Make Reality: Questions with Alexis Ohanian
Internet entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian is immersed in new projects after recently stepping down from Reddit, the popular social news website he cofounded with his college roommates in 2005.
Speaking to PMI at a recent session of the Virtual Experience Series (VES), Ohanian described how project management plays a role in both his personal and professional life, the new venture he is working on, and a future project he would like to make reality.
PMI: When did you first realize the importance of project management skills?
Ohanian: In high school, I was a pretty good student, but I did the least amount of work possible to get the best possible grades. I didn't exercise the muscles of project management that much. Probably, the most I did was planning activities for video game teams. I was the administrator and a team leader, so I'd organize things and set goals for tournaments. It was really in college when I actually started to understand that we have a team and we need to be aligned to accomplish a goal and actually run the steps of the process to manage a project from idea to execution. One of the best things that came out of my four years at the University of Virginia was getting real experience doing project management in the undergrad business school, McIntire. We’d form a team and say, “All right, we have members with different ambitions, all having to come together and, hopefully, turn in something at the end of the semester that we are proud of.” I realized this is how we actually launch a startup and build a business. After graduating, when I was starting my first company, Reddit, that was when it really leveled up. It was very obvious that being successful at project management was the only way I was going to be able to build the company.
PMI: What is the most challenging project you're managing right now?
Ohanian: There's no shortage of interesting and challenging projects to be managed personally and professionally. The biggest one on my mind now is a new fund that I'm raising [Seven Seven Six is an investment fund, named for the year 776 B.C. when the Olympics were first held]. My favorite part of starting a business is working with a blank canvas for the first three to six months. However, my team and I need to be deliberate about it by staying on top of all the different projects and having them funnel up to an outcome that we're proud of at the end of the day.
PMI: What's the most significant project you've ever worked on?
Ohanian: The most significant project that I've ever worked on, I guess, would be Reddit. But I hope it will be this new one that we're working on right now, Seven Seven Six, which has some pretty lofty goals.
I should mention I treated planning for my wedding as a major project. [Ohanian married tennis superstar Serena Williams in 2017.] We had shared documents and spreadsheets—all that stuff. I just feel comfortable in project management mode, which is not always the most romantic, but it's worth it.
PMI: What is a key project management lesson you learned?
Ohanian: It’s important to get your team on board. You can do a lot of it in isolation, but you'll only get so far—you'll get a lot further working together. Part of that comes from getting buy-in from your team and using the right tools to make sure you have accountability. It’s a tricky thing and something I’ve definitely gotten better at over the years. If you're trying something really ambitious, it may take a few years or even a decade to accomplish. So it’s important to have accountability because it's the only way you'll know you're making progress toward your goal. Accountability keeps people aligned, keeps them motivated and helps the team understand what they've done but also where they still need to go.
PMI: What is one project where you felt that you were practicing agility?
Ohanian: Doing early stage investing, there is a lot of context switching, where over the course of a day, I could see five pitches, and each pitch involves a different industry, a different product and a different founder and team. There is a kind of agility required from me and the team. We need to be able to context switch every hour or so to some other company that we're evaluating or that we've invested in and are working with, in order to really be valuable and helpful to them. It’s a gift and a curse of the age we live in that we’re one tab away from another distraction—it’s made it a lot more natural, and we have a greater ability for that kind of rapid context switching.
PMI: What is a moonshot idea that you’d love to assemble a team around and make reality?
Ohanian: I can’t do a rocket company because that’s taken. It would have to be something environmental around climate change. I don’t have experience with this sort of thing, but I would love to be able to fund a team with the ambition to have a huge impact on climate change through technology. I believe climate change is an existential threat that's going to affect all of us, and disproportionately, it will affect the disenfranchised and the poor. It’s probably one of the most important things I could be working on—so that would be it.