Alexis Ohanian co-founded Reddit in 2005. He left the website in 2009, and since then, he’s advised other entrepreneurs, invested in startups and worked as an activist for open Internet laws. In his new book, “Without Their Permission,” Ohanian talked about the “democratization of content” on the Internet and how Internet users don’t need the permission of long-standing industries to create their own companies. The democratization of the web is changing the way ventures are funded, through websites like Kickstarter and Crowdtilt. Before his talk on Thursday night, Ohanian sat down with Pipe Dream to talk about topics ranging from his new book to Reddit’s favorite dinosaur.
Pipe Dream: In your book, there’s this quote: “There’s a unifying message here: the Internet is already doing awesome things, and it’s just in its infancy. No one knows what’s coming, but we’re certain that the status quo is due for some serious disruption and that it’s up to the innovators to push us forward. That’s where you come in.” What do you think are the major disruptions that we’ll see in the next few years?
Alexis Ohanian: One of the ones I’m really excited about has been ushered in by crowdfunding. In the last few years, Kickstarter obviously has risen to prominence as a crowdfunding platform for the arts, and I think it’s just the beginning. They took something that was just generally thought of as not being an industry — like “come on, funding creative projects?” — and shown that there’s a real business there, there’s a real demand there. There’s going to be more evolutions not only there, in terms of getting creative projects funded or nonprofit projects funded. But I think more broadly, crowdfunding especially with the JOBS Act is going to see new dimensions as more people are enabled to take the chance to invest in something they believe in. And maybe it’s a prototype, maybe it’s a watch like the Pebble or maybe it’s their local bakery. I don’t know. But I think that’s going to be a huge change for the coming years.
PD: There’s another question related to that. You also talked about how startups have transformed different businesses and paradigms — travel, nonprofits, education, etc. Do you think there’s anything that startups culture can’t change, or will be particularly resistant to change?
AO: Any industry with large, powerful incumbents who are controllers, who have such significant gates that they keep, that it’s going to be really hard for new entrants. I think — what’s an example of that? Education is starting to happen, that’s been one that’s taken a while, and in the last couple of years, it’s been really interesting. Health, oh man, health is another huge one, because obviously there are more natural barriers there. And for good reason. Things like the FDA have a very important role. But I think there are a lot of industries that are due. Health insurance is another big one that I think is starting to change. But we’ll see. Generally, if there’s an industry with really entrenched incumbents who have been resistant to change and new competitors, that’s going to be where the difficulties are. And even government, for that matter, I think is due for a lot of improvement in terms of using software to have a government that just better represents us, the people. That’s another one. But it’s coming. It’s already happening.
PD: Your book is really optimistic about a lot of the changes that are coming with technology, like what crowdsourcing can do. But I was wondering, is there anything you’ve ever put online that you think has been taken wrongly? Because when you put something online, as you said, it kind of goes out of your control. So is there something you put online and it’s gone out of your reach in a way that you disapprove of?
AO: I think one of the things as creators in the Internet age that we have to accept is that we never have control in the first place, and the Internet shows that really well. And so at the end of the day, I’m sort of resigned to the fact that the things, the ideas I put out there in the world, are up to other humans to process and interpret.
PD: Is there anything in particular that has taken your idea of crowdsourcing and has been using it in a way that you don’t approve of?
AO: It’s funny. Crowdsourcing, as a concept, has been around forever. Humans pitched in $5 around town to help friends build a barn. Whether it’s the Internet, whether it was platforms before it. I did not invent crowdsourcing and I think, looking at it whether it’s through history or whether it’s in the present or it’s in the future, it’s ultimately up to people. And so I realize I have no control over people at the end of the day and just sort of hope for the best.
PD: In the first part of your book, you spoke about the projects you worked on. At first, you had the idea of the mobile buying app, and then there was Reddit and Hipmunk, etc. Do you have projects that you regret not working on more, that you think would have become big if you had the time to invest in them?
AO: I’m going to say this, but I’m also going to remind myself of the caveat that “ideas are worthless,” right? And so you can’t get too hung up about this stuff. My Mobile Menu was way too early, but I invested in a company called OrderAhead, which basically was exactly that; it was just much better executed at the right time, once we had smartphones everywhere. Another example would be — I had mocked up something that was starting to look like Crowdtilt, that started to look like Kickstarter, which was allowing people to sort of crowdfund ideas that they cared about, and didn’t follow through. And so that’s one of those where I was really excited to then invest in Crowdtilt because I was like, “Well, I didn’t get to invent this myself, but here’s someone else doing it.” And it validates the idea, but at the end of the day, every idea is derivative, so I don’t get too married to them.
PD: I have one more question — what is your favorite dinosaur and why is it the Lambeosaurus?
AO: Oh, Lambeosaurus. I love how that meme has grown. We even got a ticket response to try and change the spellcheck in Firefox for it. Or was it Chrome? I think it was Firefox. Anyway, yeah, it’s the Lambeosaurus. Just look at it. It’s amazing.