Depending on your perspective, Reddit represents either the best of the web, or the worst.
Critics say the freewheeling community forums website is a cesspool of hate speech and pornography, where anonymous trolls can make incendiary comments without facing consequences.
But the Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian argues that open debate is essential for a healthy democracy even if it pushes boundaries, and that the company is taking appropriate steps to curb harassment.
Mr. Ohanian stepped away from Reddit’s day-to-day operations this year, but still sits on the board. In 2012, he co-founded Initialized Capital, a venture capital firm that has invested in start-ups like Coinbase and Instacart. Last year, he married Serena Williams, the greatest tennis player of all time, with 23 major championships.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at the Initialized office in San Francisco.
How did you get into computers?
I managed to convince my parents to get me a PC in eighth or ninth grade — that it would help me with my career. In reality I just wanted to play video games. Then I got a 336 dial-up connection, and I was building websites for strangers on the internet for free. I just wanted a chance to flex as a web developer. They had no idea I was this dorky kid at my parents’ house.
What was your first job?
My first job was at a CompUSA demo-ing software, and it was the worst public speaking experience a teenager going through puberty could have. Every 30 minutes I’d have to get on a mic and demo to the whole store some lame piece of hardware or software and literally get ignored by people. People would walk up to me, look at me and then walk away.
But I got paid well for it, and basically got my 10,000 hours of public speaking out of the way at an early age. From there I worked as a cook and dishwasher at Pizza Hut. Then I worked my way up to a waiter, where I learned basically everything I’ve ever needed to know about customer service.
Did you think you were going to be an entrepreneur?
I’d been studying for the LSAT. I was going to be an immigration lawyer. I had this romantic idea of helping people get citizenship. But then I realized how much I hated what I was doing, so I went and got a waffle instead. It was at a Waffle House I realized I wanted to start something.
So in 2005, how’d you start Reddit?
I convinced my college roommate to start a business that would help people skip lines. That didn’t work out. But then [the Silicon Valley incubator] Y Combinator said, “O.K., take our money and do something else.” And that was Reddit.
And what is Reddit?
A network of 100,000-plus communities, each one sort of operating with its own kind of culture and personality. If you’re a fanatic of sneakers or a particular sports team, it’s all there.
There’s a lot of dark stuff on Reddit, too. Many readers had questions about how Reddit deals with hate speech.
Harassment is banned on the site. Over the last three years, there have already been a ton of policy changes and updates. If someone gets harassed, there’s a very easy mechanism to report it and get it taken down.
But the overarching goal here is to create an environment where people can feel like they are able to be authentic and genuine, right up to the point where we can still have a platform where anyone can feel like they can find their home there. That is not a bright, clear line.
The key is how do we create opportunities for these conversations to actually change people’s views, and still do it in a way that lets people feel like they can come to the platform and be safe? I know this is going to be something the team is going to be working on forever.
And still, there’s a lot of stuff people would consider hate speech or harassment on the site. Why is it allowed?
The general spirit is we want to encourage dialogue. We want to encourage opportunities for people to be wrong and be corrected. Part of this is having a place where things can be said that I find incredibly disagreeable and reprehensible, but are still conversations that are happening right now online or offline in this country and in this world.
Hopefully, minds can be changed and discussions can be had. We see it happening. I don’t see it happening as fast as I would like because, unfortunately, we live in a pretty broken society and a pretty broken world. But I think so much of this stems from ignorance. And one great way to combat this ignorance is with knowledge and with discussion.
Is the current backlash against big tech warranted?
Tech has had this notion of being the underdog. This is an important reckoning for tech to realize that, “no, we’re not anymore.” Tech has become such a big part of so many people’s lives, and we actually kind of love the role that it plays in our lives. Until we don’t.
You took a break to work on microfinance in Armenia, where your father’s family is from. Why?
I needed to get away from tech, so I spent a few months in the motherland, just volunteering for Kiva. I was unplugged, got back to my roots, met a bunch of Armenian entrepreneurs making wine or selling clothes — just good old-fashioned businesses making a thing and selling it.
What’s the difference between being an entrepreneur and being an investor?
As an investor we get to roll up our sleeves and feel like operators, but in little doses. We don’t have to live with the same soul-crushing existential threats of being a founder.
What do you look for in people you invest in?
Relentlessness. In football, the best running backs are relentless. When they get first contact, they will actually drive their legs even harder.
If Metallica can have a therapist, you and your co-founder can have an executive coach.
— Alexis Ohanian
What’s your advice for college grads?
Do you really need to go to college? There is a huge student loan debt problem in this country. I think there’s going to need to be a drastic change in how these universities work. And I also think we’ve lambasted the trades for way too long. You can make six figures as a welder.
What have you learned from your wife?
I thought I was the hardest-working person on the planet. I thought we were the hardest-working industry. That’s what we tell ourselves. It’s all malarkey.
I’ve had this front-row seat over the last three years to greatness. It’s a humbling experience seeing really what high-pressure situations actually look like professionally, seeing just what it takes to actually be that great. It is a work ethic on another level.
I used to change the channel when tennis was on. Then I watched my first match when I met her, and quickly got an appreciation for the sport. It’s not just the physical requirements but the mental requirements. I could not imagine doing my job with millions of people watching.
Any what has that taught you about business?
One thing that I have always respected in sport is it is so pure in its success metrics. In business, we can find creative ways to measure ourselves. “Yes, well, one fund has been more successful than another because they’ve invested in six unicorns.”
But in sport, there’s a winner and a loser, and you can’t delude yourself into thinking there’s some other way to compare or measure. You’re the best or you’re not. For her to be able to perform so consistently for so long is pretty amazing.
Was that Metallica you were listening to when we came in?
I’ve been a Metallica fan for a long time.
Did you see the documentary “Some Kind of Monster,” about when Metallica went to group therapy during the recording of an album?
Yeah. What band — what metal band especially — is going to be so open? “We’re going to shoot this documentary, therapist and all, warts and all, and just give it to the world.”
It’s actually a really good example of the kind of thing that I wish we had more of in start-ups. James and Lars are essentially the co-founders of Metallica. There’s this co-founder dynamic, and we always see the polished story of it.
But there’s always strife. There’s always struggle. It’s not always easy. In fact, sometimes it’s actually really tough. Third-party coaching is O.K. Maybe we should just make it required viewing if we do a seed deal: Watch “Some Kind of Monster.” If Metallica can have a therapist, you and your co-founder can have an executive coach.