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Q&A: Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit

After delivering a lecture on entrepreneurship in the age of the Internet, founder of social media site Reddit Alexis Ohanian sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss the social media influences he looked to when founding the company and the future of the startup industry.

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Daily Princetonian: At the time you founded Reddit, what social media exerted an influence on you?

Alexis Ohanian: What’s wild is that “social media” didn’t even exist. The only things that existed were Facebook, which was still in colleges, and then Delicious, and that was social bookmarking, which is interesting because we were both sort of aesthetically similar. And of course we learned about Digg that week after we launched, but that was the extent of it. It was still pretty nascent, and the biggest influences on us were Slashdot, which was a kind of OG [Original Gangster] from previous times, and Delicious Popular, which was sort of this aggregate list of the most popular stuff being bookmarked as reference material. We thought, they’re both kind of solving different things, why can’t we just solve this specific thing a little differently? But obviously, it’s still standing on the shoulders of giants.

DP: How did you seek to distinguish yourself from the social media in existence?

AO: The core of Reddit has not changed much since we launched it. We knew, in that month or so that we worked on it, we knew about Slashdot, we knew about Delicious and we knew if we were to build a platform that would scale, it would have to be able to allow people to create their own subs. We had a fight, actually, early on about whether we were going to use tags or have people create their own distinct subreddits, and I’m really glad [cofounder] Steve [Huffman] won, because that’s what ended up making Reddit the platform that it is today.

DP: How does one manage to create a platform that is useful and relevant without paying so much attention to the competition that you lose originality?

AO: We used the incumbents as a benchmark for user experience that was really terrible. All of them had stopped caring about user experience so much that, you know, a simple search could have 20 pages of results, 90 percent of which no human would ever want to buy. You could use competition and incumbents as that kind of measuring stick, identify the core problem in all of them, the sort of fundamental thing that they’re missing out on and do it really, really well.

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DP: How has Kickstarter changed the startup world?

AO: Oh, a ton. It’s not even the startup world alone, it’s just the world of people who have ideas. I see this in Breadpig all the time. When we launched Breadpig, our first big production was the XKCD book. We published this book with the promise of we would front the money for the printing, and then once it got paid back, we would get profit shares. In the last few years since Kickstarter has launched, we now do all of our production via Kickstarter. We at Breadpig no longer have to put down the 30K, we just set that as the goal, and it’s amazing. Our most successful book raised almost $600,000, and it was a choose-your-own adventure of Hamlet called “To be or not to be.” We can now have this great luxury, so many people with ideas have this great luxury, because we can go to the crowd, go to the Internet to fundraise preorders and test that idea before we ever have to pay for it, and it’s allowing so many more new creatives to thrive and just try new stuff.

DP: What role do you see yourself and your generation of entrepreneurs playing 30 years from now when you’re the incumbents?

AO: Hopefully we won’t be part of the problem, and we’ll be part of a solution. I think the most viable thing that will come from it is that you will always have people, presumably in power, who are at least technologically fluent. I’m always thinking about this stuff, cause I’m 30 right now, so I’m already thinking about the stuff that I’m missing out on, just because of my own biases at being 30. I think more broadly as a generation, we’ll at least have that sort of almost mandatory level of fluency at understanding technology, and that’ll allow us to have smarter conversations, whether it’s in government or business. Like the sort of malarkey that people get away with is pretty frustrating, because you have people who have the power, who are the establishment, who just have no clue what they are talking about. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of stuff to rail against when we’re the ones in power, but ignorance about technology will probably not be one of them.

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DP: Where do you see the startup world going in the future?

AO: International? What’s remarkable is that of all the success in the last decade on the Web, the significant majority of them are American. And that’s pretty cool, because that’s one of the few industries in which America leads the world. The world still uses Facebook and Google, blah blah. This is a borderless World Wide Web, right, and so a lot of the traditional barriers to entry that would have kept us supreme don’t exist online, and I think inevitably there are going to be Snapchats or Twitters or Tumblrs or whatever that start popping up out of Berlin or London or who knows where. That’s interesting because it’s gonna be in, I hope, better stuff but, as an American, it makes me want to make sure that we get it right here and that we keep holding on to as many of the advantages that we have as a country. Specifically I’m talking about the sorts of things like having sensible immigration reform, so we can not only have talented people come here to start companies but actually let them stay in the country so they can come here and start their amazing companies and hire Americans. Things like that that historically have given us an edge are things that we seem to be languishing on lately, and it’s kind of depressing.

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