In front of a sprightly crowd of juniors and seniors, multi-millionaire Alexis Ohanian takes the stage at his alma mater, Howard High School in Ellicott City. The stage is dark, but you can still make him out. Wearing a gray zip-up sweatshirt—opened just enough to reveal a black T-shirt that appropriately reads “Living The Dream”—bright red sneakers, and dark jeans, it’s possible he didn’t do anything to his messy bedhead that morning. His neatly trimmed beard adds some wisdom, enough to hide a baby face that hasn’t much changed from his boyhood years as a Howard Lion.
A couple minutes into his speech, a spotlight finally appears and falls onto him without warning. The shift from obscurity to limelight certainly seems fitting, because that’s really how the last 10 years have been for Ohanian, the co-founder of the news aggregator and online discussion forum Reddit.
Long before his appearance as a guest on the The Colbert Report, before countless millennials clamored to snap selfies with him, and well before his interviews with David Gregory and Charlie Rose, Ohanian was just a tall, portly, video-game geek.
“Apparently, people in high school tell their parents, ‘Hey I’m going over to my friend’s house for the weekend,’ but they’re actually lying. When I told my parents I was going to Jon’s house for the weekend, I was actually there the entire weekend playing video games,” he says.
This was life in Columbia for Ohanian in the late ’90s. The computer may as well have been an appendage. He’d tote his PC to friends’ houses, where the group would connect to each other’s machines through a LAN (local area network) and play video games for hours.
“It’s interesting, because at that time, his mother and I wondered about, ‘How many hours are you in front of that PC? Are you ever going to go outdoors?’” says his dad, Chris. “For Alexis, it turned out it was a positive from that experience.”
Little did Chris know how positive. His son’s computer-savvy ways would lead to one of the most widely used social networking news websites in the world—with a valuation as high as $500 million.
Despite his nerdy stature, back in Columbia, Ohanian was no introvert. “He was a talker, a schmoozer, and that trait prevailed—in a sincere way,” his dad says.
In fact, he was chosen to speak in front of his own graduating class during their commencement at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2001. He cringes when discussing the cliché-laden speech and admits he doesn’t watch it often, but he has posted it on YouTube for the rest of the world to enjoy.
In the three-minute plea, he urges his peers: “Do something, something that inspires you, something that enriches you, something that leaves your mark on society.”
By his senior year at the University of Virginia, Ohanian was taking his own advice. He and his roommate, Steve Huffman, plotted out a startup, a food-ordering app, called My Mobile Menu.
They traveled to Cambridge, MA, in 2005 to hear a lecture by Huffman’s idol, startup guru Paul Graham. Ohanian approached Graham afterwards and asked to discuss their plan over a cup of coffee. Ultimately, Graham rejected it, but he suggested the pair build something else: “the front page of the web.”
Reddit has the Midas touch, turning something simple into viral gold.
The idea was to create a social networking site that functioned as an online bulletin board. Users could post text or direct links and other users could vote them up or down, so content would be positioned based on user interest. Weeks later, Reddit was born, and it only took the pair 16 months to cash in, selling it to Condé Nast for a figure rumored to be as high as $20 million.
“Probably the biggest thing Condé Nast liked about us, we’re a small team, we’re willing to experiment,” Huffman told the Associated Press at the time.
The media behemoth also recognized that, thanks to the Internet, the democratization of news was the wave of the future. Unlike the traditional news model, readers can use Reddit to “have a say in what’s worth looking at,” explained Kourosh Karimkhany, general manager of Wired Digital, the digital arm of Condé Nast’s Wired magazine, which purchased the site.
Despite all the success, it was a stressful period for Ohanian. Around the same time Reddit got off the ground, he received the devastating news that his mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Her death in 2008 has always been a difficult topic for him to speak about publicly.
“I’ve gotten better about it,” he says. “It’s something I never wanted to exploit.”
Instead, her plight kept him grounded during a dizzying time in his life.
“It made me understand what bad days really look like, and it kept me from wallowing in the stress of startups,” he says. “You get off the phone with your parents, who’ve been dealing with chemo bullshit all day, and they’re not fazed. You realize things aren’t so bad. I feel like that gave me some kind of super power.”
Perhaps it’s why Ohanian has seemingly never stopped working.
In 2007, he co-founded Breadpig, a crowd-funding aid, while maintaining a full-time role with Reddit. After his Reddit contract expired in 2009, he spent the next few years volunteering with micro-financing site Kiva.org, launching the travel-planning website Hipmunk, and writing Without Their Permission, an autobiographical guide for young entrepreneurs.
In 2011, Reddit would once again become an independent company, and three years later, after its CEO stepped down, the door opened for Ohanian’s full-time return as executive chair.
“I never would have imagined having the company be independent again. It’s a privilege and not many people get a second chance,” he says. “Obviously, the first time it turned out well. It’s pretty big, but we have so much more room to grow.”
It’s hard to believe Reddit could grow any more than it has since celebrating its 10th birthday. According to Alexa.com rankings, Reddit is a top 35 website in the world and top 10 U.S. site, with more than 172 million unique visitors a month.
“It’s pretty much the underbelly of all the major media that we see,” says Andrew Schuster, co-founder of NewsUp.me, a local website that combines current events with social-media quizzes. “It’s unique in that it’s a true democracy, very focused on information, not images, not glitz, not popularity, but focused on the value of the content.”
Reddit has become a digital fountain of interesting content relevant to just about every topic or niche and posted anonymously by anyone with Internet access. On a typical day, it covers anything from hobbies to sports, cities to religious denominations, branches of science to musical genres. All it takes is the click of an “up” arrow by a string of people before that content has found its way to the coveted “front page” and eventually onto your Facebook page, Twitter feed, and, often, your prime-time newscast.
The site seemingly has the Midas touch, turning something as simple as a photo of a frowning cat into viral gold. Yes, you have Reddit to thank for Grumpy Cat, who launched a thousand memes and now has her own movie.
“When the Internet is at its best, it shows that most people are decent.”
Bostonians also have Reddit to thank for pizza. Boxes and boxes of hot, cheesy pies were delivered to Boston hospitals, police departments, and the homes of good Samaritans after the marathon bombings through an initiative called “Random Acts of Pizza.” It operates under a simple premise: Reddit users can post requests to send someone a pizza as a simple way of saying, “Hey, you’re pretty awesome.” In all, Redditors from across the world had more than 1,500 pies delivered to Beantown beneficiaries. It’s moments like this that make Ohanian glow.
“Here’s the thing,” he explains. “None of this is Reddit. What you are seeing there is people. When the Internet is at its best, it really shows that most people are decent.”
Searching “thanks to Reddit” yields fascinating results. There’s the South Carolina woman in need of a kidney donor, who found one through Reddit just five hours after her initial post. Or the 7-year-old girl with a rare disease who, just a year before passing away, and after being taunted by her neighbors, received $16,000 for a vacation fund.
Reddit has also driven the coverage of serious news stories, and was instrumental in the success of Serial, the NPR podcast about Adnan Syed, convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in Baltimore 15 years ago. A person claiming to be Lee’s brother posted to Reddit, users started a fund in Lee’s name at Woodlawn High School, and tips from listeners even led The Innocence Project to a possible new suspect.
But beyond the tangible content, it’s the off-the-wall “subreddits” that demonstrate the fascinating reach of the website and its users. There’s the “AMA” [“Ask Me Anything”] subreddit where celebrities and public figures often come to allow Redditors to ask them, well, anything.
“Whether it’s the Orioles or My Little Pony, those Reddit communities exist,” says Ohanian. “The reason so many people have been attracted to it is because there’s something that just feels good about the process being so democratic.”
Pete Dorman stumbled upon the Baltimore subreddit, of which he is now a moderator, about two years ago when he noticed an uptick in traffic to his local events blog, BmoreInterested.com. He used Reddit to respond to out-of-towners looking for recommendations or to answer questions for new transplants.
“This is sort of their first taste of the city,” Dorman says. “And it’s cool to be a part of that, to help people find the best neighborhood for them. Otherwise they could read an article that mentions Federal Hill or Canton, but Station North or Remington might be a better fit.”
He’s hoping one day that Ohanian will join the community for a local “AMA.” “Right now, maybe a lot of people don’t realize he’s from the area,” Dorman says, “or that he has had such a global impact.”
Though the Reddit executive is surely one of the biggest success stories to come out of Howard High School, his recent speech didn’t exactly go over smoothly.
In a classic case of “parents just don’t understand,” the principal called Ohanian’s language during his pep talk “salty” and ushered him out of the school immediately after, telling him he couldn’t return.
“So it goes,” Ohanian says. “But I got such great feedback from the students and parents, so it was nice to see positive stuff come from it.”
The next day, Ohanian was back on a flight to the left coast. Airplanes may be one of the few places he can press pause, relax, and reflect on one hell of a decade.
“When I’m sitting on the subway looking around, I feel better,” he says. “I see many people who could have just made me laugh or could have just done some Random Act of Pizza. I’ve gained a lot of faith in people in the last 10 years.”
And for the decade ahead?
“I want Reddit to be the world’s platform for how communities share things,” he says.
He pauses and adds: “And hopefully, like in the Boy Scouts, to leave the campground a little nicer than when we found it.”