10.01.2018

Alexis Ohanian

Hari Sreenivasan sits down with Reddit co-founder and tech visionary Alexis Ohanian.

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First let's talk about the big money part of it- Initialized capital.

You look at your website you've got 125 plus companies.

How do you figure out out of your 120 plus bets how many of them need to become the super success?

Yeah I mean there are you know for every one Coinbase or Instacart there are 20 30 40 that won't survive.

And that's the math that at this kind of early stage of investing actually still works.

It really is a power law where the returns from these one or two big bets that are successful make up for all the others that aren't.

The upside of that is it lets us be a little bit more aggressive and be able to take sort of bigger bets or bolder bets on ideas that are a little further out there.

You've also made a bet in the driverless car space.

Yes. You guys bet on Cruise that was recently partnered or got acquired by GM.

That's right. So we were one of the first investors in Cruise.

It was just at that point it was basically a research project because no startup back in 2012 really thought that they could compete with the likes of Google or Uber these others.

And then we went back a second time actually invested in another self driving car company called Voyage.

Their approach is a little different.

What they found was an opportunity where they're able to get their cars on the roads today by using retirement communities.

These are large swaths of land that have many many miles of roads that look and train the computers just like any other road.

It's contained. It's private land and so they can work with these retirement communities and offer an amazing service to people who are otherwise pretty limited in mobility.

The idea that your grandparent can have a self driving taxi service to help take them to the store gives them mobility and freedom they didn't have before.

And the fact of the cars only go like twenty five miles an hour is actually a feature.

It's actually probably how fast most of those cars would be going if the elderly were behind the wheel anyway.

Right. And It's finding a way to use this technology that is practical and valuable and safe but also collecting data now in in real time regularly on real roads and I think long term that's where the value is going to be. These cars will get smarter the more hours they spend on the roads because these cameras this AI is constantly learning and absorbing and improving.

Let's talk a little bit about the content struggles a lot of these platforms are having to deal with right now.

I mean the kind of the info wars conundrum.

The president recently weighed in and he is warning people about the power of the platforms their political influence.

They don't like me in the first place but is there concern that they are so powerful now that they are players in the political process.

This is so interesting because now it's coming so it's coming from the left and the right.

I think these these these platforms are trying very very hard to maintain neutrality.

And is that possible?

Ultimately I don't think that's possible I think what Google Facebook and these others have done so well though is entrench themselves in our lives in such a fundamental way for so long that that I do believe I mean part of what we do is look for an early stage investor who wants to do something as audacious as topple Google or topple Facebook one day or build a competitor to them.

But but admittedly the impact that they've been able to have and build up is is wide reaching and it affects many many parts of our life.

Reddit in a way has become as you guys call it the front page of the internet.

But beyond the front page behind it there are also places where you find credibly distasteful speech.

I mean you can find it in forums that support the president right now.

Really racist means that would attack you for being Armenian or your wife or being African-American.

Right. I mean so what is how do you solve for that?

Well it is reprehensible and and I do remember this was many years ago the first time I had an Armenian genocide denial post at me.

On the one hand I thought OK well, you know this is despicable and obviously I hate it.

And at the same time I thought OK well I guess like we're at a scale now where this is a this is the the reality we're now a global enough platform that we're seeing these worldviews that are so awful and so offensive.

The solution for how do we fix it is a bigger and this is a bigger global one I think the.. I do think that through more exposure and through more communication we do get to more empathy and understanding through more conversation we get there and I've seen it I've seen it in glimpses on Reddit. I've I've I've seen and I do believe that long term sunlight and truth wins.

But that's a really long term I mean.

Very long term. Illogical irrational people who hold despicable points of view are not often convinced by facts they're not convinced by... We have a flat earth theory going around right now that's picking up steam like a flat earth theory in 2018.

You know I remember reading about the enlightenment and I think when I was I think when I was studying in history I was I just sort of assumed that like there was this enlightenment.

And then after that like everyone was like cool rational thought, scientific method like great worlds fix- sorted- it's done.

And I I pretty I guess I really naively sort of thought that and this is surfacing now this reality that like no actually there there are a lot of people for whom this this like just sort of missed or who even today just don't care and would rather see things that reinforce their world like explicitly would rather see things that reinforce their worldview than then then challenge it with data.

Is there a role for regulation then?

I can't imagine that coming from this president given his history on being very anti regulation.

I think.

I think there is still I mean I think there is still real competition.

I do. I mean actually we have one of our big theses is around the like anti Amazon thesis where because of Amazon's place in the market when they decide to go into something it creates an amazing opportunity for startups to basically arm their opponents.

And so we saw this most recently with a company called Standard Cognition which does self checkout when Amazon launched was Amazon Go- the self checkout store where you could just pick up the peanuts and walk out.

Every retailer realized oh no like I don't have this-no one's coming into brick and mortar. I don't have this - what do I do. Exactly.

Because they know they can't build it themselves.

They come to a startup like Standard Cognition and they sign a bunch of customers.

So so I do see that actually serving as a tremendous boon for competition.

But the reality is the incumbents themselves have neglected technology so much they can't build it themselves.

They can't go to their CTO and say OK we need a solution in eight months is just the engineering talent isn't there.

It's just they're unable to build it.

They have to partner with these startups.

Let's talk a little bit about your much longer term investments.

My family yeah.

So you're married to Serena Williams.

Is she as competitive off the court as she is on the court?

Yes. At what- you ever beat her in anything?

Oh yeah.

It's just, I mean there's a few video games actually there's a few that will still she'll wash me on the classics classic NES games she's better at it but it's less about competition with someone else.

It's more about her own, almost like a competition with herself.

She is one of the sort of hardest people on themselves who I know and that's what makes her great.

Has it been a humbling experience?

I mean you said at one point that you thought you worked hard.

I thought I worked so hard.

Tech is full of these myths around you know nonstop working in the grind and the hustle and all this stuff.

And I really believed I was like OK well I'm in the hardest working in history.

They're working all the time you're you're cut right you're off your door is never closed because it's 24/7 internet blah blah blah and yeah I was so wrong very very wrong.

I think what I didn't really appreciate when I didn't really understand until I saw it firsthand was what a pressure it is and what an intensity it is to do your job in front of so many people.

But there is so much.

On you when you are out there.

I used to hate tennis.

I thought tennis was a boring sport.

I would change the channel it was on.

I was so wrong and to see what she's been able to do at the level she's done it in a sport where it's just you it's just you out there is just amazing.

You know one of the things that she did which was surprising and startling to a lot of people is she was very open about going through postpartum depression.

It's just not something that a lot of women share, much less women of her fame and fortune so to speak.

But it's also not something that men talk about.

I mean look as a husband I just want to be there I want to be the rock I want to be supportive.

And.

It is.

It is already so much to carry a child to have the child to do all of that not to mention all the complications that she had to go through and endure.

Yeah. I mean I was so I was very proud of her for speaking about it publicly.

She realizes the platform she has in the world.

And and I think what's so so special is she's always been very unfiltered and and when you combine her level of success with this unfiltered nature.

I think there's a hunger for this realness because there's a lot that isn't that- there's so much it's just polished and perfect representations of the vacation that you had and whatever- our Instagram culture.

And I'm look I'm guilty of it too.

Like it is.

It's the rose tinted sort of best version of yourself that you want to present to the world. And I think that's fine look that's something we as humans want.

But but that creates a hunger for for that real talk.

And you know I've had so many people just randomly come up to me and mothers in particular just walking down the street now who will thank me for.

And I'm like why are you thanking me and she's like she's just send it along to your wife because of what she said and what she's talked about and how much it means to them.

And I'm happy to very happy to deliver that thanks.

You've got a 1 year old, what's she teaching you?

That everything I've done up until this point- not that cool like not that great.

As proud as I was of all the things I've done in my career, I just I look at that little baby and I'm just like this is every this is this is my legacy.

Recently an associate on Instagram criticized you for taking what he called family vacation and the response resonated with a lot of parents.

It wasn't vacation.

It was wild, I took a week with my fam and yeah yeah an associate at another VC firm had made some note about that being implying that I wasn't working hard and I wasn't, I was on vacation.

But I think this this kind of goes back to that that that insane notion that that tech has in our little bubble that we are this we have to be this hardest working 24/7 got to grind mentality which is just it's not true.

But it's also dangerous.

I worry because there is so much especially in masculinity tied up in the grind and the hustle and work and especially when it comes to a family where I've been a huge proponent for paid family leave because I want men to be taking time off.

I want women to be able to take time off.

I mean right now we have I think one in four American women are back at work two weeks later after having a kid.

Like.

That's insane in this to be the last developed country to not have any kind of policy is insane.

And I've spoken out about it. I took took four months of leave.

And you were fortunate to be able to do that.

And I was very lucky to do that.

And that is something I will give the tech industry credit for.

It is a pretty standard thing to have generous parental leave policies in tech. And I hope it can be a standard for other industries.

But I want to be a standard for the country and if there is that policy in place, taking advantage of it is another level because so many men still don't.

And this provides a sort of double advantage because one.

It means men get to spend time with their families during these early days which are really important.

But it also gives more air cover to women in the organization to take time off and help to start to change a lot of those cultural and systemic problems that exist in tech and in business around women in the workforce.

And so I was proud to take all my time off and I'm happy to be speaking out about it because I it's it is very hard to try and balance it all.

And actually for the first time it was like a month ago at the Commonwealth Club I actually got asked the question my wife's been asked plenty of times which was how do you balance it all you know work and Family.

And I was happy to be asked that because I hadn't gotten asked it.

And I know she gets asked it and so many working women moms who get asked it all the time.

And I would like us all to get asked it enough that we just never it never even becomes an issue anymore and it's become a question.

All right Alexis Ohanian thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour interviews Tarana Burke, founder of MeToo & Ana Maria Archila who confronted U.S. Senate Republican Jeff Flake; and Jeremy Hunt, British Foreign Secretary. Hari Sreenivasan interviews Alexis Ohanian, Co-founder of Initialized Capital.

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