Alexis Ohanian (The London Sunday Times Magazine, July 1, 2018)
There’s something disconcerting about having a 6 foot 5 multi-millionaire technocrat come to do a shoot in your home. For a start he’s hitting his head on chandeliers and simply doesn’t fit into my tiny, under the stairs bathroom. The 35 year old Alexis Ohanian manages to make my place look like a dolls house but oddly he doesn’t make it at all awkward. He’s easy company with his charming, beardy smile and his unique ability to switch topics of discussion from crypto currency – he’s a big fan of using money outside the restrictions of any national banking system to his baby – 9 month old Olympia and his tennis queen wife Serena Williams. He shows us videos of the little girl who he refers to as Junior. She’s already training in the gym and standing and walking. In one video, she looks like she’s about to whack a massive serve at the camera. She doesn’t have a racket. It’s just something in that stance. Ahead of her time, fearless and ready for it – traits she inherits from both parents.
Williams became the youngest ever winner of the US Open at 17 and is categorically considered to be the greatest tennis player of all time with 39 grand slams behind her and at 36 she’s still counting. Ohanian became a multi-millionaire at 23 (in 2006) when he sold Reddit – the internet discussion site that he created with his college roommate Steve Huffman. They built it in 3 weeks.
Ohanian continued to work closely with Reddit, watching it grow to be worth $1.8 billion, the third biggest website in America with 243 million users per month, but he stepped back in February this year to focus on Initialised Capital, an investment fund he started with Gary Tan. It has more than $250 million in assets.
Under this umbrella there are hundreds of start-ups and he’s across all of them – this is a man who knows how to multi task. He has a crazy impressive drive, yet he’s an advocate for parental leave. He was able to take off 16 weeks for the birth of his daughter, the latter in flexi time by taking off every Friday although it’s very hard to see how he ever switches off.
He has dived into the tiny bathroom for another shirt change and chandelier avoidance says with an earnest nonchalance, “Yeah, we’ve collected a few portfolios over the years. We invest in about 15 a year. Some get acquired, some go out of business but a strong number continue to grow and our speciality is providing value at the earliest stages.”
He asks for a glass of tap water but I fear I don’t have a glass giant enough so I hand him a litre bottle from the fridge. He looks for relentlessness in the people he invests in.
But how does he know what starts ups to choose? Is he part psychic? “Yes. Intuition is a huge part of it. Also having gone through the experience of having done it before and in particular with Reddit, having started the company, grown the business, it helps identify a well thought out product. You know I always had a foot in Reddit. I was always advising in one capacity or another and about four years ago I had the chance to turn it around. It’s now fully independent from Conde Nast with a hefty valuation.”
People are always asking him does he regret selling it when he was 23 for an estimated sum between 10 and 20 million dollars as it’s now worth 1.8 billion.
“I am not upset at selling it early. It was tremendously great for me and my family. It gave me the freedom to do all the things I have done since and lo and behold I got the chance to come back, get a stake back and get it to the next level.”
Ohanian was an only child who got his first computer when he was eight. “Neither of my parents were technologically savvy but they got me an educational computer from Sears which you can play games on. I found the exact same one on eBay for my daughter when she’s a little older.”
Older like two? “Maybe one,” he says seriously.
He invested in that computer all the time, energy and care that an eight-year-old might invest in their first pet. It wasn’t enough for him to learn how to use it. He wanted to create new programmes. Money was tight and he didn’t want to have to buy them so he made them.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1983. His father Chris Ohanian (a travel agent) was an Armenian American whose grandparents came to the US as refugees after the Armenian genocide, his German born mother Anke was a pharmacy technician at a hospital. He revered her. He talks about her strength. They were extremely close. She died of brain cancer just after he sold Reddit. He’s grateful that he was able to treat her generously before she died and his father to front row season tickets at his favourite football team.
When he talks about his mother I see someone who is both vulnerable and mature. He has a manner of making everything look easy, everything look possible, but I don’t think it ever was that easy for him and that’s what makes him interesting.
His favourite band is Metallica and he was particularly intrigued with their documentary Some Kind of Monster where they employed a group therapist. Metal bands, like Ohanian are not known for their openness. It’s a situation he related to and made him feel there was nothing wrong with having an executive coach to help you and your co-founder work it out. He doesn’t let emotions rule him but he’s modern. Doesn’t keep too much hidden and work ethic is his overriding force. That work ethic is just one of the parallels that bonds Ohanian and Williams. “I thought I was the hardest working person on the planet in the hardest working industry but watching my wife is a humbling experience, seeing what high-pressure situations actually look like. What it takes to be that great. It’s work ethic on another level.”
We’re sitting down at the table and my fat black cat jumps on him. His stomach wobbles and he starts talking about his own little dog – the three-pound teacup Yorkie who managed to trick everybody into thinking he was starving and everybody in the house thought they were the only one feeding him. He’s happy to admit he’s been outsmarted by a Yorkie and in the next sentence he’s all about ruling the world with Crypto currency.
“What Bitcoin and Crypto currency allow us to do is to build a new internet. Things like money or stores of value are built into it and allow a greater efficiency and better user experience (which means we can build on that first version of the internet when we didn’t have the infrastructure to do what we can do today). Crypto currencies are interesting to people in countries where currencies are way more volatile.”
Is he talking about the British pound here? “I was thinking recently in Venezuela there’s been some massive currency swings. There are people who have seen generations of wealth evaporate and have limited faith in the long-term liability of the government, so people are putting their money into stores of value like Bitcoin, which also gives them freedom to move the world without worrying about losing their money. They don’t need to worry about getting to an ATM.”
He speaks in technocrat but senses he might be losing me and when the next cat Roger jumps onto his lap, it reminds him that I might like Crypto kitties. “It is a digital collectible, the digital equivalent of Beanie Babies. Where the artwork in question is what we call a non-fundable asset. In the fiscal world so I can say there is only one of these hats” – he takes off his black hat, a perfectly ordinary cap and he continues. “This is the only hat that exists and it’s special because it’s the only one and I will give it to you in exchange for money you’re willing to pay for it because you have just bought a limited thing. In the digital world a cat is infinitely reproduceable so you would probably not pay me for the photo of that cat because you know that I can make a million copies of it. We try to enforce copyright laws but that’s not easy. What Crypto kitties has proven is you actually create a digital image of a cat that you can say is unique and only one of them exists because there is a global ledger where it’s identified as such and can now be traded. It’s a proven way for you to create a marketplace. The possibilities are limitless.”
Then he gets a text from his wife. He says there’s an emergency and he must call her back. She doesn’t pick up and he replays the video she sent this morning of their daughter.
“She has a lot of grace and a lot of swagger. I think she’ll be a super athlete and a super businesswoman programmer. I really want to give her the opportunities my parents made for me. I owe them everything, even though they didn’t understand what exactly they were giving me. By the time I was in 8th grade I was campaigning for a computer in our home, a desktop. Computers were very expensive back then and it was a huge investment for my parents but I wore them down. I promised them I would use it for homework even though I just wanted to play video games. It was through the video games that I got interested in programming. I would look under the hood and see the parts and think why am I paying someone else to install new memory? I’ll just do it myself. It was very empowering as a kid.
I have two sisters now but back then it was just me and my computer. I had some best friends from my kindergarten who were only children so we were like brothers but I really relished time alone. The time to be bored. I enjoyed doodling in a notebook or staring out of a window. I hope this delight in boredom is something I can instil in my daughter because it’s so much easier now with technology to have mindless distractions and little hits of adrenaline. I feel some of my best ideas have come from being bored and letting my mind wander.”
She doesn’t strike me as bored. She strikes me as switched on. He nods. “That was my yesterday video and it already feels like a hundred years later. It’s a challenge. She travels with her mum while I am working. I’m gone this week then back for a couple of weeks. Then we will all go to Wimbledon together.
She got her first jetlag on a trip to Abu Dhabi when she was only a few weeks old. She was there for 72 hours and was a real champ. It helps that the grand slams are usually in major cities so there are usually tech conferences. Being in London is great because we have investors there so Serena will train in the morning and I will take meetings.
I’m really pushing swimming with Olympia at the moment. A lot of my parental leave I was in Florida. We were all there as a family and we had a pool outside. As a kid my parents took me to the YMCA in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It made me comfortable with water. In Florida I could get Junior out there every couple of days. She can’t swim but is very comfortable and always has been. During her pregnancy momma did lots of pool work for exercise. Every time she got in the water she could feel Olympia kicking and getting excited. Serena made a point of saying this baby loves water and sure enough she does.
It’s things like that which are good daddy daughter moments. As soon as we get her in the pool she loves kicking and dunking her head.” Williams was shocked to discover herself pregnant two days prior to the Australian Open in January 2017. She summoned Ohanian from across the world and presented him with a brown bag containing 6 positive pregnancy tests. He was thrilled and determined to have a strong and enduring relationship with his daughter. “I took full advantage of my 16 weeks parental leave. I always assumed that 16 weeks would be 16 weeks straight but if it’s flexible this is particularly helpful to fathers as we are not needed, at least on the nursing side, so you can build a plan depending on your family’s needs. You can take a month off at first and then take every Friday until those days are used up. that’s how I used it and I found that I had the freedom I needed to be there for my family. And then get out of baby talk for a day or two, get some work done, feel connected and not miss a beat. And I think that goes for women as well as men. It’s part of gender equality.”
Finally, Williams calls him back. The baby is projectile vomiting. Visibly distressed, he takes the rest of the call outside. Ten minutes later he returns composed but he has already reorganised all of his flights so he can return to them on the East Coast immediately.
Much has been made about the start of the romance between Ohanian and Williams.
She was playing a tournament in Rome. He was speaking at a tech conference. They were in the same hotel. Williams and her coach went for a late breakfast by the pool. Ohanian came and sat at the table next to them, which they planned to take over with the rest of their team. One of the Williams camp shouted, “There’s a rat!” in order to get Ohanian to shift. He calmly said, “I grew up in Brooklyn. Plenty of rats.”
He was not only afraid of rats, he wasn’t afraid of Williams. Unassuming though he is, Ohanian has a fearlessness about him. This must have been part of the initial attraction and a component of what they have in common. Williams, worth an estimated $170 million, was then and is now ranked number one in the world. They chatted and she invited him to the French Open in Paris. He referred to it as an LA style invite – once you extend because you’re sure it’s never going to happen.
He did go to Paris – saying he was there on business. They met, wandered through the city in the daytime and came across a zoo. He was by her side when a bunny was fed to a big cat. She winced. He held her and knew then he wanted to protect one of the strongest women in the world for the rest of their lives. It was love. The proposal came nearly a year later at the same hotel in Rome. He came armed with a plastic rat. They were already talking about children.
“We are different in a lot of ways and that is helpful because we learn from each There is a set of values that we share. Work ethic and competitiveness. I don’t understand what it takes to do what she does but I understand the level of commitment and doggedness that’s required. She might be up early to train or working on a Sunday on her fashion line but we’d never fight about that. We never fight about ambition or drive. That level of respect and understanding and shared values helps tremendously because we both want to be the best at what we do and that includes being parents and partners. In that way we are very aligned. If there’s a setback or a mistake, we are both geared to self-improvement and we have a lot of the same values in the context of being parents.
We were surprised to be pregnant. So many close friends have spent their thirties trying to conceive and we knew children was something that we wanted. We were grateful it was so quick. No more babies for a little bit because mom is so focused on work right now but we’d love to have more.”
He often refers to Williams as mom or mumma, Does he see the benefit of Olympia being an only child like him? “I do, but now I have two much younger sisters I relish my role as an older brother. But I didn’t have to share anything as a kid.” He laughs.
He has soft eyes and a soft chuckle. It juxtaposes his inner steel but it doesn’t hide it. “My father remarried and his wife adopted these girls so they are my family now. Best of all worlds. But I don’t have the childhood memories that Serena has with her sisters. They all shared a room so were very close literally and figuratively. Early on I joked about wanting a football team. 11 kids are not gonna happen. I’ll settle for a basketball team of 5 although I don’t think that’s gonna happen. We are happy with one. Serena’s got more work to do. In France (earlier this year) she flipped another switch. She’s always had this resilience and toughness mentally and physically but now she has this mom strength button that she pushes and it’s just so powerful. You read these stories about moms lifting cars off their babies. That’s mom strength.”
Williams does indeed play as if she’s lifting a car from a baby with every hit. At 36 she defies time. Ranked number one in the world longer than Stefi Graf and Martina Navratilova, her training must be excruciating but losing would be more excruciating.
“There are moments that are just a shadow of her full power, especially after she had such a traumatic birth. She nearly died and was laid up for a couple of months. To have all this happen less than a year ago and is now back to competing at this level is phenomenal.”
Williams had to endure an embolism during her pregnancy which was very high risk. Ohanian says solemnly, “I’d been tested a few times in my life but I’ve never had to spend a night in hospital myself. I’ve experienced it through the lens of people close to me but this was the next level.”
Becoming a millionaire and then so shortly after his mother dying must have been traumatic? “Yeah,” he nods, the brown eyes making rare eye contact. “In a lot of ways it convinced me that I wasn’t going to fail. It put into perspective – the struggle of being an entrepreneur. It made me more resilient, gave me fewer excuses. I had a bigger purpose. I knew that my worst day was nowhere near as bad as my mom or my father in supporting her. I see in Serena a superpower to respond and react in the way she did. To get to see her as a mother and a wife with this power… but I’m never gonna play tennis with her. I didn’t even watch tennis before Serena. I played a lot of team sports growing up because of the camaraderie. Because I was an only child there were always 10 other guys in a field helping carry me. When you’re out there in a sport like tennis it’s just you and you need to reset your brain after every game. I appreciate it now, not just because I am in love with someone who’s the best at it but because it combines a physical and mental challenge. My dad is really into boxing. There’s a barbarism to it. Tennis avoids the barbarism and is guilt free to watch but it has some of the same elements. I was named after a boxer, Alexis Arguello, a Nicaraguan fighter who my dad idolised so I would watch boxing with him as a kid and I think all these boxing sessions trained my brain to appreciate the mental and physical battle that’s required for tennis. When I watch Serena play I can’t help. I feel a visceral reaction.”
Does he have that same visceral reaction when he acquires a new start-up or grows a new company? He nods. “Partly. You cultivate it in your own head. It’s this idea of them against the world. You are gonna build a team to be successful. Somewhere there’s going to be a need to go through the wins and the losses as quickly as one might do on a tennis court and find the ability to reset. To reset mentally after losing the first set when all eyes are watching you takes mental strength. It’s not dissimilar. Those eyes watch you when you launch something new into the world. I show up to work and I don’t have millions of people watching me in a meeting, which would be traumatising, but they are watching even though it’s not a camera.”
Certainly, Williams and Ohanian have more in common than you might initially assume but these days technocrats are the new rock stars. It’s all about the Beauty and the Geek. Technocrat king Elon Musk, creator of PayPal and founder of Space X married British actress babe Tallulah Riley twice before finally divorcing her in 2016 where he was rumoured to date Cameron Diaz and Amber Heard. And now he is dating Canadian pop star Grimes. The powerful creative geek and the female superstar is a meeting of equals and work ethic supremo’s.
A quick swig from his water bottle and he changes track to talk about freedom on the internet. He has been dubbed the Mayor of the internet after constantly standing up to Congress against over regulating of the internet.
“We definitely lost a set in the US with the FCC repealing neutrality. But different states, including the state of California, are proposing bills to enforce it at a state level so you could start to build a case to get to Congress.
Without the safeguard of neutrality, it means any internet provider in America can discriminate traffic which means for the consumer that instead of paying $60 a month for internet where they can go to Google or Facebook and your internet will start to look like your cable television where you have to pay an extra $10 a month to visit Google or Facebook and as soon as you tier and discriminate across the internet you break the free market. The only people who don’t want neutrality are cable providers and politicians who get paid by them. Net neutrality…I still have to remember it’s game, set and match. We might be a set down but we’re still in the match.”
Ohanian talks effortlessly in tech speak as if it’s a language he owns. I switch us to talk about the Royal wedding which he attended with Williams. Williams was in a dusky pink Versace creation which skimmed and ruched in all the right places. “It was a lot of fun. I was a history major so I was geeking out to be in Windsor castle.”
Was he the tallest person there? “Yes, I think so, I’m used to always being the tallest person in the room. Idris Elba was pretty tall.”
He is only 6’3. One rarely sees a Brit who’s 6’5.
“It’s really unsettling to meet someone who is 6’5 because I’ve never seen eye to eye with anyone so it’s startling if someone’s taller than me. I will watch them all night and make sure I don’t turn my back on them.”
And there you have it. Alexis Ohanian, technocrat, multi-millionaire always has to be a head above everyone else. He looks down, not up.