15:49 | 27.04.15 | Interviews | exclusive 186185

Alexis Ohanian: Think bigger than just Armenia

Alexis Ohanian is the co-founder and executive chairman of Reddit – American social news website.

In 2011 and 2012, Ohanian was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list as an important figure in the technology industry. In 2013, Ohanian and Reddit General Manager Erik Martin were featured as "champions of innovation" in the 20th Anniversary issue of Wired.

Alexis Ohanian was one of the main speakers of HIVE Engineering Leadership Summit held at Tumo Center for Creative Technologies on April 25.

Itel.am’s exclusive interview with the Reddit Co-Founder.

-Alexis, you founded Reddit at 22. Which was the formula of your success?

-I was lucky enough to get access to computer and Internet at a very young age. Then I was able to get a foundation of education that let me become a self-teacher or a self-learner. Owing to Internet, self-education is a limitless resource for knowledge.

My first connection to computer and internet was at middle school. It was in 1996 when I was 13-14 years old. Those two changed everything.

The one gift of this industry is that all the knowledge you would possibly want is almost all there and available for free. Being willing to accept that I would know everything was probably the biggest asset.

-What were the main challenges you faced during the early stages?

-You know, before Reddit I had another company. I started it when I was at college and it lasted for about a year and a half. We had to quit it as we realized that it is too early for mobile. We wanted to work with restaurants but they were not ready because they did not have internet connection. Today’s youth has lots of more tools. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to get started. The disadvantage is that there is more competition but it’s a good time to create something.

-Alexis, what would you recommend startups? How to turn startups into a successful business?

-The Armenian market is not that big and there are not that many people. A lot of best web software is built with English as its first language. The English speaking world has a large population online.

It may actually work in Russian speaking market as well, but it’s going to create some limitations when you get started. I can’t really speak on creating and launching a product for the Russian market as I have never done it before.

But the most important thing is to think bigger than exclusively Armenian audience. I always tell the Estonian example – Skype is kind of a perfect company to come of a country like Estonia but it’s something like a truly global platform that connects everyone. Those guys have thought bigger than to build something that just Estonians would use – they focused on creating something that the world would use. You can absolutely build things, which would work for Armenia but it should be done with the idea that it can grow beyond Armenia.

-Alexis, we know you are associated with startups in Armenia.

-I have pitched like three Armenian startups. There are already some champions here in Armenia. The really crucial thing is to keep supporting them because they become some kind of role models and examples for other startup founders. Because now they can look to them and say to themselves “They did it, why can’t I do it too?”

I see this in startup communities all over the world, especially when they are just getting started. Local communities are doing a great job by supporting one another, and when someone succeeds they feel happy because they know that it helps everyone. If you have some successful startup in markets that are just getting started, it’s going to attract a bunch of other investors.

-Would you invest in an Armenian startup?

-Maybe. The biggest question for me would be if it’s technically an Armenian company. If it’s incorporated in Armenia, I have to ask my lawyer what it means. If it’s an Armenian company but incorporated in the U.S., that’s way easier as I know what to do and how to do that.


-Besides registration, what other assets should a startup have to draw your attention?

-Investing in early stage startups is mostly investing in founders. You usually don’t have a lot of data as it’s an early stage. But you also want to see what those founders are able to build, and accomplish together in a pretty short period of time.

-So it is something built on risk and trust, isn’t it?

-Yeah, and on demonstrated ability. That’s why early stage investors always want to see that the founders were able to build something that the users like, something that may be growing in size.

-What basic mistakes does every Armenian startup make?

-These mistakes are not unique to Armenian startups but to startups in general.

There are a lot of founders who keep trying the same thing again and again instead of changing the software, or their approach.

Another mistake is not adapting fast enough – not doing the things that really matter. There are a lot of people who are fascinated by the idea of starting a startup but instead of focusing on writing a code or getting users they waste time and many things on steps that do not really matter.

A lot of founders do not make the right choice of co-founders. They do not have hard discussions on who will be in charge for what.

-If you were to invest in Armenia, would you invest in the IT sphere and only?

-Of course.

-Does it mean you wouldn’t even want to open a restaurant?

-Maybe a lahmajo offering place (laughing). Barbecue (khoravats) is good too but I don’t know whether I would be able to open a good Khorovats restaurant, so lahmajo (laughing).

-Has anything changed since your last visit to Armenia?

-Yes, so much has changed since the last time I was here 4 years ago. Everything in downtown has changed tremendously. Last time I visited Tumo, it was just to open. Walking around was great. I saw this beautiful structure and I could imagine what it would become. But now that I’m here I see the result, and it’s amazing.

-Alexis, what impressions did you get from System of a Down’s (SOAD) concert in Yerevan.

-I am a huge SOAD fan. I grew up with their music. The last time I saw them was in Washington, D.C. I thought it would be the best SOAD concert I have ever been too. But now I can say that the one on April 23 in Yerevan is the best one.

It was so cool to be back here not just for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, but also for my birthday here on April 24, and see System of a Down and some other cool stuff and people.

Narine Daneghyan talked to Alexis Ohanian