Reddit Co-Founder: Focus On Users, Not Competitors

By Don Dodson
The News-Gazette, Champaign-Urbana, Ill.


The Internet is a wonderful technology that can help people fulfill what they imagine, the co-founder of Reddit said.

But to succeed, they’ll have to plunge ahead with their ideas, even if things aren’t letter-perfect, even if they have “no idea what they’re doing,” according to Alexis Ohanian.

Speaking to an overflowing lecture hall of University of Illinois students on Tuesday, Ohanian, 30, told would-be entrepreneurs in the audience that they’ll “fail plenty of times.” But they’ll have a better chance of success if they don’t heed detractors and instead listen to customers and users, he said.

“Do not care about your competition,” he said. “The second you pay attention to your competition, you stop innovating and start copying.”

“Who should you care about? The people using your site, the people backing your Kickstarter project,” he said, referring to a popular online way to “crowd-fund” a business idea.

Ohanian and Steve Huffman founded Reddit, a social news website, in 2005, after graduating from the University of Virginia. So far, he said, Reddit has had 112 million visitors and 5.4 billion page views.

The path to Reddit began when Ohanian and Huffman were sophomores with an idea for an online business, My Mobile Menu, that would place an order with a restaurant so the order would be waiting for the customer.

They pitched the idea to Y Combinator, a seed-stage investment company. The folks there rejected the idea but liked the duo and asked them to come up with other ideas.

That’s when they came up with the notion of posting nifty news items on a website and letting viewers rank the postings by voting them “up” or “down.”

Ohanian said that as a teenager, he felt he had “real power” when his parents equipped him with a computer and Internet connection and he was able to build a website.

“I could create something anyone in the world could see,” he said. “It was a powerful drug.”

He called coding “the most valuable skill of the century” and also “one of the most accessible skills.” But he said ideas are “worthless” unless they are developed.

“It’s not just having ideas, but doing them,” Ohanian said.

Among those who have harnessed the Web, he said, are:

Maya Shea Penn, a 14-year-old girl in Atlanta who founded Maya’s Ideas, which sells eco-friendly clothing she created and diverts some of the proceeds to charity.

Lester Chambers, a 73-year-old blues musician who made gold records in decades past but failed to get royalties. By raising money through Kickstarter, he was able to produce his own album.
“There was no parasitic middle man,” Ohanian said.

Brandon Stanton, who failed at several things before hitting it big with Humans of New York, a photoblog of people in New York City.

Upbeat, entertaining and irreverent, Ohanian gave off a Jimmy Fallon vibe throughout his hourlong talk, even more so when he invited UI alum Pete Koomen up for a one-on-one chat.

Koomen, a co-founder of Optimizely, was at the UI from 2004 to 2006, leaving with a master’s degree to become a product manager at Google.

He stayed with that company until 2009, when he and former Google colleague Dan Siroker decided to form a business of their own.

Their first idea was a website that would help kids learn math. But when they worked with actual users, they found the kids were “bored to tears,”until the exercises were made “competitive.”

Koomen and Siroker then pursued an “even worse” idea that went nowhere. After that, they were “desperate and embarrassed,” afraid they had left Google only to fall flat on their faces.

But the idea for Optimizely worked.

Optimizely makes it easier to run comparative tests on websites to see whether various configurations of, say, home-page banners might make users more likely to buy a product, sign up for a service or interact with the site.

The idea stemmed from one of Siroker’s previous experiences. He had left Google to become director of analytics for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and had done such comparative tests, helping to raise “tens of millions of dollars” for the campaign.

Koomen said they knew they had a hit when they described Optimizely to a prospective user and he asked them to immediately send an invoice so he could use early versions of their tool.

Under questioning from Ohanian, Koomen said Optimizely employs 150. He added that the company is hiring 27 software engineers and he encouraged UI students to apply for those jobs.

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