Entrepreneur

Alexis Ohanian on the evolution of Y Combinator and the future of Startup School

Alexis Ohanian

Above: Alexis Ohanian

Image Credit: Alexis Ohanian

You may know Alexis Ohanian as the Reddit guy. Or the “mayor of the Internet.” Now, he’s a full-time partner at Y Combinator.

Ohanian sat down with us (metaphorically) to dish on his new role. He also unveiled his plans to transform YC’s Startup School event series into an online resource for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Let’s get to it.

Harrison Weber: What was your role at YC before becoming a partner?

Alexis Ohanian: Back in 2010, when I got back from Armenia, I met with Paul [Graham, the founder of Y Combinator] and Jessica [YC partner Jessica Livingston], and they asked me to be a partner. I said: ‘That is awesome and I would love to, but I don’t want to live in San Francisco anymore.’

And they said, ‘Fine, we still want you to be an ambassador.’ Ambassador to the East — because Paul is great with titles.

They said, ‘Just represent us east of the Valley.’ And it was a lot of fun, but it was very ceremonial.

Harrison Weber: Why become a partner?

Alexis Ohanian: As Paul Graham stepped back, there was an opportunity to take a more active role in YC. I think one of the best parts now is if you look across the partners, there’s a ton of talented people with very different backgrounds.

We all have different skill sets, and I’d like to use mine to continue spreading awareness about YC and helping startups in a more intimate way than I was before.

Harrison Weber: Does YC have plans to open an office in New York? Did it ever?

Alexis Ohanian: It was never in the cards. I guess now, technically, YC has a presence here because this is where I live, but right now it takes a ton of people to make it work in one location, and it would take nearly as many to make it work in a whole new one, so there’s nothing on the horizon.

Harrison Weber: And what are your plans?

Alexis Ohanian: One of the things that I am exploring is opening up the knowledge [YC has] around startups. That’s a project that I hope to be working on in the next few months.

I think back to when Steve and I started Reddit nine years ago: There was a dearth of knowledge compared to today. YouTube didn’t exist back then, and now you can find amazing talks from founders, and makers, and investors. You can find Quora threads. You can find blog posts. You can find insights about so many different aspects. But it’s all disparate now.

I’m talking about knowledge that’s vast and diverse for an aspiring entrepreneur — not only how to hack Angel List, or the 10 things every UX designer absolutely needs to know before she even opens up her browser to start coding.

I want there to be one place, a kind of resource. Basically an extension of Startup School that turns the event into something digital, online, and just as freely available, and hopefully as helpful.

Harrison Weber: You’re actively working on this?

Alexis Ohanian: I’m hoping, once the batch is done, I’ll be able to get more focused on it. Hopefully by mid-September I’ll have something launched. Scaling Startup School to be more accessible than a conference in meat-space.

Harrison Weber: What about your activism?

Alexis Ohanian: [Joining YC] basically takes my platform and amplifies it. Because now I’m not just coming as a Reddit guy, I’m coming as YC with a $30 billion portfolio.

At the end of the day, like for instance, going down to the Hill last week, it just helps. It makes it a little bit easier for me to get the doors open, in spite of the beard.

Harrison Weber: Is your time split between YC, your Initialized fund, and activism?

Alexis Ohanian: I would say, in terms of time, it definitely changes. The activism ebbs and flows the most. I am there when it’s going to be helpful. While the batches [of new YC startups] are in session, YC is the majority of what I do. And then, Initialized stuff makes up the rest.

Harrison Weber: Are you investing less through Initialized, or more?

Alexis Ohanian: The thing that we’ve noticed over the last year is that our biggest bets — like Secret — weren’t even part of the YC network. It’ll probably continue that way.

Harrison Weber: Why does YC’s model still work?

Alexis Ohanian: What Paul, Jessica, Robert [Morris], and Trevor [Blackwell], the four original founders, saw, before just about anyone, was how much the world had changed — that somebody with a laptop can take a little bit of money and build something amazing.

They focused obsessively on helping founders … and it was never about doing press, or promotion. I think there was even a network that wanted to do a reality show around YC, the first batch, but they turned it down without thinking twice, and I am so grateful.

To that point, I think the fact that YC has been geographically focused is part of the strength, because that does not stop us from going everywhere else to recruit talent. Of this batch, 39 percent of the founders are non-US citizens. That’s a nontrivial number.

Harrison Weber: Is Sam Altman, Paul Graham’s successor, just trying to surround himself with smart people?

Alexis Ohanian: I think what he realizes is, for YC to evolve — i’m talking Pokemon-next-level-evolution — we’ll need to draw from a really diverse set of founders-turned-partners who have a diverse skill set.

It’s gonna allow YC to do stuff that I don’t think we were able to before. I spoke earlier to the political involvement. That’s something that is in my wheelhouse. It’s something that I’ve been doing. It’s something I know benefits the Internet as a whole but that I hope will also benefit YC as an investor in things on the Internet. So it’s mutually beneficial, but it gives YC more of a presence in Washington.

Harrison Weber: What do you think of the latest batch?

Alexis Ohanian: I remember YC nine years ago, and no one would have ever expected we would be investing in and helping founders who are working on fighting cancer and getting us off fossil fuels, but it’s happening. And that’s the kind of evolution that just gets me really excited. Not to mention the non-profits. Oh man.

I don’t think any of us can pretend we know where this is headed.

Harrison Weber: Is Sam going to let companies in that Paul Graham wouldn’t let in?

Alexis Ohanian: Probably. What’s nice is that while Sam is president, we are a partnership of equals.

I think we collectively as a partnership — there are more partners now — I think you’re definitely going to see a change. I think that’s inevitable. I am excited about that.


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