Ohanian and Livingston ’89 Advocate Entrepreneurship

Just months before he co-founded the Internet phenomenon Reddit, Alexis Ohanian faced the bitter sting of rejection. His idea for a mobile food ordering app was rejected by Y Combinator, a startup “accelerator” that funds promising new technology ventures. “[Y Combinator] said, ‘If you are willing to kill your company, if you are willing to get rid of ‘My Mobile Menu’ and come up with anything new, we’ll let you in the program because we don’t like the idea, but we like you,” said Ohanian. On this premise, Y Combinator granted Ohanin funding in 2005. On Monday, Ohanian and Jessica Livingston ’89, founding partner of Y Combinator, spoke to students in a casual lunchtime discussion about their experiences working in the fluid world of tech startups. “We are all figuring things out,” said Ohanian. “There is no syllabus, there’s no course agenda, you’re just figuring it out. And if you see someone, whether they are as accomplished as Bill Gates or Jay Z, know that even they at their points of greatness are still figuring things out.” “No one actually knows everything, so do not let ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ stop you, because in a way sucking is the first step to being good at something… You are going to fail and you’re going to have setbacks, but that’s okay because nobody starts out great,” said Ohanian quoting “Adventure Time,” a popular TV show. Livingston specifically recounted the success of Drew Houston, founder of the popular file hosting service Dropbox. Houston’s idea initially failed to attract investors due to the growing competition for his idea and its narrow market. Regardless, Houston persisted with Dropbox and eventually received 7.2 million dollars in venture capital funding from Sequoia Capital, which promoted it from an early-stage startup under Y Combinator to a leader in the field of online cloud storage. “Six years ago, [Houston] was just a dude who wouldn’t shut up, just kept asking questions. Only on the internet can you have that kind of growth and impact,” said Ohanian. Livingston believes that experience and the energy to develop ideas are the most important characteristics for aspiring entrepreneurs, irrespective of educational background. Livingston experienced this firsthand as a self-described mediocre student at Phillips Academy who attended a mediocre college. “There are a lot of gatekeepers in your life. And these people put you on a certain track. I was put on this mediocre track, and I believed it. And that stuck with me for a long time,” said Livingston. With the growing number of startups and the rise of the internet, gaining experience outside of school is even easier, according to Ohanian. Livingston said, “When you graduated back when I did, there were really only two options for you: You could get a job, or you could go to grad school. Now there is the third option, which is doing your own thing. And when I say thing, I refer to lots of things: Startups, nonprofits, lifestyle business, whatever you want.” Ohanian urged Andover students to begin their startup experiences in high school by learning to code and pursuing independent projects they are passionate about. “While you are at Andover, take advantage of learning all you can, meet and do projects with smart people who could someday be your co-founders and try solving your own problems as a way to generate new ideas,” wrote Livingston in an email to The Phillipian.