Ohanian gives lessons on entrepreneurship, failure
“Go forth and suck.”
It’s not the type of advice that Carnegie Mellon students are accustomed to hearing, but that was Alexis Ohanian’s message to attendees of his presentation in McConomy Auditorium last Tuesday evening. Ohanian, a co-founder of the popular social news website Reddit, serial entrepreneur, and Internet activist, stopped at Carnegie Mellon on his tour to promote his book Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, which was published last October.
Like the book, his presentation outlined his personal history, such as applying to Boston startup incubator Y Combinator with his University of Virginia roommate and Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman.
With meme-filled slides related to his experiences, Ohanian passed along advice to the sparsely populated auditorium about the importance of having the entrepreneurial mindset.
“I want them to get started building stuff and doing stuff and they don’t have to wait to graduate to do that,” Ohanian said of the students who attend his talks in a special interview with The Tartan. “Those are the things — having ideas and doing them — that’s what entrepreneurship comes down to.”
Rejection and failure were important themes of Ohanian’s talk. He told the crowd the story of his first business idea with Huffman, the idea with which they applied to Y Combinator. They called it My Mobile Menu, an SMS-based system to order food on-the-go. However, while the incubator liked the potential behind Huffman and Ohanian as a team, their initial idea for My Mobile Menu was rejected.
It was with that initial failure that Ohanian encouraged students and people within the crowd to “go forth and suck.”
“We’re all figuring things out, every one of us, and this should not stop you,” Ohanian said.
After My Mobile Menu was denied, Huffman and Ohanian went back to the drawing board, and enrolled in Y Combinator’s first class with the idea for Reddit.
“We hadn’t built anything yet, but I already had a t-shirt with our mascot on it, which I do not recommend — that is the wrong order of operations,” Ohanian said to the audience.
According to the web analytics company Alexa, Reddit is now the 64th most popular website in the world in terms of average daily visitors and page views — the 24th most popular in terms of visitors from the United States.
At each of the school visits on the book tour, Ohanian invited an alumnus from that school who started a company or similar venture to talk about his or her experience. At this talk, founder and CEO of Comprehend Systems Rick Morrison (SCS ’03) sat down with Ohanian to talk about his time at Carnegie Mellon.
Comprehend offers medical data aggregation and analysis services for various clients in the health industry. Morrison started Comprehend Systems after a string of starting companies and business ideas with varying success.
“I had a series of failed startups and failed attempts along the way,” Morrison said. “And it’s really what [Ohanian] said about taking risks and putting things out there and standing by them.”
Carnegie Mellon has made efforts recently to encourage entrepreneurship in students and faculty.
The recently-announced Tepper Quadrangle, to be built in the current Morewood parking lot, will be home to the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
The center, which was founded in 2012, was itself based on the partnership between the Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship and Project Olympus, both of which foster student entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon and act as incubators for new potential businesses.
Additionally, startups at the university have been supported by the Open Field Entrepreneurs Fund, a fund started by Flip Video creator and Carnegie Mellon alumnus Jonathan Kaplan (TSB ‘90), for graduating entrepreneurs that was announced at the 2011 Commencement Ceremony.
When asked about what people should take away from the talk, Ohanian said, “Not everyone is going to end up being a founder of a company, but the skill of being entrepreneurial, having ideas and going through with them — that skill is so important.”