x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Twitter, Reddit creators share secrets of success

Abu Dhabi social media conference told to keep the user in mind.

Seven years ago Alexis Ohanian and his business partner Steve Huffman were, in Mr Ohanian's words, a "couple of nobodies who had just graduated from college" and who had no business starting a business.

"But it doesn't matter who you are on the internet," Mr Ohanian, who founded the social news site Reddit, told the Abu Dhabi audience that had assembled to listen to a seminar called Social Media and Beyond - which also included author Chris Brogan and Twitter co-creator Dom Sagolla. "You can be a couple of nobodies who don't know what they are doing. It doesn't matter because no one knows. It's a level playing field and an idea can actually win based on merit."

Nobody or not, Mr Ohanian did impress Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y Combinator, an investor in start-ups. Y Combinator gave the two funding to develop Reddit, which quickly became one of the most popular sites on the internet. In 2006, the pair sold Reddit to Condé Nast for an undisclosed sum.

Mr Ohanian went on to found Hipmunk, a travel search site, and is also now an angel investor himself.

"I get to be helpful to founders but don't lose nearly as much sleep as I used to as a founder myself," he said at the seminar, which was organised by the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Forum.

He is a fan of the Y Combinator model, which twice a year invests a small amount of money - on average US$18,000 (Dh66,119) - into a large number of start-ups and mentors them intensively for three months. In the Middle East, Flat6Labs is similar to Y Combinator. "Y Combinator famously set the stage for seed investment and it's a model that I am seeing being replicated everywhere - and it should be," said Mr Ohanian. "I spend a lot of my time talking to people about how great it is. The notion that you can invest a little bit of money in talented people and they can start building something … that can very possibly become a multimillion-dollar company in a matter of years is something the world has never seen before in terms of that kind of growth."

Mr Ohanian said good design was paramount and he was astonished how much is created without the user in mind.

Instagram and Dropbox had both been phenomenally successful not because they were the first on the market but because they did the job more simply and more elegantly than their competitors.

The next big idea can also come from anywhere, said Mr Ohanian. Take, for example, the small, oil-rich country with a population of five million that produced Rovio, the company behind Angry Birds - not the UAE, but Finland.

"Rovio is trying to be the next Disney," said Mr Ohanian. "And if you have seen all the merchandise they have been able to create and the movie they've been working on and the candy bars it's insane.

"This is the kind of potential I'm talking about: people are creating things that others want. Why wouldn't the next Disney come from Finland?"

lgutcher@thenational.ae