Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, is speaking in Sci 101 today about his start-up experience, Internet entrepreneurship/activism, and his new book, Without their Permission. Bryan Baum ’11, the co-founder of Prizeo, will also host office hours to give Swarthmore entrepreneurs advice.
6:58 Science Center 101 is filling up. Students were handed postcards to send to themselves that read, “Hello Self. You’re looking fabulous today. By the time you get this, you’ll have finally…”
7:06 Marisa Lopez ’15 takes the microphone.
7:07 Lopez reads Ohanian’s bio – “Reddit, speaker, host of small empires.”
7:07 Ohanian takes the microphone.
7:07 “I’ve heard a lot of very interesting stories here. It sounds like you guys are having a lot more fun than I did at UVA. But I hope the next hour will fill your mind with lots of interesting things about startups and technology.”
7:08 “The Swarthmore sub-reddit is not so hot,” Ohanian said. He assumes it’s because Swarthmore students are too productive.
7:09 “I’m known as the guy who starts companies with cute mascots,” he said.
7:10 The world wide web is flat. “It is the world’s largest stage and library in one,” Ohanian said.
7:12 “How many people are writing about something you’re really passionate about?” he asks. Students raise their hands, and Ohanian calls on a student and asks her (Arya Palakurthi ’14) to pitch her project
7:12 Palakurthi is working on putting on a dance competition (R&M) next Saturday. Ohanian encourages her to hustle and sell it.
7:13 “We all have amazing things we care about, are passionate about. The people that make a difference are the ones who put their hands up in weird situations,” Ohanian says. He encourages audience to take advantage of opportunities and put their hands up.
7:14 Ohanian begins talking about his freshman year in high school when he first got a computer with Internet connection. “What was so cool was I was this dorky kid who was able to build websites,” he says. Ohanian started to find nonprofits who needed websites and he built websites just because. “I was someone who had skills they didn’t have, and that made me valuable,” he says.
7:15 “You have the opportunity to explore, experiment, do stuff,” Ohanian says. Students know the Internet more fundamentally than older people do. Ohanian proceeds to do a Bane (from Batman) impression: “They merely adopted the Internet. WE WERE BORN IN IT.”
7:18 Ohanian calls coding “the most viable skill of the century” and one of the “most accessible” and free. There are resources to learn coding. Through coding, you can turn ideas into things.
7:18 “Everyone has great ideas” but only those who create with these great ideas will succeed. There will be “far more makers than managers in this century.”
7:19 Ohanian tells the story of his first business plan that he thought up with a friend his senior year in college. Obanian and his friend applied for an incubator with his business plan and was rejected. He says this is “the first time I didn’t get something that I really wanted.”
7:22 The incubator, called the Y Combinator, gave Ohanian and his friend a second chance to build a company — just not the company they had first thought up. He remembers, “I had no idea what I was doing.”
7:24 “If anyone with a microphone ever talks to you as if they know what’s going on, they’re either lying or delusional. Life is a perpetual stage of figuring things out. Education helps, but we’re always adapting. Everyone important started out not knowing what they’re doing, and they still don’t know what they’re doing.”
7:25 Ohanian shows a screenshot of the first version of Reddit. The first submission on Reddit was that Ohanian’s karma was -1, posted by Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman.
7:25 “The first anything is janky. Your first version of whateve is going to be a little janky and that’s okay.”
7:26 Ohanian recalls the first “competition” he had. The founder of this website had “everything.” He had Silicon Valley, fame, education. His mentor told him that “competition will only distract you. Get back to innovating.” Ohanian writes that he was right.
7:28 “We needed those early users to care about what we were doing. We would have never gotten those 7,000 subreddits if we didn’t have those early users [who] love Reddit.”
7:29 Ohanian shows a photo of the meme Grumpy Cat and says, “there will always be people that hate what you’re doing.” Ohanian tells a story of someone from Yahoo who didn’t find Reddit to be a compelling idea. The man from Yahoo referred to Ohanian and Hoffman as “rounding errors.” Ohanian took this as motivation to try harder.
7:30 “Failure is an option. You’re all here because you’re good at failing, but outside of school there’s less structure. It’s okay to fail.”
7:31 “Whether you want to write a poem or start an Etsy store, do it. Your first version is probably going to suck, but that’s okay.”
7:32 Ohanian tells the stories of Internet sensations (Brandon Stanton, a 70’s rock singer, a comedian with cerebral palsy, and a philanthropist) who have used the Internet to do what they love, find success, and “reach that maximum level of awesome.”
7:136 Ohanin argues that we need to make sure the Internet lives up to its full potential.
7:37 “Everyone who has ideas and does them is entrepreneurial. While you’re in college is an amazing time to do stuff. There are so many resources available to you that can help you make great things.”
7:39 Ohanin explains that the postcards audience members were given in order to provide incentive for audience members to accomplish their goals by March when he will mail the postcards back to audience members.
7:40 Ohanian introduces Bryan Baum ’11 because “if I can’t motivate you, he will.”
7:40 Baum gives background on Prizeo. After he graduated from Swarthmore he went to Oxford for a year where he thought about how to get rich people to give money to philanthropy and organizations. He realized there was a limit to how much celebrities would spend, so he created Prizeo where people can donate money to win a chance to hang out with Lady Gaga, for example. Here Prizeo raises more money than regular auctions.
7:43 Baum says, “the celebrities didn’t want to talk to us. They thought it was a joke.
7:49 Baum shares his story of how to leverage, hustle, pester people, and “make tiny asks” […] “If you just show progress, people will keep giving you more.”
7:51 Baum explains how his pitch was that he was going to get the top celebrities to do something that has never been done before. “We went from meeting to meeting where everyone said ‘this is a joke.’ What I learned is to never give up. The best and most successful founders I’ve seen are the people who just never give up. There was a point where I was just making stuff up, but every single failure was another brick in my palace. Your idea isn’t stupid. Just keep going.”
7:53 Baum says the best thing Swarthmore students can take advantage of is extracurricular activities. “Get involved in things you want to do.” He says not to waste your time at resume-building things.
7:54 “Don’t spend time building your resume doing stuff you want to do. Make stuff. […] Go out and do stuff that you love. Build stuff. Create things.”
7:55 Baum remarks, “I know Swarthmore is about learning and stuff, but I just thought that I want to get out of here and do greater things!”
7:55 “Take classes that aren’t hard so you don’t have to waste your time” and so you can build, Baum suggests to Swarthmore students.
7:56 Baum remembers that he loved learning Game Theory and Professor Steven Hopkin’s classes.
7:57 “When I got here, all my friends wanted me to be in finance. And I convinced myself that I wanted to do finance, but I didn’t really want to. I had to dig deep.” He says there are lacrosse bothers here who want to go to Harvard business school and work at Goldman and come back to DU when they’re 30 and get drunk with college students. “I just didn’t want that.”
7:58 Baum says the moment it changed was when an interviewer for a bank asked him, “Do you really want to do this?” I stopped and realized I didn’t.
7:59 Office hours are about to begin. Three chosen students have been selected to pitch their projects to Swarthmore students, Ohanian, and Baum.
8:00 Gabe Khaselev ’14 and Reece Liang ’14 come up to pitch Crowd, which is an Android chatting application. They came up with the idea because they “hate group texts.” For example, one can create a chatroom for a location, which makes it more relevant. Liang argues that human conversations are “fluid, people can come and leave.” People can’t leave group texts. With Crowd, people can enter and exit conversations. Crowd is more ephemeral than Twitter.
8:03 Ohanin asks how many users it will take for it to be valuable. “If I sign onto the Worth crowd and no one is there, I’m only going to do that a few more times.”
8:04 Baum says he would try to find established groups and ask them to use it.
8:04 Liang says that location-based aspect is not limiting, but rather Crowd’s defining feature.
8:05 Next up is Brennan Klein ’14. Klein echoes Ohanian’s appreciation of the Internet, but says that the “interconnectedness comes at a huge cost.” He argues that there is a lot of content on the Internet that he doesn’t care about. Klein’s idea is called Wallet, where “there is a better way to build consumer experiences with advertisements.” For example, Facebook builds ads based on the user’s likes, which is more effective than a regular ad. Klein says he is trying to turn these ads into action. He says that there is not a central way of connecting people with coupons and discounts. Wallet is a social media site that will create an “inter-spaced connection among users.” Companies can use this to give users relevant coupons and discounts.
8:10 Baum says, Klein should identify “who in the friend group makes the decision to go to Chipotle that night. If you can get 20 of your friends to go, I’ll give you a free burrito.”
8:10 Ohanian says that there is a “1%” rule for social media site. Only about 1% of social media sites are really producing content, everyone else is “lurking.” Klein needs to identify these people and cater to them.
8:11 Finally is Lectern, which is an RSS reader by Callen Rain and Justin Cosentino. While there are many RSS readers on the market, there are no social RSS readers. Rain says that their goal is to make your stream of content visible. “I want to see what Paul Graham reads, what article he reads, what he clicks on.”
8:12 Ohanian asks, “do you think RSS will be something my dad will use?”
8:12 Rain responds by saying that the users of Lectern won’t even need to know what RSS is. If they find an article that they want to add but aren’t sure, the lectern site can read the site and let them know. “We want to have an RSS rool and something that parses the content.”
8:14 Cosentino says that the system now for sharing content has “a lot of clicks involved.” Lectern is a unified platform. “We’re trying to integrate everything in one unified space and make it easier to distribute content.”
8:14 Rain says that they have not launched the site yet.
8:14 Ohanian says that they should get their friends using it now, and then post it on Hacker News.
8:17 Ohanian says that “there are so many of you doing cool stuff right now!”
8:18 Ohanian sums up by reminding the audience that we all have one life and we need to make the most of our life and the opportunities of the Internet, regardless of what you want to do.
8:20 Nimesh Ghimere ’15 takes the microphone to thank the sponsors of the event.
8:20 Ohanian brings out a tee shirt cannon and Science Center 101 erupts into an ecstatic frenzy.
“Take classes that aren’t hard so you don’t have to waste your time” and so you can build, Baum suggests to Swarthmore students.
Wow. I am glad this privileged white dude used up a spot in our class. These are incredibly wise words from a guy who not only pretends he got his degree from Oxford (where, if I remember correctly, he was only a visiting student) and not Swarthmore, but also has no problem claiming his own moral superiority over those “frat bros” when he’s tried to cut about every corner there is.
On the whole it was actually pretty good advice. He’s not saying to not care about class, but to realize there’s more than class to life, and not to fetishize grades for their own sake.
Also his site is about earning money for charity. Not sure what your criticism is re privilege, but you’re going to have to get into deeper stuff than ‘Wow, privilege’
Alum gave his argument already for the kid’s privileged attitude: he said that he cuts corners while thinking he still has won the dash for the moral high ground. Deal with the criticism instead of pretending like it isn’t there.
No, that’s completely wrong. What corners does he cut? He doesn’t make academic life his primary focus, but to say 1) that’s a moral shortcoming, and 2) that’s a result of privilege is both insulting and wrong. (1) is the result of the weird fixation on academic work ethic we have at Swat, and 2 is annoying because of his misleading it is. Yeah, Bryan is privileged, and there are possibly huge ramifications, but it’s not exhibited in any way in his advice about doing your own thing. That’s not where it is. Cut the sloppy cultural commentary, especially people who weren’t even there.
“Take classes that aren’t hard so you don’t have to waste your time”–the most realistic interpretation is not about keeping academic life in perspective but about taking easy classes so minimal work is put in since hard classes means harder work. Do you not know the meaning of “cutting corners”? And please stop trying to convince yourself that that outlook has NOTHING to do with his privileged status. Oh, and “sloppy cultural commentary”? Kid, this is the DG, not the Situation Room.
What do his race and “privilege” have to do with anything cant you nerds come up with something better to criticize people for? This school is insufferable sometimes.
Yea, I mean aside from that this whole talk was apparently nothing but inspirational cliches topped off by a t-shirt cannon…
For the period of time that I knew him at Swarthmore, he worked his ass off. So, leave YOUR “moral superiority” at the door.
Jealousy is a bitch, huh?
I can see how if you place most of your self worth into doing well in classes, you could be legitimately offended by Baum saying “They’re a waste of your time” compared to extracurricular activities.
However, he is right that the college experience is only partially about academics, and often Swatties neglect the other parts of life that make college worthwhile in an effort to do as best as they possibly can in courses.
privilege doesn’t exist. swagger exists.