You might not know him by his name alone, but if you’ve ever browsed reddit or looked for plane tickets on Hipmunk, you’re at least familiar with the creations of Internet entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of social news site reddit, travel site Hipmunk and social enterprise platform Breadpig.
With the success that he’s seen from his ventures, Ohanian wrote Without Their Permission: How The 21st Century Will Be Made Not Managed, a book that discusses his own personal story as well as advice on how to start and — hopefully — expand a startup. Ohanian saw the Internet transform ideas and how just about anything could be brought to life through it (“All links are created equal,” is a continually-mentioned mantra in the book), Ohanian is also a strong Open Internet activist, having spoken out against Congress’s Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate’s Protect IP Act in 2010 and 2011.
Even though Ohanian is currently on tour promoting his book, he still had the chance to chat with the Daily Trojan about his book, the Internet and his love of Star Wars.
Daily Trojan: In Without Their Permission, you mention how you started tinkering when you were younger. Was this something that you started doing, or were their influences in your life that encouraged this type of creativity?
Alexis Ohanian: My mother’s highest level of education was a GED and my dad got a degree in urban studies from a hippie school (Antioch) that lost its charter, so neither of them really understood the technology they brought home the day they bought me a computer. What they did know was to encourage me to tinker and explore computers and [the] Internet. They gave me total freedom, which allowed me to succeed (and fail) at learning a variety of things from hardware to programming.
DT: There is a section in your book where you mentioned that if you want to create, you should learn to code. When you were in high school, there weren’t as many resources available as we have now (i.e. CodeAcademy, RailsforZombies, etc.) How did you learn?
A.O.: Books, mostly. And I took the Pascal class my high school offered at least two times (I think I was a teacher’s aid for a third go-around) and my mom got me signed up for more programming classes at community college over the summers.
DT: How long did it take you to write Without Their Permission, and when did you decide to start writing?
A.O.: I wrote the book in bursts over a few months, stealing time when I could. What really helped was taking a week off, locking myself in a house with WiFi off and only my cat for distraction. I wrote most of the book in that week.
DT: From your experience, is it difficult to find people who “give a damn”? If not, why do you think that in other industries it might be hard to find people who give a damn?
A.O.: Yes. I think it’s hard everywhere, because taking pride in one’s work is not something we all get the chance to do in our professional lives. When everything aligns, though, and you’ve got a position at a company in an industry where someone can reach that kind of fulfillment, it’s a beautiful thing for all involved.
DT: Regarding a comment you made about the lack of technologists there are in politics, are you optimistic about the possibility of more tech-minded individuals in government? Why or why not?
A.O.: I’m optimistic because there are more and more tech-minded individuals coming up. Period. Some of them will naturally end up running for office. The sooner the better. Bring in the nerds!
DT: You said that some of your favorite subreddits are /r/explainlikeimfive and /r/corgi … what are your other favorite subreddits? (Note to reader: subreddits are like subcategories under reddit, usually formatted like /r/subject to indicate that it’s a subreddit)
A.O.: It’s always changing because there are so many [subreddits] created every day and so many I discover daily. I just found /r/syriancivilwar, which is a fascinating forum with a community aggregating links to news and primary sources. When I want to feel better about the world, I’ll check /r/upliftingnews/ or /r/aww. I just clicked the ‘random’ button and got /r/boardgames, which is pretty cool.
DT: From what’s in the book, you and Star Wars clearly have a history. How far do you go back?
A.O.: Growing up, I was a much bigger fan of the Aliens universe, but it’s harder to make references to LV-426 and expect a broad audience to understand it. I have a lot of respect for Star Trek and I know my book upset some people, but Star Wars was just more fun. I must’ve started in elementary school … no one ever forgets the first time they see a lightsaber.
DT: If a USC student has an idea, what’s the best way they can reach out to you?
A.O.: Twitter! I’m @AlexisOhanian and I try and reply to as much as I can, and plenty of opportunities have come off of there. The other place would be on my subreddit, /r/Alexis!
Alexis Ohanian will be speaking at USC as part of the Viterbi Student Institute for Innovation Speaker Series on Wednesday, Jan. 22 in SGM 123 at 7 p.m. Ohanian will also be joined onstage by USC Viterbi alumni entrepreneurs Ross Boucher and Tom Robinson for a Q&A.