Multimillionaire entrepreneur, visionary investor and - since marrying the queen of world tennis, Serena Williams - star of the red carpet. At first glance, however, Alexis Ohanian seems like any other bloke in his 30s. Straight faced, always smiling, not a wrinkle in sight and trainers that make him look even younger. No one would think he were one of the most powerful angel investors in the US ecosystem of innovation. And yet Ohanian, born in 1983, had his first entrepreneurial success at the age of 23, before ‘startups’ were even cool. It was Ohanian that created Reddit, social website on which users provide and aggregate popular content, with the slogan “the front page of the internet”. Condé Nast bought the company for a sum between 15 and 20 million dollars, although Ohanian refused to reveal the precise sum - even to his girlfriend at the time - adding only that it was an irrefutable offer. “Founders are supposed to be not at all interested in selling. But there is a price at which a founder can't help being interested,” he explained. And this success in 2006 - just a year after the company launched - was not just a success for Ohanian but also for what would become the most renowned incubator in Silicon Valley, Y Combinator: Reddit was, in fact, one of the first revolutionary startups to come out of the accelerator.
My family saved money by making a lot of my toys, costumes, out of cardboard we'd collect from liqouor stores, groceries, etc. Here I am proudly showing off my lion costume inside of Casey Junior (the train from Dumbo?) we made together. I was already fl… https://t.co/6T74E30xLc pic.twitter.com/4zqzcpA5AX— Alexis Ohanian Sr. 🚀 (@alexisohanian) July 12, 2018
The secret lies in relativisation
Ohanian claims to have chosen his career as a startupper in a moment of epiphany. “My junior year, I went to an LSAT-prep course. I flipped over my test, I walked out and went to Waffle House. That's where I had what I call The Waffle House Epiphany: I didn't want to be a lawyer. I wanted to make a dent in the universe.” That summer he went to Singapore, where he presented a business idea he had come up with alongside his roommate, Steve Huffman. The project was called MyMobileMenu and it was a system for ordering food by mobile phone, back when apps and smartphones did not yet exist: it was 2004. He says he went home, opened a bank account and registered the trademark. Ohanian and his partner were just 21 at the time and knew nothing about business. But they knew they wanted to try to launch a company and, at the University of Virginia where they were both students, they didn't just study economics but strengthened a passion they had developed when they were still in high school, for the online world and programming. During Spring break - when most US university students jet off to Miami or Mexico and drink tequila by the pint at pool parties - the pair got in a car and made the 10-hour journey to Boston where Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator and programming guru, was due to hold a conference. At the end of his talk, Ohanian and Huffman went up to Graham and asked if they could buy him a drink. “He said, ‘You came all the way up from Virginia? Sure.’ He ended up inviting us to an interview for Y Combinator, which no one had heard of at the time.” But things didn’t start off well. Their business idea wasn’t convincing and that very evening Graham called them to say they had not secured a place in the accelerator programme. “That sucked. Really sucked. So we got drunk. Really drunk. The next morning, on the train back to Virginia, hung over, I get a call from Paul. He says, ‘I'm sorry, we made a mistake. We don't like your idea, but we like you guys.’ We got off the train, and I was able to sweet-talk the Amtrak lady into not charging us to turn around.” It was Paul that suggested we come up with a new project to work on: in a word, he said, ‘You guys need to build the front page of the Internet.’ That was all Paul and that became Reddit.”
Waking up every morning with a company is a lot of pressure. But when you're aware of what other people are waking up with, it's a whole lot easier.
Some extremely difficult months at one of the very first Silicon Valley accelerators lay ahead of them. There would be a lot of pressure as they realised they had suddenly found a place among the big dogs. Ohanian says he learned very early on that convincing anyone other than your own mother to take an interest in your startup is a tough fight. To complicate matters, a barrage of personal problems struck young Ohanian. Just a few weeks after Reddit’s launch, his girlfriend in Berlin attempted to kill herself by throwing herself from a balcony and his mother was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. He says those months made him realise that, “Waking up every morning with a company is a lot of pressure. But when you're aware of what other people are waking up with, it's a whole lot easier.”
The Condé Nast acquisition took place just a year later. And that is how Alexis Ohanian became one of the youngest Silicon Valley millionaires. In an interview, he described how the first thing he did after selling Reddit was to upgrade his father’s Redskins season ticket. But he says the story he doesn’t often tell is how he called his mum straight away to ask what she wanted, because she was someone who had never wanted anything. And, indeed, she said there was nothing she wanted. Yet just the phone call to his mother, who died shortly after the sale, is one of his clearest memories of it. “My mom was really sick then. To be able to call her the morning after the money was in the bank and tell her my work was not in vain meant the world to me.”
I was invited to meet Prime Minister Pashinyan and shared my vision for @initialized; what we see working in startup communities worldwide; and what it will take for Armenia to make the most of all the brainpower in the nation. pic.twitter.com/c27OAhUJR4— Alexis Ohanian Sr. 🚀 (@alexisohanian) June 28, 2018
His secret to success? Being the son of immigrants
Ohanian believes that his family was a decisive factor in his success. Born in Brooklyn and raised in a small town in Maryland, the investor’s family history resonates with the histories of millions of other people in the United States. His mother was German and his father of Armenian origin. His great grandparents came to the country fleeing genocide at the turn of the century, a background that Reddit’s founder says had a huge influence on him.
“My entire paternal side being Armenian imbued me with a very strong sense of responsibility,” Ohanian has said. “Knowing about all the sacrifices [my great grandparents and grandparents made] I think gave me a tremendous amount of strength and ability to endure.”
Meanwhile, Ohanian attributes his sympathies with immigrants’ rights to his mother’s migratory experience. She outstayed her visa and lived undocumented in the US for over a year.
Coming from an immigrant family has been my unfair advantage as an entrepreneur.
It was on Reddit - with which Ohanian continued to work after he sold it - that the entrepreneur published an open letter in February 2017 after the Trump administration announced its strict immigration policy. He wanted to express his concern for the hostility it would show to immigrants.
“After two weeks abroad, I was looking forward to returning to the US this weekend, but as I got off the plane at LAX on Sunday, I wasn't sure what country I was coming back to,” he wrote. “We are a nation of immigrants, after all. In the tech world, we often talk about a startup’s ‘unfair advantage’ that allows it to beat competitors. Welcoming immigrants and refugees has been our country's unfair advantage and coming from an immigrant family has been mine as an entrepreneur.” Moreover, Ohanian has said that one of the most moving moments in his life was seeing people take the pledge of allegiance for the first time as US Citizens: “A room full of people who can really appreciate what I was lucky enough to grow up with, simply by being born in Brooklyn.”
He is a dedicated supporter of open and integrated society, Silicon Valley’s child prodigy devoted to promoting inclusion in America’s high-tech industry. “It thrills me to write reference letters for enterprising founders who are looking to get visas to start their companies here, to create value and jobs for these United States.”
If I can accomplish anything in the next however-many years, it is this: to help a generation realise, or to think of themselves, not just as consumers but also creators.
Mayor of the Internet
Ohanian is not a new-comer to civic engagement. The open letter in favour of open borders is just the latest in a serious of initiatives that the Reddit founder has launched. Immediately after selling the business, he left for Armenia where he went to work on the microcredit platform, “Kiva”. “I want to stay hungry. I really believe my resources are best used to help projects that make the world suck less.” He returned to the US after his experience in Armenia aged 25 and supported various social enterprises and non-profits in the US. He began to fight personally to keep the web a free space, without restrictions, in a campaign against two regulations that would censor the internet. This is what pushed Forbes to dub him “Mayor of the Internet”, even if he repeats that he has no intention of entering politics and that the biggest impact - he believes - can be gained from his own work.
This is what gave birth to the angel investor's new endeavour: “If I can accomplish anything in the next however-many years, it is this: to help a generation realise, or to think of themselves, not just as consumers but also creators,” he has said, explaining that the best part of his work is seeing young people develop companies that see more traffic than Reddit did when he and Huffman sold it.
It is a push towards the future that has its eyes set especially on new generations and on others. “My entire career has been built on the understanding that I am not only not the smartest person in the room, I am definitely not the smartest person in the world. And I am instead going to try to create as many opportunities to connect those great ideas and help them be great.” That, he says, is the only way to build a future.