HOOK: I hoped people would say, “I read it on Reddit.” I don’t think anyone to date has, but that was the dream.
KEVIN SCOTT: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m your host, Kevin Scott, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft.
In this podcast, we’re going to get behind the tech. We’ll talk with some of the people who have made our modern tech world possible and understand what motivated them to create what they did. So, join me to maybe learn a little bit about the history of computing and get a few behind-the-scenes insights into what’s happening today. Stick around.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Hello, and welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m Christina Warren, Senior Developer advocate at GitHub.
KEVIN SCOTT: And I’m Kevin Scott.
CHRISTINA WARREN: And our guest on the show today is Alexis Ohanian, and he is known for so many things in the tech world, but perhaps he is best known as being the cofounder and the executive chairman of Reddit, which he launched as part of the very first Y Combinator class back in 2005, and today he’s running a venture firm called 776. In fact, he was also once my Lyft driver.
KEVIN SCOTT: Wow, that’s – that’s awesome. I mean, like Alexis may be the – you know, the – the king of coincidences as far as guests go. So, he and I overlapped at the University of Virginia, when he was an undergraduate and I was a PhD student in the computer science department.
So, I don’t think I was ever his TA, but there is a distinct possibility that my wife was his TA given that he was a history major, and my wife is – was a history PhD student there while he was a student.
CHRISTINA WARREN: That’s amazing. That’s amazing, and I – I’m so looking forward to the conversation that you two are going to have because he is so interesting and has done so many things over the last, you know, life 15 – 16 years or so, so I – I can’t wait to hear what you talk about.
KEVIN SCOTT: For sure.
KEVIN SCOTT: Alexis Ohanian was the cofounder and Executive Chairman of Reddit, which he launched as part of Y Combinator’s first class in 2005. In 2010, he cofounded Initialized Capital with Garry Tan with notable early-stage investments and Coinbase, Patreon, Ro and Instacart. He returned to Reddit full time in 2015 to help lead it as an independent company, eventually stepping down from the board in protest in 2020. Last year, he created 776, a firm that operates like a tech startup deploying venture capital. Alexis is married to tennis superstar Serena Williams, and they have a four-year old daughter. We are so glad to have you on the show today, Alexis. Thank you for being here.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Oh, thank you for having me, Kevin. This is going to be fun.
KEVIN SCOTT: So, yeah, I’m really psyched to talk about so many things, but we love to start these conversations by going all the way back to the beginning. So, I know, like me, you are a UVA alumni, but how did you get interested in technology and programming, computer science as a kid.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Well, I guess I have you all to thank a little bit for this. I remember – gosh, I remember the day, I managed to successfully convince my parents to buy a computer, and it was a 486SX25 – 25? I mean, it was an early one of the DX.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Faster processing power, more processing power. It wouldn’t let me play a few games I wanted, but anyway, I wasn’t going to complain. This was a huge investment for my parents, huge. Neither of them had any idea what to do with a computer, and I’ll never forget – I mean, these were the – even just the most basic thing of getting, I guess it would have been Windows 3.1 started, made me feel like a hacker, because you’d be sitting there DOS, and you’d just be like, okay – and as a kid, I must have been, ah, let’s see – 8, 9, 10, someone can fact check how old I was, but like – you know, as a kid, you’re sitting in front of this screen that your parents have no idea what to do with – I mean, neither of my parents ever used it. They were confused by it, but you know, credit, they had the foresight, but you just I don’t know I couldn’t help but feel like a little superhero.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Because I was like, oh, man, I can do things my parents don’t understand, like this is kind of bad and fun and cool, and like who knows what I could do with this thing.
And, and then before long, I started playing videogames. I remember Scorched Earth was one of the ones that was preloaded on there, and I’m playing this game as a little, you know, a few-pixel-sized tank, you know, launching nukes and all these other bombs, MIRVs. I remember I was – okay, and I’m watching this all happen, and I’m like, this is so cool, like, so this is a videogame, like this is fun, and it wasn’t long thereafter that I’m like, okay, well, wait – there’s code that makes this work, and you know, because it was such a pain in the ass – and now I’m really getting into trouble here on the Microsoft podcast.
It was such a pain in the ass to deal with things like drivers –
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, yeah –
ALEXIS OHANIAN: – and everything else that you really had to earn it, just to get your games to work, often. And because of that, I really started to think about, well, okay, well what makes these things work? And then it’s like, okay, it’s programming. You get a couple of books out of the library, and the only programming class my high school had—shout out Howard High School—was Pascal –
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: And so, I took it every year, because it was the only class, and the teacher was like, “Alexis, you’re still in this Pascal class, like why?” And I’m like, “Well, because I want 45 minutes every day to be on the computer, and I’m just going to – this is all I can get here, so this is all I’m going to try to take.”
And it was through this concept of, “Hey, I can create stuff,” and I think, probably like a lot of kids my age, I wanted to be a game developer because of that, but thankfully – thankfully, at least for my career trajectory, I got a book on HTML and was like, “Oh, cool, I can build websites,” and there’s always a part of me that loved the design element, and frankly, I just loved the immediate gratification.
And so, like – at the same time, I downloaded the Quake II source code and was like, “Oh, man, I can build my own Quake II mod.” It was much easier for me to then, at the same time, just fire up the GeoCities website and build a Quake II fan page, and be like, “This is my fav – I love the railgun,” and like, you know, animated GIFs, and marquee all this just obnoxious graphics, but it – that immediate satisfaction of like, “Oh, I can write code, have a thing in front of me, and anyone in the world can see it,” was a drug.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Now, I didn’t realize that the page counter at the bottom was a pageview counter and not like a unique visitor counter. It took me a while, because I was like, “Oh, my god, there are thousands of people looking at my Quake II website.” It was just me reloading, but this drug in a you know, probably at that point ninth-grader – tenth-grader was so powerful, and I just fell down this rabbit hole of – now, before long, I was building websites for total strangers that I met on the message boards who didn’t know that I was like a ninth-grader.
They just knew that I could do a thing that they couldn’t. I had a skill that they didn’t have, which is building websites, and I would do it for nonprofits, and I’d do it for companies that were paying me money. It was absurd, right? And that, you know, compared to all the schoolwork I was doing, seemed so much more important and so much more relevant, right –
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Like why am I doing this random schoolwork? I get to go home and a thing that is a real skill that has real value, today, and no one judges me for being a kid. They just – they know I have a valuable skill they don’t have. And, and it just started this, this feedback loop that I just – I never broke free from. And even though I majored in history and business at UVA, I still was programming. I was still taking courses there. I was a history – my mom found me community college classes, back at HCC, Howard Community College, that I would take in the summer, just to get better – back then, it was like Java, and I was taking like 3DS Max classes for 3D modeling. There wasn’t I could not get enough of it, and I don’t know, it’s just such a – it’s my happy place.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: And even to this day now, and I barely write any code these days. Even if I’m just designing product for 776 that we’re doing or working with a founder through product decisions and whatnot, even that – it’s just my happy place. It’s where – they call it the zone of genius, where you just feel like you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing… my flow state.”
It pisses off my wife sometimes because I can fall down that rabbit hole and just be lost for hours.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: But I’m like, “I’m in my flow state. You can’t ruin my flow state.”
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: And, and it’s something that I just – like I said, I feel so grateful that that computer landed in front of me at such a young age, and that my parents gave me the freedom to just dive in, and, yeah, once I got the internet connection it was just game over.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I think you’ve said a whole bunch of really important stuff. And one of these things is – so Satya talks sometimes about this notion of falling into the pit of success. And, you know, what he means is like, you know, sort of finding that thing that starts a feedback cycle that just makes you want to do more and more of the things that create more and more success.
So, you know, like, as a kid, you didn’t know that you were falling into this pit of success. And like, there was a whole bunch of timing, but I wonder, you know, now that you have a kid, and you think so much about community and you care so much about the technology world, and I wonder about this all the time to like, what should we be doing more of to get kids or people in general to fall into one of those technological pits of success?
I mean, I guess it’s sort of your job now as a venture capitalist and an incubator of companies, like you’re trying to teach people that.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: For sure. There are definitely things I think about in the context of being a father that I’m trying to – I’m trying to sow those seeds of curiosity and interest. So, I play a game that Olympia really likes, right now, called Papa Robot, and it’s just – she’s four, so just to level set here. We’re not programming quite yet, but when she’s playing Papa Robot, you know, Papa can follow very simple commands, like forward, left, right, back, and she’s learning how to move me around.
And I take it very literally, right, very, very literally. So, I’ll walk into a wall, and she’s learning how to move Papa Robot around in a way that, like you have to understand how to talk to a computer. And I was inspired by a – I think it was an Instagram reel or a TikTok vid, or one of these things that was – went viral, of another programmer asking his kids to write down how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and he did the same thing – I mean, these are older kids, but you know, they’re laughing their faces off because they’re like, “Papa, like how come you didn’t … you know, remove the lid of the peanut butter??” And well, it’s because you didn’t write down, you know, remove lid of the peanut butter, you just said get the – like put peanut butter on bread.
And so, the papa is putting the jar of peanut butter literally on the bread, and it’s even those little, fun exercises that I want to try and create – I want to create these opportunities for those sort of dots to connect, and for her to be like, okay, I have to talk to computers differently than I talk to Papa or other people. And, and so, I’m keen on – and look, there’s dozens of great startups that are doing versions of games for kids to learn programming, all kinds of offline and online ones, and – and I do hope – I mean, gosh, especially right now, Kevin.
It’s, it is such a massive, massive, massive advantage to be fluent in just really any part of technology, I mean, generally curious about technology at a young age because this generation is going to – like, if you are a part of this movement, you will benefit so much as a career, as a lifestyle. Like it’s, it’s this technology is going to afford great, great outcomes to the people who are connected to it and able to take advantage of it.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: And unfortunately, in a lot of cases it’s going to leave behind a lot of folks who aren’t. Creating those success pits for people to fall into where they find themselves really generally enjoying and curious about the things that they’re learning and the things that they’re doing. I mean, it’s the best feeling on the planet.
I have had hard days, for sure, at work, but they still haven’t been as hard as like my sister who is a nurse.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: I could never do her job. I would last one week, and her job is vital, and – and none of us are – are building robots to do that job anytime soon. I joke with her. I’m like, “I don’t think it’s actually possible,” because if the robot were capable of doing all the things, she as a nurse does in a day, it would have to be so self-aware that it would look around and be like, “There’s no way I’m doing this job. Bye.”
This is when they decide to just take over, because it requires a deeply empathetic human and a creative human, and a strong human to be able to do all that work.
But I look at the work that I do, and every single morning that I’ve gotten up, since I graduated from UVA, I’ve looked forward to the work that I’ve done because it somehow touched a nerve of passion, and I don’t take that for granted at all, right?
I saw both of my parents work in jobs that they kind of liked, but they needed to do to pay the bills.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: And it’s such an amazing time right now because so many people in our generation who have just realized the thing that they just love doing gets to be the thing they do, for a living, and it touches so many parts of culture now, and business and everything. Technology is at the heart of it.
So we need to do more, and I like leading this new generation and funding this new generation of CEOs because they’re so much smarter than I was. They’re so much further along than I was coming out of college, because like – you know, 2005, startups were still kind of weird and nuanced and different, whereas today, they just come out with so much more expertise, so much more ability, so much more foresight.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, so –
ALEXIS OHANIAN: It’s a whole new world.
KEVIN SCOTT: Another thing that you said that is super interesting is you described this state that you – sorry, I’m going to wait for my air compressor to stop running.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Are you mining a bunch of bitcoins back there?
KEVIN SCOTT: No, no, I literally – my, my shop here – or my office is in the middle of a machine shop, so I have a seven and a half– horsepower rotary screw compressor that just decided to cycle.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: I love that.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it’s – it’s an awesome thing to have because making things in this shop is a little bit like meditation for me. Yeah, so there, the compressor is off.
I mean, but it’s one of those things where I have a hard time actually doing meditation, like the – I you just sort of look at me, and like I was never wired for like sitting very quietly and reflecting on, you know, my state of being, like not a thing I can do easily.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: I hear that.
KEVIN SCOTT: But like, going to do something where I put my hands on a thing, and I am just like completely and utterly absorbed by what it is that I’m doing, like that’s good stuff, which sort of brings me back to this thing that I was going to bring up. You mentioned a few minutes ago that you described some of what you were doing when you’re programming or making products as being in that flow state, to your wife, and like your wife is like an elite athlete, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time.
So, like, she must understand this notion of like being in the zone, and like being in the zone and being in flow state are sort of the same. They’re very similar phenomena.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: A hundred percent. So, yes, but here is the unfair advantage I have. Like, I can react to when I am most suited for that state. So, right? She has to show up. Whenever they say the match is going to start, and it’s not even always a consistent time, because if you’re not on first, it’s whenever the previous match finishes.
So, she has to train – she’s had to train her body and her mind to get into that –
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: – when the time calls for it, and do it in front of millions of people, et cetera, et cetera, it’s way harder. And I get to do it, and most of us get to do it on our own schedule, right? Because I block times in my day, because I have never exercised that muscle of like, “Oh, I’ve got to get into the flow state,” right, got to get focused, so I’m terrible at it, but I have the freedom of being able to let the muses kind of come to me.
And so, I can be sitting there, thinking about a problem. I can go for a walk with my dog. I can go feed the chickens. I can come back and be like, “Oh, it’s on,” like, let’s go, headphones in, and it’s such a privilege to be able to have that ability.
So, I get to float around my workday being like, “This is amazing,” whereas, for her, getting into that state is a part of doing the job, and it’s one more reason why she is who she is.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Because she’s got to show up for it, and it’s, I don’t know, I have to ask her if there’s a hint of jealousy there because sometimes it shows up for me, I’m not as much of a night owl as I used to be, but it would definitely show up for me, at like
KEVIN SCOTT: Oh, yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Nine-thirty or ten o’clock, Olympia is in bed, and I’m like, “Babe, I have to get up, like I’m not doing anything shady, I’ve just got to get in front of my computer and get to my office,” because like – it’s on, right?
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: And, and that’s just not a thing that – it doesn’t, it’s not – there’s not a 10 p.m., like, “Hey, Babe, I’ve got to go and hit some balls on the tennis court,” type – you know, energy – it’s not –
KEVIN SCOTT: And that’s super interesting, like I never thought about that before. I guess I am similar to you, like, I can tell you what times of day I’m more likely to be able to get into flow state than not. It used to be that I was – and maybe all of us were like this, I was a night owl. Like I would stay up until like 3 or 4 a.m., like sleep until the middle of the day.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Yeah, yeah?
KEVIN SCOTT: Like, I remember when I was –
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Yeah.
KEVIN SCOTT: I begged and pleaded my PhD committee to schedule the oral part of my qualifying exams for an afternoon because I was terrified that if they scheduled it in the morning, I was going to fail.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: You’ve got to sleep. No, oh, man, well, I’m glad it worked.
KEVIN SCOTT: But so, like, I mean, it must be an incredible thing to be able to turn it on or to, you know, like create the conditions where you can sort of get into it on, on command.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: For sure, but it’s also taxing. It makes the relationship, at least as I’ve seen it, it makes the relationship to it very different.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: And I don’t know, outside of athletes, I haven’t worked with many folks who can do that, who can get into it, and that’s part of the reason why I hope we can create – I mean, I think about this a lot with our org design, and – and just even as we think about meetings, as we think about, like things within our organization. I’m default assuming. Maybe this is the wrong thing, that people are just like me, but that it is much better if we create an environment where folks on our team have the freedom and the bandwidth to be able to find those states as it makes sense for them.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Rather than trying to prescribe it, because I just – this is one more reason why I think folks who – athletes in particular, and but anyone who has to conjure up and create that environment on command is just operating at another level.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Because, I know, if you told me, “Alexis, the only time you’re going to get is like when I tell you when the bells rings, like you have to start being creative and doing your best work,” I mean, that sounds like hell, right? That sounds like a terrible, terrible work environment.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, but I think what you just said, like – anybody who has ever been able to get themselves into a flow state knows that you’re so much more productive and it’s so much enjoyable than anything else, so being in an environment that prevents you from getting into it is just so frustrating.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: It’s toxic, yeah, it’s terrible. PG had a really good essay about this. It’s the difference between, what did he call it, managers and engineers? And, and that always resonated with me in a big way. And even as I became a manager, I just – I still very much have this tension because I don’t want – like, I know it’s an important part of the job. I know it’s, and I like other humans. I’m not like opposed to it, but I still think about those windows of my day, and I still think about that time where I’m like, “I have to make sure that I’m creating these opportunities for me to have a window,” where I think I’m likely to get into that state, and then also not beat myself up if I’m staring at a screen for 20 minutes and it’s not happening, and just say, “Alexis, dude, get up, take a walk,” like it’s fine, but it’s a weird dynamic, and then also trying to create an environment for others to have that as well, while still having, you know, a high-functioning org, is – it’s a wild balance, but the best companies do it.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. Let’s jump back a second to college. So, you didn’t major in computer science, like why did you choose history and –
ALEXIS OHANIAN: You know, I don’t think I was cut out to do the engineering school, and maybe this is a problem of design. You know, you were required to enroll in the engineering school the first year.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: And I, it’s not that I have commitment issues, I really didn’t want to limit myself, and yes, you could take classes in the college in addition, but like and I’m sure there were some double-majors who did engineering and – and something in the College of Arts and Sciences, which (sorry this is very inside baseball)
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: But I was just showing up. I had no idea what to expect at college. I mean, neither of my parents really went to college. I didn’t have older siblings. I was just like, “Well, okay, I’m at school now. This is fun.” And I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed, and frankly, I just didn’t I couldn’t commit, and I figured, you know what, I can still take CS classes, and I still enjoyed doing it for fun, but I really loved history.
I took – this actually ties into the firm. So, the first class that I took, the first history class I took, the first year, the first semester, was Ancient Greek History, and I loved it. It was amazing. Professor Lendon – I mean, I was regaled, every day, from start to finish, in class, like it was awesome. And I actually declared my history major, first semester, first year.
This is why I know I don’t have commitment issues. It’s just I needed to be sitting in that class and – and just be hit by this, and be like –
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: “This is so fun,” and – and you know, 776 is the year, BCE, is the year of the first Olympic games.
KEVIN SCOTT: That’s awesome.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: So, it all kind of comes together, but I loved it, and I think – I don’t know, I’m actually – I’m friends with President Ryan, who is amazing, he’s the President of UVA, now, and I’ve – we’ve had some conversations about this, where I’m like, “Dude, what if – I know it’s a radical thing. I know the university has been around for a while, I don’t want to disrupt TJ’s vision for it, but like, what if you really reimagine this thing from first principles and say, like, why are they even here?”
They’re here, students, to like figure stuff out, to find hopefully that passion, and then hopefully come out of this thing with the opportunity to, pay off their student loan debt, and have a career that is fulfilling and satisfying in all the ways that it can be. And I don’t know.
I mean, I’m obviously happy with the way things turned out. I don’t think I would be the founder I am if I hadn’t been a history major, so there’s my endorsement for the humanities.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: I think it’s helped me tremendously in every one of my jobs, but no, I wasn’t cut out for the engineering school.
KEVIN SCOTT: So, you were there from ‘01 to –
ALEXIS OHANIAN: 2001 – to 2005 –
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, so it’s hilarious. It’s highly unlikely that I would have been your TA in any of the computer science classes because –
ALEXIS OHANIAN: But maybe.
KEVIN SCOTT: By – by ‘01, I was almost through, I wasn’t TA-ing anymore, but it is – it is possible that my wife, who was a history PhD student could have been one of your TAs. That’s just crazy.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Amazing. Gosh, what a wonderfully small world.
KEVIN SCOTT: It’s a wonderfully small world. So, you went from UVA to having this idea to like go create a company, like did you have the idea for Reddit, and then you went to Y Combinator, did you got to Y Combinator and like discover the idea for Reddit there? Like how did all of that happen?
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Oh, yeah, well credit to PG and Jessica for rejecting us, spoiler. So, I had a run a forum in college, so I had this phpBB forum. It was called Eyeswide.org – hopefully, noone is going to way-back machine that, and it had maybe like 500 members, a pretty active community of people just talking about, like news and politics, philosophy, very like angsty college kid type stuff, and I loved it. And I had been doing community building as like a Quake II clan leader, as an EverQuest skilled leader, and I just loved it.
I mean, I officiated a wedding. It’s funny, everybody is talking about the metaverse. The metaverse for me started in like ‘98 – ‘99,when a buddy and I officiated a wedding in EverQuest.
KEVIN SCOTT: Nice.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: For some of our guild members, and I mean, I was just this high school kid, I didn’t even know anything about the people themselves, other than their – you know, their screennames, but like there was this world of community that I deeply understood through high school and college that I honestly never thought could be a business, and at the time, my cofounder Steve had seen – you know, Sheetz Gas Station, had those touchscreens, even back in 2004, that would let you order food without waiting in line.
And so, he was remarking to me about how much he hated waiting in line for those, and how he wished he could place the order from his phone, and I’m like, “Dude, that’s a good idea,” and I’m like, “We could call it My Mobile Menu, or MMM, for short,” and this could be like a business. And at the time I had – well, just before that, I had walked out of an LSAT because I, like a foolish history major, thought I should be a lawyer, studied for a whole year for the LSAT, and then I get there, and 20 minutes into it, I just put down my pencil, and I get up, and I leave.
Because I was hungry, and I wanted to go to the Waffle House on 29, more than I wanted to finish the LSAT. And I’m sitting there eating that waffle and I’m like, “Gosh, I really should not be a lawyer.” I just walked out of the Waffle – or I’d just walked out of the LSAT to go to a Waffle House, like this is not my calling, and realized I had to be something else.
KEVIN SCOTT: That’s a good Waffle House, though.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: It’s a great Waffle House, and I – you know, it changed my life, seriously, and because I went back to my dorm, and I said, “All right, I want to start a company,” and recruited the smartest person around me to go do it. And so, MMM was going to be this way to order food from your phone, skip the line, but it’s 2004, so there was no smartphone. It was going to be text-based.
I’d worked in a Pizza Hut through high school, and so they had a little printer in the back, and I was like, “Oh, they’re already taking …” They were already basically printing out orders, and we just had this coming through text, and we’d come up with some clever way – you won’t even need verification. It would just be like the last four digits of the cellphone, whatever, you can work it out.
I did the worst job of CEO’ing this because I talked to all of the restaurateurs on the corner. And I was like, “oh, hi, you know, I’m going to be graduating next year from UVA. And I’ve got this idea for a company called My Mobile Menu. You interested?” and they all said, yeah, because, you know, they don’t want to crush the hopes and dreams of college kid.
And so, in my head, I’m like, “oh, my God, I’ve just closed like 30 customers!” But they’re – that deal was not done. There was nothing other than, yeah, that sounds good. And – but in my naive CEO mind, I was like, oh, man, we’re killing it.
We go up to Boston to hear, during our spring break, senior year, fourth year, to hear Paul Graham speak. And he gave this talk called “How to Start a Startup,” and we went because it’s like this is the perfect thing for us to be hearing. This guy, Paul Graham’s a pretty prolific writer and successful startup founder in the first dot com boom. And afterwards, I went up to him and basically said, hey – probably called him Dr. Graham.
“Hey, Dr. Graham. It’d be so worth buying you a drink to tell you our pitch about our startup. We came all the way up from Virginia.” And I think he was surprised that we made it all the way up from Virginia, frankly. And he was like, “Okay, sure. Whatever, weirdos who came all the way up from Virginia to hear me talk. I might as well let you get me a drink.”
And we sat down at – it’s now gone, but the Cafe Algiers in Harvard Square. And over a cup of coffee, not a drink, I pitched him on it. And I made it like 10 seconds into the pitch, and he just gets so excited. He just talks for the next 20, 30 minutes and he’s so hyped about it. And he’s like, “This is the future of ordering…everything.” And we left and he was like, “You all have got a pretty good shot,” and we felt great, and a few weeks later, followed up with him.
And he said, “Hey, look, I’m going to be announcing this thing soon. You should apply.” And a day or two later, he posts on Slashdot that Y Combinator the summer founders program was taking applications. And we applied, we get invited up, gave the best pitch of my life, I felt. And PG calls me that night and he says, “We’re rejecting you.” (Laughter.) And I was feeling so good. And I was like, “Dude, you called us up here, and –” anyway…
We were already drinking, so it was good. We were celebrating prematurely and drinking, and then it went right into misery drinking, which was helpful. And – and then, on the train back, PG calls and he says, “Look, still don’t like your idea.” I’m like, “Thanks. Why did you call me just to tell me that?” He’s like, “But, but, if you change your idea, we’ll fund you because we like you two and you know what? Let’s see what you can do.” And so, I was like, “Let me get back to you.” I had to play it cool. And we talk it over, and obviously, we were going to do it.
So, I get off at the next train stop, get a train back to Boston, call Paul back and say, “Look, Paul, all right, we’ll do it. You’ve got to fly us back home, though, because we missed our train.” So, that was the little negotiation. He’s like, “Whatever, fine.”
And then we get up and meet PG at the office, the early YC office, and we just talk. And to PG’s credit, you know, he’s like, “Well, what do you do all day to solve a problem that you have?” And I was telling him about this forum that I had started, and he was like, “Oh, well, how do you like – how do you like Delicious?” And I was like, “What’s Delicious?”
And it’s funny, Josh is now in LP. And, you know, it’s – Delicious in many ways was like the OG Pinterest. If they had just made it a more graphic-forward interface, it’s just bookmarking. It’s the same thing, but you know, at the time, Delicious was this great social bookmarking app where you could just sort of see what in aggregate people were saving for later. And it had touched on something that was very interesting because that turned out was good content, a lot of the time. It was reference material, but it was a pretty good signal to noise filter.
And PG was like, “Well, what if you just improved upon this and find a way to get people to submit links they think are interesting?” And I’m thinking back to this forum and I’m like, yeah, okay, this could work. Cool. All right, yeah, sure, we’ll take your money. (Laughter.)
And to PG’s credit, he was like, “Just build a front page of the Internet.” That was his mandate, and it was a good slogan and gave us a check. (Laughter.) He handed me this check for $12,000 and I’m just, like, awestruck. I’m like, my God, I can’t lose this. I’ve got to get this to the bank immediately. And we flew back to Virginia and got started on Reddit.
And shout out, Alderman Library. That is the place where I came up with the name, registered the domain name. I hoped people would say, “I read it on” Reddit. I don’t think anyone to date has, but that was the dream.
KEVIN SCOTT: That’s awesome. So let’s just jump ahead to what you’re doing today. So, you have this fund called 776, and you’re doing a bunch of interesting stuff under this umbrella, and I’d love to talk about a bunch of it. So, there’s the funding entrepreneurs. There is the incubating companies. And then you’ve done something super interesting just over the past couple of weeks, I think, which is this Titan Fund, where you are empowering other investors, sort of like the Sequoia Scout Fund, you know, on super steroids.
So, like, why do all of this stuff? Like, you’ve already, like, been super successful on a bunch of dimensions. So, like, talk about 776 a little bit.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Dude, Kevin, I’m very motivated. You know, two years ago now, so in the middle of 2020, in the wake of George Floyd, I’m looking around and I’m realizing, like, I have a responsibility to a little girl who’s, at the time, I think she was two and a half, who is obviously Black – my wife is also Black – and who is going to have, I think, very hard questions for me when she gets older and she kind of looks back on a lot of the stuff over social media and the rise of that, the good and the bad.
And, you know, right now, today, you know, still literally today, she thinks my job is pancake maker. (Laughter.) And that’s such a beautiful thing, right? You know, she thinks I make pancakes. That’s how I make a living. I mean, I make pretty good pancakes. I do, like, custom artwork and stuff. It’s every Sunday.
But I realized, like, I have a chance right now to spend the rest of my working years doing something that I want to be great at and also in a way that really aligns with my own values, and just, frankly, makes her really proud. And I realized, you know, at a certain point, despite being the face of this company, the founder of this company, I was still one vote out of five on a board.
And I just realized, you know what? I want to be aligned. I want to make sure everything I’m doing feels right and I put myself in a position where I can just, if I have an opinion, a strong opinion about a way we should do something, that I can be able to do it. And the path to doing that was starting this firm, you know, in addition to resigning from the board and some other stuff.
Like, you know, 776 is a… We really do like to think of it as a technology company that deploys venture capital. I want to do this job of investing ten times better, not only in the returns, but the way that we do it, the way we support our founders with money, with resources that they can use for everything from coaching to therapy to, you know, every dollar that we invest in an early stage company, 2% of it is accessible. We set that aside in addition for the founders to use for whatever they need for their wellness, personal development.
We’ve had founders, you know, they’ve used it for a vacation. They’ve used it for a babysitter so they and their partner can go out for a date night. We’ll pay for the dinner, too. They’ve used it for coaching. They’ve used it for therapy. They’ve used it for whatever they need because for an early stage investment, your founders are everything, right? Even though we are investing in the founders, we’re really doubling-down on the company because those founders are going to be in a better position to be more successful, be more effective.
And candidly, it’s something I wish I had had. When we started Reddit, two months into it, my then-girlfriend had a pretty serious accident, was in a coma for about five months. I spent a lot of time with her. She recovered, thankfully, fully from it. And a few months after that, you know, my mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
And so, in the first six months of Reddit, as a first-time CEO, as like a dumb kid right out of college, my entire world is turned upside down. You know, we had raised – this was a very different time – we had raised 60, six, zero, thousand dollars at YC demo day. So, we had a total of $72,000 in the bank. (Laughter.) And yeah, our burn rate was low. It was just two dudes sharing an apartment, but even the smallest expense felt like it was – it was massive, right? And so, all you’re doing is trying to keep burn low.
And so, now, I’m looking at – and we’re not paying ourselves a salary. So, I’m looking at AirTran flights back to Baltimore to see my mom, from Boston. And it’s, you know, probably a couple of hundred dollars. And I’m like, gosh, do I really need to take this trip? Like, yes, okay, I need to take this trip, right? I can – I can take a few of these and sort of justify.
And it’s like just to have known – this is not to slight Y Combinator. This was the first batch; they were figuring out what they were doing. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can look at this and say, all right, like what a difference it would have made to know that there was money sitting aside that I could use and take those trips home, and not have to worry about our burn being hurt by it, and just not even have to have that little extra bit of trauma of like, well, jeez, what do I pick, spending time with my dying mother or spending time here with the company and not wasting this money?
And so, that’s the benefit now, having gotten a few gray hairs and seen a few things. You know, we’re trying to do it even better. And again, it’s not just because it feels good, even though it does. It’s because I think it actually will generate more returns. And that’s exciting because we want to be doing stuff that is sort of pushing – pushing the whole industry forward, I hope, because if we have success doing it, it will force everyone else to do it simply because it becomes table stakes to get the best founders.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. I think it’s so awesome that you’re doing that. Like, having done a startup myself, there’s really not much that prepares you for it. Like, you go in, and relative to what you need to know to be successful, like, you know nothing. Like, you’re doing all of this stuff for the first time.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Nothing. (Laughter.)
KEVIN SCOTT: You’re, you have this incredible sense of urgency. Like, if you find any success, like all of a sudden, things are moving almost faster than you can handle. Like, you have a life that’s going on outside of it. You have all of this expectation. So, investors give you money and employees trust you with their career.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Trust you with their future. Yeah!
KEVIN SCOTT: Your users, like, start loving your product. And like, nobody’s there to, you know, unless you are lucky enough to find good mentors or to, like, have investors like you who actually care about the whole person like, you’re just sort of winging it, man.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Yeah, yeah. And to your point, that’s part of the – I mean, look, that’s part of the magic, right? So, this is why I’ll always have so much respect for the builders, for the creators, for the founders, because, like, having been on that journey. It’s an irrational way to make a living. It’s an irrational way to make money. Like, don’t start a startup for any of those reasons. Like, start a startup because you just can’t imagine doing anything else, because to your point, it is – it never leaves you, right? You’re never clocking out.
For so many founders, it becomes such a part of their identity. And so, now you’re talking about something that is – like, it’s – it’s multiple people, it’s software, it’s customers. It’s all this other stuff. It’s not you, but yet it’s inextricably a part of you. And its failures are your failures, and they feel ten times worse – (laughter) – because our, you know, whatever, monkey brains just process pain worse than we do success.
And it’s a beautiful thing. It is an absolutely beautiful thing when it works, but it comes with a ton of trauma, even if things, you know, quote unquote, go well because there’s no such thing as an overnight success. And even the companies that you see being wildly successful had plenty of nights where there was no sleep, where you’re suffering because you just don’t know if it’s going to work out.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. I mean, so I – I think it’s incredibly awesome that you’re trying to innovate in ways to help founders, like, be complete human beings. Like, that’s just awesome.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: I want better stuff. I think we all do, and I especially feel like… So, this generation of founder, the Gen Z, they’ve grown up in the shadow of social media. So, they’re a lot smarter, like I said, than I was because they’ve seen the good, they’ve seen the bad. They’re more – I think they’re a lot more thoughtful. They’re playing a longer term game than we were because they’ve seen, you know, 15 years of the first startup boom.
And – but my biggest concern is I do see this sort of nihilism. I don’t know if it’s cynicism. Like, there is also a vein of like, well, why bother? Like, the earth is screwed, right? Everything’s going to hell in a handbasket. And yes, we have huge, huge problems that we need to solve. But the part I think is so important, especially right now and for this coming decade, is to make sure that we have people building to solve problems, and we’re supporting those people who are building to solve problems, because, yeah, we have some huge problems we need to solve.
But the only way we will solve them, the only way we will improve things is by building, is by creating, is by doing. And I want to see that culture win. I don’t want to see the culture of nihilism and, like, well, to hell with it win, because we don’t get better stuff from that, right?
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: And I mean, similarly, we just announced – so, I just funded the first $20 million of a foundation that I very creatively named 776 Foundation that I started for basically our version of a – well, similar to a Thiel Fellowship where telling college students 18 to 23, if you have a big swing idea, like a big, hairy audacious idea for climate in particular, you should apply. We’ll give you 100 grand, take a couple of years, bring you into our network, etcetera, etcetera.
And, like, I know this is an existential threat. I know it disproportionately affects communities of color, marginalized communities broadly. So, like, let’s get as many of the best and brightest from all over the world to be part of this cohort. And we’ll just give you money, resources, network support and just see what the hell you can come up with, because I – you know, every time I see a TikTok video go viral of some kid who’s just depressed about the state of things and, you know, doesn’t want to have any children or doesn’t want all – like, that’s not the energy that’s going to help us solve this.
It’s going to be the folks who inspire us and make us go like, oh my God, how did you figure out a way to capture carbon and do this thing, or how did you create this movement that accomplished this goal? Like, that’s what we need.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I could not agree with you more strongly. And like, I mean, you as a historian should appreciate this. Like, technology has always been the instrument that we use to create the future that we want, you know, and like, inspiring that impulse to, like, figure out how to take the things that we know how to do, how to, just sort of jump off cliffs and try to invent things that we don’t know how they’re going to work yet, like really is the way that you shape the future.
And the – defining who the “we” is who is doing all of that stuff is also super important. Like, it can’t just be a bunch of tech companies, and venture capitalists and urban innovation centers in the coastal United States. Like, you know, you have to have –
KEVIN SCOTT: A whole bunch of people feeling inspired to go create this future.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: And shout out. You all are going to be carbon negative by 2030? Is that what I saw?
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, that is our goal. I think ‘30 we’ve got multiple milestones in there, so, and like, we’re thinking about our emissions comprehensively, like everything from the carbon emissions that come from datacenter energy consumption all the way out to the emissions that come from running your PC.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Wow.
KEVIN SCOTT: And so, we’ve got a complicated set of goals. And like, it’s going to require us going out and inventing a whole bunch of technology. And like, honestly, it’s going to require that a whole bunch of these kids that you’re funding right now create some innovative stuff, because there isn’t a way that we’re going to achieve our climate goals through energy abstinence. Like, that just isn’t going to work. So, like, we’ve got to make things way more efficient and we’ve got to figure out how to get carbon out of the atmosphere. And we’ve got to… I mean, like, there’s a whole bunch of technological push we’ve got to have.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Yeah. like, and this is where I know I’m high on this drug because I get to enjoy it every day, because all I do is talk to founders and CEOs, whether I’m hearing their pitch or whether we’re working because we funded them. Like, there really is not a day that goes by where I don’t leave a conversation feeling a little bit more motivated, a little bit more inspired, a little bit more curious. And I wish I could inject this in the veins of everyone – (laughter) –
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Because, gosh, like, we don’t have a choice. We have – to your point, we have to innovate our way out of this. And I love that. It’s not energy abstinence that’s going to do it, it’s technology that’s going to help us.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. Well, and look, this thing that you just described, I think you even mentioned it before, like, we – there’s a psychological result out there. I’m sort of forgetting the paper and the author. But yeah, we react some multiple, like three or four times more intensely to pessimism and negativity than we do to optimism and positivity, which means you’ve got to have a lot of optimism and positivity to overcome the pessimist.
And like, it’s not to say that the pessimism isn’t unwarranted. Like, there’s – you know, like I – I’m a short-term pessimist all the time. I’m an engineer. Like, you have to – you have to – (laughter) – to be an engineer, you have to be pessimistic.
Because you just sort of look at all the broken crap that’s around you. And like, the idea is you’ve got to go fix it. (Laughter.) But like, you also have to be, like, long-term optimistic. Otherwise, what’s the point? And I am super long-term optimistic.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Like, why bother? Yeah, we’ve got to be, and this is – you know, it’s not going to come without a ton of hard work, but we have to be.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Otherwise, like you said, what’s the point, man?
KEVIN SCOTT: We are – I think we’re past time, but I have one more question I wanted to ask you, if you had a second.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Please.
KEVIN SCOTT: So you obviously are just involved in a ton of stuff, and you’ve got a wife and kid, so like, you know, lots of demands on your time. I am curious, amid all of these things that you could choose to spend your time on, like what do you do for fun or, like, in your spare time, if you have any?
ALEXIS OHANIAN: That is the one that gets sacrificed. It’s like, right, career, family and friends, I think is what I was told when I was getting married. And – and career and family definitely are crushing it right now. You know, actually and this is not – this is going to sound like a shameless plug. AOE4 is the one I’d say there’s like maybe an hour a week where my buddies and I will get on Discord. We’ll play. I’ll occasionally watch some highlights on YouTube, but – but that’s mymy pure Alexis time, is AOE4.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Which is great because I do – look, I get a lot of satisfaction. Most of my childhood friends, we’re all parents now, so we’ve all had to recalibrate except for, like, one of them, who’s probably never going to have kids and just always play video games and smoke weed, which is, you know, that’s his lifestyle choice. He’s great – (laughter) – but we find these little moments, and I’ve just found the best part of becoming a father has been really, and this is the thing I wish I could pop – I should popularize more with this whole business dad thing. It’s actually made me better at work because it has forced me to really prioritize my time and be way more regimented.
Now, the downside is my calendar is just absurd in terms of, like, I will block everything. I’m switching over to something we’re building internally. I used to use a freelancer time tracking app to log my time during the day so that I could see at the end of the week how I was spending my time. Like, how much time that I spend in internal meetings? How much time did I spend literally for family time? This is how unromantic. (Laughter.)
So, I’d wake up on a Sunday morning and be like, “Good morning, babe,” and roll over – Olympia’s running in the room – and then open the app and start the family time timer just so that I could understand, like, how much time am I allocating to the things that I care most about, my family and work? And you know, everything is always out of flux. It’s either one or the other and trying to balance. And then, like I said, an hour a week or so for AOE, and that’s my fun time.
KEVIN SCOTT: That’s awesome.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: It’s good, really. I’m a holy Roman Empire player. I feel like, you know, I could use a few buffs here and there. I feel like we need some more late game support, but that’s fine. I’m not going to use this podcast as a soapbox for my Age of Empires requests. (Laughter.) I’m just going to put it out there.
KEVIN SCOTT: (Laughter.) All right. Well, we will let it be out there for sure. (Laughter.)
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Okay, good. (Laughter.)
KEVIN SCOTT: Awesome. Well, this was such a great conversation. Thank you for choosing to carve out a brick of your time to chat with us today. It was great.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: Of course. My pleasure, Kevin. My pleasure.
KEVIN SCOTT: Awesome.
CHRISTINA WARREN: All right. Well, that was Kevin’s conversation with Alexis Ohanian. So, that was so fun. I really enjoyed hearing the two of you talk, and – and I know a bit more about Alexis’ background and kind of his story than – than some of the other guests we’ve had on the show, because I was around and doing some of the same things in those times. But it’s just so interesting to think about, how kind of his interest in video games and websites and – and communities, online communities ultimately led him to –o what he built at Reddit and now what he’s doing at 776.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I think the thing that Alexis really is extraordinary at is understanding community dynamics. I mean, it’s sort of what Reddit is all about, and I think it’s sort of what his venture capital firm is about. It’s how he invests; it’s how he thinks about promoting the next generation of entrepreneurs and tech founders. Like, it’s really sort of an incredible world view or, like, point of view to, you know, focus all of your energy through.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Yeah, no, I couldn’t agree more. And I think, yeah, community is such a core thing when you look at his – his career and also with what he’s doing, going forward. And I do feel like it, like you said, I think it’s a really great lens and frankly, a not common lens that we see a lot of times in tech.
I’m curious, you know, from your perspective, you mentioned at the top of the show, you know, that he was a history major and he talked about that. I wonder what kind of role – the type of person who has that sort of interesting look back at the past has, I guess, when you think about the lens of community and what you want to build, going forward.
KEVIN SCOTT: I think it is so important. I mean, we’ve talked about this before on the podcast, but there are so many different ways to come into a career in the technology industry. It is not just say, like, hey, I learned how to program when I was ten years old and, like, got a computer science degree and was attached to a screen, 24-by-7 the first 25 years of my life.
He like just this really incredible proof point that you can have a really interesting worldview, like this whole idea he started when he was a kid, like being more excited about communities, and making things for communities and curating communities than code, although he wrote a bunch of code as well. And, like, coding is a good superpower to have in your repertoire. It’s just not the ultimate superpower and it’s not the only useful thing that you need to know to be successful. I think he demonstrates that really quite well.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Yeah, no, I think so. And I mean, what’s interesting is that, at least like the way that I kind of gathered from your conversation, is that he said he saw code as a way to facilitate doing the other things he wanted to do, building communities, you know, having kind of those interactions rather than necessarily the end all, be all, which I think is really fascinating. I think it also makes for a really good founder and – and then, you know, a really good investor.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and to your point, like history is a really, really important teacher. I think people get confused about history sometimes, that it’s sort of the memorization of a bunch of dates and names. Like, history is like, a really disciplined way of looking at what humans have accomplished and, like, what that tells us about what we’re likely going to do in the future.
And it’s really I think a useful set of skills to have, like a way of thinking about the world that’s really great if you’re trying to make a company, and like, you want to have your company have a rich context that it’s operating in, in society.
CHRISTINA WARREN: No, I think that’s really true, and I also feel like, he’s obviously, you know, mentoring the next generation, you know, Gen Z and what people are calling Web 3. But I feel like his experiences in Web 2.0 have to be, I would think, if I were in an upcoming founder’s position, I would love to have someone like him with his experience and also his historical kind of ability, as you mentioned, to look back on context and place things in the right place. I would love to have someone like that as a mentor you know?
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, for sure. You know, one of the last things that we talked about was the importance of trying to not just, you know, financially invest in these entrepreneurs, but to, like, really invest in, you know, encouraging people to be optimistic and to sort of use the lens of technology to look at the future and to believe that they can use these really powerful tools that we’ve created to go solve the problems that are important to them. Like, that’s such an important thing for folks to be doing for Gen Z and, you know, the younger generations that are going to come in behind them.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. I’m really glad that we have people like him who are helping guide that through.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
CHRISTINA WARREN: All right. Well, that is all the time that we have for today. Thank you so much to Alexis Ohanian for spending time with us. And if you have anything that you would like to add, please e-mail us any time at [email protected]. Thanks for listening.
KEVIN SCOTT: See you next time.