Reddit co-founder dazzles SU

Alexis Ohanian entertained and imparted entrepreneurial advice Tuesday to students, faculty and community members at the iSchool talk.

A crowd of more than 200 people gathered Tuesday in the Syracuse University Sheraton to hear Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian speak about Internet entrepreneurship.

From the moment Ohanian opened his mouth, the audience erupted in laughter.

“I’ve already gotten this thing off to, I think, a pretty good start,” he said. “Now I should talk about mascots.”

Ohanian is known for drawing cute mascots for every startup he helps create. Syracuse University’s mascot Otto the Orange attended the event.

“You don’t have to do it,” Ohanian said. “But obviously, plenty of institutions like using mascots to represent who they are.” Ohanian made the crowd laugh again by commenting that Otto, not particularly threatening or motivating, is friendly but also aggressive and willing to give hugs.

Alexis Ohanian of Reddit

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian talked about his interest in product mascots including Otto the Orange. (Photo: Danielle Barber)

Two years ago, Ohanian, an author and entrepreneur, spoke at Syracuse as a headliner for the iSchool’s #140Cuse conference. He said he had such a great time at that event he insisted to his team that they make Syracuse one of the 165 stops on his five-month book tour. His book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will be Made, Not Managed, came out in 2013.

When the audience settled down, Ohanian began his talk by referring to the World Wide Web as the world’s largest stage and library all in one. 

“Today with smartphones, we have access to more knowledge than the President of the United States did some 30 years ago,” Ohanian said, quoting designer, business magnate and inventor Elon Musk.

“And to think we use it all for Candy Crush and selfies on Snapchat,” Ohanian joked. “But there really is a value here. It really is powerful.”

It was with this power that Ohanian began his tech startup journey. He still remembers his very first startup and said it was life changing.

“It was, a pathetic, lame, fan-boy page. It was bad,” he said. “But it was amazing because I could watch that counter go up and even though it was just me hitting reload and I didn’t know it at the time, I felt so empowered.”

Ohanian stressed the importance of the Internet and put in perspective endless opportunities that it gives our generation.

“I didn’t have YouTube in college,” he said. “There are so many more resources available and we have a different kind of fluency than previous generations.”

Another theme Ohanian emphasized throughout his discussion was that ideas need action.

“Don’t just have the ideas,” he advised. “Do them. Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Hoffman, they’re all largely self-taught using free resources available online you can start using right now.”

What was supposed to be a discussion to promote Ohanian’s book turned into a conversation about valuable life lessons.

“Sucking is the first step to being sort of good at something,” he said. “If you are going to do anything new, you are going to suck at it!”

On Ohanian’s book tour, the entrepreneur brings up an alumnus who has had amazing success on the Internet from each university he visits. SU iSchool alumnus Wiley Cerilli joined Ohanian on stage.

“Things have changed so much. It’s been 15 years since I’ve been back,” Cerilli said. “I think one of the greatest things about the iSchool program now is that it makes it so much easier to start a business at the greatest age to start a business.”

Alexis Ohania and Wiley Cirelli

iSchool alumnus Wiley Cerilli (left) shared his advice for current college students during a conversation with Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian. (Photo: Danielle Barber)

Cerilli gave advice passionately because he said he wants to steer people away from his errors.

“One of the mistakes that we made early on was that we just tried to be too many things at too many companies,” he said. “So instead of being great at one thing, we were sort of just average at 10 things.” His advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to pick one thing that you want to be great at and be great at it.

“If there’s something that you find a little scary, I find that you learn the most about yourself when you’re put into situations when you’re a little scared,” Cerilli said. “If you don’t feel a little scared in what you’re doing, then I feel like you’re not learning as much.”

At the end of the talk, Ohanian left the audience with a final takeaway.

“If you don’t remember anything else from this talk, just remember, go forth and suck,” he said. After almost every line that came out of Ohanian’s mouth, someone in the crowd, if not the entire crowd, laughed.

“Alexis was hilarious,” said Aidan Cunniffe, a sophomore at SU. Cunniffe said he felt a similar connection with the two speakers and was glad he got to hear their experiences. “I started my own company last year, so I think it’s really a good message because I see so many entrepreneurs start things their senior year, they graduate and then 6 months later their loans are due and they stop being entrepreneurs.”

Paul Berg, a recent graduate of SU and Cunniffe’s partner in their startup software company, also loved the enthusiasm that Ohanian brought to the presentation.

“It really validated a lot of things I’ve worried about,” Berg said. “It was just pretty cool that I got to see his perspective since he is where I want to be eventually one day.”

After the discussion, students, faculty and community members were given the opportunity to talk with both Ohanian and Cerilli. Attendees also had the chance to get a copy of Ohanian’s book and have it personally signed. An added bonus was getting to take a picture with Ohanian himself; just one more thing he did to put a smile on the collective crowd's face.

Post new comment

* Field must be completed for your comment to appear on The NewsHouse
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.