In the place of the usual formulas and diagrams, a small alien, chipmunk in a scarf, and pig with bread wings had appeared on the chalkboard. Yes, Alexis Ohanian, the “startup guy” of reddit, hipmunk, and breadpig fame had taken over E51-345 on a Saturday night during finals week at MIT to inspire the beavers to embark on a mission of making the world suck less. Within a couple of years of graduating from the University of Virginia, Ohanian sold reddit for millions and has since gone on to start many other companies, such as hipmunk and breadpig, all while representing the seed accelerator Y Combinator and investing in over sixty other tech startups. A lover and defender of the Internet, Ohanian is launching his book, Without Your Permission, to evangelize entrepreneurs to use the Internet, which he describes as arguably “the most powerful and democratic tool for disseminating information in human history” to make awesome things that change the world. (A photo of a breadpig on a flat globe popped up on the slideshow.)
Ohanian candidly discussed the challenges that entrepreneurs face in working on a product, facing competitors, and pitching to investors, showing photos of the early days in his startup life, proclaiming: “If you can build — you can solve problems.” At MIT, a school full of builders and inventors, solving problems is embedded deeply in our culture, and Ohanian was here to inspire the beavers to leverage the power of the Internet to “create new communities, technologies, businesses or charities.” More importantly, he continued to break down the notion that successful entrepreneurs are special or know exactly what they are doing. In fact, he states, it’s the exact opposite: “Don’t let not knowing what you’re doing stop you. People who look like they have it together are still hacking it. Don’t be afraid to suck.” What about the critics? Ignore them. Ohanian shared an early story of a harsh critic telling him reddit would never amount to anything, a statement which he promptly taped up on the wall next to his bed as a motivating reminder to wake up to every morning: “Haters gonna hate. Eat ‘em for breakfast like waffles … delicious waffles.”
Next, Ohanian brought in Grouper founder Tom Brown, a Course 6 MIT alumnus, to discuss his experience founding a startup in a Small Empires-like fireside chat. Brown reflected on his experience at MIT, telling students to relish in the unique environment: “At MIT you’re with like-minded people. Excitement breeds more excitement.” He also talked about the panicked moments as a startup founder trying to update the code of his site prototype in time for demos during a power outage in Silicon Valley and getting selected for Y Combinator. Brown left us with one resounding piece of advice: “Do not be afraid to take risks and fail.”
The event, filled with inspiring stories and hilarious moments, culminated in T-shirts being shot out of a T-shirt cannon before Ohanian met with MIT students at a book signing of Without Your Permission. In it, he shares his ideas, tips, and even his own doodles about harnessing the power of the web for good.