An Interview with Dot-com Jedi Alexis Ohanian
Alexis Ohanian is a celebrity in the tech world. In 2005, at the ripe age of 22, he and a fellow alumnus from the University of Virginia, Steve Huffman, started a social news website named Reddit. The site takes advantage of the collaborative nature of behavior online and allows users to post links to stories or original material, which is in turn voted on by users and selected for consideration by other readers. The pair sold their site in 2006 to Conde Nast for an undisclosed amount but Ohanian continued to “doodle the Reddit alien,” as he says, until “retiring” for a Kiva Fellowship in Armenia.
But not one to take it easy, Ohanian founded Breadpig in 2008, which is described as an “uncorporation” that “helps people helping the world” and has so far raised and donated over $178,000, and he joined Hipmunk, a new online travel website that is fast getting traction in a field already inundated with online services.
As part of his online marketing savvy, Ohanian is also well known for creating unforgettable mascots for each of his sites. Not only is he the man responsible for the ubiquitous Reddit alien that even famed comedian Stephen Colbert is a fan of, but also the adorable pig with toast wings for Breadpig, and the super-hip chipmunk that has come to represent the growing popularity of Hipmunk.
Earlier this year, I caught up with Ohanian online to discuss his recent time in Armenia and his general observations about the tech and Armenian worlds. The following is the transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
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Hrag Vartanian: How was the TEDxYerevan event and was it what you expected?
Alexis Ohanian: TEDxYerevan was fantastic! After meeting so many inspiring people during my three months volunteering for Kiva.org in Yerevan, I knew something like this was overdue in Armenia.
HV: Was this your first time in Armenia?
AO: It was my first time. I was so pleased with my time there. Armenia is such a big little country, it was very apparent that the population, despite being small, had many who were proud and hungry for where this (finally) sovereign Armenian state would evolve. I’d hope the TEDx was a great event for these people to connect and inspire one another.
HV: I understand you moved to New York to become more involved with the city’s tech scene. What are your impressions so far? Do you miss California?
AO: It’s wonderful being back home in the city of my birth. I’ve always loved New York, despite its weak geek scene. There are lots of people in this city who spend more time looking the part than actually, you know, being a geek.
In a city this big, there are creators everywhere, geeking out for the sake of geeking, but I’m trying to help them meet up without fear of business guys and shallow scenesters.
I miss SF weather and produce most of all. But I’m very happy visiting for it once every month or so.
HV: How connected are you to the Armenian community? Is it an important part of your life?
AO: I’ve never been terribly connected to the Armenian community outside of a single Armenian summer camp stay (Camp Nubar) and my long-time listening to System of a Down. I was raised in a suburban neighborhood in Maryland where Armenians were a rarity, so nearly all of the ones I knew well were family members.
That said, I’ve always felt rather Armenian (I’m only half, mind you) because of how important that immigrant story is to how I ended up being born in the States. The food also played a large role in my life — I could go days eating just dolma, hummus, and lavash. But beyond the friends I’ve made in Yerevan, I’m not connected on a day-to-day basis with the greater Armenian community.
HV: You mentioned your Kiva fellowship in Armenia. Can you tell us a little about the work they are doing in Armenia and what your role in it was?
AO: Kiva is the online network that connects lenders (random individuals with some extra money and the desire to help someone get a loan) to the MFIs (microfinance institutes — banks for the poor) that ultimately make the loan to the individuals. When you lend $25, it goes through Kiva, which selects, audits, and monitors the bank it lends your money to (interest-free) so that it can lend the money to the entrepreneur you see on the website.
I was simply helping one of these MFIs, SEF, get online with Kiva. Part of this was helping set up the process; part of it was getting them familiar with Kiva’s expectations and teaching them how to optimize what they posted online.
HV: What did you see of the tech scene in Armenia during TEDxYerevan and how would you characterize it?
AO: I saw more of the tech scene in Armenia during my three months living there. It wasn’t hard to find all the enthusiastic geeks in Yerevan. It’s a great, albeit small, community that seems like such a strategic channel for Armenia (a small, land-locked country with limited natural resources and unfriendly neighbors) to encourage and nurture.
HV: Were there any innovations, products or things you saw in Armenia (tech or otherwise) that still have you excited?
AO: I was floored by how, in only 3 months, wireless Internet ballooned throughout Yerevan. I’m excited to see how much more accessible the Internet will be by just next year. There’s such an advantage to leapfrogging over technologies that other countries have spent time and money innovating. Countries like Armenia can learn from the best practices and jump right ahead to proven technologies.
HV: Now, you’re one of the co-founders of Reddit, which characterizes itself as “the voice of the Internet,” and you’re also the guy responsible for their adorable alien logo, right? Well, Reddit is known for helping to propel memes in general, and during your TED talk you mentioned how Greenpeace at first rejected but then embraced the “Mr. Splashy Pants”/whale meme. Would you mind sharing some of what you’ve learned about the nature of memes over the years?
AO: It’s true. All I can say with confidence is that Reddit appears to be the place where memes leave the primordial ooze of something like 4chan and make landfall on the shores of the greater Internet. Memes are magical. The only thing I’ve really learned about their nature is that they’re rarely deliberate; they just happen because someone felt like it.
HV: Are there a lot of people of Armenian descent in tech? It seems like there would be, considering that California is home to a large Armenian population and a huge tech industry, but from what I’ve heard there aren’t.
AO: I haven’t come across too many, I’m afraid, but I’m always excited when I meet one. I’m still friends with another halfie-Armenian I met at a conference years ago when reddit was still pretty young and he was an early employee at zipcar (Hi, Carl Tashian!). I’d love to see more -ian/-yan’s in tech, that’s for sure — and fewer of us on reality TV shows (sorry, Kim!).
HV: Currently you’re working on a number of projects that seem very diverse, including the philanthropic Breadpig, and the travel site Hipmunk, not to mention the recent Kiva fellowship. Is there anything that unifies them? Are they all part of a larger goal in your life?
AO: Life goal, eh? My drive comes from a desire to create things. With a free market, the best validation for an idea is that people buy your product or service. It’s a way to keep score, I suppose. For me, there are much more interesting things to do with money than buy a nice car, which is why I’m so keen on using the money to make the world suck a little less.
HV: Now, you’re a self-professed tech geek. Do you mind telling us what tech gadget, application, or advancement you’re most excited about right now?
AO: Is it lame to still be excited about the iPad? Well, I’m trying to develop some children’s educational software for it. I think those applications have incredible potential (just watch a child interact with an iPad and see how quickly she becomes engaged), but for now I’m still just playing Angry Birds on it.
HV: Finally, a less serious question. Is there anything about “being Armenian” you still don’t understand after decades of being one?
AO: Why did it take me 27 years to learn that my last name was one of the more popular surnames back in Armenia? I’ve spent most of my life telling people that I’m not Irish (O’Hanian?) and it turns out I’m practically a “Smith” or “Johnson” back in the motherland.