Indie Hackers Growth January 21, 2021

Hacker News: The Only Acquisition Channel Where Commenting Works Better than Posting?

Darko @zerotousers

I've spent over 200 hours analyzing 489+ IndieHackers interviews, trying to discover which acquisition channels work consistently for founders (see Zero to Users for more details). One of those channels is Hacker News.

Take Qbserve ($2K/mo), a time tracking app for Mac. When asked how did they attract paying users, this is what Ivan (the founder) said:

I created a "Show HN" on Hacker News, and Qbserve became one of the top submissions that week, bringing a huge stream of sales and feedback. I've spent multiple days doing nothing but replying to dozens of comments and support requests.

I already mentioned a huge boost from Hacker News that bootstrapped the app: we earned over $20,000 in one month, with a $4,269 peak on the day when the trial ended for most new customers. In the following year, the revenue was only $15,370, so without Hacker News, I wouldn't have been able to work on Qbserve almost full-time.

How to Post on Hacker News (Regularly) More than Once

Background: The HN crowd is pretty unforgiving when it comes to spam (more on my experience this later). If you push your product more than once in a short period of time, you're likely to get banned/warned.

How do you solve for this problem? Answer: In addition to content marketing, also consider using side-project marketing as well.

Content marketing is about writing a useful article. Side-project marketing is about coding a useful (often small) software tool.

Chris Chen is the founder of Instapainting ($32K/mo), a service that turns a photo to a pointing. He used this approach successfully to get on the front page of Hacker News several times:

I leveraged my experience on Hacker News to push out content marketing pieces that were crucial to SEO. For example:

  • I built a robot in 2 weeks that could autonomously replicate artist paintings in black and white and, later, in color

  • I launched the very first free-to-use online demo of the algorithm in A Neural Algorithm of Artistic Style, I believe 3-4 days after the paper was released.

  • I released an article detailing some of the things I saw when touring artists and art factories in China, which was read by Ev Williams, re-published on Backchannel, and totaled over 71k views.

  • When the 2048 game came out, I quickly hacked up a 2 player version and placed it under the Instapainting.com domain for SEO purposes.

  • Being lazy, I milked the robot I'd made earlier and hooked it up to Twitch.tv, where people could control it to collaboratively paint.

    Most of these things had orders of magnitude more traffic than the Instapainting home page ever received, and they usually maintained some traffic gains consistently afterwards. But most importantly, these efforts brought in massive amounts of inbound links from reputable sites like Intel.com, Wired.com, TechCrunch, Engadget, etc.

    Pretty much all of these initiatives started by making front page on Hacker News, and then they'd get more coverage afterwards which would boost SEO, even if the coverage itself didn't convert to orders:

Chris built a bunch of small, interesting things and pushed them to Hacker News. All of these things were relevant to his niche (painting), which drove qualified traffic and backlinks.

Commenting on Hacker News: Better than Posting?

I first started to experiment with Hacker News 2 months ago. I began by posting relevant comments on various HN threads and then managed to get one article on the front page.

There is one interesting thing I've noticed after doing both posting and commenting; the comments brought me more sign-ups than getting on the front page there (I even wrote a post on IndieHackers about this).

It turns out I'm not the only one with this experience. 11 days ago, Gabe Ragland wrote a post on IndieHackers on how a single Hacker News comment brought him 16,737 visitors and $891 in sales (be aware that he didn't just drop a random comment, but targeted a relevant thread asking for a question where his comment was quite relevant).

Founders from various IndieHackers interviews say the same thing about commenting. Take Crowdraising ($500/m), a crowdsourcing platform where people pledge time instead of money, and how they got they got their first users:

We reached out to our networks and posted on Hacker News (HN), Product Hunt (PH), and Quora to get our initial bump of traffic, but it wasn't as large as we expected. On HN, for example, Max and I actually got better results when responding to other people's posts like this one.

The nice thing about commenting on Hacker News is that it's success is more predictable than posting. Once you post something on HN, only the grace of God could help you reach the front page. With comments, you're getting on the "front page" i.e. the comment page automatically.

Can You Overdo it With Commenting? I Did

Not too long ago, I maintained a mirror site of ZeroToUsers called FirstPayingUsers. Once I saw that each comment i left on HN brought me 20-30 new email sign-ups, I went full-blown into it and seized every opportunity to mention my site. I looked for every story around founders/startups and tried to connect that topic to what I'm writing about.

This worked well (I got 500 email subscribers) until one day I got a reply to one of my comments from the main Hacker News moderator:

You've posted your link 23 times in the last month—that's well over the line into spamming. Even apart from that, your account is using HN primarily for promotion, which is against the site guidelines (https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html). We ban accounts that do these things, so if you wouldn't mind reviewing the guidelines and taking the intended spirit of the site more to heart, we'd be grateful. The intended spirit is intellectual curiosity, which is not at all the same thing as having something to promote, though it's fine to bring up one's own work as part of good conversation.

My comments weren't spammy per-se. Take this one, for example, which received 16 points. If they were spammy in any sort of way, the HN community would downvote them to death

In the end, what brought me down was the fact that I posted the same link at the end of my comments (where I connected the HN thread to what I'm working on). The moderator gave me a warning. I didn't have a choice; I apologized and did not continue doing this.

The lesson: Instead of commenting a lot (quantity), write fewer high-quality comments that are more likely to get upvoted.

  1. 7

    I have a few tips from my recent positive/negative experience getting to the top 3 on HN.

    • I wrote a piece of satire and put it at the Cloakist blog: How I got to $9.99 MRR after 7 years
    • I sent it to a few of my contacts, some of whom upvoted
    • Nothing happened...
    • ...until about 1 hour later, when it started blowing up
    • Here's the HN post, got to 258 upvotes, top 3
    • BUT...suddenly the post disappeared!
    • Context: I'd uploaded it originally as 'Show HN: How to...'. This was because 1) I didn't really understand how Show HN should be used 2) the 'How to' was deleted when I posted it without Show HN at the front, because of some weird HN styling rules which might be documented somewhere but I haven't seen. I wanted 'How to' in there because from a comic point of view it works better
    • The reason the post had disappeared was because I broke the Show HN rules and the post had been taken down
    • I complained to the mods, pointing out that I made an honest mistake and questioning why they didn't just rename the post, and they allowed it back on, but by then momentum was gone. I was given place 30, so basically only just on the front page
    • I was also told the following (despite plenty of people upvoting the post):

    More importantly, the article doesn't seem to me to be particularly on topic for HN (see my comment at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25390360). We're looking for articles that have some intellectually interesting angle. That doesn't mean it has to be serious—playful or whimsical posts often have just the curious quality we're looking for. But a joke riff on one of the most popular and repetitive categories of submission isn't quite in the right frame for HN. This shows up in the discussion not being very good.

    So my tips are:

    • Make sure you don't break house style
    • Prepare for haters - comments were pretty depressing. People didn't get the joke
    • Be aware that mods can and will take down articles they don't think 'fit', even if you get a lot of upvotes
    1. 2

      Wow, thank you for this!

      1. 1

        This comment was deleted a month ago.

    2. 2

      Thank you for the amazing comment. Totally agree with the haters part. Once you get visibility on HN, expect people to tear your stuff down.

      1. 1

        It's like these people are competing on who is going to find what's wrong with the story/post faster.

        1. 1

          I also got this feeling when I went on their FP.

    3. 1

      Thanks for the tips. Saved this comment for future when I launch something. What do you thinks is the best place to launch a blog post in HN ?

      1. 2

        Show HN is usually for products, not blog posts :) So yeah, don't try to trick the HN crowd, they're pretty unforgiving as you've seen with my example :)

        1. 1

          I wouldn't post on the Show HN but as independent post explaining the post. Thanks.

      2. 1

        Just in the regular area, don't try do a Show HN unless it is a real Show HN

  2. 3

    Crazy how this guy from Instapainting is able to release so many side-projects on regular basis.

    1. 1

      Agree, wonder how much time they spend on that vs. their product?

    2. 1

      Interesting observation, yeah his HN posts were between March-Oct.

      1. 1

        When you get deeply familiar in a field you product stuff faster.

        1. 1

          Agreed, noticed this too.

  3. 3

    Thing is these side projects take a lot of time. They can be worth it though.

    I've read somewhere that getting on the front page of HN depends on the editors. HN doesn't use algos like Reddit; they have 2-3 full-time editors who constantly scan the front page. Wonder if anyone can confirm this?

    1. 1

      Side projects don't have to be just software...they can be interactive content as well.

      1. 1

        +1. Any article can be made more interactive with a bit of JS.

    2. 1

      "“There are some people who don’t realize Hacker News is moderated at all,” Bell continued."

      from: https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-silicon-valley/the-lonely-work-of-moderating-hacker-news

      Pretty sure these guys have a say on what goes on the front page. Not sure if there's any algo that automatically gets stories on the FP though.

  4. 3

    This crowd is allergic to anything that is even remotely "outbound-based", so I'm not surprised by all of this.

    1. 1

      We had a similar experience; removed devs from out mass list.

    2. 1

      How did you come to the conclusion?

      1. 1

        We used to send cold email to developers, it brought our deliverability down to considerable levels. Once we removed this segment from our cold email list, everything went back up to normal.

        1. 1

          I've read this as well in some IH interviews. Will try to find the quotes and post here.

        2. 1

          Same here. Cold emailing hard core devs is NOT a good idea (unless your cold email is VERY, VERY personalized).

          1. 1

            Devs are an unforgiving bunch :))

            1. 1

              You're talking with a dev :))

  5. 2

    In your example of HN comments, I think it would be helpful to point out that the comment by @Gabe was:

    1. On a HN post that made the front page
    2. The top comment out of 270 other comments
    3. Since the post was asking for examples of successful one-person businesses, it was appropriate to drop a link back to Divjoy.

    These factors effectively made the comment almost as visible as a front-page post.

    The post:
    Ask HN: Successful one-person online businesses in 2021?
    https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25614966

    1. 1

      Good points, will edit the post to mention this.

    2. 1

      Yeah thanks for mentioning this Steven! It was definitely the most optimal situation for getting traffic from an HN comment and probably hard to reproduce unless there is another thread like that in the future.

      1. 2

        Well this may be a gray-hat suggestion...but what about creating Ask-HNs yourself where you'd be the best answer? If some of them goes on the FP, comment using another acc.

        1. 1

          I think the HN mods are pretty sharp and would notice and disapprove of this tactic.

          But I do think it is a good idea to keep an eye out for posts where you'd be the best answer, and answer earnestly.

          And drop links judiciously. If you're dropping your links on every post, mods will notice.

        2. 1

          That's not a bad idea. Of course, I would never do that..

          ** looks around nervously **

  6. 2

    I have this weird aversion to HN. I know it's well-read, but for some reason I much prefer the community here.

    Does anyone else feel like this? Should I just get over it?

    1. 2

      Maybe the reason is because it's a much more negative community than IH.

    2. 2

      It tends to attract critical/negative people in general and that cycle repeats itself. No wonder I'm seeing so many 'how to get out of depression' posts there as well.

      1. 2

        It's like they're competing on who's going to find what's "wrong" with a post/story/comment...not a healthy mindset.

    3. 2

      HackerNews seems pretty cut throat and not always in a constructive way. Doesn't even feel like using the word "community" for both makes sense. We're not targeting devs at all though with OpinionX though maybe I just have less buy in for HN...

    4. 2

      Not me. I think both IH and HN have their pros/cons.

      1. 1

        What would be a couple "pros" for HN?

        1. 2

          They appreciate original products that really work and are willing to pay for them. They can find "holes" in any topic/product/etc which really helps if you want to get an overall picture of something.

  7. 1

    This is interesting

  8. 1

    Lets try it out with this comment if that also applies to IH 🎉

  9. 1

    At least you found the "limits" of HN. I'd much overdo something that "under"-do it.

    1. 1

      Hah, well. It depends on the consequences as well.

    2. 1

      +1, often the limits are bigger than you realize.

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