Jan242011

“I’m very well aware of the life lottery I won. And I know I didn’t do anything to deserve it – could’ve just as easily been born to another set of parents in another time or place. Sure, I’ve worked hard as hell for what I’ve achieved, but that doesn’t make me special when countless others have triumphed over much more with much less to show for it.”

Alexis Ohanian Founder of Breadpig
Alexis Ohanian
Breadpig
Founder and Chief Swine Defender

Interview by Kevin Ohashi of KevinOhashi.com

Alexis Ohanian is most well known as one of the Founders of Reddit where he goes by kn0thing. Reddit was in the first group of startups at YCombinator. Reddit was also the first exit from YCombinator when they sold to Conde Nast Digital in 2006. He has given a Ted talk (on Mr. Splashy Pants, a humpback whale) and presented at many startup/web events. He has done a Kiva fellowship in Armenia. Alexis is also an accredited investor and has an angel investment firm named Das Kapital Capital, LLC. He is also a board member of the Awesome Foundation. Currently, Alexis is a founder at Breadpig. He also has a marketing role at Hipmunk, a new flight search startup founded by his Co-Founder at Reddit, Steve Huffman. Alexis also represents YCombinator in the East Coast of the US.

Breadpig’s mission is To help make the world suck less by selling you the geeky things you love and giving all the profits to good causes. They do this by finding worthy charitable organizations around the world to donate the money the earn too. Next, they find geeky things to sell and then donate all of the profits to the selected organizations. Their first geeky thing sold for charity was the xkcd book (xkcd volume 0), which is a collection of the wildly popular xkcd web comic and the profits were donated to Room to Read for the specific purpose of building a school in Laos. Since December 2008, Breadpig has raised and donated $167,641.15.

MO:
First, I want to say thank you for doing the interview and thanks for trying to truly make the world suck less in your own style.

I have to start by asking about Reddit which built your fame (and fortune!). Your founding story is something I’ve seen/heard multiple times off YouTube from various startup conferences and blog posts. You also recently shed some light this summer about the personal struggle of founding Reddit at Business Insider (I think someone is chopping onions again).

What were the three (arbitrarily picked number, feel free to list however many you want) most rewarding events at Reddit for you? How about the most disappointing moments?

Interview with Founder of Reddit


Alexis:
1.  The day, a few weeks into reddit, when neither Steve nor I had to participate on the site and it just worked. We’d been doing most of the submitting and voting when we launched and the day we could use reddit like everyone else was incredibly satisfying. Maybe we weren’t totally wasting our lives.

2.  The first time I had someone tell me about reddit was pretty fantastic, too. I was on a plane and making smalltalk with a random person next to me. I didn’t have it in me to tell him who I was – hearing him tell me about how much he enjoyed the site was all I needed.

3.  It’d be remiss of me to not mention the day we were acquired. That was a day of intense relief more than anything else. It gave me the peace of mind (and freedom) to spend more time back in Maryland with my mom and dad.

MO:
Reddit is almost entirely user generated. It’s a dream for most startups that the users create everything and they benefit from operating the platform. What often doesn’t get mentioned is the dangers (I am thinking legal risk) of user generated content. What were some of the biggest legal challenges at Reddit? How did you handle user generated content in a way that protects you? Were there any other problems with user generated content?

Alexis:
Fortunately, we haven’t run into that very often. Granted, I left a year ago, but until that point, we only had an occasional claim come our way that required some kind of action. It was never anything significant. There is a lot more content created on reddit today than even just a year ago – the community has becoming fantastically ingenious about creating content within the site (not just linking to other sites). You may have to ask one of the guys there now.

MO:
How do you handle success and exiting your startup? It seems everyone in the world wants to talk about creating a startup but I almost never see anything about how to handle the end and what you do after selling.

Alexis:
Well, I don’t think there needs to be too much advice for handling a successful acquisition – it’s just a matter of not being too stupid with whatever money you walked away with. I’ve never lived a terribly extravagant lifestyle, so that transition was pretty straightforward. Most of all, I just didn’t want to fuck it all up, so I’ve invested pretty conservatively. Oh, and that angel investing I do with Das Kapital Capital is the portion of fun-money I expect to lose when I write the check.

We were fortunate in a lot of ways with regard to being acquired by Conde Nast – they for the most part lived up to their promise of letting us continue working autonomously and grow reddit as we saw fit. The guidelines should be in place before any startup gets that wire transfer from the sale, though; the bright future of your baby in post-acquisition land should be one of the most important factors.

MO:
Following up on the last question, how about relationships with your partners. Your relationship with Steve seems to be in great condition as you recently joined him at his latest startup. What makes you two so compatible and how do you handle disputes?

Alexis:
It starts with mutual respect. With that, we respect that we each do very different things. At reddit, if a debate ended in a stalemate, it would come down to whether it was a business or technical decision and we’d defer to the other’s strength.

In fact, our first most heated debate was about using some of our $70,000 in angel funding to buy merch to sell on the website (at the time we had zero advertising and thus zero revenue). I really wanted to make and sell plush aliens, Steve insisted we wouldn’t sell any and that it was generally a stupid idea — in the end I decided to go with shirts. We sold out in under 24hrs.

I’m pretty happy about that one :)

Alternatively, I always really wanted tagging instead of subreddits because it meant we could populate smaller communities much faster.

e.g., I have a link that would interest people who like politics/nyc/gayrights.
With subreddits, I have a submission that can have 3 different comment threads if it’s submitted to all 3 of those subreddits.

With tags, I have a submission I submit once with the 3 tags and unify on one single comment thread.

In the end, I deferred to Steve and while there were technical challenges that made subreddits more appealing, they also allowed for things like the varied and fabulous reddit communities we have today like /r/IAmA.

So I’m also happy how that one worked out.

MO:
What do you think about social media marketing especially through sites like Reddit? What is the right/wrong way to go about it? From Reddit’s perspective, how do you defend yourself against the wrong kinds?

Alexis:
Ugh. 99% of social media marketing is garbage. The simplest thing to do is to legitimately become a member of the community – use reddit every day and you’ll pretty quickly figure out the kind of stuff that does well on it. We built elaborate systems to keep out the blatant (and subtle) cheating. A little self-promotion is OK, but when we start seeing trends, if the community doesn’t catch on first, we’ll crack down.

MO:
Shifting gears, I would like to talk about Breadpig, your current startup (or uncorporation to use your description). Is Breadpig a full-time endeavor for you or anyone else?

Interview with Breadpig Founder

Alexis:
Yes, sort of. I spend about 30 hours a week on it (though, I probably spend about 65+hrs a week working – yay for weekends!). I recently hired the fabulous Christina Xu (cofounder of ROFLCON) to be our first full-timer at breadpig. She does a little bit of everything and will also be running the 501c3 we’re starting in early 2011.

MO:
Your first product was the xkcd book (I should have added this to my Christmas wish list, oops!). It’s amazing to think the printing press changed the way knowledge was consumed and today, small organizations and individuals can publish a book. What were/are the challenges of publishing a book today? How do you market Breadpig and the products you sell?

Alexis:
Actually, xkcd: volume 0 wasn’t our first product. Unholidaycards were. But the xkcd book has certainly been the most successful for us (we’ve raised and donated nearly $100,000 from it at this point). I published a full tutorial on how we produced the xkcd book (it’s now on bookshelves in meatspace, so take a look at a copy – it’s just like every other book you’d see at a B&N).

We market primarily through the blog, twitter, and newsletters. Our notforprofit partners are always quick to promote us, which we love, but nearly all of our growth has been from word of mouth. We don’t have an advertising budget and that’s just how I like it.
Fortunately, we do have a fantastic breadpig legion that spreads the word about what we’re doing, without them, we’d just have a mascot pig with silly bread wings.

MO:
I am impressed with how well each product fits the organization the money goes too. Your internet censorship shirt donates to the EFF, LOLmagnetz (with LOLcats being on the cover) are donated to the SF/SPCA, xkcd book donates to Room to Read and more. How does the actual process work behind the scenes in terms of finding products and charities to work with and matching them together?

Alexis:
We always start with a product. If we can make a great product, we’ll figure out a charity we can donate the funds to afterward. We do a pretty extensive due diligence process to not only make sure the notforprofit is reputable, but also that they’re willing to share extra information with us (and our community) about how the money will be used.

The more data, photos, and stories we can share with the breadpig legion, the closer everyone gets to the good work they’re helping do in the world. That’s when the magic happens.

MO:
Back to capitalism for a second, you’re an ambassador for YCombinator on the East Coast. You’re also an alumni of the program and working at your second YCombinator company at the same time. What do you think of all the YCombinator clones popping up around the world for web startups? Do you ever visit other programs and exchange ideas?

Alexis:
It’s really validating – as the saying goes about imitation and flattery. I still remember being in the first round of Y Combinator and explaining to everyone I met what YC was about and how it worked. There were many more skeptical faces back then — these days, not so much.

MO:
You’ve actually volunteered in the only other sector I can think of that is using small amounts of funding to change lives and create things: micro finance/lending. What sort of similarities and differences do you see between Kiva and YCombinator (and perhaps the whole ecosystem of each)? Are there other areas where a similar model is in action or you think might work?

Alexis:
Microfinance is very cool, but it’s only part of the solution. What Y Combinator does that intrigues me so much is that it provides a framework to let creators do what they’re best at – create. In exchange for some equity, it gives them the system and has a network full of experience and variety of disciplines that the entrepreneur benefits from.

I’ve fantasized about starting a Y Combinator for social entrepreneurship, but I just don’t have the Paul Graham network (yet) to make it really attractive for founders. Fortunately, the cost of starting web startups keeps plummeting, so I’m optimistic.

In the meantime, Christina discovered a version of this in Nepal that breadpig recently donated to. It’s called ChangeFusion and has gone about crafting this model brilliantly.

MO:
I assume your work with Kiva was helping entrepreneurs in Armenia to some degree. What entrepreneurial lessons translated well from Silicon Valley to Armenia? What didn’t? What did you learn while you were there?

Alexis:
There wasn’t a lot entrepreneurs in Armenia could learn from me. I really have a narrow skill-set. I met with plenty of them, though, which was one of the most rewarding parts of the fellowship. They taught me about just how daunting it is to start a company in Armenia. Starting a business is hard enough, but having to navigate through bureaucracy and corruption only exacerbates it.

Though upward mobility, imho, is far less fluid here in the USA than the “American Dream” leads one to believe, it’s something a healthy portion of society needs to believe in for the system to work well. Presently, there’s less evidence of it in Armenia – fortunately, the Internet can be a great equalizier. When Russian teenagers are starting worldwide sensations (ChatRoulette) from their bedrooms, it’s clear that the meritocracy of the web is making a difference for programmers worldwide.

MO:
You’re back at it working with Steve Huffman at Hipmunk. Travel seems to annoy everyone these days with TSA screenings, less amenities, higher fees, etc. How does Hipmunk make my travel experience better? What pain point(s) are you solving for the average traveler?

Hipmunk Founder Interview

Alexis:
We want to take the agony out of flight search. We’re building a company where the user experience is paramount since day one. We’re all active travelers ourselves, so we built a flight search website that actually takes into account the fact that the cheapest flight isn’t always the best (who wouldn’t pay an extra $20 to avoid a 5hr layover?) and visually displays only the flights you’d want to see in an optimal way.

Unlike reddit, we want you to spend as little time on hipmunk as possible. And that’s OK with us. Find the ticket with the least agony, buy it, and get on with your day.

MO:
You’re in charge of marketing. Can you tell us about some of the strategies that have worked and why you think they worked? How would your strategy be different if this was your first startup and you didn’t have a reputation/track record?

Alexis:
I’ve never cared for big budget marketing. I joined the team a week before hipmunk launched and already knew that the search results would be an “ah-ha!” moment for most folks who saw it. The key was associating that moment with an equally memorable brand. Adam’s girlfriend had set the stage for the chipmunk when she suggested the name “hipmunk” and I got to work, over the span of a couple days, designing the logo, touching up the site, and preparing the launch marketing/PR.

I’m pleased with how well it’s going so far, but there’s much more to be done. The good news is that we’re encountering customers who have such ridiculously low expectations for their experience that it’s not hard for us to exceed them – that said, we want to go above and beyond. To date, the response has been overwhelmingly positive and the loads of press we’ve gotten make me look much better at my job than I am.

Hipmunk just seems to compel people to share it.

Everything about the hipmunk brand & website is about putting travelers first and making their experience as agony-free as possible. Hipmunk should make you smile. And not just because of the silly aviator goggles.

MO:
Watching you speak publicly, it’s easy to see how much you love doing what you do (otherwise, an acting career may be in order). What drives you to do what you do? What goals do you still have left that you are looking to accomplish?

Alexis:
It’s probably some kind of mental disorder.

I’m very well aware of the life lottery I won. And I know I didn’t do anything to deserve it – could’ve just as easily been born to another set of parents in another time or place. Sure, I’ve worked hard as hell for what I’ve achieved, but that doesn’t make me special when countless others have triumphed over much more with much less to show for it.

So this is my chance to help balance things out a bit.

Whether I’m helping render inefficient technologies obsolete, encouraging programmers to start startups instead of waste their talents aggrandizing banks instead of creating value, or making the world suck less – I’d like to think we’re all making a bit of progress.

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