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Alexis Ohanian washed dishes at Pizza Hut before co-founding Reddit, now valued at $1.8 billion

Co-Founder and Executive Chair of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian
Jerod Harris | Getty Images
Co-Founder and Executive Chair of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian

Before building the online platform that evolved into a billion-dollar company, Alexis Ohanian, like many teenagers, started with a less-than-glamorous first job, and he wasn't great at it.

"My first job was at a CompUSA demo-ing software, and it was the worst public speaking experience a teenager going through puberty could have," the Reddit co-founder tells David Gelles of the New York Times. "Every 30 minutes I'd have to get on a mic and demo to the whole store some lame piece of hardware or software and literally get ignored by people."

His second high school job was at Pizza Hut, where he cooked and washed dishes. He worked his way up to become a waiter, he recalls, "where I learned basically everything I've ever needed to know about customer service."

When Ohanian declared a major in history at UVA, he was convinced he was going to be a lawyer, he tells Guy Raz on NPR's podcast "How I Built This": "As a history major, I thought the only way I was going to have a career was to go to law school."

It was during an LSAT study break at Waffle House when he realized he didn't actually want to go to law school. "It's a great place for epiphanies — and waffles," the entrepreneur tells Raz. "And I had both there that morning, and realized if I wanted these waffles more than the LSAT, I probably shouldn't be a lawyer."

Instead, Ohanian realized he wanted to start something, so he convinced his college roommate Steve Huffman to try help him build a business called "My Mobile Menu," a kind of food ordering mobile app. But since the iPhone hadn't yet come out at the time — it was 2005 and the iPhone debuted in 2007 — the college seniors were pitching the idea before smartphones were ubiquitous.

"That didn't work out," Ohanian tells the Times. But the team's second idea stuck. After coming up with the idea of Reddit over spring break of their senior year, they launched the site just three weeks later, in June 2005.

Today, Reddit has over 300 million monthly users and is valued at $1.8 billion.

Ohanian, who sold Reddit to Condé Nast in his early 20s and came back to the company in 2014 as executive chairman, isn't the only self-made millionaire who has worked as a waiter and in other menial jobs before striking it big.

Shark Tank investor Daymond John waited tables at Red Lobster for five years while developing his FUBU clothing line. Fellow Shark Barbara Corcoran worked 22 low-paying jobs, including several waitressing gigs, before making her fortune in real estate.

In fact, of all the menial jobs she worked in her teens and early 20s, it was waitressing that most prepared her to build a successful company, Corcoran says: "The best job you could have to prepare for entrepreneurship is, walk on the other side of the counter and serve people. Make them happy. If you've got that ability … chances are good you're going to be a good entrepreneur."

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