Searching for the Entrepreneurial Spirit of Generation Y
In an overflowing Broyhill Auditorium, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian gestures to a piece of advice on the screen behind him, where the words Be Awesome stand out in bold white lettering. A few students turn to their neighbor with a perplexed look. What does that mean? Is this guy crazy? Aren’t I already awesome enough? Ohanian is young, well-dressed, and full of energy. It’s an energy that he hopes to spread to the crowd this evening.
He’s even brought a T-shirt cannon to do it.
Reddit is a product of both entrepreneurial spirit and the Internet. Ohanian created it with the help of a fellow graduate from the University of Virginia. They both sought to build a digital community from scratch — one in which everyone involved could play an active role. By strict definition, it’s a social news website – certain users submit links and the masses either “upvote” or “downvote” as they see fit. Links rise and fall according to the democratic process. There are a multitude of other features that make Reddit a powerful tool, but function is the heart of the service.
But Reddit is not the focus of the event tonight. Ohanian is here to inspire the youth who he believes have the power to make a difference in the world right now. He insists that millennials are the key to future successful Internet startups. Their inherent understanding of the way the Internet works gives them an advantage over today’s gatekeepers.
Ohanian says his obsession with web development began at a young age. He picked up a working knowledge of HTML that allowed him to create a basic fan page for one of his favorite video games. The now defunct hosting service Yahoo! GeoCities – no longer available in the United States – allowed him to connect with youth who held similar interests. As these connections grew, he began to realize the potential power of the Internet:
“There was a hit counter on my Quake 2 fan page that jumped a few numbers every day åÉ as that figure grew, so did my inspiration åÉ right in front of me were thousands of people with similar interests.”
Not every page Ohanian created was such a rousing success. His first serious entrepreneurial concept – My Mobile Menu – was rejected in 2005 for seed funding. The panel decided that the mobile app market was not mature enough to warrant such an investment. This rejection led directly to the creation of Reddit.
“It’s important to remember that failure is an option åÉ the sooner you fail the better. Now is the time to fail. You are surrounded here by a great safety net of people and opportunity.”
Ohanian shared two recent stories that he says prove failure is an important stepping stone on the path to success.
The first involves a man named Brandon Stanton and his photo blog “Humans of New York.” In 2010, Stanton lost his lucrative job at a Chicago-based trading firm. Instead of pursuing a path of headhunters and résumé submissions, Stanton purchased a camera and turned a hobby into a full-time job.
The second concerns a comedian born with cerebral palsy named Zach Anner. The same year that Stanton lost his job, Anner won a contest for the right to produce a show on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Much of his initial exposure that propelled him to the top of the contest came from a popular thread on Reddit. After six episodes, the series was cancelled and Reddit bonded together to support his independent travel show.
To close out the event, Ohanian invited James Beshara, Crowdtilt’s CEO and co-founder, to the stage. Beshara received his Bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest in 2008 and has already devoted his time to a number of smaller Internet startups. Crowdtilt – a crowd-sourced fundraising tool that helps users raise capital for projects of varying scope – is his most successful venture so far. In the first three months of operation, users across the site raised a total of $1 million. The site is almost two years old now, and its user base continues to grow.
Beshara shared a number of stories about success and failure in the realm of web entrepreneurship.
His most poignant moment came when Ohanian asked him to share the most valuable piece of advice he had ever received: “I was once told the two most important elements for creating a company – trust and a network – this is over the main idea, the investors, the capital and investment åÉ no startup can thrive without those two key ingredients.”