A good internet story, but a poor book

Without Their Permission, by Alexis Ohanian (2013)

**Pages: 245**, Final verdict: Don't-read

Without Their Permission is a memoir-meets-entrepreneurship-advice book written by Alexis Ohanian at the age 30. From the founding of the social news webpage Reddit to the political fight for a free internet, Alexis recounts the many moments which led him to believe that anyone can use the internet to become successful.

In the next paragraphs, I will tell you what Without Their Permission is all about and what I got from it, as in all my other reviews. But there is a first time for everything and, as we get to the Bottom Line part, I will explain why this is the first BetaGlyph review with a 'don't-read' verdict.

Becoming a startup founder straight out of college

The first part of the book is dedicated to the story of the early days of Reddit. After becoming friends with Steve Huffman (current Reddit CEO) at the University of Virginia, the two students decided to start a company called My Mobile Menu - a service which would allow people to order food from restaurants with their phones.

Excited about their startup idea, Steve and Alexis travelled to Harvard to attend a lecture by Paul Graham and get his feedback on their idea (you can read a great quantity of Paul Graham's excellent essays on startups at http://www.paulgraham.com/). It turned out that Graham was just about to start a new kind of seed-stage investing accelerator called Y Combinator.

(Y Combinator is the world's most famous startup accelerator, behind companies such as Airbnb, Dropbox or Stripe.)

Alexis and Steve applied for the first edition of Y Combinator and they got accepted, but only after their restaurant ordering idea was rejected (it was the time before smartphones after all!). Graham proposed they build something for the internet browser - they should build the front page of the internet. And so it was, Reddit was born and it became a huge success within a few months.

In October 2006, about one year after launch, Reddit was sold to the publishing giant Condé Nast and today, in 2016, it is one of the world's top 50 most visited websites.

"Attention spans are short, and there's always a cute cat video just a click away (...) you've absolutely got to make something people actually want or they'll never stick around, let alone come back." - Alexis Ohanian

Startup tips and fighting for a free internet

Alexis goes on to tell us about many other projects he was involved in: founding of hipmunk, supporting other people through his social enterprise Breadpig, the internet bus tour 2012 and fighting the controversial internet laws PIPA and SOPA, eventually forcing the US congress to withdraw those law proposals.

Along the book, Alexis makes the case that the internet is revolutionary because anyone can start something online and there is no gatekeeper preventing us from accessing the web's potential.

This is the essence of the book's title - without their permission - that anyone can learn how to code online and create something new on his own. Here is a summary of the other ideas Alexis tries to convey:

  • Identify genuine need - if you're starting an online business, building something that people want is the first rule for success
  • Care more than anyone else about your users - when starting Reddit, Alexis and Steve Huffman would go to great lengths to appreciate their early users
  • Work on your startup karma - try helping other founders or journalists instead of just asking for favours
  • Keep a list of superfans - create a spreadsheet where you list the people who would are enthusiast users of your product and get favourable quotes from them

Finally, we come to the end of the book and Alexis Ohanian reminds us that we must get the online community together and let its voice be heard if we want to keep a free internet in the upcoming decades.

Bottom line

Without Their Permission completely fulfills the promise of the first part of its subtitle: 'the story of reddit', but it is far from living up to its subtitle's second part 'and a blueprint for how to change the world'.

I felt the lack of a continuous structure throughout the book. Moreover, the titles of the chapters were very often not directly related to their content, which made me confused about what I was reading about at each point.

In an entertaining way, Alexis Ohanian brings up a lot of jokes in the book. But so many of them felt like the kind of internet humour you would find on Reddit or 9gag, that the writing style felt too trivial.

Despite the interesting stories, I conclude that Without Their Permission is not a book that I would recommend to a friend. I just couldn't learn enough from it.

Further learning:

Happy reading.