After many years away, Alexis Ohanian, the serial entrepreneur, investor, and open-Internet advocate, recently returned to the helm of Reddit, the huge user-curated news site, along with his  co-founder and college roommate, Steve Huffman. 

The two founded Reddit in 2005, sold it to Conde Nast a year later, spent several years working on other ventures--and, in Ohanian's case, doing a lot of Internet advocacy in Washington, D.C.--before coming back to lead Reddit. Ohanian returned in November 2014 as chairman, and Huffman eight months later as CEO.

But they did so amidst big challenges. There was broad acknowledgment at the time that Reddit needed to clean up spammy or distasteful content. The site is now far more sprawling than when they left, with 230 million monthly active users who click on 8 billion pages per month.

On Wednesday, in remarks before 700 entrepreneurs attending Inc.'s GrowCo conference in Las Vegas, Ohanian spoke about the things he wishes someone had told him when he and Huffman were just starting out, two guys in an apartment in Medford, Massachusetts. 

"Everything I've learned in the last decade as an entrepreneur and investor I learned the hard way, I learned from some of the mistakes I made as well as some of the things I did get right," Ohanian said as he kicked off his keynote session in advance of being interviewed by Inc. senior writer Christine Lagorio-Chafkin.

1. Great founders don't quit, but do adapt.

When Ohanian and Huffman first pitched Paul Graham of startup accelerator Y Combinator in Boston in June 2005, their idea--for a site called "Mmm"--was rejected. But as they were on a train out of town, dejected, Graham called Ohanian back. Ohanian recalled picking up the phone: "Graham said, 'We talked about it and we still don't like your idea. But we like you two. We believe in you two. As long as you change your idea and come up with anything else, we'll invest in you'."

While Ohanian conceded circumstances won't always be as explicit as they were in this case, you will always be able to read signals about how you can change or adjust, rather than quit. Read them, he advised. He added that great entrepreneurs are not the ones who keep trying to perfect one concept the same way over and over again, but those who constantly try out new ideas, challenge assumptions, and find what actually works for users in the marketplace. 

2. Sucking is the first step to being sorta good at something.

You're going to be bad at a lot of the things you're doing the first time you do them. Seek out people who are better at them than you--through, say, online resources or entrepreneur networks--to learn the lessons from those who have done them before. "Where those [startup] secrets get shared is where the magic happens," Ohanian said.

3. Don't "play house."

Founders too frequently lose sight of what's important for their business to succeed. Ohanian admitted he wasted six hours making business cards when he started Reddit, and "they're still ugly." There are only two main buckets you should focus on as a founder. The first: Improve your product or service. The second: Get feedback from consumers. Anything else is not a priority.

4. Your enemy isn't the competition. It's obscurity.

Rather then spend time and energy paying heed to new upstarts or incumbents, relentlessly focus on making your product something people use and like, and then talk about on social media. That's how you get attention. You don't have to spend a lot on marketing, either. Ohanian said the only money Reddit ever paid for advertising was $500 for stickers.

5. Authenticity now scales.

When it come to making a real connection, sincerity matters. In a time when people are constantly presenting their best, filtered selves on social media, you can instead show a deeper side of yourself--online and in person. Ultimately, Ohanian said, employees as well as customers will be more convinced you actually "give a damn about all that you're building," and that will help your business thrive.  

6. Give a damn. Give lots of damns.

This one may be self-evident, but Ohanian said many founders get it wrong. "If you're not willing to care that much, just don't even bother," he said. "Entrepreneurship is not for you." The passion--all the way down to caring about the tweets someone on your team produces--is the seed of what turns into great products, employees, and companies.

And at the end of the day, humility helps too. "Most of our story is a story of hard work and determination, and fortune and chance," Ohanian said in his concluding remarks. "So much of Reddit as a product was built on the shoulders of giants. ...We did some novel remixes of it but, at the end of the day, it was that: Grit and good luck.

Published on: May 18, 2016