As college graduates face grim job prospects and the Internet continues to disrupt traditional businesses, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian sees countless untapped opportunities.
The entrepreneur, who sold Reddit for millions of dollars just after graduating college, has traveled the country meeting like-minded individuals who created their own paths to success online. In "Without Their Permission: How the 20th Century Will Be Made, Not Managed" (Business Plus, October 2013), Ohanian shows how everyone from crowdfunding musicians to heartland farmers has turned to new, free Internet tools to build their own careers.
In a telephone interview, Ohanian told us why everyone can be an entrepreneur:
BusinessNewsDaily: You talk about how the Internet has made the stable jobs of the past disappear. Do you also see the economic downturn playing a role?
Alexis Ohanian: In the book, I talk about that a little bit. In the final chapter, I'm really talking to millennials, and how they're feeling the effects of the economy. They're really feeling it as their debt for college is rising, and feeling that the security of a job is not available to them.
The thing I have really found is just how much of an impact social media and the Internet are having on independence. We're just staring to see the effects of it. It's efficiently finding markets, for example, for farmers in Missouri, and helping them get their meat to market.
BND: The Internet revolution's been going on for a couple of decades now. Why do you say we're just now seeing the effects?
A.O.: If you go back and look at that first Internet bubble, there were businesses that were poorly timed. There was a business called Pets.com that gets mocked a lot when talking about that bubble. Today, I get all of my pet food from Wag.com. It was a timing issue that cost them.
Now, we're just seeing the effects of these kinds of online businesses being possible. The smartphone didn't exist when I sold Reddit. We were rejected from an online restaurant ordering idea, because what little ordering was done, it was on fax. Now, taking orders online is something restaurants are open to.
We're seeing that things like that can happen now because we have these powerful devices in our pockets — smartphones.
And the perspectives have changed. AirBnB could technically have happened 10 years ago. But people wouldn't have been comfortable sharing their rooms online. The culture has changed.
BND: What were some of the most innovative examples of projects that you've seen?
A.O.: I mentioned the family farmer in Missouri. As I was working on the book, I crowdfunded a bus to cross the heartland, and show the amazing Internet economy happening across the country.
I met this family farmer in Missouri, on a multigenerational family farm. He said, "I don't check my email more than three times a week." We're looking at this farm, looking at these cows, and thinking maybe the Internet hasn't gotten here yet. But then he said, "Ninety-percent of my customers come through the Internet."
He's able to do this because of a startup in Kansas City called AgLocal. Again, this was not Silicon Valley.
It makes selling meat more efficient than the old-fashioned way of placing phone calls. It was amazing to see the difference it made in his life. It's giving this family farm a chance to compete with the big corporate farms of scale. And there's a problem with farming in economies of scale: The quality of the meat will suffer, not to mention the animal rights issues.
Startups like AgLocal make it possible for small farms to compete. And so customers get a higher-quality product. He can focus on what he does best, running the farm. We get better meat.
BND: In looking at these different businesses, what do you think makes for a successful startup?
A.O.: I've started a few companies and invested in more than 80. There is no formula for success. The biggest factor is the founders, not the ideas. When I've seen it not work out, it's because that founding team was not able to work together.
Founding a company with someone is like getting married. You have to work with them in the good times and the bad times. And the bad times happen all the time. Even the good times have their issues.
There is no simple rule for why some succeed. But so much of what we see working comes down to the relationships among the founders. I recommend dating before you get married. Work with someone with whom you've built things, worked on a project together. I was lucky to work with [Reddit co-founder] Steve [Huffman].
BND: What encouragement and warnings would you give to people looking to begin their own startups?
A.O.: I want to knock entrepreneurship off its pedestal. There are so many people using the Internet to be entrepreneurial—in the arts, as a nonprofit, even starting an Etsy store.
I wrote this book as a kick in the butt. The book is for everyone. Even if you just have a passion, there are ways to develop those skills. It can just be a side passion, like an Etsy store. But you can develop hirable skills.
When you're hiring at a company, you want someone who has that entrepreneurial spirit. I didn't even learn where my last hire went to college until he was working for me. I wanted to know what he had done.
That's what employers want to see. You're probably going to have the same GPA, and have gone to the same schools as everyone else. This is how you prove what you can do to employers.
BND: What is your goal with this book?
A.O.: It's so important to me to get this message out there, because I want better stuff. It's a gain for all of us when someone opens up a successful store.
My favorite example is [photography blog] "Humans of New York." [Founder] Brandon [Stanton] had never taken a portrait. Now, he is probably the most-seen photographer in the world. This kid had just bounced around different industries, and he was finally able to do what he wanted. That doesn't happen before the Internet.
That's what I want to see. It's making the world suck less.