7 Lessons from the Founder of Reddit at the Art of Entrepreneurship

Last week, I attended the Art of Entrepreneurship conference in Toronto. There were lots of great Art of Logospeakers like Canada’s home décor diva Debbie Travis and social media entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk. But I was most inspired by the keynote from Alexis Ohanian, founder of reddit.com and author of Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.

For those who couldn’t attend the event, I’ve summarized some of his key points below.

1. The truth is no one knows what they are doing.

Ohanian admitted that even he and his business partner Steve Huffman didn’t really know what they were doing in the beginning and still don’t always know. When they pitched a business idea to Y Combinator for an app called “My Mobile Menu” or “Mmm,” they didn’t have the foresight that smartphones (which hadn’t really taken off in the market yet) would be required for their business to work. But the folks at Y Combinator liked Ohanian and Huffman and asked them to pitch another idea – that is how reddit was born.

2. Whatever you start, it’s ok if it is a little “janky.”

Ohanian showed screenshot examples of the first Twitter and Facebook home pages. And they weren’t very pretty. But they are great examples of how something that starts off a little rough, can turn into something great.

3. The second you care about the competition is when you stop innovating.

He used the example of the launch of Digg and how that could have thrown reddit off track if they had tried to truly “compete” with another company. Instead, they stayed focused on what made reddit great and continued to build off of that innovation. The website now has over 135 million visitors per month and over 5.5 million page views.

4. Software is the new literacy.

Ohanian likens his work at Y Combinator to be a little like working at Hogwarts Academy from the Harry Potter books. “Coding is the new wizardry,” he says. “You can change the world with just a laptop and an Internet connection.” Likewise, he believes that the resumes of the future will be based on what you have made instead of your GPA.

5. Sucking is the first step to being good at something.

Ohanian encourages entrepreneurs to learn from their mistakes. This goes back to the idea that “no one really knows what they are doing” in the beginning. He used examples of photographers and other digital creators who really sucked in the beginning. But they stayed the course and became masters in their field.

6. Earn being in front of someone.

He emphasized the importance of creating something that users truly want. And he warns that too many startups focus their energy on “playing house” – worrying about business cards and branding before they have a great product. Ohanian suggests your first priority should be writing code, creating a powerful product and getting users.

7. Every company needs to realize they are a tech company.

He suggests that every company needs to build relationships with customers via technology. He used the example of how AirBnB has taken business away from large hotel chains like Hilton. And he warns that most of the big business incumbents are never going to be able to adapt. “They’ll be hosed in 20 to 30 years,” he says.

Overall, the Art of Entrepreneurship conference was a lot of fun. I came away inspired by all of the speakers and am ready to start putting some of their advice into practice. I’m already looking forward to next year!

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