It’s been a busy few years for Reddit co-founder and University of Virginia alumnus Alexis Ohanian. The tech entrepreneur was dubbed “Mayor of the Internet” for his outspoken defense of the open internet in 2015, rejoined Reddit full-time that same year and, in 2016, further expanded his seed-stage venture capital fund, Initialized Capital.
Ohanian is making headlines again in 2017 on several fronts. As renewed debate begins over net neutrality – the principle that internet service providers should have to enable equal access to all content, regardless of the source – he’s using his raised profile to continue the fight to preserve the open internet. He’s also joining the growing number of young tech entrepreneurs who are learning to balance their public work lives with their growing families. Ohanian and his fiancée, tennis star Serena Williams, recently announced the impending arrival of their first child later this year.
Nearly 12 years after he and fellow alumnus Steve Huffman co-founded Reddit as undergraduates at UVA, UVA Today caught up with Ohanian to discuss his progress over the last decade and what advice he has to offer young Wahoo entrepreneurs hoping to follow in his footsteps.
Q. Did you ever imagine early on that Reddit would become what it is today?
A. The fourth-largest website in the U.S.? I can safely say we had no idea what it would become. I just wanted to never have a boss again.
Q. What are some of the areas of progress you’ve been most excited about since returning to Reddit in 2015?
A. When Steve and I came back in 2015, there was a lot of work to be done, but I’m most pleased with how much the company has grown – not just traffic – as we’re now over 200 employees strong and shipped more code in the last quarter than in Reddit’s first 10 years combined. The team has done an amazing job updating the product, shipping native mobile apps and building a business that’s grown spectacularly in just two years.
Q. What advice would you offer a current student interested in entrepreneurship?
A. Get started now! My entire book [“Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed”] was about how you don’t need to wait to get started on your entrepreneurial journey – open your laptop and get started. Find people around Grounds who are also hungry self-starters and start doing. Head over to HackCville and take a class on programming if you don’t know where to begin, or hop on Codecademy if you don’t even want to leave your dorm.
Q. As a venture capitalist, what are the key qualities you look for before investing in any new enterprise?
A. I want a founder who is relentlessly resourceful, going after a market where your company has multibillion-dollar potential, and enough of a product built that shows they can execute on an idea.
Q. Are there any examples of underdogs you took a chance on and it paid off?
A. Absolutely. One founder, Apoorva Mehta, pitched us a prototype that was a simple mobile website, with grocery items scraped from the Safeway website, and a couple of drivers hired off Craigslist to deliver the groceries. This was the first time we’d ever seen someone actually build a version of online grocery shopping that worked. He sent my partner Garry a six-pack of beer at the office and got his attention. It was a no-brainer after meeting him, and we were among Instacart’s first seed investors.
Q. How do you think your University education prepared you for success?
A. My history degree was even more helpful than my business degree, to be honest, because it gave me practice taking in large amounts of disparate information and sources, synthesizing it and communicating the findings. As an entrepreneur, I find myself using those muscles every day.
Q. Did you have any faculty mentors who made an especially large impact on your life and career?
A. [Commerce] Professor Mark White was the first person I pitched outside of my parents about our original startup idea – which would turn into Reddit – called “My Mobile Menu.” He had invited me on a UVA trip to compete [in entrepreneurship] at the National University of Singapore and that first night there, we got a drink together and I told him our idea. He said it had a lot of potential and I dashed off an email to Steve telling him we had to do it.
Q. Are there any ways today that you still use the UVA alumni network?
A. I try to give back. When Wahoos email me, I try my best to offer them some advice, but I’m really impressed by all the Wahoos who are coming into the tech industry.
Q. You’ve had a lot of exciting personal news to share with the world lately. What’s it like managing the visibility?
A. We keep our relationship private, because the well-being of our family is our first priority. It’s been a challenge at times, but as I know well, we live in an age of social media where the water cooler conversations are always going to happen, at scale, and we can’t control that.
Q. You’ll be joining a host of prominent young tech entrepreneurs who balance work and family. What suggestions do you have for those rising to the same challenge?
A. Talk to me when I have some more experience balancing the two! For now, I just work really hard at making time for family and being present when it’s that time. I find myself even more productive and energized when I return from it.