Without Their Permission

Alexis Ohanian book: ReddIt, SOPA, etc. http://withouttheirpermission.com/ ISBN:1455520020


Software developers worldwide are transforming every single industry on the planet thanks to the open Internet, which makes unprecedented “permissionless innovation"

The Forbes list of richest people—or its future equivalent—is going to have far fewer businesspeople and far more creators on it.

I hope you’ll carry this blueprint, and the optimism inherent in it, with you long after you put this book down

All the bullshit that holds amazing people back doesn’t suddenly disappear online, but the open Internet does technologically level the playing field for everyone

A few years ago, most would have scoffed at the idea that a couple of Rhode Island School of Design graduates in an apartment with laptops would have more rooms available for rent than the Hilton corporation6 (not a Hilton or even the biggest single Hilton hotel—the entire Hilton Hotels empire). But that’s exactly what happened. The guys at Airbnb.com

I later worked a lot of random jobs between high school and college: Pizza Hut cook and waiter (some of the best customer-service experience one can get), deli counter attendant (I was terrible at this and hated smelling like cold cuts after work, despite how much my dog liked it), Fed Ex warehouse grunt (great exercise, though not very mentally stimulating), and parking booth attendant

We tinkered on our computers and spent way too much time playing video games with each other. I started a nonprofit called Free As A Bird.org that built free custom websites for small nonprofits that had little or no web presence. I e-mailed all my clients cold

I applied to only one college, the University of Virginia

I included along with my application a CD-R with my “digital portfolio” on it

Just a few years before, my dad decided to leave his position at a large agency to start his own small travel agency. A first-time entrepreneur, he was now facing a dramatic shift in the way his industry did business

To this day, he continues to operate with a focus on business and first-time travelers (usually boomers taking their first cruise).

submitted a pitch for a three-minute talk to TED

Here’s what I wrote:

The tale of Mister Splashy Pants: a lesson for nonprofits on the Internet. How Greenpeace took itself a little less seriously and helped start an Internet meme that actually got the Japanese government to call off that year’s humpback whaling expedition. People manage to sell entire books on the subject of “new media marketing” but I only need three minutes—with the help of this whale—to explain the “secret

I breathlessly shared the story of Greenpeace’s dogged efforts to raise online awareness of their effort to stop Japanese humpback whaling expeditions. They wanted to track one particular whale on its migration and humanize it with a name chosen by their online community. Greenpeace staff chose about twenty very erudite names—like Talei and Kaimana (which means “divine power of the ocean” in a Polynesian language)—and then there was Mister. Splashy. Pants

Greenpeace wasn’t pleased. They insisted on rerunning the voting process, which only galvanized us. I changed our reddit logo from a smiling whale to a more combative version

Eventually they relented and let the online favorite win (sometimes you just have to let yourself be disrupted, remember), but at this point they’d inadvertently created a brand that excited far more people than just Greenpeace fans—the message had spread far beyond whale lovers. In fact, the Japanese government actually called off the whaling expedition

Everyone who creates something online has lost control of their message but in the process has gained access to a global audience

Growing up, I had the words LIVES REMAINING: 0 written on the wall of my room

Being an entrepreneur was the best decision I could’ve made, because not having a boss gave me the freedom to make my family a priority without compromising my work. I got a lot of use out of that 3G USB stick and laptop. As long as I had those two things, I was in the office, whether it was bedside at Hopkins or in the reddit headquarters in Somerville.

I’d had ambitions to study computer science because of how much I enjoyed it during high school, but that all changed once I met people like Steve and realized I’d better nurture my computer talents as a hobby only. I became a history major

By my junior year, however, I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer

Steve hated having to wait while he finished pumping his gas at Sheetz before going inside to order his sub

I thought about all the implications mobile food ordering would have for any take-out order you’d normally wait in line for

i spoke to Mark White (a professor in the comm school, the guy who took me to South Africa, and who recruited me to come here, as well as a generally good guy and technophile) over some drinks last nite, and pitched him on our idea… from his feedback—and let me remind you that he gets pitches every couple of months from students, and was very candid and honest with his thoughts, but basically said it was one of the best he’s heard, period

It was around this time I realized I’d better sign up for the well-known entrepreneurship class

Unfortunately, I learned from Professor Brockett, who’d be teaching the class that semester, that we were required to work on our “business plan” with another pair of students.

I do hope you consider allowing me to audit this class

I called Professor Brockett, who told me that I could work on a new business plan with three other students. So I asked about auditing the class, but she told me no

I continued “entrepreneuring” during my senior year. Steve and I pushed on with our idea, and I began talking to local restaurateurs about their point-of-sale systems and experiences using online

Our lives changed with a fateful trip to Cambridge that spring of our senior year. One of Steve’s idols, Paul Graham, announced he’d be speaking at Harvard, and Steve’s girlfriend suggested he go.

It’d totally be worth the cost of buying you a drink to get your opinion of our startup

Then, a few weeks later, Paul announced Y-Combinator

Getting the rejection call from Paul that night wasn’t easy

my cell phone rang. It was Paul Graham. He wanted us back, but only if we changed our idea to something else

That’s it! You should build the front page of the web

Neologisms like upvote and downvote came into existence without any forethought—I just liked the way an up-and-down arrow looked

we did know that the karma score (your total upvotes minus your total downvotes) would be a great incentive, especially early on, for people to submit

our first big fight. I really wanted “tags” as a way to categorize content, and Steve insisted we let users launch their own reddits within our network (we’d call them subreddits). Just like Word Press was a blogging platform for online publishing, reddit would be a platform for online communities. It didn’t seem important at the time, but Steve was absolutely right and it’s a damn good thing he won because that decision would ultimately drive reddit’s success where all of our then competitors failed.

We only had one developer, of course, and that was Steve, who was responsible for everything technical

Everything I had learned about programming, I’d already learned online. That’s the culture of development right now. More than any other piece of knowledge, how to program is on the Internet

Programming also happens to be a field that Steve calls the world’s most valuable profession

Back in June of 2005, we thought we had something people wanted. What we didn’t have was users

So how do you get people to look at your user-driven website when you don’t have any users? You fake them, naturally. That’s what Steve and I did for the first few weeks—submit content under different user names

To this day, when I find myself doing something I know a normal person wouldn’t do, I know I’m onto something. When you wake up every morning with the privilege of doing something you love, it’s easy.

Magic happens when you give a damn

  • I was taking the Fung Wah bus from Boston to New York every month or so and crashing on a friend’s sofa while concocting new ways to share our story*

  • I’d find the number one post on reddit that day and e-mail the person who made the content. I would tell the person the news about hitting number one on reddit and present him or her with a very special award—a gold alien! (Gold is expensive, so I simply attached an image of a gold reddit alien that looked like a trophy and joked about it being suitable for framing*

I never spent more than a few hundred dollars on advertising for reddit. That’s not a typo. And I spent that money on stickers

just sixteen months after Steve and I first showed up in Massachusetts, Condé Nast acquired reddit.com. All in all, we had raised only $82,000 in funding

If you can build it, all it costs is a credit card to cover the server fees, which will be cheaper than your cell phone bill

we’re discussing the default sort option for our soon-to-launch travel search engine

Steve is browsing through an online thesaurus for various synonyms for pain when he comes across it: agony.

So after Adam graduated, he came to Steve to talk him out of early retirement. Steve, however, was significantly less enthusiastic when he heard the pitch. “I totally agreed that it was a nice company to start because it was close to people’s wallets,” he told me. “But I hated travel. It’s an industry that’s so not startup friendly

They applied to Y Combinator and didn’t have any trouble getting accepted, given Steve’s history. Several people have asked me why Steve would do the program a second time around, giving up a chunk of equity again, despite having more experience, connections, and even personal wealth than the first time.

Most important, we wanted to get paid every time someone bought a flight that we helped him or her find on Hip Munk

Social Proof in business development is not unlike fund-raising for your company

It started innocently enough, with phone calls and e-mails. Adam was polite and to the point, but no one responded.

When he didn’t get what he wanted, Adam didn’t wait for anyone’s permission. He just got on a plane.

No meeting planned—he just got on a plane from SFO to ORD. He landed in Chicago and stopped by the offices of Orbitz (one of our OTA business development targets), announcing that he had some spare time to meet for a quick cup of coffee

Soon Adam felt like he had enough wind at his back to try a cold e-mail to the United CEO, Jeff Smisek.

I’ll dig into this more in chapter 5, but note the length and content of the e-mail Adam sent to Jeff:

Hey. We can lower your distribution costs. Let me know who to talk to.

Adam got a response in fifteen minutes

I’ve never run an advertising campaign that cost more than a few thousand dollars. In hipmunk’s case, this ended up being a billboard t

I was there at the Marriott in Cairo just a few weeks after the social media–fueled revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime

What online success stories have in common isn’t a cute mascot (but seriously, at least consider it); it’s tenacity

After a little more than a year of running the marketing and community building for hipmunk, essentially from my apartment in New York, I moved into an advisory role while we searched for someone to take over who’d be based in San Francisco

Here’s the thing about ideas: ideas are worthless. That might sound harsh, but my experience has been that execution is everything

any discussions you have—with advisers, potential investors, or clients—aren’t terribly valuable before you have a prototype

one thing they all have in common is that they’ve “pivoted” at some point

Your relationship with your co-founder(s) is what’s more likely to make or break your company than your idea itself

I encounter plenty of startup founders who have a great technology they’ve engineered and shoehorn that into a solution that they hope people will want. To me, this route is much harder than identifying a real problem first and then solving it as simply as possible.

Worse are the founders who aren’t able to build anything yet and are simply brainstorming and drawing mock-ups in the vacuum of their own heads. Find your customers right now and talk to them.

So how do you make something that people actually want? Start with a real problem.

The thing is, sometimes people don’t realize they have a problem

It’s really hard to persuade someone to try your thing when the status quo is good enough. But put a better solution in front of the same person and suddenly the status quo looks repugnant

Another starting point is to have an idea that very few people other than the founders can actually build

Look at something like Google, which Larry and Sergey were technically capable of building at a time when not many people were

There’s also a third route: think of an idea that is rooted in a perspective that everyone else is missing because they don’t see the potential today

Once you’ve identified a problem, you might be tempted to dive right in and start trying to solve it. But you need to do your homework first. That means research

Sure, it’s easier to solve a problem without talking to your potential users, but odds are you’re going to be building something for a bigger market than just yourself and your peer group.

Once you’ve identified a real problem and done your research, start trying to solve it in the simplest way possible

Each round of Y Combinator was designed to be three months long because Paul wanted it to be a summer program, so students could decide to take time off from school if their company was going well. This happened to also be a reasonable amount of time to go from idea to a live product

Once you’re up and running, spread the word and start watching how users interact with what you’ve built. Listen to how they’re talking about it. This is key

If you’re looking to build a website and you’re not a builder, you’re more than likely going to have to try to become one

Once you’ve got traction, it’s time to focus on turning those users/customers/donors into evangelists by doing a full-scale analysis of all the ways you can build a company and community that not only understands why you’re doing what you do but will also be your best advertising for it.

What doomed so many startups in our space was that they essentially copied Digg—and every one of them, like Digg, eventually fell

Naturally, we mentioned Digg to our lead investor, Paul Graham, who gave us some sage advice that’s remained indispensable to this day: Digg wasn’t going to defeat us. We’d either defeat ourselves first or they would defeat themselves for us

A running joke that Steve had to endure at Y Combinator meetings was “What does Alexis do?”

plenty of founders are lulled into an “It’ll get better” mentality. It can, but only if you start attacking the problems

Focusing too much on a rather inconsequential item, such as business cards, underscores a larger problem I had with relinquishing control to more talented people—also known as delegation—which becomes even more important as the team grows

You cannot succeed with a broken team, so hire wisely and fire quickly. One ideal quality in an employee can be best summed up as: “Gives a damn.” I’ve heard it called different things by my peers, but you should be hiring people who take pride in their work. Whether they’re developers or salespeople, if they don’t give a damn about the mission of the company and the quality of their work, you and your team will suffer.

here’s a list of questions I like to ask potential hires

There’s no perfect checklist for interviews, but the question I ask every time is the first one on the list: What have you built

many of the characteristics of a great early hire are the same as those of a founder

You could be told by me, or any other leader in this industry, that your idea won’t work. There’s nothing stopping you from proving us wrong

They’re both wrong. Those Myers-Briggs tests that business schools love are notoriously flawed

This switch from conservation to investment mode occurs when a startup has found “product market fit” (

I believe in startup karma. Skeptical? Imagine a reputation score floating above your head. If that’s a little too surreal for you, just know that social currency is something you can spend by asking for favors and earn by doing them.

Over the years, you can build a reputation as a connector in your field

But the truth is, I’m not certain that press releases are as relevant as they were in the twentieth century.

These days, everyone you meet is part of the media.

Each superfan should have his or her own row on your spreadsheet

Reputations are built by those who dish out experience and insight. The knowledge sharing happens online—these days within communities like/r/entrepreneur, /r/startups, and Hacker News as well as on Quora and even Twitter

And as I said at the start: everyone is the media now. Ninety-one people supporting your new restaurant aren’t just giving you $15,371 in capital to buy peas and carrots and hire the cooks, as was the case with Colonie, the first Kickstarter-backed restaurant10 (and one of my neighborhood favorites in Brooklyn Heights). They’re giving you publicity: these ninety-one evangelists will spread the word because they feel like the restaurant is theirs,

If you need a crowdfunding platform exclusively for [fill in the blank, reader], it probably exists or will be launched by the time you read these words. In fact, that’s why I invested in crowdtilt.com, which has built not only a crowdfunding application that lets communities save local toy stores or fraternities fund tailgates, but also the “plumming” so that anyone can build a crowdfunding application they can dream up using their pipes, so to speak

Hancock said that, as startups moved into Denver, the city was experiencing an “innovation multiplier” effect as creative people started building their businesses, bouncing ideas off one another, inspiring more ingenuity, and ultimately generating more innovation

Using the Internet’s Power to Make the World Suck Less

Even if we’re not starting a business, we can use the Internet to leverage human and financial capital—in philanthropy, publishing (both digital and dead-tree), music, and even politics and mass culture—more directly and efficiently than we can anywhere else

In short, there are lots of ways for artists to bypass the old gatekeepers, and more are emerging every day. In light of this, it’s also vital to be sure these new media giants don’t become new gatekeepers.

Gone are the days of “If you build it, hope they’ll come.”12 The Internet lets us see if people will come before we build it. When they put their hard-earned money down, it’s not only getting us closer to paying the balance due, it’s also adding more evangelists (think comfy T-shirts).

Lester doesn’t mince words about the experience. “In my mind, the record companies are the worst sharecroppers in the world.”


A redditor with the handle fangolo got right to the point: “Say ‘job killing’ at least three times. Seriously.”

hold a hearing on January 18

Yochai Benkler researched what he calls the “networked public sphere” using eighteen months of text and link analysis to identify the most-linked-to online sources as the voice of the “town crier” resonated across the web

While I’m quite proud of reddit for being the first to black out, it was Wikipedia’s participation that forced the mainstream media to pay attention

Darrell Issa issued a press release at 1:00 a.m.21 announcing the postponement of the hearing

That same day, NY Tech Meetup, a group of more than thirty thousand New York City–based technologists, organized an emergency meeting to protest the bills at the offices of the New York senators


Within a day, thirteen senators had switched sides—five of whom had been co-sponsors of the bill: Blunt, Boozman, Cardin, Hatch, and Rubio

Declaration of Internet Freedom, which we published on July 4, 2012

More and more people are turning to one another on the Internet to solve real problems—not as a replacement for government but as a supplement that responds in real time and builds community as it helps others. S

I thought it might be important to give you a grim look at what could happen if we do nothing over the next decade or so.

Well, now I’ve got a flight back to Shanghai to catch. It’s a shame I had to move my company there, but the level and quantity of science, engineering, technology, and math talent over there made it an easy business decision

Yikes. That would have been a terrible way to end this book. Let me try again.

Here’s how we could do better….

Putting family farms on a level playing field can only happen because the cost of sharing a story on the Internet is nothing

Nimble Bot filmed a documentary about the journey, Silicon Prairie: America’s New Internet Economy

Every industry is getting swallowed up as code eats the world, and the result is a free and flat network

nineteen million Americans, many in rural areas… can’t get access to a high-speed connection at any price, it’s just not there. And for a third of all Americans… it’s just too expensive

What excites me so much about this technology is how it democratizes knowledge as well as distribution. But the system lives up to its full potential only if all of us have access and the skills to make the most out of it

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