By Brittney Dunkins
Reddit co-founder and author of “Without Their Permission” Alexis Ohanian encouraged nearly 300 students and budding entrepreneurs to plug into the power of the open Internet at the George Washington University on Wednesday.
The event, hosted by the GW Tech Collective, a student group centered on empowering the campus community to engage with engineering, science and technology, and the Office of Entrepreneurship, also served as a platform for a special announcement for the 2014 Business Plan Competition.
“The 2014 Business Plan Competition provides a support network for you as you start your business and a framework for your development,” John Rollins, founding director of the Business Plan Competition, said. “We are pleased to announce that this year the grand prize will be $101,000.”
Mr. Ohanian is the co-founder of Reddit, a popular online community for user-generated content known as the “front page of the Internet,” which had more than 80 million unique visitors last month. Among his many other projects, Mr. Ohanian recently published “Without Their Permission,” a guidebook for aspiring entrepreneurs.
“We were thrilled to see that the GW and D.C. communities were as excited about bringing in Mr. Ohanian as we were,” said Elliot Liskin, head board member of the GW Tech Collective. “The reason we had this overwhelmingly positive reaction was not only because Reddit is a site many people use every day, but because GW students have a lot of entrepreneurial interest. There’s a ton of hidden energy and passion.”
Mr. Ohanian recounted his path to entrepreneurship which began, like many modern tech stories, in a dorm room.
As a senior at the University of Virginia, Mr. Ohanian and a friend, Steve Huffman, who later became his partner at Reddit, began working on My Mobile Menu or MMM, a food ordering service app.
Through a mentoring relationship with Paul Graham, a tech community giant and well-known computer programmer and entrepreneur, they were able to refine their ideas and act on the one with most promise.
Mr. Ohanian encouraged the crowd to use the resources available to them to launch their ideas in a public space and embrace criticism.
“Far too many people get seduced by the idea of entrepreneurship but do not act,” he said. “They don’t start a business or create a plan or launch a blog. The only people you should be creating for are yourselves, your co-founders and your users.”
He recounted an early encounter with a Yahoo executive that caused him to form a “wall of negative reinforcement” that helped to fuel his motivation.
“There is so much content online competing for our attention that it raises the bar,” he said. “There are thousands of cat photos that people would rather look at than what you are creating and it forces you to create things that people want.”
Mr. Ohanian urged the crowd to combine the desire to create with the power of open access Internet.
He said that web developers have the most valuable skills because they will be able to not only explore but create the new web frontier.
“Unlike the world, the World Wide Web is flat,” he said. “That is the premise of the open Internet. All links being created equal is what makes the Internet work. It is why the Internet is so powerful.”
The Millennial generation is uniquely suited to harness the power of this interconnected space, because they are “fluent” in the language of technology, Mr. Ohanian added.
“We were born into it, many people are adopting the Internet as quickly as possible, but we have the power because we were born into it,” he said.
The lecture was just one of 150 stops on a national book tour that Mr. Ohanian launched last month. Along the way, he will visit 75 universities.
During the event, he asked students to fill out a postcard with the goals. At the end of the tour, he intends to stamp and mail each postcard back to the student who wrote it as a reminder of his or her goals.
“This tour is about finding more examples of people doing amazing things,” he said.
University lecturer and co-founder of Pedal Forward Jon Torrey, B.S. ’10, M.S. ’12, also joined Mr. Ohanian on stage and told his fellow Colonials to “get curious faster.”
Following a question-and-answer session, in true techie-fashion, Mr. Ohanian had students send a text to a number that automatically placed them in a queue to have their books signed. As students’ numbers came up, their phones vibrated as a notification.
Students who purchased a book also received a $25 credit on donorschoose.org to donate to the public school of their choice.