distrust of big institutions at all?
One needn’t look further than the recent #occupy movement. We’ve come to expect a level of transparency that most large institutions simply aren’t built for or ready to provide. One can see a photo of what their favorite indie musician had for breakfast or feel a connection with an upstart brand because they give enough of a damn to quickly assist me via Twitter when something goes wrong. The generation wants to trust, but most of these institutions have gotten by through PR, obfuscation and secrecy.
Do you think the current economic conditions have played any part in the entrepreneurial mindset?
Necessity is the mother of invention. And sometimes she has to move back into Necessity’s house to get her startup going.
How much of a social mission do you see Millennials infusing in their startups?
I don’t know. This worries me, because there’s no shortage of companies trying to whitewash a company with a bullshit social mission. I do think more of these companies will be led with a better perspective of at least not doing social harm, but I advise anyone who wants to bake in social good to be prepared to back it up with lots of data & evidence.
As a Millennial entrepreneur yourself, what drew you to starting your own businesses?
I wanted to be wholly responsible for all of my success and failure. Starting a company isn’t for the lazy, but I knew I wouldn’t last very long at a job where I was aggrandizing someone else.
Do you see any characteristics in Millennial entrepreneurs that differentiate them from their older counterparts?
Growing up online is a huge boon, because like it or not, it’s affected the way everyone consumes content. Innately understanding this is a significant advantage. I suspect all generations disregard and rebel against the status quo, but this is the first round of entrepreneurs that can get online and do something about it—simple as that. Just start.
What is the Millennial impact on the workforce? How do they change the dynamic of the workspace?
The line blurs between work and home when one has to decide if a tweet/FB post/etc. is appropriate. Suddenly that fight you had over that coworker who always leaves a mess in the kitchen becomes a new online meme.
What are some of the more exciting/encouraging things you’re seeing Millennials do with technology?
I’m biased, but Reddit’s median age is 27, and I’m impressed on a daily basis with the creative, exciting and inspiring things being done there among strangers. For instance, the holidays are approaching—have you signed up for the world’s largest Secret Santa exchange?
Do you see Millennials as a resourceful generation?
Yes, but I can’t say they’re any more resourceful than previous generations. I do think they have the lamest name, though. “Millennials”? Really? (Sorry.)
Do most startups set out to eventually be acquired? How many want to grow independently?
Those, along with announcements of fundraising, are the only ones people tend to report on (and share), but they’re more the exception than the rule. All startups aim for success, which comes from either acquisition, IPO or simply building a thriving business. All three are awesome (well, I for one would never want to be CEO of a publicly traded company, but that’s just me). If you’re hoping for either of the first two, that’s great, but your best bet is to focus entirely on building the great business. Do that and the rest will come.
This is the most global, diverse and connected generation the world has seen. Do you see any common themes or characteristics among Millennials across nations?
We’re just starting to realize a commonality that’s always existed between people worldwide. We’re all human, after all, with a core of basic common desires. It’s not a replacement for travel, but we’re capable of better understanding one another thanks to this digital window into one another’s lives and interests. Whether it materially makes a difference has yet to be seen …
Who are the Millennials’ heroes today? Who do you see as a hero?
I feel like this would be best answered with a survey. President Obama? Zuckerberg? Keyboard cat? My parents will always be on top of that list for me.
What other key trends do you see among the Millennial generation?
I’m hoping I’m not the only one who wants to do well while also doing good. We’re already seeing a lot of folks under the banner of trying to “make the world suck less,” and that excites me.