What’s up, everybody? This is Courtland Allen and you’re listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of who they are, how they became the people they are today, and how they make decisions at their companies. The goal, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their examples, their learnings, and their mistakes and go on to build our own successful companies.
Today I’m talking to David Smooke, the creator of a very popular tech publication called Hacker Noon. David is one of my role models. And I think it shines through in this conversation, because I end up asking him an almost relentless barrage of questions about how to be successful at producing content online, and pretty much mine him for all the information that I can.
So I think you’ll learn a lot from this episode. I sure did. David is an interesting character. He’s got very explicit and carefully considered beliefs about pretty much every part of his business, and so far it’s worked out very well for him.
Now, before we jump into the episode, I just want to quickly mention the website, IndieHackers.com. We’ve got full transcripts of every podcast episode if you want to read along, including this one. Just go to IndieHackers.com/podcast. We also have a thriving community of developers and entrepreneurs who are helping each other start their own companies and overcome individual challenges. Again, that’s IndieHackers.com.
Now, without further ado, David Smooke. David, how’s it going? What’s new?
Hey, Courtland. First I just wanted to say thanks for having me on Indie Hackers. You’ve done a great thing, and it’s really cool that I’m now a bootstrapped person that’s capable of being on this show.
Oh, no. You clear that part easily. I think you’re one of the more successful bootstrapped founders that I’ve gotten the chance to talk to.
I don’t think that’s true. I don’t know. I’ve seen some good stuff out there. I’m still playing catchup in my mind.
Yeah, it’s funny. I think that feeling never really goes away. There’s nothing that I’ve done in life where I couldn’t look ahead and see somebody who’s doing more than I am, faster than I am, better than I am.
Yeah. If I was born taller and more good looking, I think I would think differently. (Laughter.)
Yeah, you and me both. Anyway, it’s good to have you on. We both run media sites, so we’ve got a lot of good content media, bootstrappery Indie Hackers stuff to talk about.
I’m excited. I remember when I found your site – it must have been a little before you joined Stripe, but I was impressed. It’s pretty cool that we’re going to collaborate here.
Yeah, it is really cool. And on my part, I’ve been reading Hacker Noon for quite a while. I think I was reading it before I even realized that I was reading it. And then eventually, I recognized, “Hey, I’ve been to this site like 10 times now, and it’s pretty consistently great.”
Yeah. So I guess I should actually introduce you. You run AMI, short for ArtMap, Incorporated. And that’s the company behind numerous publications, of which Hacker Noon is just one.
Why don’t you give us an idea of what AMI is and how it all works and why you started it, and also some of the stats behind your readership?
Yeah. So we’re a blog network. We have 20,000 contributing writers, a quarter of a million daily readers, 600,000 subscribers, and over 10 million monthly page views.
A lot of the core of our growth was we helped top influencers get their story out there, and we keep their story as their story. So a lot of times, when you contribute to larger sites out there – the Forbes of the world – you now deal with an editor, they pigeonhole your headline into something that’s the category they like, and your message gets watered down.
So my mindset was more of: There are so, so many smart people in the world and so many people doing interesting things. If they just talk about what they’re doing and we publish it and distribute it, we’re getting kind of a win-win relationship, where they get enhanced distribution and we host their story and get their traffic. So we’re trying to grow that as much as we can.
It’s taken a lot of twists and turns. It’s not like we started and we said, “What’s the quickest way to get 20,000 writers published?” But in working with a lot of great people, I started to see what contributing writers wanted and didn’t want and how you can kind of treat writers differently so that they can have a winning relationship on your site, because every writer is different and every story has an interest, and they’re putting out there for a different reason.
But a lot of those reasons kind of get bucketed into different things.
Do you guys prioritize tech writers? And if so, is that why Hacker Noon is your biggest publication?
As we grew, tech in a lot of ways made the most sense. That’s where you already have people that are used to typing all day. They’re already documenting what they’re coding; people that are happy to talk about what their company is doing and get the story out about how they did it, and they understand that can be a win-win relationship.
So Hacker Noon grew the most in the network. And part of that is how the philosophy of the tech industry makes more sense to putting out stories than the philosophy of the manufacturing industry.
Well, if you were to ask somebody in the manufacturing industry whether or not it’s a real job to own a network of blogs, probably the majority of them would say “no.” And that might even be true in tech circles not too long ago.
So I want to dig back in your history and try to figure out how you became the sort of person to start AMI and to start Hacker Noon. I want to understand your soul. So indulge me, if you will, and let’s imagine a path that sort of winds its way through the woods. And at the very end of that path is the point where you start your company, AMI. What does the beginning of that path look like, and what are sort of the first steps you took on your journey?
My soul. You are going for the – wow. One thing that came to mind when you were saying that, it’s like, what is a job definitely is very time-dependent. So before this, I worked for a tech company called SmartRecruiters. And I remember whenever they – I was doing social media marketing and the blog. And I remember hearing stuff behind other people’s back of like, “That’s a job?” (Laughter.)
So even in something that we would consider very common – but the bigger thing is the idea of who’s in control of your text and what text do you read and what text goes out there about your story and your company’s story. That is gigantic. And as long as there’s been words, that’s huge.
Whether it’s the person working your storefront, or it’s the person writing your website, or it’s the person writing your brochure, or it’s the person sending your letters and your emails – I mean, to me, that’s the job. The job starts with the text and putting out good text.
So what’s the beginning of my soul? I mean, I grew up in the countryside in Pennsylvania in a very pro-Christian, pro-baseball community. And yeah, it’s pretty tough. There’s not that many people being very free-thinking there. It instilled a lot of hard work, and it’s so beautiful. It’s ridge and valley region, so you’re just kind of walking up and down. And I actually grew up on Cornfield Circle and I was surrounded by houses and cornfield.
I’m curious, the culture you grew up in – is that something that you fully embraced as a kid, or were you kind of rebellious against it?
I’ve definitely always had the ability to jump back and forth between introvert and extrovert, at least I thought I did. So I think I can fit in in almost any room.
But yeah, like I said, it’s just not – it’s a tough community. It’s tough to be in the countryside in Pennsylvania and there’s just not much new business, there’s not much new way of thinking, it’s kind of the same jobs there’s been for a long period of time. I briefly worked for the newspaper there, and all the stories were structured a certain way. The way they determined what is news and what is not news I did not necessarily agree with.
But it was a great education process of, hey – they believed it took 60 people to run a newspaper with a 15,000 circulation. And 10 of those people were reporters and 40 of them are in business development selling ads.
And even before that, I worked in there when I was 17, 18 moving stacks of newspaper in the mailroom, where I worked the 10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. shift. And the whole job was just grabbing a stack of paper off the printing press, putting it on the strapper, strapping the stack of paper, and then putting it in the right place for the delivery person to pick up and deliver.
So I kind of saw how newspapers work from the inside out very – from 18 to 23 working part time on and off at the Lewistown Sentinel.
I think for a lot of people, it’s very easy for the experiences you have early in life like that to sort of constrain your thinking. You worked for a big newspaper, you see how they produce content, and then you think, “Okay, well, this is how content needs to be produced.”
How much of your career since then has been, do you think, constrained by what happened there; or maybe the opposite, like a counter-reaction to what you saw going on working at a newspaper?
I would start positive with “inspired by.” And even though I said, “What’s publishable and what’s not,” one of the things they do and all small papers do is they’re bringing in advice columns from around the AP from national advice columns and republishing them in the local newspaper.
This is a very powerful idea that I’ve taken throughout my different sites. It’s like, if you republish something to a new community, it’s new to them. So it’s one of those things where I’ve always looked for trending sources and good story sources and wanted to republish them and bring them into my community and make my community closer to what a tech news outlet should be. And part of that is just, “Hey, we’re going to republish the top story from The Next Web every week.” And it’s just something we do because that’s a story I would read on my own.
So that education in republishing – plus, one of the fun things about that job was whenever we would republish the advice columns, I would get to retitle them. So I was always writing these little titles and pulling out this obscure quote from the fourth paragraph because that’s what I found interesting about the column.
And I pushed the limit with some of my titles, which was really fun actually. That was the retitling game. It’s like, how good are you at calling a spade a spade? How can you do it? So that’s something that can always be iterated on. And just depending on the mood you’re in, you can write a better title or not.
So you’ve been in content since you were a teenager. You’ve been fudging around with titles and editing content since you were --
Hey, I’ve been in content since I learned what words were.
What do you think are some things that you might have believed way back then about content and publishing that today, having run AMI for years, you no longer believe?
I’ve definitely softened on republishing. To build on what I was just talking about, like I said, if it’s new to this community, it’s still a value-add. And the idea that you can only read The New York Times on TheNewYorkTimes.com and you can’t read it in any app, I don’t know. So that part of it of the consumer will read the way the consumer wants to read, so then you have to get your stories into their reading habits.
So there’s an element of that that I’ve just become a little more sympathetic and empathetic towards the reader and their preferences. So that has led me to soften, “Hey, Google wants all stories in one place because that’s how the world works,” which there’s definitely some truth to that side of the argument of better organization of the internet is one story is in one place. But that’s not the reality of how people read today.
Other things – I’ve definitely, just in publishing a lot in thousands and thousands of stories, how quickly you can get to the 80% of a good story is more important for sustainable growth than moving a story from the 80% to the 100%. Because first of all, the 100% perfect story is impossible. And it’s just like if you can move a lot of stories that are 50% and 60% good up to 80% and get to that floor, you can be a more successful operation.
Because it’s also I’ve worked – whenever you work with a lot of founders, and I’m sure you’ve seen this in your interviews, there’s a perfectionism that each project will never fully reach. It’ll never be as perfect as it looks in my head. The next story I want to write won’t be as perfect as I imagine it could be.
So for myself and making peace with this is focusing on how to get to the 80% versus trying to get to that 100%, which is really impossible. And it’s not like I don’t want each story to be as good as they can be, but there’s a matter of how to spend your time and how people I pay should spend their time. And it’s been a learning curve for sure.
There are a lot of parallels here between, let’s say, building an online product or service and publishing like what you’ve been doing. Understanding how people read is very analogous to understanding how people find products and why they use them and what’s valuable.
You’ve learned an incredible amount working with content over the years, and I’m curious of what phases of your career you learned different things. So how did you go from working at this newspaper to eventually working with online content and publishing?
Well, I’ve always been super pumped about the internet, and just from the perspective of how easy it is to get words out there. That’s always been very exciting to me and I saw very early. I think I was 10 or 11 when I got ICQ and AIM on our first computer. So it was like that stuff has always been exciting.
Moving from the newspaper, I decided I wasn’t going to live in a small town anymore, and San Francisco seemed to be the best city for young professionals. I basically just looked at, “Hey, maybe San Francisco, maybe Denver, maybe Portland, maybe New York City.” Just kind of said, “Hey, what city can I go to?”
And I drove across the country. I had some friends in San Francisco, so that kind of made it a little simpler in terms of getting set up. With the newspaper job, I basically had a three, four, if I really dragged it out five-month runway worth of money type of deal, where it was like, “Hey, if I can’t find a job within this timeframe and this environment with all these opportunities, maybe I should just go back to a small town.”
That was kind of the challenge I put upon myself. And luckily, I found a company called SmartRecruiters, and I was the first marketing hire there, joined them right after seeding funding. And they had a team of six, seven people and I got to work directly for the founder, who was a great marketer. He’ll say he’s a great product person, which he is, but he’s also a great marketer in my mind. His name is Jerome Ternynck.
And a lot of the success there was we opened – a lot of the early success of growth and internet awareness and just our first touchpoint with a lot of the recruiting industry was we opened up the blog to anyone to publish about any recruiting expertise. So instead of saying, “Here’s the outline of the company story in 10 blog posts,” it was more just like, “If you can share your recruiting expertise, you can get my editing expertise and our audience.” And that was the trade I made a couple hundred times.
And then when I left SmartRecruiters, I kept doing that trade with (inaudible).
It’s fascinating how you can sort of learn a particular trick, and then take that and sort of just parlay that into future businesses. And it never really stops working once you hit on it. You had a mentor at this company who you say is an expert marketer. Are there any lessons in particular the CEO taught you while you were working there that you carried forward later on with your other publications?
Yeah. He was good at turning it on. I don’t know if I’m an entertaining interview, but I always he was an entertaining interview. So it’s like, “Hey, I may have this big problem going on with the product, or I may have a big decision to make, but I can always just kind of stop and talk about my business,” which was – I’m thinking about now because that’s what I’m doing.
The other thing I learned from him was it was an interesting way of thinking about weekly reports, because he kind of – I’m naturally very unstructured and I like to keep all these different things moving and do things that make them accelerate. But sometimes I can get lost in terms of thinking about what was achieved this week, and how does it help the bigger business goal, and how will all these small goals add up to the bigger one.
So that was definitely very helpful thinking of seeing how he would break down his business. And then we say, “Okay, this is marketing. What does it mean if we gain 20,000 Twitter followers?” And just start to put that in regards to how many opportunities does that actually create. So there was definitely a learning of how to divide a business so you can measure its progress, and then specifically, how to divide marketing.
Also just the personality. It’s better to be your personality and put something out there than do nothing, or try to do something but don’t feel good enough about it. There’s definitely an element of, “Hey, this is the reality of where we’re at.”
I remember we got rejected to be a speaker at some conference, and we just – this is really silly. I hadn’t thought about it in a while. We just put up a camera and we did a fake keynote of him doing the talk and tagged them and put it in their community forum and put it all over the place. And it was half jokes and half serious, but it was super fun. It’s like, “Okay, he just let me do that for an afternoon.”
You know what I mean? Here I am, the 23-year-old, 22-year-old marketing person that he just hired with no marketing experience, and he wants to take the founder’s time for an afternoon to film a fake keynote to troll this conference that didn’t let us in. And it was stupid but it was – sometimes that stuff either hits or it doesn’t. And even if it doesn’t hit, it’s very fun to do and increases your enthusiasm for your work, which will have a lot of residual benefits.
How long were you at SmartRecruiter before you decided to leave? And was the next step after that starting ArtMap, Inc. or was there another bridge in between?
That was the next step. I was sat SmartRecruiters for three and a half years. We grew from about six, seven people to about 120 while I was there and saw it through Series A and Series B.
So at that time, a lot of people after I left – and I left more out of – I was just kind of – I felt like I hit a point where my growth was stalled. And it’s like I did a lot of great stuff there and I’m very thankful, but it’s like there is an element that you should always have in your career like, “Are you learning more today than you did yesterday and evaluating the returns?”
But because of that experience, people wanted to hire me at similar stages like, “Hey, I just raised seed funding for this recruiting tech startup or this marketing tech startup, and I want your expertise.” So it essentially became a marketing consulting and service business, where I would take on clients.
It was a balancing act, but I would do six-month contracts and split them between cash and equity because I also wanted to build a small portfolio of startup equity even if it was tiny stakes in the company. I wanted to bet on myself and take the idea of, “Hey, out of the people interested in working with me, am I capable of evaluating the ones that will grow?” So it was kind of they were evaluating me, but I’m evaluating them too.
So I wanted to do that for me – a lot of it was focused on me. I wanted to spend my time working directly for entrepreneurs who were doing it and like, “Oh, I just raised some money. How do I get my voice out there? What story should I be telling? How do I scale my narrative? So what’s my messaging? What am I in three words? What am I in a sentence,” which is very close to how you do headlines.
That was that. But what ended up happening was we started ART + marketing on Medium as a blog. And as that one grew, I was more interested in that publication than my clients. I don’t mean to sound like I don’t like my clients, but the stories themselves just became more interesting.
And the idea that Craig from Craigslist could contribute to one of my sites, that seemed like a real business to me. That seemed like something that if I put everything I had into this, it would be a better business than the one if I put everything I had into these startup marketing services and consulting.
So it wasn’t a pivot that happened overnight because I am bootstrapped and we did have clients. And it was something where I just kind of tailed off my clients or stabilized them and had a certain amount of time on marketing contracts and a certain amount of time on growing my own media.
And I think that’s how a lot of pivots happen. It’s not like you wake up tomorrow and you’re a different person. And the business is like that too. It’s like, “Oh, this thing I just tried as a side project is now the primary source of growth. But this other thing I had going is still doing stuff and making money, and I still want that to happen.” But then the next day, it’s like, “Well, the one that’s growing grew even more today.” And that happens a month in a row every day, and you’re like, “Okay, I just have to keep putting more into that.”
So I don’t know. Pivots are pretty fascinating actually. So that was my primary pivot, and it did not happen overnight.
I think the story of going from an employee to sort of a consultant, who’s working on a per-client basis to being the founder of an actual product or service or website is extremely common. And it makes a lot of sense, because every step of the way you’re sort of – you’re not taking any gigantic, unreachable leaps. You’re sort of getting to the next level where you learn the lessons that you need to help you out.
And I’m really curious about this first transition from you working as a marketing employee to you deciding to go out on your own, which is a huge step for a lot of people. A lot of people never build up the confidence to take that leap. They’re sitting at home wondering, “Do I have any good ideas? Am I good enough to actually execute?”
Were you at any point in time worried that you weren’t going to be able to succeed? And if so, how did you overcome that? And if not, where did that confidence come from that you could branch out on your own and just things would work out?
Oh, I was definitely concerned. I mean, when money goes up or down, when it’s harder to pay for things, that stuff is all real. And you can have a great day at work, you get really into it, you worked for 12 hours. And then suddenly, your two main clients have late payments and you’re wondering about how you’re going to pay for your bills. (Laughter.)
And you’re over here as you’re trying to do work for the client, you’re also trying to nag them about, “Please pay on time. Parts of my life depend on parts of this.” (Laughter.) And they’re like, “Well, you” – so the money stuff is obviously a concern. What’s the worst-case scenario? You go into debt. And I’ve been able to avoid that, which has been nice, but it’s been a real challenge.
Yeah, I think the confidence – I always confident I could build something of value, and I was confident in my work that I did for other people. I was confident in my work at the startup was very influential to growing the bottom line of the business, and I could explain how it was. So if I did it on my own, I would get paid more money. So a lot of the logic became – I would come back to that as the simplicity of one, I believe I can do it; and two, I have done it before.
And especially as people get pretty specialized at these tech startups, it’s not the quality of work that will hold them back. It’s the acquisition of new business and the framing to get that new business.
Some of these tech startup people are just so specialized, they only have 100 companies that would be willing to pay them, but they’d be willing to pay them a ton. And they’d be willing to pay them a ton more than what they’re getting on a salary basis.
So I mean, it’s definitely something you can come back to. And to those people that ask the same thing to me, I always tell them, “Get your first client or two while you keep your job. Get something where you book 20 hours with them and just see what it’s like. Keep your salary coming in if you’re concerned about money. And after that first client or that second client, you’ll either know that, ‘Hey, it’s more comfortable in my job’ or you’ll just have the evidence that you can do this as your own business.”
I think another cool part of your story is – I don’t know if throwing spaghetti at a wall is the right way to put it, but --
I do like Jackson Pollock a lot. He would just throw paint from far away at a very large canvass, and then he would go up close and he would cut out the part, and that would be the $20,000 painting. (Laughter.)
Well, there you go. You start different publications, you write a lot of content. You don’t necessarily have to be some sort of mad scientist, genius and predict in advance everything that’s going to work out. But when you see, like you said earlier, one particular publication is growing a lot faster than some other work that you’re doing, you can kind of latch onto that.
And I think one of the cool things about how AMI is structured is you’ve got dozens of different publications that are featuring different types of content. How much are you learning from one publication to the next and applying that to other things that you’re doing?
A lot. And they can link to each other, they’re distribution channels for each other. Plus, in terms of how stories rank, how titles work, how length works, just getting more data about related things and publishing is very helpful.
And it’s also like you can point people – and sometimes it’s also like, “Hey, you’re writing about cryptocurrencies. Do you go to KeepingStock.net or HackerNoon.com? And in the beginning, either one. And then as Hacker Noon grew, it attracts more people that want to have stories like the stories published in it. And now all the cryptocurrency people want to publish on Hacker Noon.
So they learn a lot from each other. And this year, I’m also trying to put a little more emphasis on consolidating and putting more resources into the things that are working like Hacker Noon, and opening up more ways for my readers and contributors to gain value.
So if we had the same conversation a year ago, I would be telling you about the new types of paints I’m buying, but now I’m telling you about how I’m looking at the paint all over the wall more closely.
Yeah. I wanted to ask you actually. Obviously, the advantage of having different publications is that you can learn. But the disadvantage is that you spread yourself a little bit thin. You’re not pouring as many resources into the things that are working.
How do you know when the time comes to switch from testing the waters to doubling down on one particular thing?
The truth of the answer is you never really know. So there is an element of you have to make a choice and you’re leaving out other opportunities to pursue the opportunity, and here’s why.
So as long as you can say that to yourself, you can make more positive steps in that direction. But there is an element of it’s hard to admit the things – it’s hard to kill things. It’s hard to say, “This is done and this site didn’t make it.” But some of your sites won’t if you try and make a lot of sites, just like some of your features. I don’t think it would be that much different than a product manager being gung ho about this feature, and then the way people use it they don’t like. And while you may have put 300 man hours into it by some talented developers, but the best solution still may be to kill it.
So there is an element of just having balls and going for it. (Laughter.)
Yeah, totally. And I think a lot of the stress and the emotional turmoil of running a startup is often – just lies in the uncertainty. So if you, for example, don’t know what’s going to happen, then it’s really easy to, I think, give into the emotions of, “Okay, are you feeling good or bad on this particular day?” Whereas if you have some sort of semblance of a strategy, and you can trust in that instead of being entirely emotional.
Additionally, I think hearing from someone like you who has a ton of publications under your belt, a ton of experience trying out different things, and it’s still hard for you to know whether or not it’s the right decision to shut something down --
But the other thing I want to add to that is it’s defining your core competency. So as you say, I have a lot of different publications. Just because they live on different URLs, really the core competency is on creating demand for stories, improving those stories, and distributing those stories.
And that remains true across all of them. So getting better at that core competency and that workflow where people find value, as opposed to saying, “All right, now we have an audience. I’m going to throw 20 events a year,” which is totally a legit more for another media company. That’s how they get a lot of money. You create an event, you have a ticket face value.
But now suddenly, my core competency is logistics and organizing an event, which it is not. You know what I mean? But that would be leveraging the Hacker Noon brand. And from afar, that would be David specializing more in Hacker Noon. But the reality is that’s David moving away from his core competency.
I would just emphasize: As other people try to evaluate what to kill and what to save, think about that core competency and that core spot that’s adding value to other people.
So let’s talk about the beginning of Hacker Noon, because I haven’t had anybody on the podcast who’s run a media company like AMI. So I’m curious how --
Well, you’ve been on the podcast.
But I think it would be interesting to see how you scaled AMI, because that’s something that I’ve never done. Indie Hackers has always been one or two people. You grew AMI from just yourself to – how many employees is it now?
Well, I’m the only full-time employee, but we have a lot of part-time employees. Jay Zalowitz helped founded Hacker Noon. He’s a part-time editor now. My wife is helping me improve all of my business process and she’s part time; basically, business development and client management. Then we have Dan Moore, part time on P.S. I Love You. Then we have a small army of political satirists, part time, on Extra NewsFeed. Then we’ve had a number of part-time social media people and just kind of experimenting with different types of content.
But my goal is thousands of part-time people. I don’t really like the employee-employer relationship. I didn’t like it a ton. There’s a comforting thing to it, and it has this inertia that, “Oh, my employer will take care of everything and I just show up 9:00 to 5:00 and my health insurance is covered.”
There are some good things to it. But I think the way the workforce is moving is that you maximize the number of streams of income you have and create more small relationships. So that’s kind of the way I see that going.
I think that’s fascinating, and it could help a lot of early stage founders who don’t necessarily even have the budget to bring somebody on full time if they could figure out how to sort of master the situation with part-time relationships.
But I’m very curious what Hacker Noon when it was just you. What were your sort of day-to-day responsibilities and how were you keeping the blog going? At what point did you decide, “Hey, I really need somebody helping me out with this”?
So with Jay Zalowitz in the beginning, we were actually called the Hacker Daily. So it was Medium.com/HackerDaily. So we were on their site before we branded and I came up with the name Hacker Noon. And we had been testing different ways to recruit writers on Medium and across the internet.
So we figured out ways that would create demand. Some of it we wrote some scripts, some of it was identifying what’s trending. And it became a matter of how much I could read. So the amount of people to bring on is directly related to the volume of reading required. So that was --
Were you doing editing as well and helping people make their pieces better, or were you simply reading it and saying, “Yes, no, good enough, not good enough”?
We were doing light editing. So we didn’t want to dive deep into pieces, so I was trying to avoid that. And in the beginning, you have to do it more because you want to up the quality. But yeah, I was trying not to spend too long on each piece mainly because, like the spaghetti or the paint theory, we needed to test a lot of public – test a lot of types of stories in order to find what works. And also just I thought it created a more interesting destination to have 100 people tell their tech story than to have two people tell it really well.
Yeah. People, I think, look down on quantity. But you get a lot more variety when you have different perspectives and different writers. And it just goes back to what you were saying earlier. It might be better to get a ton of stories to 80% good than to get just a few stories to 100% good.
At what point did you decide that, “It can’t just be me and Jay,” that, “Okay, we need more people here”? How big was Hacker Noon at that point, and how much reading could you really do by yourself?
Well, basically, I was siphoning resources from my marketing services. So I had other people writing for me for clients, and I was siphoning those people onto the publications and to work on the publications.
So there was this, I don’t know, maybe six, eight-month phase where, basically, the publications are all losing money and everything I invest in them has no return. And the marketing service is getting more profitable, but I’m taking labor away from it and putting it into the publications. (Laughter.)
What was your master plan at that point? Were you like, “I’ll turn it around eventually”?
Well, the thing with media outlets is there’s a critical-mass problem. And everyone wants – people want to advertise and pay you once you have the audience. It’s like a chicken and egg. And I just saw the direction we were going, and in my mind the demand was going to be high enough that this would be a destination.
And underlying all of this, if you’re building a business, you should think about: Can it run without you? And as the primary talent of a marketing company, 95% of our clients were coming to work with me. So if I were to leave tomorrow, we would lose the client and we have no business.
So that idea became very important of, “Hey, if we’re growing our own domains and our own properties and I get hit by a bus tomorrow, we can sell this business and my wife and kid can have some money.” Not like that’s the motivation of why you should do your business, but there is an element of when you’re gone or when you’re not with the business, the business should have value, or it’s not a business at all. It’s just you, which is what I was finding in the marketing service and marketing consulting.
And I could have went the other way of like, “Hey, I’m going to grow a large labor force. And if I disappear, people are basically acqui-hiring all these talented marketers. But I didn’t really want that either because I’m not yet a great manager and that wasn’t really playing to my strengths.
Early on when you’re trying to figure out how to grow this thing, you’re spending a lot of time recruiting authors and getting the best people to write. And you mentioned you’re trying to get to this point where you hit critical mass. How are you thinking about getting to critical mass? Are you thinking more about distribution and how people are going to find Hacker Noon stories? Or are you thinking more about just the content that you get on the site, and that if you get good enough content, the distribution matters far less?
Content definitely came first, but you should – always improving distribution was important, because that’s a lot of the – the better the distribution is the easier it is to recruit content and get content. So in a lot of ways, it’s one – both questions are describing one thing. And the better the content is, the easier it is to distribute.
I mean, I was looking at following core metrics. I wanted to increase time on site, I wanted to increase the number of people subscribed, and I wanted to increase the domain authority. In my mind, all these newsfeeds are great for virality. They are awful for building a business on because a newsfeed is never going to be static. Not just in terms of the content, but the way it filters content. Users, in my mind, do not have enough control over their newsfeed.
I think on all these sites, it should be very simple to filter by chronological or chronological by location. But anytime you give control of the newsfeed from the product to the user, it’s harder for the product to monetize. So there’s always bad incentives, in my mind, with the newsfeed.
So over the last year, we’ve really prioritized Google and making Google our top source of traffic and having a long-lasting destination in terms of – instead of sensationalizing headlines for Facebook, go after direct, reliable headlines for Google.
Interesting. Because I’ve always thought about content – well, readers very often being lumped into sort two groups, the first of whom are your subscribers and the people who are sort of loyal Hacker Noon readers; and the rest are people who come across an interesting headline on Twitter or Facebook or might Google you and find an article. But you seem to have found that people who Google and reach Hacker Noon are completely distinct from people who reach you over Twitter.
How much time do you spend thinking about these three different groups, and who’s the most responsible for contributing to the readership at Hacker Noon?
Like I said, I’m trying to make Google the biggest group. I want to be found for – I want people to type in “stablecoins” and find us. But yeah, you definitely also want to reward people that have been there from there from the beginning.
One of the bigger challenges we faced in this as we tried – I look at media as they’re a reflection of what’s happening in an industry. So over the last year or two years, cryptocurrencies have really taken off. And the ratio – while we still publish just as much content about software developing, and even we publish more content about software development and programming and coding, but because we now also publish more content about cryptocurrencies, we had some angry early readers. They’re like, “Hey, I used to come here all for tech, venture capital, software development. And now there’s all this cryptocurrency, Blockchain applications, and Bitcoin.”
And it’s like that’s the reality of how the tech industry has changed in the last one to two years. There’s been multiple quarters where there’s been more investment in cryptocurrencies than in venture capital in volume of investment and total amount of money. So that means: Shouldn’t the news coverage shift that way too?
But some of the early readers didn’t like this because they’re used to coming here for one reason. And I basically say to those people, “Only subscribe to our RSS feed of software development. Only visit these feature pages. Don’t come to the homepage.” And it’s a tough thing.
But to me, I’m being fair to what’s happening in the industry and a more accurate reflection of what’s happening in the industry by publishing a lot of cryptocurrency content. But some readers don’t feel that way. And I always ask people what content they want in terms of anytime a reader writes in. I basically ask them to suggest headlines because I’m curious what they want.
But you can’t just publish based on your existing user base. The internet and the world is gigantic. And if you’re just going to keep catering to the same 20 people, or the same 20,000 people, that community has to be enough for a sustainable business and you have to ignore other opportunities, which I didn’t feel like I was mature enough as a business to do that.
So you’ve got a lot of factors that go into deciding the content that you publish. It needs to be of a certain quality bar, it needs to align with where you think the industry was going. And as you just said, it can’t just please your current user base if that market is not big enough for where you want to grow.
I asked some people on the Indie Hackers forum if they had any questions for you. And Rutierut asked, “How do you select the people who write for Hacker Noon? How do you get them to write for you?”
And I’m curious, how does that play into where you see the industry going? Are you now ignoring authors who you might have focused on a lot more earlier because they’re not writing about crypto?
No, not at all in terms of ignoring. I mean, a lot of what I’m trying to do is build a large whitelist, for lack of a better term. Basically, once you’ve published something of value or a few things of value, you then can use the Hacker Noon distribution channel with your own – and 100% of what you want to write. So basically, I think top contributors kind of earn their space.
One very important thing for me in terms of recruiting writers: Most contributor networks don’t allow a strong call to action at the end of their posts. It’ll be, “This is by this person. Here’s their bio.” My mindset is you just contributed 800 words for free because you wanted to get the story out. Right after word 800, you can put a call to action to whatever the hell you want. You earned it. This space is yours.
So it’s a small distinction, but it’s really important. It’s something you can’t do on Forbes, it’s something you can’t do on other contributor networks, it’s something you can’t do on the old Huffington Post.
So that’s been pretty important. And the reality of contributors contributing, again, is: Did they have a better experience than publishing elsewhere? Did they get more readers, did they get more response, did they get leads for future business? And once they do, it becomes a pretty simple decision of, “I want to distribute my stories through Hacker Noon.”
What about early on when you guys didn’t have the reach that you have now? How were you – because I imagine you get a lot of inbound requests from writers who want to submit and take advantage of your distribution. But before that, how much time were you spending just sending cold emails, and how were you finding out who you wanted to write for your site?
A lot of cold outreach and putting that as a primary responsibility. But also the Medium network was very helpful, especially as they were in a similar spot where they have less content, and the best content will get surfaced to more people.
So I have to be – I am very thankful for that help of early distribution in the beginning. Before that I was distributing blogposts professionally for a blog when I left SmartRecruiters. That blog had, I think, 250,000 readers a month. So it wasn’t at the level I’m at now, but it was still a level where I understood the basics of distributing a blog post and getting the word out on social media.
So a lot of it is not groundbreaking. It’s just doing it a lot.
A lot of people listening in are thinking about starting startups or maybe they have a startup and they keep hearing this phrase. “You should be doing content marketing. You need to get content out there to attract people to your product.” And they have absolutely no clue what that means. They don’t know the basics of how to build a successful blog.
What mistakes do you see people making with their startups, and how can they do a better job attracting people to their websites with good content?
Well, they can start by publishing on Hacker Noon. (Laughter.) No, I mean, right now it is at the point where --
Well, actually, let me ask you because I think that’s a big thing that a lot of people are worried about. “Should I have my own blog? Should I be posting on Medium? Should I be posting on Hacker Noon?” What are the tradeoffs there?
You absolutely should have your own blog. But you should contribute to sites like Hacker Noon. I mean, our Alexa ranking is around 3,000 in the world. So if we say, “You’re trying to be the Airbnb of education,” if you type in “Airbnb of education,” surprise, surprise, you get the Hacker Noon post.
So in terms of ranking for your two to five word identifiers and your two to five word terms, if you can write a valuable story around that, we’re helpful. But people should always have their own blog. They should be thinking about sites like Hacker Noon as sources of inbound links.
And getting back to the initial question, I think one of the biggest – the things that founders and early stage startup people should be optimizing for is how to reduce the barriers to produce one story. So whether that means you have a charismatic CEO who isn’t a good writer but can talk, if that’s true, you should focus on podcasts and you should transcribe those podcasts, and then you have written content.
Or if you write something but you’re unhappy with it, how do you get that idea to someone else who can take your two-paragraphs and turn it into five paragraphs?
So it depends on the individual person. But the biggest thing you should be solving for is how to reduce the effort of producing one story, and how do you quickly get from one story – because you just have to produce more to understand what content will resonate, what your voice is as an individual, what your voice is as a company.
So solving for things that reduce the barriers to getting one story and doing that over again is a better strategy, in my mind.
What are some of the mistakes you see people making when they make a submission to Hacker Noon? Are there commonly – people writing about topics that aren’t interesting, people making mistakes in their headline or --
The cool thing, if people write about the wrong topics, they see it in the results. It’s like people will pitch me with their press release and it’s for this great thing. But I’m like, “This isn’t going to perform well with us. Your writing is too dry. Instead of the press release about the talk, give me a story from one of the speakers and give me that first-person element.”
I mean, in terms of overall mistakes, some people try and get – they’re too heavy on links, not heavy enough on story. And with tags, people just – too generic. I think being more specific is better. And in the title, more specific, I think.
So a lot of times, my edits will be around specificity and just trying to – because generalizing while writing is basically a form of laziness. It’s like, “I want to get from here to there. And it’s easier if I put it in the passive voice and just move it forward as opposed to saying what I did in an action.”
So a lot of what I’m trying to do is push people that way, and more of, “What happened to me” I always find very interesting. But yeah, it’s hard to say just definitively this is the one thing people should be doing differently.
Right. And it sounds like people get a lot of value by just writing a large quantity. And ideally, having some sort of sounding board like maybe submitting to you and getting your feedback or just putting it on Medium and seeing how people react to it; versus publishing one blogpost every six months, it doesn’t work out, and throwing your hands in the air and saying, “I don’t know how to write.”
Yeah, There’s a lot of truth in that. These people are writing emails all day. They know how to write. But then the element comes when it’s a public thing written, it’s like, “Oh, no. I need a team.” It’s like, “You really don’t.” (Laughter.)
I wouldn’t be so sure that people know how to write because they write emails, because I get some horrendously long, boring not-to-the-point emails. And it’s --
Yeah. I would be down if you want to do a workshop about how to write better emails. I’ll help you.
That would be great. It’s not what the world wants, but it’s what the world needs.
Let’s talk a little bit about growing Hacker Noon itself, because you are now at the point where you’re getting hundreds of thousands of daily readers. That’s a far cry away from where you started. What are some of the biggest turning points and things that you’ve learned to allow you to grow your readership?
The overarching point I’m coming to here is that I let the market determine my editorial line more than most sites. And if things do well, that’s the market telling me, “This is where it’s headed. This is what people want to read.”
So that’s definitely been very impactful. The other thing is talking to contributing writers and learning more about what they want. Should we be optimizing for consulting opportunities? Should we be optimizing for, “Hey, we’re going to create all these republishing relationships, and the top stories on Hacker Noon will get published elsewhere”?
So talking to them has been very important in terms of shaping what our work should be. It’s been a funny thing of: Who’s your customer? Is it the contributing writer? Is it the sponsor? Is it the reader? Whenever you’re running a content-driven operation, it’s not a simple question. Who your customer is is usually not one thing, one answer as it should be in most businesses.
How have you gotten editors to work with you? Because I imagine a huge part of scaling is, as you said, just being able to read all these submissions that you’re getting. What is your pitch like for an editor?
I look as editors as all like a one-to-one relationship: What’s going on in your life and what’s going on in the work I need done? So I haven’t systemized editors to the level that I’d like. I want to onboard more editors and I want to get better at it.
So in that way, I don’t have a complete answer because I don’t think I’ve solved that problem yet. But I do always value expertise in subject matter over expertise in English grammar. So that’s always been something I value. I also value: Are you good at being a public leader of this as opposed to – a lot of the old job of the editor was everything is about making the text as good as it can be.
It’s like, well, in an online era, the editor is as much – the leader of the Huffington Post – it’s as much about what she tweets as about what she publishes on HuffingtonPost.com. Because now she’s telling the rest of the internet the direction of the company. And that may not quite be 100% true, but the sentiment is definitely true that they’re leaders of your operation and what they say will dictate what people perceive your content and your editorial line to be.
And what is the process like of somebody who – I’m just curious about the details. I send in a submission to Hacker Noon. Who reads it, how does it get to the hands of an editor, how long is the turnaround, who gets paid when and where?
So we try and be within zero to two days during the week, zero to three days on weekends, and we do not always hit this. When submission volume goes up, some stories get lost in the shuffle. We have to apologize to people. (Laughter.) It’s always painful. It’s like you see this great story and you see it a month later, you’re like, “I am an idiot.”
But we’ve gotten better in terms of just making sure everything is read. I mean, most of Hacker Noon is still read by me. Jay Zalowitz would be the second person; Linh, my wife, would be the third person. And with top people, like I said, they kind of have a – someone still has to publish for them, but the top contributors – we’re on a relationship where they can publish essentially almost whatever they want with us. And this helps us scale; it helps them grow.
And a lot of people come to us because they’re unhappy with – a lot of the top contributors will come to us because they’re unhappy with the timing and the level of editorial that other sites want. So in that way, I think it’s a win-win relationship.
What other question was in there about the process?
Oh, I’m also curious about how the editors fit into this process. So you’ve got you, you’ve got Jay Zalowitz, and your wife. I assume one of the three of you will read any initial submission, and then do you decided to forward it off to an editor to edit it, or do you just edit it yourself?
Mainly ourself, yeah. And like I said, we’re trying to more reframe and hit our standard styles. And a lot of times, if it’s not close, it’s better in my mind to give them one sentence or two sentences about what’s wrong with this whole piece than try and go through and get it up to standard.
So there is an element of just, “Hey, you’re making these generalizations and not citing your sources. If you want to write this way, make sure there’s 8, 10 links in the accusations or the argument you’re saying. And something like that I find a better use of time than going through and picking the 10 times they suggest something, say it’s a fact, and don’t cite it.
How many stories do you just outright reject?
I mean, that’s basically the move there where we’re putting it back in their court. And usually, at that point they won’t come back to us. (Laughter.) A lot of times that contributor is lost right there. They’re just like, “Okay, the amount of work I put in versus the amount of work you want for a good story is – there’s a gap,” so they’ll publish elsewhere. And that’s pretty simple.
But I want the submission rate to be high. I’m not trying to be an Ivy League school and go around and brag about how we have a 3% acceptance rate. To me that’s not success. You have the wrong people applying. I never get why – this is a tangent, but I never get why universities always bragged about acceptance rate. That just means you don’t get the right people applying. It doesn’t mean you’re some elite thing.
With you, if you don’t accept good writers or if you accept a lot of bad writers, then Hacker Noon is going to suffer tremendously. So I think you’ve got your incentives a lot more aligned.
Yeah. The best thing to attract the next good writer is good writing on the site.
So I’ve got another question from somebody from the Indie Hackers forum named Gregarious Hermit.
What a name.
And they ask – what a name. They’re looking for a simple idea to work on. And they want to know: If you had to bootstrap a new blog from scratch on your own, what would the topic be about?
That’s a good one. We’re always looking to make new blogs, Mr. or Mrs. Hermit. (Laughter.) There’s more and more emerging on cryptocurrencies and Blockchain right now. But in terms of you choosing a topic, a lot of the success is going to come down to how dedicated you are. You could literally make a successful blog on any single topic. There’s no topic that you can’t turn around, get traffic, and make some money on.
So I would start with yourself and what you find interesting. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be your life’s purpose, but it does have to be something you’re more obsessed than you think you should be. That’s where I would start.
And what would your first steps – I’m curious what your first steps would be. Let’s say you start this blog on something that you’re obsessed with. Would you just immediately start emailing authors to contribute? Would you start doing research on channels, where people who read about your blog – you can potentially repost stuff? Or would you go straight into search engine optimization? And how do you get this blog off the ground?
Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of different ways you can do it, and those are a lot of viable steps. I think splitting between writing yourself and cold outreach would probably be the 50-50 split I would do in the beginning. So you’re writing yourself. And that could even be, “These are types of stories I would like to publish.”
Because when you write yourself, you’re also going to write your outreach. By saying, “This blog is” and being able to answer that, well, that’s probably going to go on your about page and it’s going to go on your outreach. So that type of writing is going to serve both purposes and it’s going to grow the quality that you write on the site and the ability to recruit people to write on the site that makes sense.
So yeah, if I was starting from scratch, I would go to the 50-50 writing yourself and cold/warm outreach. So I would definitely start with your network and people you’re – it can be very depressing to send many messages and get few responses. But if you’ve already put work into your career and have a network, you’re not going to send as many messages, but your response rate is going to be exponentially higher.
So wrapping up here, because we’re approaching the end of an hour, but I’d like to know just generally – you see a lot of writing submissions. I’m sure you deal with a lot of entrepreneurs as well because Hacker Noon publishes stories from entrepreneurs. If there’s one thing that you think entrepreneurs who maybe haven’t taken their first step should know, or if you could go back in time and give yourself some advice before you started working on your first business, what would you say?
That’s a good question. I would start with willpower. Regardless of everything else, will you be able to just keep working on this for six months and a year and two years? There’s a lot in life that I think literally comes down to persistence, and if you want to be doing it, you can do it.
I think it makes a lot of sense. Your analogy about throwing paint at a canvas: If you quit after the first glob of paint, what are the changes that that glob is going to be the right one that sells for a lot of money? But if you keep sticking with it for six months and you’re throwing paint, throwing more and more paint, you’re a lot more likely to hit on something that works.
And the other – that’s very true. And the other one I would add is just: Can you actually picture your first couple customers? Because the other one that bothers me is when people have four ideas, they pitch the investors, they raise this little seed funding, and then they burn the cash and they disappear.
So I’ve always been on the side. And why I like Indie Hackers, it’s like this is a revenue-driven thing. And as you make more money, the business gets bigger and you can pay more people. So that element I’ve always liked. I think it’s been – there’s a lot in Silicon Valley where it’s easier to get a couple hundred thousand dollars than it is for the entire rest of the world or most of the rest of the world.
But either way, for the company that gets it or the company that doesn’t, it still comes down to: How much money are you going to make this month and how are you going to do it? So I would also put the emphasis on revenue. And that’s why I kept taking marketing contracts, because the part of the business I thought would be the long-term solution didn’t have the short-term revenue.
So I think in that part of my journey, I’m happy with how I did it and I’m glad that it’s paying off now where people believe in Hacker Noon and want to pay Hacker Noon.
Yeah, I think that’s very sage advice. I agree with all of it really. And Hacker Noon has just done so well. Every time I look, you guys seem like you’ve grown, you’re getting more traffic, putting out more stories, so congratulations on everything that you’ve done so far. And thanks so much for joining me on the show and sharing some of your wisdom.
Oh, thanks for having me. And we’ll have an interview of me interviewing you on Hacker Noon shortly.
Can’t wait for it. Thanks so much, David.
Enjoy the rest of the day, Courtland.
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