Alexis Ohanian: How to Make the World Suck Less Using Software

A superb talk by Alexis Ohanian to finish 2011’s Business of Software Conference – How to make the world suck less using software. He talks about the birth and development of some of the companies he has been involved in – Reddit, Breadpig, Hipmunk. Why software is the great playing field leveler of the world, how it can change lives in so many unexpected ways, why it is the responsibility and the privilege of the wealthy to do good and most importantly of all, why Justin Timberlake has done more for startups than Mark Zuckerberg. Enjoy. You will.

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Thank you. Hello everyone. I learned long ago you should start every single talk with some kind of cute animal photo because it instantly wins over an audience, so enjoy those puppies.

I am giving a talk today about making the world suck less with software. I asked Neil, what do you want me to talk about, please let me know what people would like to hear about? And just because I guess making the world suck less is a fun thing to write on a program, it seemed like a good topic. It’s something I’ve been thinking about really forever because it was this thing that I started noticing in lots of little places that’s only kind of snowballed into something much, much bigger and I think its something we can all relate to. If we take a moment to think about it, making the world suck less is pretty much the new version of make the world a better place. And in some way, shape or form we are all trying to improve things, at least a little bit in our own way for things we care about, for problems we want to solve.

The last time I had the privilege of speaking here, I was not speaking as myself, I was speaking as Pierre Francois, who was a satirical character and I’ve been holding a lot of guilt since then, I should explain I didn’t know, no one knew going into it that it was going to be a competition for a MacBook Air and so I chose instead of educating the audience, to just make them laugh at this random web 2.0 douchebag. And because it was crowd voting, I was able to win and I got a wonderful MacBook Air out of it. But then this whole time I’ve been thinking and it seemed a little unfair, right, I played the satirical route. So I want to pay it forward. I actually want all of you or the people on the interwebs, I tried to come up with something clever but I couldn’t so I said let’s use the twitters, if you can come up with a way, not right now but by the end of the day. Tweet out – make sure you use both of those hash tags, so that Neil and Mark won’t have too much trouble finding all the tweets. Talk about the way that you want to make the world suck less- the way that you are making the world suck less as compellingly as you can in 140 characters or fewer, and by the end of the day they will choose 1 winner and then I will send you a MacBook Air, not the same one but a new one, don’t worry, because that would be shitty. So get that all, do the tweeting. [Applause]

Ok. So now on with the talk, so if the puppies didn’t win you over, the chance of winning a laptop better have.

Ok, so I have started a number of startups that have all had at least 1 thing in common, which is a cute logo. It’s not a requisite; it’s just something I really like doing. I am not technically the founder of Hipmunk though I helped launch the sites. Steve my Reddit co-founder and a friend of ours, Adam, are technically the founders, but helped launch it about a year ago to fix travel search. Reddit – Reddit is a place to go when you’re bored at work or maybe trying to be informed? And then there’s breadpig, which is kind of a Newman’s Own for nerds. But all in all I really just love making products, making things that people love. There is something so gratifying and so wonderful and we live in a world where now even 6 years from when we launched Reddit, there are so many more ways to hear from people in real time about how much they love what you’re doing. It’s this incredible cocaine-like addiction, as someone who’s never been addicted to cocaine, what I’ve been told is a cocaine-like addiction [Laughs] to the feedback, including the bad feedback, ’cause I love that stuff. That is one of the best opportunities in fact to win someone over because that’s the last time they expect someone to come in with an answer or at least a thoughtful reply.

So I’m really obsessed over making stuff that people love and no one has really done this as well as Steve and Darmesh who did a wonderful job, giving him all of his due, but I want to say that there is something going on here and we’re the start of something big and it’s unsettling for traditional business folks, in fact if probably makes them very sad and perhaps angry and that’s good, that is good because a little discomfort is just what they need. Because they’ve set the bar so incredibly low, when you think of all the really mediocre to poor experiences you have had over the years with businesses, right. I mean I love Tony, I love his book, it’s been praised, you can’t go to a conference without hearing about how wonderful this book is and it is a great book, but what does it say about the state of business when CEO’s all over the country, all over the world, hear about this premise. “Ah we can treat our customers really well and that would be good for business,” and think, “brilliant, why didn’t we think of this, if we just hadn’t treated our customers like shit, they would like what we do?” All of this success is a real testament of how kind of sad things are when this has to be a revelation. But what’s great for those of us who are not running these behemoth companies that don’t seem to care about their users, is that we can have a very direct impact on making people love what we do, no matter what it is, and it needs to trickle down into everything you do.

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Oh, God that photos going to haunt me. Again another reason to have a mascot is of course so you can buy a costume that people can dress up in. But we are in a world now where you can see in real time what people are having for breakfast across the world, I mean this is a real, you know that is stroop waffle which unlike the fact that you can see tweets of what people have had for breakfast all across the world, this is not an absurd, stroop waffle if you’ve never had it is incredible. But the fact that we can see peoples’ breakfast means that we better be able to see the relationships we have to companies, that we give our money to, and it’s not just companies too, it’s also nonprofits. And I’ve actually spent the last 6 to 8 months really, really focusing on this because the nonprofit world is at the far end of this whole tech and option curve and so few of them are realizing the sea of change that is happening. And a few stand outs are doing real great work but I didn’t want to focus this talk entirely on the pure do-goodery because I really believe that making the world suck less is a very wide ranging thing, so I really want to hit a lot of stuff, so let’s go!

Alright, poverty born Sally Struthers crying, trying to guilt you into thinking that you need to help this starving child or you’re an awful person. This is an awful, broken model. Ok, this is absolutely no longer going to work and I’m so happy about it because it is the absolute wrong approach to trying to do this kind of stuff. Do any of you know about Oh, we have a few hands, a few of you, ok alright so in short was started by public school teacher in the Bronx a little less than a decade ago because he realized he had to buy his own school supplies like even the most basic ones for his classroom and a number of other teachers had the same plight. So he started this website where you can put up a classroom project, tell a story about the classroom, show a photo and say what you need. I need $50 for a globe and some maps to put in my classroom to teach kids world history, really basic stuff and people for as little as a dollar can donate to that particular classroom, to that particular project and get immediate transparency into what exactly they are funding and even if they’re lucky, get a thank you note or a number of them usually by the students. This one is one of my favorites because you will notice at the very bottom, Isaiah pointed out that the microscopes we helped fund do work totally fine. This is due diligence, like I not only know that this kid was happy and is a real person, but also that the microscopes we got don’t work or do work. Now this is a taste of something that is a much bigger shift and it’s something that with Breadpig we tried to write onto.

Breadpig is like I said, a Newman’s Own for nerds. I can’t make salad dressing but I was so in love with this model I thought I can make geeky things and donate the profits. So this is a lulz awesome sauce, we make a variety of things including publishing xkcd book, Saturday morning breakfast cereal in fact his newest book is coming out today. And then we donated the profits and it’s been going really, really well and what’s cool about this is you can take a simple story, for instance the very first $35000 from profits in xkcd book were donated to Room to Read. Room to Read uses money to build a school in Lou and they sent us photos throughout the process so the school being constructed, we got the before, we got the building, and then the after, me and Christina Shu actually visited the school in rural Lou, took a bunch of photos, had an awkward photo op with all the students who were there. You can tell a few of them were not at all pleased to be in this photo op, we didn’t ask them to do it but so it goes.. And we sent all these photos back and the whole time we continued the journey, Christina continued the journey to all the sites we were doing projects. We just took photos, we just told stories, we posted them all on our blog, that was it. We roped in the xkcd community from the start and to listen we’re doing this for a simple reason, we need increased school global literacy because if there are more literate kids that means we have more potential book buyers and so we can draw a marked share. [Laughs]

I mean it’s just simple, it just makes sense. And the xkcd community, they actually are really excited about this, now these are people who may not have ever heard of room to read or even really thought to care consider themselves an advocate for global literacy, they certainly respected the value of education and they saw how important this sort of thing was to them, enjoying things like xkcd comic, and thought let’s get excited about this. But it wasn’t just grown up xkcd fans, we had random kids here at the Peace and Social Action Committee of the Midlothian Friends Meeting that were holding a pancake fundraiser to buy school supplies for this school in Lou.

This young man is a baller. They raised a ton of money for this school that they had never visited and probably will never visit based solely on the fact that we sent a bunch of photos and visited ourselves and this is really cool. And this is the kind of stuff that just happens online, and kind of thing that smart nonprofits are doing to make their donors love them because we deserve this kind of transparency. In fact you give it to people, it turns out they’ll do awesomely crazy things for you like this is the top of Mount Kilinjaro, that is indeed a Breadpig sticker that mituK placed on there. We didn’t pay her to do that, when people love what you’re working on, they will find the excuses to do all kinds of fabulously awesome stuff and tweet about it or Facebook it or I’m told people Google+. I’m fighting the good fight. [Laughs’] I really love my Google+ account and I’m hoping it will come around.

In the way of building software for it, Breadpig has, we don’t really do any software. We did a random site called WTFCNN, which CNN really hated. It’s just a frame basically where you see CNN’s front page at the same time as you see Aljazeera English’s front page and it was really damning on some days ‘cause it’s like here’s Jay Leno and President Obama and then you know Turkey had an earthquake. [Laughs] Different priorities.

But what’s cool is you started to notice real awesome rock stars, real fabulous technical people, John Resig, JQuery, you might have heard of it, joined the Khan Academy. Now how many of you know about the Khan Academy? Thank you, great, awesome, beautiful. He is fucking revolutionizing education and it started with a simple video he made for technically a cousin, a young girl, who was having trouble with math and he was like you’re a smart girl, you apparently like me teaching you over YouTube more than in person, so perhaps I can get this to scale. This is one awesome person who decided he was going to do a little something to make the world suck less and now he has people like John Resig coming to join and help the cause and that’s really, really cool because it speaks to a much bigger thing in this geek community. And it’s one where you’ve got a new generation of nonprofits which are basically drinking the milkshake of all the old guard because they are doing all these things right because they are born in an age when people expect this kind of transparency and people want to be excited, they don’t want to be depressed.

And this brings me into some of the for profit stuff but what makes these nonprofits special, what makes this next generation special is they make a $10 donation feel like a $10,000 donation and that’s how it should be, right again, if I can see the stroop waffle in Denmark or in the Netherlands, why can’t I see where this donation is going? And thinking about it the next time you’re alma mater sends you that check, would you be willing to give? Because I’ve got a good feeling that $20 donation goes into a very big unrestricted fund which is part of an even larger endowment and really doesn’t make you feel too great, does it? But that’s why the new approach is what is going to end up working. It’s what made Kiva a success in terms of making it possible to facilitate a loan between someone like use with a credit care and a microfinances too, which is basically a bank for the poor, makes these small loans out to folks who need a new roof or just want to improve their business or what have you. They actually make you feel connected; I was actually a Kiva fellow. I volunteered for 3 months in Armenia, I’m actually half Armenian. So I was back in the motherland telling stories of my journeys and it was incredible to see how many people, donors to Kiva, who may have never left their small town who knows where, were so excited to hear about the story about some Armenian businesswoman.

These were people all of a sudden making connections across the globe through a conduit, me and a bunch of volunteers, whom they have never met. But this is just another way to use the Internet, right. And what’s supercool about this is so Kiva’s got a series of lending teams, basically when you make a loan on Kiva to help an entrepreneur you can attribute it to a particular team and its just the way to kind of keep score, it’s a benevolence measuring contest. The top 2 teams on Kiva are the Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics and Kiva Christians and they are on a daily basis on a battle to see who can out good one another. [Laughs] I’ve spent a lot of time on the Internet and there are not, I can’t think of another place online where these 2 groups can come together and do anything constructive. [Laughs] And so I marvel at this and again this is a nonprofit, it’s not guilting, it’s not going to make you think that Maria’s business will go under if you don’t loan to her, no, no, no, we are getting you excited about this thing, we’re making you fall in love with this idea that yeah, you can give points to whichever team you choose to give to in this great competition to see which team can be more generous. That’s kind of exciting stuff. And remember we are making a connection with people who are sitting behind solace machines, I mean even the most beautiful apple computers, their technology.

This is a photo of Steve and the view we had from our apartment in Somerville, as we were growing Reddit. This is the relationship we all have with our user, even if you are on the sexiest of newest of iPhones, it’s still a piece of technology, but we’re still having really human connections. And there are communities online, for those of you who are a part of them, you know that they’re just as real if not more real than the communities we are a part of in real life. And so I hate it when they get trivialized, and almost as much I hate it when lionize sort of phototropic heroes like Bono. Now he’ll get on a stage and raise 10s of millions of dollars for something that probably doesn’t actually get solved because it’s a serious huge problem and it’s not the kind of thing, it’s not the kind of goal that accepts failure because you’ve just raised a ton of money or you’ve allocated a ton of funding. When your problem is that hard and that big you’re probably not gonna solve it. But more importantly you’re not going to admit the failure you’ve allowed. We live in a world where iteration is cheap, so we love failure, right, everybody talks about it. You’ve gotta bring that kind of attitude to it. And when you’re talking about large amounts of money, failure is not an option but when you’re talking smaller amounts of money, you are getting a lot closer to the tech world that we know so well. In fact, I mean it’s not going to be the Bonos that are going to end up sort of making the world suck less, there’s going to be lots of mini-Bonos.

The Awesome Foundation, which started here in Boston, is a fabulous example of that. Where people get together, $10 of them and give $100 a month each to create a $1000 awesome grant. Think of it like a McArthur grant for microflashes of genius, and so instead of having a hundred pages of a grant o fill out you have like 7 form fields and you write about why you want to make something awesome and why $1000 is all the money you need and this is turned into tons of great projects all around, actually the world now. I think there are over 15 chapters and it all started with a really simple idea. $1000 is enough to get you going and it’s enough to create the proof of concept that will get you on a kick start or later or just set you off and that’s exciting because we’re starting to see all this wonderful stuff that makes our world possible spread to very, very different industries. The core of this is this surprise and delight and this is something that I have, this is pretty much the entire playbook from Reddit, Breadpig, Hitmonkey. It’s always been about this; surprising and delighting users.

When we started Reddit, it was stickers everywhere, it was just stickers over everything, there was a cat with sticker a once, not my cat, and I hope the cat was ok, but eventually it became like fan art and now on a daily basis there are people you know creating all kinds of awesome Reddit related artwork. One of them actually, Fernando Takkhai, got it tattooed on his body. Now this is awesome, I hope he never regrets it [laughs] but I want all of you to get to this point where someone is hopefully tattooing your logo on their body. Now how does it get there? I’m proud to say most of this growth actually has happened since Steve and I left, so whether or not that is correlation or causation, we’ve got a lot of stats people here, I’ll leave that up to you guys. But Reddit has grown tremendously since but I’ll tell you today, we’ve only spent all $400 and that was all on stickers. [Laugh] That’s because, as was sort of always the case, the community did all the hard work, we got a lot of people excited. This isn’t just- everyone talks about community – this is like capital C community, because this is a community that has done all kinds of mind blowing stuff simply because they did it for their fellow Redditors, including spread the word.

Now some of my favorite stories are things like this where some Redditor comes on and says that this is the last photo I have taken of me and my mother and I wish it weren’t this ‘cause she’s got the tubes and everything, can anyone help me out, and within minutes Redditors were doing Photoshop magic like that to enhance the photo, to remove the cables, doing this for a stranger who they don’t know. They know the user name; it’s the pseudo-anonymous world where you know someone’s fluffybunny26 but you don’t know who they are per say, but you know enough about them and hopefully you guys are all users of Hackernews, which is a similarly tight knit community and the kind of things that come out of this are stuff that no one ever writes down in a business plan. It just kind of happens because people get excited and they get inspired because they’ve found something a little bigger then themselves to get thrilled about and they’ve proved the valid point, which is this the internet is not entirely dickheads.It’s true, mostly but not entirely.

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The core of this comes around to the fact that the greatest thread, to quote Paul Graham, is the ‘back button’ online and I love this because it’s so fucking true. This is the most level playing field we’ve got right now as long as we’ve got net neutrality, all links are created equal. So as long as you can compel someone to not click that back button, you’ve got them. And you’ve got just a good of a chance as anyone else to get their attention, so you have to try extra hard to do that, which is why the surprise and delight motto keeps coming back. And my pals at airbnb talked about this really well in a talk about a month ago on, and so I’m totally gawking it, although I don’t know if they were the first ones to say this but so be it. There are so many opportunities to do things that don’t scale especially if you have an unsexy company. Now how many of you have heard of Wufoo, form building software? Excellent, yeah. So this is, I would say, probably the most boring software imaginable. I mean, it lets you build forms easily. Now just the thought of building forms on my own is agonizing but to think that Wufoo can make the experience better that seems nice but it is not social; it’s not a photo sharing app, which is a good thing. But it is inherently boring and the kind of thing that you do by yourself. It’s not something that really connects you right? You’re just sitting there at your machine getting it done and then you forget about it. But Wufoo has done such a phenomenal job of connecting to people, if this looks like a (?) letter, it’s not because the handwriting is a little bit better, but every Wufoo employee every Friday sits down and writes handwritten notes to all their customers. Why the hell not? It’s a team building exercise that doesn’t involve trust falls which is always nice. And [laugh] its actually reminding people that you actually give a damn and that’s the kind of thing people are so hungry for.

Remember how low the bar has been set, how often do you have a customer experience with any large company where you’re actually coming away going, “wow they actually gave a damn”? Not many, and this is our opportunity. Because there isn’t a bunch of obnoxious (?), you’re not filled with a bunch of people who are maybe jaded and burnt out but, I hope not, because so many people are just waiting for this and there has been so much success. But there is so much more to come and I’m actually, I think I need to give a talk at some point about everything I learned from start up web comic artists because I’ve gone to plenty of book signings with guys like Monroe, Zach Weiner, etc although I’m thinking I’m doing an entire talk just with photos of Zack Weiner posing with his fans. It is incredible to see this because if you’re web comic artist, the only thing that matters is your content, right? If you have a shitty web comic, people are not going to come to it, it is the most brutally frank like, if you’re not funny today? Ok, if you’re not funny a week in a row? Well, you’re probably not going to have me coming back. So you have to obsess over your product and furthermore, when you go to events and you actually get to meet your users, when you meet your readers, it is a world of difference when you’re the one who’s there until 3 in the morning making sure everyone gets the signature with the doodle because you are actually spending quality time with those people. If you’ve ever interacted with any of these guys, I hope you won’t contradict me, because every experience I’ve seen with these guys is that they totally get it, and they know who pays their bills. They know who buys their merch and they will do whatever it takes for them. And so why don’t we, right? And so when we launched Hipmunk, we had a bunch of people who were really willing to give us a chance and we made sure to make them little care packages you know a chipmunk luggage tags and stuff them on a Friday night because why the hell not and then you get great photos like this from random people who are taking photos of themselves with your swag. If you can find these opportunities by all means take them, please do, because no one else will, even if they seem kind of silly at first.

So I totally ripped this off Google, who has obviously been doing their doodle for years now and we thought what if we just did this with Reddit but like every day. And so every morning, almost every morning, I would wake up and do another comic. This started out as a commentary on US immigration law. The Reddit alien was of course an alien so he got deported, apparently the legal one. [Laugh] And so they deport him to space and what he didn’t know was he landed on LV426, yes, some alien fans. Marines come over with rifles and everything is ok, and this is just again [laughs] over a number of days. I was really proud of that predator and then it died, ok, we’re not done yet. Hopefully this, yeah, alright there we go [laugh]. Tada. Ok, so that was like a month of my life, where every morning I would wake up and draw a new alien logo and I’ll tell you it was cathartic in a lot of ways for me and it was also kind of fun because I would wake up in the morning and be sitting there in my pajamas, eating a bowl of cereal and doodling and thinking this is my job, how fucking awesome is that, right? And it’s true, that is an opportunity, that was an opportunity for people to come to this site, see something a little different. Even if they didn’t want to see the Reddit front page, they were still curious to see what the hell the alien was doing and this goes even a step further than just the logo, it comes down to the product and right now we are just starting to see this and Hipmunk is a great example of this. But there are so many others and I know there are so many more to come.

SeatGeek is one I love shamelessly promoting. If you’ve ever had to buy third party tickets, StubHub, eBay, or anywhere else for a concert, or a football match or what have you, it is a pain in the ass and SeatGeek just said lets aggregate all this data and put in a really user friendly interface and they did and so now you can actually see these kind of hotspots where the best deal on a seat is based on the color of the sphere or of the circle and this seams so obvious when you see it and once you’ve bought your first ticket on it, you can’t imagine buying tickets anywhere else.

Then I started thinking, God what about all the companies who don’t give a damn, surely you’ve encountered some user experience that’s just made you feel awful, right, where you’re, and I won’t use specific example but you know what they are. Its just so clear that whoever was designing this, whoever was building this just did not care about you and again props to Steve, I think he has created this kind of main stream not just expectance but demand now for good design and that’s the largely selling point of Hipmunk.

We told people we were going to sort your flights by agony and not by price because least agonizing flight actually are what you want, you don’t want the cheapest, you want to avoid the layover if it means only $10 and sorting things accordingly because it’s actually useful to put a tab here so you can open it in a window instead of bombarding you with advertising because that seems kind of like a dick move. Hotel heat maps, if you’re in a new city, why don’t we tell you where the interesting things are with a heat map, right, nightlife, shopping, vice if that’s what you’re into, also so you can avoid the vice areas if you’re with your family [laugh] and sort these things by ecstasy because you want max joy per dollar, you don’t want the cheapest hotel room, you want to the best value for your dollar. And most recently we did a Google calendar implementation that a ton of folks seemed to like yesterday we just import Google calendar and matched it up so when you’re booking flights, you can hide all the ones that are conflicting with your schedule and then book your hotel based on where all your meetings are.

Now, we are obsessing over this user experience because it was so clear in our space that no one else did, no one else had to because it turned out there were making most of their money from advertising, not from referrals, so Hipmunk is a business where we make the money from the referrals, so we get paid when you find a hotel or a flight. All competition made their money, a majority of it, from advertising so all of a sudden, they had a natural disincentive to show good search results because the more search results they showed, the more ads they could show and the less good their search results there were, the more pages you had to scroll through and the more ads you got to see and the more money they made. And I am so convinced that there are scores of startups that are just waiting to get born or being born right now that are fixing all these awful view decisions.

I wish someone would solve the I’m trying to rent an apartment in the this city and right now I’m waiting through hundreds of awful craigslist positing’s, Padmapeers has done a very good job of that and I wish more people know about it, so I’m shamelessly plugging them, but no one has killed it yet and there are so many opportunities like this that are based solely on the fact that the existing players don’t give a damn. And when they do, when they care they can say things that you can’t say, which is awesome, this is just a random Hipmunk fan and thanks to the twitters we can actually see this all happening in real time and so all these things have given me this single minded focus on trying to build this thing that people love. And we take a step back, we’re all agreed here, we’re in some way trying to make the world suck less, make it a better place, with whatever it is we’re trying to do.

Despite what Thomas Freedman may say, the world is not in fact flat, I have checked, it is not. But what is, is the worldwide web, and that’s really exciting because that means so long as again we’re on a level playing field, we can create anything that stands right next to anything else and on this perfect marketplace of ideas, the best stuff will triumph.

Now, if the two of us clowns can do it, anyone can. Lets go a step further, its not just people who are doing this to build startups as you’ve noticed with the occupy Wall Street movement, we actually have technical folks holding hack-a-thons just to create a little bit of interesting-ness, for the protestors to build software to help them with some of their spare cycles, this stuff encourages me, this encourages me a lot because it means that there is a generation of folks who are so aware of what they can do with technology and largely standing on the shoulders of giants, right Reddit is not possible, those 2 kids don’t get $12,000 in funding unless you can build a website with only $12,000 in funding and that is all thanks to open source software. And we are aware of this, we open sourced Reddit largely because we knew it was the only part of Reddit itself that was an open source, and I love seeing for-profit companies open sourcing everything from their intelligence in stuff that they have learned internally, speaking in xxx the actual code and there’s no way this sort of Ramen profitability is even possible unless this world exists.

And I’d really like to think that we as builders are keeping this very top on honor priority list, there’s a different culture that’s coming with a lot of the wealth that’s being created now, this generation or this century rather is going to have far more builders on that Forbes list than the century prior, far more frankly engineers who build something awesome, I mean the Facebook folks are like, there’s like 50 of them now on the list or so but there going to be far more actual builders on this list and hopefully, I’m hoping that they will bring with them that same culture and the same attitude, remember essentially its always been paying their bills.

Now, Drew Houston who started sound, basically in the sound station when he was sort of frustrated syncing files, this is what eventually gave birth to DropBox, stuff like this, seeing him on this month’s issue of Forbes is great. I mean it’s great for Drew but it helps really make this point that I’m trying to make and it’s about wizards, well sort of about wizards. I get to speak to a lot of engineering students in colleges all over the country and even to some extent the world, and outside of MIT and Stanford, I am shocked, I am shocked by the fact that there isn’t this awareness, there isn’t this fervor, there isn’t this understanding of just how awesome they are, so I would hope that all of your like somehow find a way to spread the awareness in this understanding because I have to shake programmers at really great technical schools in the US to tell them like start building stuff, just you’ve got weekend projects, just build stuff, why the hell not and know that by the way you don’t have to take that consulting job, there’s a very good reason why you should just start something and see what comes out of it, you can be a master of your own destiny, its kind of like if you had all the powers of the wizard combined with like a pirate [laughs] you have all this potential, this limitless potential and as the Hubspot head hunting bonus referral as a testament to, you’re in extremely high demand so while the rest of your peers like me the history majors are really, really worried about our prospects after college, you have the world figuratively speaking by the balls, so please, please know what you’re capable of and know that you know Justin Timberlake might show up and make you a millionaire [Laugh] I will say this though, all things considered, Timberlake is probably done more startups than Zuckerberg has in terms of raising awareness because I noticed marked increase as soon as that movie came out and I swear it did mean granted it did mean a lot more like NBAs that came to me looking for an IT person to build their social networking site of their dreams, its like they hadn’t even paid attention to the movie. [Laughs]

But it’s still not enough because I’m still having these discussions with talented programmers who really have the entire world to do whatever they want and I hope they bring them a different attitude.

Now Bill is one model, I call it the Bill Gates model, now to be fair, you guys hopefully all saw this announcement, this science Reddit fact checked it for me and they said I was allowed to get sort of optimistic about this news because it is actually fairly far along in human trials and doing really well. This is the kind of problem kicking malaria’s ass that could have really only been solved by metric fuck-ton of money [laughs] and so I am happy, don’t get me wrong, Bill Melinda Gates foundation is going to make a world suck significantly less thanks to the what they are doing for things like fighting things like malaria. But I call this the Bill Gates model because it involves basically masking enough wealth so you can go sliding down on skis.

But it means focusing on wealth creations so single mindedly for the entire course of your life that until you get basically stupid rich, than you say alright, I have accomplished this much and this is awesome and now it is time to find ways to do great things. The counter point that I pose is this, if we were assume, this is not a million people lets just assume it’s a million, one of them gets stupid rich, we are telling these same million engineers, listen guys, guys and girls, you guys just need to focus 120% do whatever it takes to build the biggest company you can, fuck the rest, just do it. And then you can do some awesome stuff later, maybe the one in a million gets to Bill Gates rich and does a lot of awesome stuff and that’s great. But there are 999,999 of them who will not get that just statistically speaking 1 in a million is actually pretty good odds who won’t but they will have still spend all of that time so single mindedly focused on that same exact thing, on the same exact singular goal. And I know we are not that simple as people, we all have different interests, we all have different passions, we all have different desires, and what makes me so hopeful is I see hack-a-thons happening for programmers just looking to get out for a weekend and build some software for occupy Wall Street. Or I’m seeing programmers leaving jobs to go to join the Khan Academy, I’m seeing programmers who are understanding that they have a gift thanks to the programmers that came before them and whether it comes in the form of open source software or the entire world that’s been laid out for them who are willing to find ways to not have success at the expense of perhaps others.

So I hope you all can find a way to make that dent with your own companies and I hope you guys will all consider the fact that making the world suck less can be fun and the best part about it is you’ve got this opportunity right now to do incredible things. Thank you.

Alexis Ohanian
Alexis Ohanian

Alexis Ohanian

Alexis Ohanian is a startup founder and investor in Brooklyn, NY.

After graduating from UVA in 2005, Alexis and his co-founder Steve Huffman started reddit, a top 50 US website.

Now a reddit board member, Alexis focuses on social enterprise Breadpig, publishing authors like xkcd and SMBC — with profits donated to worthy causes.

Alexis helped launch Hipmunk and ran marketing/pr/community before becoming an advisor and joining the fight against SOPA & PIPA.

He invests and advises over seventy tech startups. He’s Y Combinator’s Ambassador to the East, co-founder of the non-profit IHAS, and wrote a national bestselling book, Without Their Permission.

He’s also got a show on The Verge called Small Empires about NY tech startups — the founders who create and the people who use these digital platforms.

Along the way, Alexis spoke at TED, volunteered in Armenia as a Kiva Fellow, and was named on Forbes 30 Under 30 list two years in a row (and then turned 30).

He proudly doodled the logos for all three of his startups and loves his cat, Karma.

More from Alexis

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