Getting seduced by the glamour of launching a successful tech startup, one that can become the next Google or Facebook is enticing. But the journey to reach that milestone is long and so, along the way we glean at other founders’ stories to learn how they did it.
Every entrepreneur has a story about how and why they created a company, and that story inevitably includes the ideas, the uncertainties and fortunately, the successes that they faced along the way.
We spoke with David Smooke, Founder & CEO of HackerNoon, one of the internet’s largest technology publishing platforms about his story.
1. What inspired you to start HackerNoon? Tell us the story.
It was all just an accumulation of following what worked after I knew I could only tolerate working for myself. I suppose many people’s twenties work like that.
Overall I took more of the Jackson Pollock approach to startups, throwing a lot of ideas on the web, seeing what resonated, and then either feeding it more resources or stopping work on it.
Originally, the company was my part-time product management adventure that became a location-based photo-sharing app while working my startup day job. Then I went full-time and turned the company into a startup marketing firm (prioritizing for revenue) all while building as many sites as possible in whatever additional time and resources I could create.
I really just wanted to make sites with my friends like Jay Zalowitz. In total, the company made 25+ sites, consisting of community-driven publishing destinations and different solutions and marketplaces for monetizing digital content.
Most of those sites failed or leveled off to moderate success. One of those sites was Hacker Noon: how hackers start their afternoons.
It found the right mix of community, customers, and – just a cool place to spend time on the internet. We’re now up 10k+ contributing writers and 4M+ monthly readers.
Each startup is its own living breathing thing, I tried to let the business tell me what it is and not the other way around.
When Hacker Noon grew, it became the entire focus of the business, and we reached the limits of how much it could grow without its own technology.
So this year we raised ≈ $1,000,000 from 1,200 people via equity crowdfunding to replace our Medium content management system with our own custom-built content management system.
We’ve been building with the Dane Lyons’ Product Funnel approach.
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Since making the infrastructure move in July, we’ve jumped from a top 5k site in the world to a top 3k site in the world, according to Alexa.
Lots of work in front of us, but we’re not only a publishing company but also a software company. Turns out, there’s market demand for curious and insightful technologists to read and publish.
A place that helps contributing writers with editing, distribution, and community building. A place that doesn’t run annoying pop-up ads for paywalls or account creation requirements.
That’s the type of place we’re making. When it comes to digital publishing, technology’s subject matter and reading experience are naturally intertwined.
It’s wild how the internet changed our access to the written word. And technology will affect so much of our future.
What’s next? is a timeless question. How can we help someone build it? By publishing technology opinions, news and expertise, we serve as an entertainment and education hub for technologists.
The reality is that the entire internet industry is built atop the keystrokes of nerds.
But it certainly is fun to look back on milestone moments, like the purchasing of the domain:
2. What advice would you like to impart to people working in the tech industry?
Everyone has their own path, their own pace, and it really doesn’t matter what others are doing.
What matters is you getting better at what you want to do. Improve your craft every day, spend time with minds you admire, and publish about what you learn. 😉
3. What would you say is the most underrated skill in the tech industry?
Writing. Coding is very highly rated and probably more important to our ability to make new technology, but writing is underrated–it’s an act of thinking and distributing.
As people are more glued to their devices than ever before (for better or worse), the power of the written word grows. Compelling text spreads.
Whether it’s a meme, story screenshot, or The AI Hierarchy of Needs, opportunities are created based on the quality and insights of your digital text.
The ability to clearly communicate technical practices, strategies, languages, and breakthroughs can scale like it couldn’t before. Words scale ideas.
Look at the Bitcoin Whitepaper. In a previous generation, such a powerful and well-articulated idea would probably be limited to living its life as an off-color talking point in academia’s periodic dinner parties.
But in this age, an immaculate white paper can create a real decentralized currency with a $135B market cap, inspiring millions of others to decentralize the internet and other institutions.
Remember that Einstein attributed the quote, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” When technologist simplifies complex ideas, others can also build with those ideas.
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4. What are some of the most interesting observations you have made about the changing dynamics of the tech industry in the last few years?
The spectrum of incentives to watch is whether companies scale by optimizing for an open web or a walled garden.
It’s not binary, but the incumbents certainly seem to want us to be logged in with limited access to our data. Maybe that’s a pessimistic way to look at how and when the user doesn’t control access to their own digital life.
On the more optimistic side, I’m excited for a peer to peer internet infrastructure, the progress towards a 0% transaction fee digital money world, and whatever else curates its way to the top of the Hacker Noon homepage.
Here are some of my other recently published thoughts about where the web is headed:
“Decentralization is such a powerful idea. An idea that scares incumbents. An idea that excites people who are paying the currently mandatory institution fees (which is most of us).
And yet — it’s also had so many scams, misinformation, and scandals. Blockchain, Bitcoin and cryptocurrency tap into that classic insider/outsider conflict that drives readership.
Not just any readership, but readership of the curious, smart and future thinkers. We think we understand crypto, or at least how the coin functions, or why the token exists — but no one knows how big this will become.
Remember the early days of the internet? You’d never trust to enter your credit card info onto just any website, even though you just entrusted it to the wait staff at a restaurant that same day.
How technology breaks and creates the social norms of trust — that will be the blockchain effect.
The amount of real business growth that can happen from peer to peer networks can not be underestimated. Media is a reflection of what it covers.
We cover tech, and by extension, we publish a lot about blockchain.”
… and if you want to hear me talk about this stuff even more recently, check out my recent episode with long-time Hacker Noon contributing writer Mark Nadal: “Decentralized Discussion with on the Hacker Noon Podcast.”
5. What are your future plans for Hackernoon?
Continue to improve our product every day. 🙂
Building a digital product is always a trade-off between inventing the wheel, re-inventing the wheel and figuring out a way to plug in an existing solution — all while making the thing feel like just one quality thing.
We’ll be plugging in more best in class solutions to our publishing platform like we recently did with the integration of Unsplash’s 1.4M photo library, as well as, building more solutions from the feet up like we are doing with our decentralized inline commenting system, which will be our first implementation of blockchain technology.
We are going to just keep working hard, iterating on how to publish better.