A WALL STREET JOURNAL BESTSELLER As Alexis Ohanian learned when he helped to co-found the immensely popular reddit.com, the internet is the most powerful and democratic tool for disseminating information in human history. And when that power is harnessed to create new communities, technologies, businesses or charities, the results can be absolutely stunning.
In this book, Alexis will share his ideas, tips and even his own doodles about harnessing the power of the web for good, and along the way, he will share his philosophy with young entrepreneurs all over the globe.
At 29, Ohanian has come to personify the dorm-room tech entrepreneur, changing the world without asking permission. Within a couple of years of graduating from the University of Virginia, Ohanian did just that, selling reddit for millions of dollars. He's gone on to start many other companies, like hipmunk and breadpig, all while representing Y Combinator and investing in over sixty other tech startups. WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION is his personal guidebook as to how other aspiring entrepreneurs can follow in his footsteps.
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Without Their Permission
How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed
By Alexis Ohanian
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Alexis Ohanian
All rights reserved.
The American Dream Lived Online
"Yes, I'd like to upgrade my dad's season tickets. Oh, front row, fifty-yard line, please—the best you have."
Me, approximately three minutes after we sold reddit
Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays, but on October 31, 2006, all the hard work Steve Huffman and I had put into starting reddit (with lots of help from our first hire and good friend, Dr. Christopher Slowe) had quite literally paid off. The first thing I did after the money showed up in my checking account was to call the Washington Redskins ticket office and upgrade my dad's tickets to something a bit better than the nosebleed seats we had. I then made a sizable donation to my mom's favorite charity and got back to handling all the inbound press. It was a blur of a day, but once it ended, I was able to take stock of just how far we'd come in only sixteen months.
When Steve and I looked at each other, there were no cheers of joy, just a shared sigh of relief. We'd pulled off something statistically improbable—just barely—and we knew it. And after everything we'd been through ... wow. Grateful, we went and shared a pizza at Mike's, the same place where we'd been ordering pies since we moved to Somerville, Massachusetts. There, we caught our breath after an entire day of interviews.
For my parents, it was a day when their only child had become a millionaire before he was twenty-four. But they always just wanted me to be happy. Neither one of them really understood the PC they brought into the house not long after my tenth birthday, but they let me do whatever I wanted to it as long as I didn't break it.
Actually, I almost did break it on several occasions, but then I wound up putting it back together. That computer was my gateway to another world once we got a dial-up Internet connection. I campaigned hard for that 33.6Kbps connection, and when I finally got to hear those now-antiquated sounds of the modem, it seemed like magic to my adolescent brain.
I built my first website on GeoCities. I think it was /sili convalley/hills/4924. It was my fan page for Quake II. There wasn't much going on there beyond some photos of rocket launchers and railguns with a few tacky animated flaming skulls. I really liked that game. But at the footer was a counter that showed how many people had viewed the website (I'd later learn that most of those "views" came from me reloading the page).
But at the time: what power! I could build something from my suburban bedroom and millions (okay, well, hundreds) of people all over the world could see just how much I loved a video game. That's how I got interested in making websites. There was no turning back.
A company called Sidea was my first nonfamilial employer (I suspect the real reason my dad wanted a kid was that he needed someone to do all his yard work—and for well below minimum wage, I might add). I later worked a lot of random jobs between high school and college: Pizza Hut cook and waiter (some of the best customer-service experience one can get), deli counter attendant (I was terrible at this and hated smelling like cold cuts after work, despite how much my dog liked it), FedEx warehouse grunt (great exercise, though not very mentally stimulating), and parking booth attendant (get paid to read books? Yes, please! Until the robots replace humans, that is).
But the job with Sidea was one of the most pivotal I ever had—even if the company went bankrupt a year after I started (not my fault!), a victim of the dot-com bubble bursting.
My job was simple: I had to man a booth in the middle of a CompUSA store, armed with a headset microphone and a large computer monitor. I was to demo software and hardware every thirty minutes—regardless of whether or not anyone was listening. Want to give a fourteen-year-old experience in public speaking? Tell him he has to demo random computer products to an entire CompUSA full of people ignoring him.
I can't tell you how many demos I gave to no one. But I did every one of them as though my boss were watching. In between demos, I killed time browsing the Internet for the latest in Quake II news. For this job I was paid a ludicrous ten dollars per hour. I think I know why Sidea went bust.
But damn if that wasn't a fabulous way for me to start public speaking. If you've experienced the embarrassment of the public speaker's worst-case scenario (speaking to a roomful of people who are both ignoring you and hating you) before you've finished puberty, things are probably going to be okay.
One day I was approached by a man trying to decide between two different mice. I don't recall the details, but there wasn't a big difference between them, save the color and maybe another minor feature. I pitched him on his two options with a quip about the bonus "feature" of a different color. He laughed and offered me a job. He handed me his card and said he'd like to hire me for sales. I kept that card in my wallet for years until it finally disintegrated. Fortunately, I scanned it before it did.
I didn't have the heart to tell the man I was only fourteen. When I told my parents about the offer, they told me to finish high school first. I never called Steve Harper, general sales manager for Stanley Foods, Inc., but I had a hunch I was on the right track. I was always tall for my age, and weighing 260 pounds at the time also helped age me up, as much as being heavy may've sucked the rest of the time.
Being the tallest guy in the class and having a name that's usually given to girls are enough to make a person stand out in school, but make him one of the most overweight as well and you've got a recipe for something. It easily could've gone the other way—self-loathing and depression—but I cared too much about video games and computers to realize how not cool I was.
I overcame my weight by making jokes about it before bullies could. Girls were trickier, though. I nearly failed geometry because of a cute girl named Erin, who told me (well, she told my best friend, but so it goes in eighth grade) that I was too fat to go to the dance with.
Like a lot of my not-popular-but-not-pariah peers, we developed personalities and pursued hobbies that interested us, because "just being cute" wasn't an option.
We tinkered on our computers and spent way too much time playing video games with each other. I started a nonprofit called FreeAsABird.org that built free custom websites for small nonprofits that had little or no web presence. I e-mailed all my clients cold, and as far as I know they had no idea I was a teenager. After earning a 4.0 my freshman year, I did as little work as I could but still kept my grades up in high school so I could maximize my time spent gaming and running the competitive gaming teams I managed.
Thank goodness, too. Because that was a long-term investment in myself. Most schoolwork felt awfully irrelevant when compared to work that was actually affecting real people and giving me leadership opportunities (albeit digital ones), nurturing the community management skills that would come in handy later (see chapter 2, on co-founding reddit).
Of course, all that time in front of a monitor began to take its toll, as my metabolism wasn't nearly as fast as my buddies'. Our fast-food binges may've done nothing but fuel LAN parties (that's where lots of people bring their computers over to someone's house to connect directly to a local area network—for gaming). True story: I'd never attended a party that didn't have "LAN" in its name until college.
This pattern of eating wasn't healthy. I got tired of being fat by my junior year of high school and decided to do something about it so I could get in good enough shape to play football before I graduated.
Thanks to regular exercise and the abolition of soda and junk food, I lost fifty-nine pounds. My pediatrician (who was always kind of a jerk) couldn't believe it when he read it on the chart. And to this day I can't believe how differently people treat me. To have been the "pear-shaped fat kid" for all those formative years and then join the ranks of the easy-on-the-eyes crowd is like turning on another life cheat code.
One random night, I bumped into Erin (remember—from eighth grade?) at a movie theater—she literally didn't recognize me. It felt great. I may have danced a jig when I got back to my seat to breathlessly tell my friends what had just happened.
There Are Nerds in College
I applied to only one college, the University of Virginia. At the time I didn't give it much thought, but I can't help wondering how much different life would've been if I hadn't made that seemingly insignificant decision. I had no contingency plan aside from the local community college, much to my parents' dismay. I included along with my application a CD-R with my "digital portfolio" on it. It's rather embarrassing, but I've now uploaded it for your viewing pleasure at http://daskapitalcapital.com/my2001portfolio/. I'll wait while you go look.
If you were drinking a cup of coffee at the time, I imagine you did a spit-take. If not, please don't tell me, as I'd like to preserve the image.
Much to my parents' relief, I got in to UVA. But that's not the important part. The decision that defined my experience there and made reddit possible was checking the box for "old dorms" on the housing questionnaire. I didn't know what this meant at the time; old dorms just sounded cooler than new dorms, which were really suites—I wanted something that looked like the colleges I'd seen in movies.
The day we moved in, I spotted a blond-haired guy playing Gran Turismo on his PlayStation 2 across the hall from my new dorm room. His name was Steve Huffman. I was thrilled because I'd worried that no one played video games in college—that this was something I'd have to leave behind as a relic of my childhood. Steve was much less excited to meet me, because he'd seen my name on the door and thought he was living on a co-ed hall. So I was excited that he played video games; he was bummed that I wasn't a girl. He got over that, and we became best friends. Picking old dorms and ending up across the hall from Steve was one of the best, albeit most random, things that ever happened to me.
You've Got to Be Willing to Disrupt (and Be Disrupted)
My dad has been a travel agent for more than thirty years. I distinctly remember dinner-table conversations around the time the Internet started to disrupt the travel industry. As a high school student with a particular interest in computers and technology, I was especially enthralled with all the buzz around the "dot-com bubble."
Dad, on the other hand, was watching his commissions from airlines get cut all the way to zero. Travel agents used to make good money from bookings that now were going to OTAs (online travel agencies). Because of this disruptive technology, people were now booking their own flights and hotels, cutting out the middlemen—people like my dad.
Just a few years before, my dad decided to leave his position at a large agency to start his own small travel agency. A first-time entrepreneur, he was now facing a dramatic shift in the way his industry did business—and there was no stopping it. The Internet was changing the fundamental business models for the travel industry.
One night he came home from the office particularly frustrated. He'd just learned from a major airline that they, too, would finally be eliminating travel agent commissions altogether. After years of being gashed by these airlines, my father sent them a fax to articulate just how he felt as his business was being eroded.
He doesn't remember if he put a cover sheet on that fax, but I like to think he did.
Unlike people in other industries, he couldn't call his lobbyist on K Street and ask him to get a law passed that would make sure all travel agents get a commission. He had to adapt his business model. And he did. To this day, he continues to operate with a focus on business and first-time travelers (usually boomers taking their first cruise). It's not an enterprise I'll be likely to take over, especially given hipmunk (see chapter 3), but it's one he and his employees will, I hope, continue to run for years to come.
But those dinner-table conversations made an impression on me. The Internet was a powerful tool, and I wanted to be sure I knew how to use it. The free market is ruthless. But it has to be. It's up to us to make the most of it.
We must be opportunistic—when disruptions happen we need to identify the new business models and adapt, as my dad did. Or better, we need to be the ones doing the disrupting.
I knew I wanted to be a disrupter.
Sometimes You Just Have to Stand Up
My commercial law professor at the University of Virginia, Professor Wheeler, one day commented in class on the fact that I always volunteered to be the demo person in front of the class when he needed human props. He said how important it was to show up, to stand up—lauding my effort. I just thought it was fun to be that guy in a class of hungover undergrads. It wasn't that I thought I might get better grades, but I figured I had two legs, so why the hell not get up and use them?
I'd never expected to give a TED talk, let alone at twenty-six years old, but then again I'd never expected to be in Mysore, India, which is where I was in October of 2009 as an attendee of TEDIndia, one of the yearly TED presentations that the organizers host all around the world.
A month or so before the conference I was included on a massive e-mail blast from Chris Anderson, curator of the TED Conference, that included this attention-grabbing nugget:
It is commonly said that TED attendees are every bit as remarkable as those appearing on stage. It happens to be true. That's why at every conference we invite you to consider whether you have something to contribute to the program—and possibly later to the wider TED community, through the TED.com site.
So there at my laptop I raised my virtual hand—so to speak—and submitted a pitch for a three-minute talk to TED. These are the palate cleansers in between the more heady and often very emotional eighteen-minute TED talks. I figured I'd better get right to the pitch. Here's what I wrote:
The tale of Mister Splashy Pants: a lesson for nonprofits on the Internet. How Greenpeace took itself a little less seriously and helped start an Internet meme that actually got the Japanese government to call off that year's humpback whaling expedition. People manage to sell entire books on the subject of "new media marketing" but I only need three minutes—with the help of this whale—to explain the "secret."
How could they resist a name like Mister Splashy Pants? Splashy to his friends.
I figured they must've been totally floored with awe, because I didn't hear back for a month. Was this just their way of saying no? I was already in India at this point, so I sent a quick "ping" e-mail to see if I could get a yes or no.
"Congratulations. You did get accepted."
Hot damn, I had twenty-four hours to write and rehearse a talk people practice for months....
Better turn on some South Park.
Thanks to VPN, I could watch South Park from south India. The episode was called "Whale Whores" (season 13, episode 11), and it satirized the Animal Planet documentary-style reality show called Whale Wars (oh, puns!), which features the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization that harasses Japanese whalers in an effort to protect marine life.
In the episode, after hordes of Japanese storm the Denver aquarium during Stan's birthday and slaughter all the dolphins (am I really writing about South Park right now? I love this country), an enraged Stan implores his friends to join him in protecting the dolphins and whales, which the Japanese seem so intent on eradicating.
Stan's friends are not interested until Stan joins the cast of Whale Wars, at which point Cartman and Kenny pretend to be whale-loving activists in order to milk some of the fame associated with the show. They volunteer, despite admitting earlier that they "don't give two shits about stupid-ass whales."
I grabbed a screen capture of Cartman, in a Save the Whales shirt, proclaiming his love of whales; Kenny is beside him, DOLPHIN LOVER (sic) scrawled on his chest.
Excerpted from Without Their Permission by Alexis Ohanian. Copyright © 2013 Alexis Ohanian. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Quick Introductory Note ix
The Real Introduction to My Book: The World Isn't Flat; the World Wide Web Is 1
Chapter 1 The American Dream Lived Online 15
Chapter 2 The Story of reddit from College to Condé Nast 40
Chapter 3 Hipmunk Takes the Agony out of Online Travel Search 70
Chapter 4 Startup MBA Part I-Make Something People Love 91
Chapter 5 Startup MBA Part II-Blueprint for Growth 123
Chapter 6 Using the Internet's Power to Make the World Suck Less 155
Chapter 7 Are You Not Entertained? 174
Chapter 8 Mr. Ohanian Goes to Washington 199
Chapter 9 Dear Graduating Class of 2025 232
About the Author 261
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Alexis conveys immensely useful and personal wisdom for anyone looking to find opportunities on or through the internet. He exhorts anyone to find something to fix to go out and do so, regardless of what you know and who you know. A refreshing reminder there really are no excuses for not trying to solve a problem in the world.