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Wednesday, February 26,2014

Social media guru: Success begins with failure

By David DeWitt
Photo Credits: Photo by Pradeep Edussuriya.
Photo Caption: co-founder Alexis Ohanian speaks at Ohio University Monday.

It's OK to suck, at first. The first version of everything starts out janky. This is the beginning of the path to success.

So said Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, a popular social news website where users share stories and get "karma" ratings on those stories, moving them up or down and therefore into or out of the spotlight.

Reddit bills itself as the "front page of the Internet" and Ohanian came to Ohio University's Walter Hall Monday night for a guest lecture and book signing sponsored by the OU Center for Entrepreneurship, which is a partnership between the College of Business and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

Ohanian was joined by Alan Schaaf, the founder and CEO of Imgur and an OU alumnus. Ohanian is in the middle of a five-month book tour of college campuses around the nation. His newest book is titled, "Without Their Permission."

"I'm going to tell you how to be awesome without their permission," Ohanian told the Walter Rotunda crowd, "even if you want to ignore me and read Reddit."

In arguing for an open and free Internet, Ohanian said that while the world is not flat, the World Wide Web is.

"It is the greatest stage and the greatest library the world has ever seen, as long as every bit is equal," he said.

By "bit," Ohanian was referring to binary digits, the basic unit of information in computing and digital communication: Think ones and zeros.

Ohanian said that he learned how to write code at a young age and began building websites for companies in his teens.

"They didn't know I was a geek in his parents' basement," he said. But the thrill of having this useful skill and employing it on a platform that could be seen around the world has never left him. "I'm still hooked to that drug."

Ohanian called writing code the most valuable skill of the 21st century and encouraged those in attendance to try learning it through the many free resources provided by the Internet, specifically citing

He said that the ability to take an idea and turn it into a tangible reality is the key to achieving goals.

"We all have great ideas. Ideas alone are worthless," he said. "Execution is everything."

And there is no reason to wait, he said, telling students that they don't need to graduate to get started.

Ohanian was merely an undergrad himself at the University of Virginia when he and co-founder Steve Huffman developed their idea for Reddit during late nights at the local Waffle House.

At first, the site very nearly got named Snoo, so people could ask, "What's Snoo?" (What's new? Get it?), with the inevitable reply, "Exactly."

But that domain wasn't available and Ohanian and Huffman settled on Reddit.

"You see, we had no idea what we were doing, at all. I still don't," he said. "Here's the life spoiler: No one does. We're all figuring stuff out as we are going along. So no matter who you see or what you want to accomplish, know that everyone is still hacking it."

But that should be no hindrance, he cautioned.

"Now is especially the time to get started because no one is paying attention," he said. "You're going to have to try so hard to get someone to care about what you make, because only moms care, because moms are awesome. Everybody else needs to be convinced."

And don't be afraid to fail, he said, because every good idea starts out a little "janky," a word he used a few times to describe something that's shoddy. The goal is to be sure to solve a problem, Ohanian said: Make life easier for the first 100 people and watch your idea grow.

"But don't get wide-eyed," he warned. "And know that there will be competition."

There also will be negativity. Ohanian recalled being told by an executive at Yahoo, when asked about Reddit's traffic early on, that the site amounted to a rounding error compared to Yahoo.

Ohanian wrote the remark down and posted it on what he calls his "wall of negative reinforcement."

"Haters gonna hate, that's a scientific fact," he said. "Find your fuel from it."

The important thing is to not be afraid to fail, he repeated.

"You don't need to open a factory; you just have to open a laptop," he said. "If you can remember one thing from tonight and nothing else, it's this: Go out and suck. Please don't take that out of context."

He clarified that what he means is for students to start now, and not be intimidated by the possibility of setbacks.

Later in the evening he asked OU alum and Imgur founder Alan Schaaf what gave him the audacity to go out and compete with other, better-financed, and much larger, image-hosting platforms.

"I have no idea," Schaaf responded. "I didn't really think about the competition. I just wanted to create something better than them."

Using a video game metaphor, Ohanian advised, "We are all playing with zero lives remaining. Go be great. You actually can find a way to follow your dreams and wake up every morning to do the things you care about."


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