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Monday, Dec 22, 2014

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Ohanian and Schaaf

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, right, invited Bobcat alum Alan Schaaf on stage for a "fireside chat" about Internet entrepreneurship.

Photographer: Rebecca F. Miller

Alexis Ohanian

Ohanian's motivational message to students in the Walter Hall Rotunda on Monday was to start now with implementing their business ideas.

Photographer: Rebecca F. Miller

Alan Schaaf

Schaaf caught up with engineering and technology students and EECS Chair David Juedes prior to Monday's lecture.

Photographer: Rebecca F. Miller

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Reddit co-founder and Imgur founder inspire next generation of Internet entrepreneurs


To Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, “entrepreneur is just French for ‘Has ideas, does them.’”

His loose translation constituted the motivational theme for Monday’s stop — which featured special guest and Imgur founder Alan Schaaf, BSCS '10 — on Ohanian’s 77-university tour to promote his new book, Without Their Permission, to inspire attendees to start implementing their business ideas now, while they have the luxury of time, flexibility and a creative environment as students.

The students in the Walter Hall Rotunda know Ohanian is speaking from experience. A 2005 graduate of University of Virginia’s business school, Ohanian and his friend Steve Huffman founded the internet juggernaut Reddit, a site that allows users to submit content that other users can share and rate to increase its visibility, just after graduation. More than 112 million unique users visit the site every month, generating 5.4 billion page views.

“Success and experience beget success and experience,” said Lynn Gellerman, executive director of Ohio University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, which hosted the event. “Whether it’s a tech person or any alum from Ohio University that goes out in the world that does something valuable and meaningful, to be able to come back and share that with other students, that’s an important part of the learning process. It’s very important to me personally that we give students a rich outside-of-the-classroom experience.”

Getting advice from this particular Internet entrepreneur was a golden opportunity for Alex Harshaw, a senior in Media Arts & Studies who personally emailed Ohanian in August requesting he add Ohio University to his book tour itinerary. Within 12 hours, Ohanian had accepted the invitation.

“It all started when I was doing research on starting my own startup,” Harshaw said. “Alexis in particular is in the position that I’m in as the business guy, the business half of the typical startup company. I wanted to get his perspective. There’s strong community of redditors on campus, and I felt like everyone could get inspired hearing his story.”

Ohanian turned a portion of the talk into a “fireside chat” with fellow entrepreneur Schaaf, an OHIO alumnus who has seized the Internet’s opportunities for business and succeeded by all accounts.

Schaaf founded Imgur as a junior computer science student in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology. The 12-person team now running the image-hosting service out of San Francisco includes five Bobcats. Imgur’s site traffic actually surpassed Reddit’s within the last year, with 138 million unique users and 4.5 billion page views.

When Ohanian invited Schaaf on stage for the chat, the two Internet moguls found common ground quickly. Both advised fledgling business owners to have confidence in their ideas, even in the face of adversity or criticism.

“I didn’t really think about the competition. I just wanted to create something better than them,” Schaaf said.

The pair found a familiar face during an afternoon visit to OHIO’s Innovation Center, where a doll copy of the Reddit mascot, Snoo, played hide-and-seek via Twitter for several days until Ohanian found it on top of the center’s 3D printer, which had printed the doll in 19 hours.

Ohanian stressed more than once that learning to code is a critical skill for executing a new idea in today’s business climate, a recommendation Schaaf endorsed both on stage and earlier in the day when speaking to a group of Russ College students in the Academic & Research Center.

“There is a real shortage of coders out there, really good coders,” said Schaaf, who offered on stage for students to contact him for jobs. “We’re hiring tons of people, but tons of people don’t exist. I wish we could find more great programmers.”

According to both speakers, trying an idea is more important than the idea’s early success, especially when talking to prospective employers or entrepreneurial support programs.

“If you just do your classes and you get good grades, that’s okay,” Schaaf said. “But you have to do stuff outside of class and just learn on your own.”

One electrical engineering graduate student who is following the duo’s advice, Christian “Rico” Sagardia, was called out of the crowd to join Ohanian on stage for an impromptu pitch to the crowd for his company’s product, Auger. Razor Dynamics, a company Sagardia co-founded with undergraduate computer science major Gary Grant, developed Auger as an augmented reality platform for users to see people in a graphical 3D interface – with an indicator at their precise physical location — on mobile devices like a smartphone or Google Glass.

“This was a kick in the pants, hearing Alexis talk about, ‘You just have to do it, even if you suck, even if you fail,’ because that’s how you get back up,” said Sagardia, a full-time student finishing his thesis while also managing the startup, a job search and side projects. “My motivation fuel tank was getting a little low, so this was a big boost.”

David Juedes, chair of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer science, echoed the inspirational message of the lecture.

“I think it’s great for our current students to see that anything is possible,” Juedes said. “There are still lots of opportunities to change the way the world works if you have great ideas and the talent to make it work.”