Reddit co-creator offers advice to future tech innovators

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Alexis Ohanian wants you to learn how to code.

He’s explaining why in a lounge at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel, a few hallways away from where he just delivered a keynote address at the Web Conference at Penn State 2014. He spent the hour advising the information technology and Web professionals in the audience on becoming tech innovators, but now he’s describing his different advice for students.

“You can either be smart with an idea, or you can be smart with an idea and actually be able to build it,” said the 31-year-old co-creator of Reddit, the massively popular social networking and link-sharing website. He helped build the site at age 22 and has moved on to invest in and advise other companies, with more than 80 tech startups in his portfolio.

Ohanian stood up, his 6-foot, 5-inch frame towering above the leather couch and excused himself to get a glass of water. Moments later, there were shouts of glee across the room.

“There’s a slushy machine?” he exclaimed as he approaches the lineup of drink machines. “That’s awesome!”

Ohanian isn’t just enthusiastic about slushies — one gets the impression he gets excited about almost everything. He’s enthusiastic about Internet pop culture; he’s enthusiastic about the mascots he sketches for his startups (the chipmunk he doodled for is his favorite); and he’s definitely enthusiastic about getting students and staff across the world motivated to help shape the future of innovation and the Internet.

In his keynote, Ohanian emphasized the power of the Internet and the infinite possibilities for learning and creating new ideas. The speech was watched by Web Conference attendees from across not just Penn State, but also from 55 other institutions.

Ohanian is successful now, but he — like everyone else — had to start somewhere. He built his first website with the once-popular Web-hosting service Geocities and got his first clients by contacting nonprofits and offering to build their sites for free. He’s moved on to bigger and better things, but he freely admits he still doesn’t have all the answers.

“I still don’t have a sense of where all this is headed. That’s the secret: No one knows what they’re doing,” he said. “We’re all just hacking it.”

This may be particularly comforting to Penn State students who wish to follow the leads of University alums like David Rusenko and Chris Fanini, two of the creators of the Web-hosting service Weebly. With so many things to do and learn, and with so much competition, students may be unsure of where to start.

“First, learn how to code,” Ohanian said, kicking up his feet onto the ottoman, his beat-up and well-worn sneakers a shocking shade of orange. “Even if you don’t want to be a programmer, learning how to code can save you a lot of time in the future.”

Ohanian himself didn’t always want to be a tech leader. He originally planned on being a lawyer but gave that up when he realized he was more excited about founding a startup with his best friend, Steve Huffman, than studying for the LSATs, the law school admission test. He emphasized that everyone can benefit from learning how to code, regardless of profession or interests.

“Even if you’re in a discipline like history, you might have 500 files you want to rename someday,” Ohanian said. “You can do that by hand, or you can write a short script to do it. A robot can always do it better than you can.”

In an increasingly digital world, coding and other tech skills are becoming more and more necessary. But Ohanian said this gives an advantage to the millennial generation currently in college. In his keynote, he displayed a photo of the character Bane from the movie "The Dark Knight Rises," using his best Bane voice to intone, “You merely adopted the Internet. We were born in it.”

The spoof may not be obvious to those who haven’t seen the movie, but the message is clear: Students today didn’t have to learn the Internet, they were raised alongside it, and that gives them a distinct edge.

“My generation was promised a lot of things that didn’t necessarily happen,” Ohanian said. “A guaranteed job out of college, for example. The job market can be uncertain, but the tech industry can’t hire enough. So many interesting new things are happening. People are getting paid to be on Twitter and Instagram. We’re comfortable with technology, so we have the advantage.”

Ohanian added that when anyone starts out failure is inevitable and “sucking is the first step.” He and Huffman never would have come up with the idea for Reddit if they hadn’t experienced failure first. 

The idea came after their original pitch for a phone app that lets users order food on the go — called My Mobile Menu or MMM — was rejected. (Of course, several apps like this now exist. The world just wasn’t ready for MMM in 2005.) The pair didn’t wallow, though, and soon Reddit was born.

Ohanian went on to co-create two more websites with Huffman: travel website Hipmunk and “sidekick-for-hire” site Breadpig. Even though they’d already achieved success with Reddit, the nervousness and fear of failure was still there.

“When you’re just starting out, that’s when you’re most creatively free. There’s no expectations,” Ohanian said. “And starting in a place like State College, you have a massive test market. Tech innovation isn’t exclusive to a zip code, and college towns always have a great talent pool.”

Perhaps with a little optimism and a lot of work, when someone mentions “the Valley” it won’t be Silicon Valley people think of, but Happy Valley, right here in central Pennsylvania.


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Last Updated June 24, 2014