July 26, 2021

HackerNoon & The Wild West of Startups

Amy Tom chats with David Smooke (co-founder and CEO of HackerNoon) about his founder's journey with HackerNoon, and with Storm Farrell (Software Developer at HackerNoon) about developing Startups of The Year by HackerNoon. 💚
On this episode of The Hacker...

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Amy Tom chats with David Smooke (co-founder and CEO of HackerNoon) about his founder's journey with HackerNoon, and with Storm Farrell (Software Developer at HackerNoon) about developing Startups of The Year by HackerNoon. 💚

On this episode of The HackerNoon Podcast:

  • How did HackerNoon start? 🚦 (01:08)
  • Wait - Storm, the dev mind behind the Noonies, didn't originally join HackerNoon as a Software Developer!? 🐸 (03:41)
  • How would Storm and Amy describe their experiences with working at HackerNoon? 🌵 (08:03)
  • Why did David choose to involve the readers to fund HackerNoon's move off Medium? 💶 (09:10)
  • When was the most difficult phase HackerNoon has been through? 🐛 (13:02)
  • Storm announces Startups of The Year by HackerNoon! 🍾 (15:56)
  • Storm talks about taking what he learned from the Noonies and applying that develop Startups of The Year ✅ (19:02)
  • David talks about how Startups of The Year will elevate people community voting ☘️ (22:31)
  • What's the future for HackerNoon? 🐉 (25:59)

Connect with David & Storm:

Learn more about HackerNoon and Startups of The Year:

🤯 Earn $600 in Rewards at Bybit - https://bit.ly/3iC7rvD


Amy:[00:00:00] Today I am wearing my new hacker noon shirt that came in the mail yesterday. It's soft, it's unwashed. It's great. And I put it on this morning and I just thought to myself, I never thought that I would drink corporate Kool-Aid again, but here we are, put it on the shirt doing it. And what better way to launch it this podcast then to talk about hacker noon and how we got started with this company.

So David and storm, welcome to the podcast. Thank you very much for coming on. Of course, this is the hacker noon podcast and my name is Amy. Tom David. I would love to ask you some questions. Okay. How you started hacker noon. And so to give the listeners some background, I saw, I think I started here maybe seven ish months ago at this point, maybe eight now, maybe seven.

And so David when did you start working at a hacker noon?

David:[00:01:03] Hacker Nan started as a side project. I was just left this company called smart recruiters and sock go from five to a hundred people and was ready to have a site that made money while I slept and was ready to be done with bosses in general, except my customers and writers.

So I was just building a bunch of sites, trying to figure out what would grow and hacker Nunes. The one that like hit the spot of just a sweet spot between readers writers and a cool place to spend time on the internet. Technologists in general, understand they need to talk about their work.

Blogging is something that's very good for their profession and gets them more users. So having our model of the contributor owns the content and we bring editing and distribution. That's something I could do and knew how to do. And that model fit really well with technology. And it took, I think I was building it for maybe 15 months before we got our first paying customer.

Then we started to become enough. Good enough that the first paying customer was actually hired.com. There's a free plug right there. They bought the whole site, did a site-wide takeover for some time and bought our email. And then it became enough of a money-making machine for me to recruit Lynn who's.

My wife is much more talented than me, and it was enough for two jobs and not just one. So that was really good. Okay. I

Amy:[00:02:14] have some questions. When did you

David:[00:02:15] start? So acronym.com 20 16, 20

Amy:[00:02:18] 16. Okay. And then when you say we at the beginning, who was.

David:[00:02:22] Oh mostly me, but also my friend Jay's Alawites who built some original scripts to ask writers to bring their content here.

And he was an engineer at the time. Most recently use it Saunder but he's been an engineer cup capital, one, a couple of different places. And it was just really overwhelming. I was just because I had this one room office where I was serving marketing clients. That's called the flood building at market and fourth in San Francisco.

So I had a little bit of a hub of people just come here and like work on whatever, even though it was like super tiny, it's a little like ruined San Francisco. Yeah, so a lot. And then I mean he never was full-time on the project. He was always part-time and has a small stake in it. And he's building his own company now, I think that seems to be a trend when you leave hacker noon, you build your own company.

And I always feel like much better when people do that. I get like slightly. Annoyed when they leave and they join a different company, but if they join, if they're starting a new company, I'm like, all right. You're yeah. Like I want my, I want these alumni to like, build something bigger than me. Like that would be a cool spot to be in.

Amy:[00:03:25] Okay. And then Lang was your first employee. When did she join?

David:[00:03:28] 2017. Okay.

Amy:[00:03:29] So one year later and now we're in 2021 and storm. When did you do it?

Storm:[00:03:35] So I [email protected] and had been building their own platform and we're about to launch it. So it was a very exciting time for everyone and I am historically a full-stack developer and actually joined with the mind of doing something other than development.

So I quite fancied my hand and writing and thought maybe I could fare as an editor for a time with hacker noon. So that was my first gig with them. But it didn't last too long, few months before my itchy fingers couldn't stay away from the code anymore. And offered to work on a side project that was launching.

At the same time, more or less I think as hacking in.com which was the new news, the first greenest awards for hacker noon which was a very interesting project. And I think we've spoken about that on a previous podcast.

Amy:[00:04:30] Yeah. Yeah. So this is your second podcast episode, right?

Yes. And when was the new news launched? Was that 2018? 2019

David:[00:04:39] for me

Storm:[00:04:40] 2018. 19 was the first learning. Yeah, that was around June, I think, or June and July was the first Moonies.

David:[00:04:48] And there was a, the voting software. And Amy, you started as an editor too, right?

Amy:[00:04:52] Yes. Yes. I started as a part-time.

Yeah, I started, but he started as editor.

Storm:[00:04:57] You just put all new employees in the trenches and see how they fare.

David:[00:05:02] A half and then find something that they're really good at. Yeah. Yeah. Podcast, podcasts, full-stack developer. And I remember we were like scouring. We wanted to do these awards to recognize the community and get writers, have a say, and assign some awards and just have more like interaction on the site.

And voting is a really good way to do that and hit pitch with our kind of community driven. Editorial line. Cause they're there. The community is actually deciding who wins the award. And we looked at all these softwares on the market and they were so expensive and it was like, and they didn't fit our use case in the storm.

I was like, I can just build that. That's not that hard.

Amy:[00:05:43] All right. Yeah. Okay. Great. David, is this your first entrepreneurial venture?

David:[00:05:48] No, I wouldn't say that. I. Sold t-shirts on eBay. When eBay was invented, I was like 12 store. I would get t-shirts and list them on eBay and try and sell them.

It was if it's sold, you made money, but it was like, you'd do a lot of listings for no bids. And it's ah, this isn't

Amy:[00:06:08] 12. How did you know what kind of hot t-shirts were in?

David:[00:06:13] I think I was just going off like the fancy logos of the shirts. I think it was like Ralph Lauren at the time, Ralph Lauren, or like Lacoste or something like a brand that I actually recognize.

This is in like rural Pennsylvania. The thrift stores are loaded with baseball teams and softball teams with just like printed local shirts. There wasn't too many like brand overload

Amy:[00:06:34] a storm. What was your first.

Storm:[00:06:35] My first entrepreneurial experience was selling perfume online, back in the early days of the web as well.

I guess it must've been 2000, then five OSA. I started a website where I found a supplier of perfumes and managed to sell them for cheaper. And that was my first. Trip into the entrepreneurial world. And I've, I guess I've always had the itch as well. I've started several small ideas since then.

And I actually have a question for David here, which would be, have you ever had a normal job?

David:[00:07:06] Yeah. Yeah. I was a newspaper reporter for a little bit and then, but that only lasted like eight months. I had some physical labor jobs, night shift, moving stacks of newspaper. So those are normal.

Jobs. And then the smart recruiters one was mostly normal, but it was bizarre because I was the first American and it was like this French guy came to San Francisco to start a bigger company than his last one. So we like didn't really need the money, but he like wanted like the, just the growth and the fame and the recognition, as well as the, just a little bit addicted to the work.

You start to meet these entrepreneurs and it starts to. And some level, it just has nothing to do with money at all. It's just I want the thing to work the way I want it to work. And I want people to talk about it the way I want them to talk about it. And it's the ego is just blowing up, and it has nothing to do with the money, even though the money it's like at the end of the day, without it, there's no business. I think my job now is pretty normal. And, sponsor wireframe podcasts. That seems pretty normal.

Storm:[00:08:03] I don't think anyone would agree with that. I was

David:[00:08:06] just going

Amy:[00:08:07] to say that I'm like, I don't think I would describe this as normal.

I love it, but I don't think I would describe this as

David:[00:08:13] normal.

Storm:[00:08:16] Startups, we just kind of anything goes really. You only have to just look at how the website has changed and the various campaigns that we've done, over the years just to see how much of a playground it is for us.

And amazingly still serving so many

David:[00:08:30] people. That's cool. Okay. So let's go. Go

Amy:[00:08:36] ahead. Yeah, let's go timeline. So we started in 2016, Lang joined in 2017. We moved off of medium in 2019.

David:[00:08:49] In 2018, the end of 2018, we raised a million dollars from our readers to do the move and build a software team. And then 20, 21, we became profitable again, which is nice. Yay.

Amy:[00:09:03] Okay. So let's talk about the funding campaign that you did. Why did you choose to do it the way that you did.

David:[00:09:09] I didn't really know what I was going to do next at the time.

So they told me I can't run ads on my site anymore, even though like they had an ad on every single site and popups on my site all over the place. So I was like, you're running ads. Can't I run ads to, so we hit the spot of this didn't want me around which was frustrating. Cause I was like Jess, when I was starting to grow, it went from one job to two jobs.

The thing was growing in demand more so it was a good, it was a frustrating experience. But with crowdfunding specifically, It just aligned our incentives a lot more, for businesses that are very community driven, and have the large audience, but not large revenue.

Crowdfunding makes a lot of sense, because now they're saying, Hey, the community's investing, taking ownership of it. And if it grows, they get the, they reap the rewards of it. And then you also have this marketing army of 1200 people that believe this site should be bigger. And they'll refer as customers and candidates and say, hacker noon is good.

And we have this dedicated a thousand fans, 1200 fans. And w it really came about from our hacker noon contributor himself. So the start engine CEO, Howard marks he was, he had published probably 40, 50 posts at the time on hacker noon. So it was like, I was literally his editor reading his stories about the crowdfunding and the whole ICO scene had just popped like it, went crazy 20 17, 28, and then 2018 started feel, start to realize, oh shit, most of these are stamps.

And and I like, I really working at SmartRecruiters changed my perspective on equity and how important it is. That's how I got my down payment on my house being an early employee there. So like the idea that you can take a little less money up front, but you get a stake of ownership was something that resonated with me.

And I think every single person should value equity so that Taught me, something some level of value of just what is a good way to raise money. And also the venture capitalists we talked to at the time, I didn't talk to many because the first couple of discussions were all the same.

Like David, we don't know if you can build a blog. And I'm like, okay, look at this community. And they're like we don't know if you can do the software. It's I think I can, we don't know if he can. And I didn't. No one really knew. So it's it's just the leverage of is a very good thing.

If entrepreneurs are capable, have the demand, like setting your own terms. It's a really good. I'm really thrilled that I could keep hacker noon as entirely common stock company, no preferred shares, every share is equal. And that idea of really appealed to me about how to grow a company fairly.

Storm:[00:11:34] I completely agree with that.

Sorry. So sorry, Amy. I just want to say, I completely agree with that. And I think that it's a place where a lot of startups fall short especially very young startups and that they're not really distributing the invested interest. Very well among. Nevermind their users but their actual employees as well.

And as a good example of this I think recently there is a digital bank in the, in, in Europe called bunk. From the Netherlands and they recently became a unicorn and they are now validated like $2 billion. And it's been touted as the success story but in truth it's a situation where this, where the CEO is holding.

Something ridiculous. I don't know, 80% or close to a hundred percent of the shares. So his employees don't get any equity and no one really benefits from that except him. I think it's really good that hacker noon has. The way that they chose to fund the first round was so inclusive of the audience that, that, that made use of the site, which I think really helped contribute towards its early stability and growth and support.

Especially during this kind of Rocky transition period of medium. It's really good that the people that are using it at the time are understanding. I would say,

David:[00:12:49] yeah, a lot of stuff broke. That was a little tough.

Amy:[00:12:55] So then what do you think was the hardest, most difficult phase of the startup that you experienced?

David:[00:13:03] And started to say, I in the beginning it was. Yeah, you got to pay rent. So like I was serving these marketing customers on the side, writing for people, doing their identity, and not being able to spend as much time on hacker noon because it wasn't, it took 15 months to make the first dollar and we were bootstrapping for so long.

I think that, that stuff is hard. I'd say the hardest thing for me personally. It's not really any specific time. It's just when the downs are the downs, like the ride of sticking at something for years and growing it over time. It's, there's just days that you feel like what you make is complete shit and it's crap and you see just some anecdotal evidence and you're just like, life is crap.

I am crap. I make crap. And what you need to do is just. And you just wait 24 hours and someone is saying how great it is and how much they love you and you find the right thing. And then it's all good again. But getting through that 24 or 48 hours, when you feel that thing in the back of your mind, that's oh, you could quit.

You could just quit and get a six digit job. It wouldn't be that hard. Like it's a, you're like, why am I grinding it out for this low wage? So there's some of that. And that still happens now. Like whenever, even though. Everything's much more stable, much more people relying on it. When I don't have fear, when I leave the internet that it's going to break, I think it's going to keep growing.

Oh, there's even now though, there's things, little things would just piss me off and I'll have a bad day and I'll just say, why did I put my life on this? And then that day passes and yeah. It's good, but that's probably the hardest thing. And that's more of a me problem than a startup problem, I think.

Amy:[00:14:34] Yeah. Like I think it's the ups and downs of work in general or life in general and just calm, almost combating, like not an imposter syndrome, but yeah. I don't know the self doubt or the what F's of the other side of the coin, I think. Cool. Cool. And then

Storm:[00:14:53] So then in general, building a business that relies so heavily on search engine rankings can be a bit scary at times because Google shifts and updates, and then you're not sure what is responsible for changes in traffic.

David:[00:15:08] And it's not really worried about the changes and. Like I'll I can read from them, learn and adapt. I get more paranoid about what if this guy Google just doesn't like me, at the level our sites added, we're getting reviewed at individual levels of how we should index. Like it's not just the algorithm.

There are machines deciding what is hacker noon or humans deciding what is hacker noon and how should we index them? Like their debate. People are debating that, so it's not that part of it is where I get a little more Scared,

Storm:[00:15:35] which is also why it's good then to branch out into these other sort of side avenues, take the new knees or startups, for example, where we're serving the community on more than just a publishing platform.

Amy:[00:15:48] Yeah. So that's a great transition. And I want to talk to you storm about startups, which is a project that you just are work, that you're working on and are just about to launch,

David:[00:15:59] right?

Amy:[00:16:00] So tell me more about your project that you were.


Storm:[00:16:03] I'd love to take credit for this, but this is actually David's idea.

And it came from the new, because when we built the new unis, we had the idea that we would have this sort of polling, boating software that we could then package and use for other cases, or potentially even sell to other companies. So startups is the first instance. Or of the new software where we took this and then had another idea for it, which was to essentially have.

A really large database of startups around the world grouped by city and then allow people to vote on on which startups they thought were the best per region. So David, I don't know if you want to speak a bit more about that.

David:[00:16:45] Yeah, we want it to, because the new needs we've learned that people resonated more than brands and the new needs like fit with people.

So we wanted to I wanted to like, look at saying, Hey, let's make it just companies and look at how do we, rank just companies. And this vote. And we ended up settling on voting by location for a simple way to divide startups. And it's a little ironic is everyone moves to remote work or we're valuing the HQ, but it is a good way to recognize a region.

So there's 4,000 cities in the world above a hundred thousand. So I've put a hundred thousand people as a barrier there's enough business activity that we can get some good companies to vote on. And we can give all these small companies just being nominated for an award is not something that happens often for small companies and winning an award is not something that happened either.

And usually it's very predatory you pay. I remember paying to get listed at my old company to win some corporate blog event and you have to pay to get listed, then pay to be able to use their logos. It's a predatory. Yeah. Industry. So having something that you know is actually offering benefits from sponsors and the social proof of the award and all of that and giving.

These startups, a third-party validation in the early days, every single third party site that talks about you as a big deal. And so I think we're going to tap into something here of giving all these startups something that they can use in all their marketing collateral. And it's going to be interesting because the voters can be located anywhere.

So they're voting objectively on, but they probably only care about the region if they're like, they only care about the region if they're in it. So I think we're going to see some interesting traffic trends of how this works by location and it's going to be very worldwide and diverse, so I'm really excited for it.

And like storm set, it's a mini data. And now we have this graph of all these startups and where they're located, and now we're going to get social proof of what people would, what startups the community thinks will, grow or not grow. So I'm really excited for it. Yeah, that's all I,

Storm:[00:18:48] so the there's a certain level of pride when you know that a startup is from your city.

So it'd be quite interesting. I'm trying to think of myself as a voter even, I'll of course browse my own city startups here in Munich and votes there. But then also I have an attachment to just certain startups in general, that are not based here. So I think that it should be really interesting to see what the voting friends are like and what startups are getting the most votes and where the, where their traffic is coming from.

If it's majority hacker noon users, or if it's from the companies themselves promoting the award side. But what we found was from the Nunez was one that people really liked. Unexpected to be unexpectedly nominated for an award. And that they, for some reason really valued this sort of digital status, right?

This this kind of award for a particular thing, be it best, right?

David:[00:19:47] The best time to give a gift when it's unexpected. That was the best time.

Not your birthday. That's true.

Amy:[00:20:01] That's true. All right. I would love to learn more a story about the development process behind this. How many months has this?

Storm:[00:20:09] Luckily the majority of the infrastructure had already been built with the new knees. But like all internet technology these days, it was outdated.

The moment we shifted basically. It's now been two years since the original news was bolt. And there, while there were some upgrades last year to the system the. The stack that the new niece was bolt on has changed significantly. So for those who don't know the new news was bolt on a graph QL server through Apollo and hosted on a Heroku database that it was managed by a Prisma.

There's a lot of tech names that I've thrown in there. But the main thing is that Some of those technologies are not really in use anymore or not supported anymore and have been deprecated namely Prisma one, which the Nunez was bolt on. And we're at a stage now where we've had to upgrade it.

Yeah, we'll be looking at moving that to a different database system because we found that the hosting it with Heroku can be quite costly for us because Heroku charges for the number of records that we have. And you can imagine 4,000 cities, 30,000 to 50,000 start-ups to a hundred thousand can get quite expensive.

Yeah, that's where things are right now. Yeah.

Amy:[00:21:29] When did you start doing this? Aside from the things that you already had built with the new news?

David:[00:21:34] It's

Storm:[00:21:35] been a slow process. We started building it I think sometime the beginning of this year as a small side project. But all in all it really didn't take all that much time.

I would say maybe a few weeks of solid work.

David:[00:21:48] There a lot of data, data gathering around our end and sales, time timeframe, and also debate of is this the best next instance of it, like voting on start-ups versus voting on podcasts versus voting on restaurants? Like obviously the startups is more closely tied to hacker news.

But this is a good voting software and we have weighted voting. We have authentication, we have spam prevention and we gave an acronym writers like higher weighted vote. So there's a. Yeah. There's elements of like how to connect it to the existing base versus what if you just had this software and you could vote on anything and we're hacker noon.

So we have a base. So we want to connect to our base in this situation in the technology industry, like we've done a really good, I think a good job historically of leveling up the people. Actually doing the work, an engineer at Facebook can log in and publish a story. A bunch of them have, but we don't have to date.

We haven't had. Accountability for the brands or coverage for the brands. And these are the things that this is deciding how the money is spent in the whole industry. You have the consumer side of it, but in terms of the supply, like covering the companies to something that I want to make a push at hacker noon, and we did it a little bit.

With brand publishing and we have customers who come in and republish their whole blogs with us. Then we did it a little more with a tech company news page, where we use the Bing API to curate news around the web. And now we're saying, Hey, what about the smallest companies who's rising up next? And instead of just hearing from the people, making the companies, we're going to have the community vote on them and have a little bit of that third-party perspective.

So I think it's going to make hacker noon a more accurate reflection of what's going on in the tech industry.

Storm:[00:23:29] Yeah, especially being a community voted a fair, right? So these badges that will appear on, on companies, pages on hacker noon, or even if that they use in their own material will be completely community voted.

So I think that's quite a good distinction from what you might otherwise expect, where maybe a company was awarded by a board of members who. Interests you are not not already aware of.

Amy:[00:24:00] Cool. So as a startup, when can I expect to receive my notification that I was nominated in my area?

David:[00:24:09] It depends when we publish this podcast, I guess now maybe it's already there,

Amy:[00:24:16] so you didn't see and saying, okay, so it's happening soon. And how long do people have to vote?

David:[00:24:22] Through the end of the year we'll announce an official date, but it's basically, we're trying to yeah. Go from now through the end of the year.

Amy:[00:24:28] Okay. And where will this be? Hosted

David:[00:24:32] startups dot hacker, noon.com.

[email protected]

Amy:[00:24:39] Okay.

David:[00:24:41] Not IO. That's not a.edu. It's a.com.

Amy:[00:24:49] All right. Cool. And I am very excited because in conjunction with launching the startups nominations, I am going to be interviewing a lot of different founders and CEOs of these startup companies over the summer which I am coining the summer startup series.

Everybody is. So even though you have to vote the ability to vote till the end of the year, Over the summer, I will be interviewing a bunch of different CEOs and founders. So very excited about that and upcoming stuff for the podcast and storm. Anything else that you're working on hacker noon for an upcoming at some point?

Storm:[00:25:29] Y, yes, Amy as a matter of fact, we're in the middle of preparing the new knees for this year which now that we have start-ups, we'll be a lot more user focused. Whereas previously the Nuni sort of incorporated both companies and users the Nunez this year will be a lot more user focused.

So that's pretty exciting.

Amy:[00:25:50] Excellent. And David, as the founder and CEO of hacker noon, what do you think the future of hacker noon?


Bigger, better, bolder, faster.

David:[00:26:06] We want to keep this core of, publishing a lot of quality stories, doing more things to make the stories better like GPT three headline generators, different text editors marked down editors, more ways to read more res to choose your content and cause acronyms a big library.

And most users don't care about a lot of the library. We've done a lot of features for readers to try and say, Hey, how I, oh, I only get the type of content I want. So I think that's a really good thing. And we're going to work with Brian and it's more, we've had, we've published three, 400 brands with their corporate blogs.

Hopefully, we're going to be talking about three or 4,000. And because it's news, when a technology company makes an official statement, they've put a lot of labor into it and they brought it in and it's something that belongs on hacker noon too. And hopefully this with this, we're building a lot more software and we're spending most of our money on software now.

So I also just I have to figure out how we're going to move all the software into more places and how we're going to start to have more instances and interact with people. And key packer noon is this core, amazing place to read and write and reflect the whole technology industry. But that also means we have technologies that could help you.

So hopefully as we become more and more of a software company people think acronyms.

Amy:[00:27:20] Sweet. All right. Thank you everybody for joining the podcast today, storm, where can we find you and what you're working on online?

Storm:[00:27:29] You can find me on Twitter at stone feral. That probably be the best place to keep up.

Yeah, you could also visit there, although I don't update that quite as much.

David:[00:27:42] And how about startups dot hacker? noon.com. Startups dot hacker,

Storm:[00:27:47] noon.com. Yes. Inadvertently you can find out what I'm

David:[00:27:51] working on.

Amy:[00:27:52] Yes. And David, where can we find.

David:[00:27:54] It's spelled S M O K E. David smooke.net.com/u/david Smooke.

And how about your Twitter? That one is actually linked Dow Smith. Yeah.

Amy:[00:28:11] Oh, okay. Nice. Nice. Okay, great. Perfect. All right. Thank you everybody for listening to the podcast. If you liked this episode, don't forget to share it on all of the channels. Tell your friends, get hyped for start-ups and stay weird.

And I'll see you on the internet. Goodbye,

David:[00:28:31] please.