Founder & CEO of Hacker Noon
Watch Video (you can also listen to this story on iTunes or Google)TL;DR: The business interests of these two entities have changed. Hacker Noon has to rip and replace its software infrastructure to make its land a viable business again. This is an important discussion to the state of digital publishing, the value of URLs, the dependencies of startup , and the effects of platform growth strategies.
Trent: All right. Welcome to the Hacker Noon Podcast. This is a very special episode so I’ve got a very special guest with us. He’s actually the CEO and founder of Hacker Noon and in this episode, we’re gonna be talking about something a little different than what we’re used to. So, we’ve got a little bit more of a situation with Hacker Noon and we wanted to talk directly to our audience and let them know what’s going on straight from David’s mouth and my mouth a little bit as well, I guess, but mostly David’s about what’s going on with this situation with Medium, and moving off Medium and launching Hacker Noon 2.0.
Hacker Noon has recently done a successful crowdfund and there’s been a lot of different things going on. So, I’m gonna kick it off to David. David, can you tell us a little bit about the background of how we got here and why you chose Medium as a content management system?
David: I didn’t really intend to set out and make this technology blog. I kind of always worked in tech and I really like publishing but early in my career, I was being paid more for writing and marketing as opposed to growing your own site. I wanted to go all in on my own site and I didn’t know what the site would be. I know I like building community and I love reading and hearing directly from people what their stories. And so, we started 16 different publications on Medium. And the thing with Medium, in the early days of their content management system, they really cut out a lot of the bullshit that other CMSs do.
The idea that there’s always a left and a right column while reading is insane to me. It is so distracting. It is so hard to focus on the text with these left and right-hand columns, and most WordPress sites have ’em and most sites across the internet do. So, that one thing that they did was really just great. If you’re looking at the screen and you wanna read, you don’t want anything else. You just want the story there.
So, I thought that was really cool and they really just made it easy for people to come in and start their own publication. You could bring in your own friends and then they had a network behind and then they recruited tons of publishers: Pacific Standard, Think Progress, The Ringer…. And it was like “Okay, all these kind of cool publishers are getting on board here. Maybe a young publisher like me should follow the news and learn from this.”
I also, before this, with the SmartRecruiters blog, I did a very similar model where I opened it up completely for any recruiting expert to come in and publish about recruiting and I offered curation, distribution, and editing, and it was a lot of manual work with WordPress. Creating the user account: do you manage their user account or not? That’s the annoying thing about WordPress and Medium was like “No, the user manages their account and they can publish on all these different sites.” They just make an agreement with the site and they publish in that publication.
Before this, with the SmartRecruiters blog, I did a very similar model where I opened it up completely for any recruiting expert to come in and publish about recruiting and I offered curation, distribution, and editing, and it was a lot of manual work with WordPress.
So, it was a more open way to see the web in the early days. If you were a writer, you could publish in many different places by starting one account which is pretty cool. So, that’s what attracted me in the beginning and, plus, Blogger, Twitter, Medium … Just a lot of respect for Ev Williams and the things he built. I don’t think he thinks the same thing about me.
Trent: Well, okay. So, let’s set some context here. For the average listener, I’m not sure that they even know that Ev Williams is necessarily behind all those three projects. So, he’s a Twitter co-founder, he founded Blogger, and then, now, his latest project is Medium. He’s had a very long interesting career in Silicon Valley that’s kind of lead up to this point and, again, like I said, I’m not sure if everyone listening knows that he … He was one of the original co-founders of Twitter.
David: Yeah, and I’ve watched a lot of … His earlier videos are funny. He’s like “I’m Ev Williams and this is an internet company” and he’s like in Nebraska like selling some internet services and I was like … I remember my first business card at SmartRecruiters. First I was an unpaid intern and then I was the marketing department but my first business card, I just wrote “Internet Enthusiast.” I was a 20 year old in San Francisco, like “Oh, yes, I’m very enthusiastic about the internet.”
It’s like “What do you do?” Like “I grow the site.”
Trent: Well, you then grew Hacker Noon, here. Let’s catch up to the present a little bit here and, I mean, what’s the Alexa ranking now? It’s crazy. And we’re not talking about the robot, we’re talking about a ranking site, here, that ranks all the top sites.
A lot of the time it was just me for the company, and then part time people, and then it was me and my wife Linh and now we’re up to four people and a whole part time team of 8 but getting to a top 5,000 site in the world, a lot of it is just showing up to work every single day.
David: But Alexa is owned by Amazon. Alexa.com to rank sites but yeah, not the robot but yeah. We’re around top 5,000 in the world. So, I think it’s pretty significant and for most … A lot of the time it was just me for the company, and then part time people, and then it was me and my wife Linh and now we’re up to four people and a whole part time team of 8 but getting to a top 5,000 site in the world, a lot of it is just showing up to work every single day.
It’s like figuring out what works and every morning digging into stories for the first half of the day no matter what and that’s four hours every day. Just getting the story submissions, hit this baseline of quality stories out, and try to raise the quality which is a pretty big challenge but, for the most part, what Hacker Noon is is a place for tech professionals to publish their stories and meet other great people in the community.
So, the community aspect of this is really what’s grown it because all the content is owned by the community — the individual community members — and we have a non-exclusive license to publish here. So, we’re kind of in that spot where it’s like kind of like a Huffington Post just for technology professionals or a Linkedin publishers just for technology professionals but a little bit more of that rawness and we don’t really want all this formal stuff.
like, i’m fine if you wanna go all lowercase. like i’m not gonna style guide you. if that’s your tone at the time, be honest and publish in your voice and publish in your tone and i’m not gonna go up there and say “hey, this is the ap style guide. let’s clean this up, dude.”
Trent: Well, that’s what I personally got attracted to Hacker Noon and started writing for it ’cause it was like “Hey, …” So, for me as a writer, I wanted to reach a bigger audience and Hacker Noon was a great way for me to do that. When I write, I’m writing it so I can reach people. I’m not wiring it because I wanna make money necessarily.
So, it was really powerful to be able to add my publication, the content I was writing, to your publication and, all of a sudden, I’m getting 10, 20,000, 50,000 reads on some of my articles and that was really powerful. Like if I had just published that to my profile, it would have went into a black hole and like 10 people would have read it.
So, it was great to be able to get that exposure and to have access to an audience and I think a lot of the writers who have written for Hacker Noon over the years can probably relate to my experience but, at the same time, it’s kind of a different model than where Medium’s kind of taken things now. Can you talk a little bit about how Medium went from being this really open publishing platform and content management system to what it is now?
David: Yeah. Yeah, I mean I think a lot of it comes down to incentives and when you take on a lot of money and you say you’re gonna change the whole world, you have to take big shots. So, they made a pretty big pivot to say “Contributor, instead of having your story publicly available for free, we would prefer that your story’s behind a paywall and we will pay you for it, and our pay walled readers will read it.”
So, they switched from saying “Let’s empower tons of people to grow their sites and bring in their communities, have the readers and writers create Medium accounts to do so,” and then change to “The only thing we want writers to do is publish on medium.com and we don’t want any other sites to really grow, and if you want to curate content on medium.com, you can do it.”
When you take on a lot of money and you say you’re gonna change the whole world, you have to take big shots.
I mean, I get some of this why it make sense. I mean, first of all, the URL. Like how cool is that? They really do have a super valuable URL that you don’t wanna give up on. So, with this business model they’re taking now, they’re trying to be like the Comcast of text and they’re trying to get ever human in the world to pay them $5 a month to read stories. Except those stories, instead of being created by TNT or ABC like channels, they want it to be created by individuals like you and me and put our stuff behind the pay wall and tell well written stories. They publish thousands of stories a day so the quality varies tremendously within the site.
We’re looking at like 20 stories a day right now and as we move into our own infrastructure and we empower community editors, I think we’ll get to a higher volume of stories per day but yeah. It’s a tough pivot. It changed my entire life. I mean, I bet my business on this content management system and trusted that area of the technology was taken care of and I could focus on growing the site, getting better content, building a better community, looking at having events, having a community forum, and just …
It was nice to not have to worry about what the content management system will do.
It’s a tough pivot. It changed my entire life. I mean, I bet my business on this content management system and trusted that area of the technology was taken care of…
David: And then-
Trent: And the infrastructure behind it.
David: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, and I made trade offs. I mean, they paid for our hosting but they took all of our reader data and now they own our e-mail list. So, these trade offs that I made in the beginning to start growing, at the time, I didn’t think that “Oh my gosh, you would steal this?” It’s not stealing but it’s all the reader data. It’s not mine.”
Trent: Okay. Some context for the people listening right now, who owns hackernoon.com? Let’s get that out of the way.
We own the site and the content is owned by the contributors and we have a non exclusive license to it.
David: We do. So, our formal name is ArtMap Inc and that’s what we started as. It’s kind of our … and then our DBA is Hacker Noon and Hacker Noon is what everybody is focused on. So, we own the site and the content is owned by the contributors and we have a non exclusive license to it.
Trent: Okay, and what the heck just happened with Medium recently? Because they sent an e-mail. Can you talk a little bit about that?
David: Yeah. So, Monday at 4, people start forwarding me … All these contributors are forwarding me this e-mail from Medium to them and it’s talking about what Hacker Noon is doing or not doing. And basically, it boils down to our whole site is just a container and all the work of this company is one container and that’s what it is which was extremely confusing.
The first tweet that came out was something like, Medium sent me an e-mail to clarify about Hacker Noon and I have no idea what they’re talking about.
...it boils down to our whole site is just a container and all the work of this company is one container…
And I think a lot of contributors don’t even … Maybe they haven’t even followed that Hacker Noon is working on 2.0 and is potentially leaving Medium. Some people, they haven’t read those articles. They knew about the crowd fund maybe but maybe they didn’t pay attention to all the details….
David: And, I mean, a lot of the people that we attract, a lot of them like “Oh, we’re gonna write a couple blog posts a year. Hacker Noon is a great place to publish it. So, I’ll come there, I’ll read sometimes,” but some of our best contributors, it’s not like they’re publishing every day and it’s not like I want them to.
I want people to publish on our site that are doing great things in their day to day lives and they come to us when they have a story and they wanna amplify that story. And they can come to many sites with that story because it is a non exclusive license and we believe writers should publish many places. Like it’s better for the writer if they’re all over the place and their story’s many places. It’s just better for getting your story out there and getting people like you or people that should read the story out there.
I want people to publish on our site that are doing great things in their day to day lives and they come to us when they have a story and they wanna amplify that story.
It doesn’t make sense to keep it hidden in one place.
Trent: Medium disagrees with you on that one. They think it should be behind a pay wall now. They think you should have to pay to read that content and they also aren’t being too nice to publishers because, apparently, you’re just a container now.
David: Yeah, I mean, a lot of publishers got pretty burnt. I waited it out longer, I guess. Seeing some of these guys like The Awl is now dead. It’s just like they couldn’t handle the transition off and it killed the company and, frankly, it probably should have killed ours. We got low buyout offer from Medium to buy us so they were in this spot where they’re trying to not give us other options and push us into a low offer and the offer was, frankly, less than they’re paying their marketing professionals and their head of advertising for like one year salary and it’s like “Dude.”
We got low buyout offer from Medium to buy us ….and the offer was, frankly, less than they’re paying their marketing professionals for like one year salary.
Trent: Isn’t that funny how that works? Also, let’s set some context here again for the listener because we need to establish what happened in … What was it? June of last year? You just randomly heard from Medium that you could no longer run advertising on the site. Can you talk a little bit about that?
David: So, we found, in terms of being a sustainable business for enough to pay for two people and run the site, we would do a weekly sponsor and we wouldn’t track the reader at all. It would just be co-branding across the top. “Hacker Noon sponsored by PubNub. Check out PubNub.” Something very simple like that.
So, it was a pretty good thing where we weren’t taking up any more space from the reader. We kept within our same area that we were just putting our logo so it didn’t really affect our experience much and that was growing to a steady business where we were booked for all of 2018 and then, in the summer, they tell me they want me to stop doing this and it has to happen September 1st.
to me, it was insane because I own hackernoon.com and I’m advertising Medium all over it.
And now, in this time, okay. As a bootstrap business, we had to find a new revenue stream or have someone buy us and put their own logo at the top because then it would be a first party ad. They were drawing this really strong distinction between first and third party of what is an ad and what is not. And to me, it was insane because I own hackernoon.com and I’m advertising Medium all over it.
So, they’re a third party to me. So, I said to them “How does that work? How can I be both?” And this is where, when you pivot hard, in the beginning, you’re a content management system helping all these other sites grown and then you’re not, there are residual things that don’t make sense about how you’re doing business in the present because you told people you’d do business this way in the past.
So, it’s a pretty tough spot to be in and I had just hurt my knee so I was like working my way back to work when I got all this. So, I had surgery and it just took a while to recover so it was like just … It was emotionally difficult. You know, I work with my wife, Linh, so she’s the chief operating officer.
So, our whole family is dependent on this business. So, it was either-
Trent: You’ve got a child, as well.
David: Yeah. Yeah. I have …
Trent: Or two, right?
David: Yeah (she’s two). So, it’s a lot riding on it but they say … What is it? Innovation is the child of necessity or necessity is the mother of invention? One of those.
Trent: Well, it’s a lot of responsibility. You’re running a website that traffics about, what, 8 million people a month?
David: 8 million page views. More like one to two million people per month. So, a pretty good … It’s a large community. It’s something that I’m proud that it’s gotten to this point and it’s having problems now that are large community problems.
When I was a kid, growing up in the country, I always just wanted to become a container.
Trent: Right. But you’ve got the responsibility of running that. You’ve got the responsibility of a family. You’ve got a lot of stuff going on and, basically, the infrastructure that you built all this on is just all of a sudden like “Oh wait, no. We actually own you.” Can you go into that? What is a good analogy here?
David: When I was a kid, growing up in the country, I always just wanted to become a container.
Trent: Don’t we all?
David: You know, so … I mean it’s dehumanizing. That’s what they call me. They call me on the thing I’m a container. Whatever.
Trent: In an e-mail to every contributing writer. So, this was, what? Several thousand contributing writers who have all written for Hacker Noon? This e-mail was sent to all of them.
David: Yeah. So, I mean, it was a really aggressive surprising move. It was a surprising Monday. The really surprising thing was I had been working towards what I thought was the best transition plan; and that is to have a subdomain on Hacker Noon. Something like archive.hackernoon, or even medium.hackernoon.com and keep all the content there and open up the root, hackernoon.com, the root domain for the new environment.
And this transition made the most sense because, while the vast majority of the links to all these stories go to hackernoon.com/storytitle. So, we’re the gateway to get to these stories. Medium’s internal links go medium.com. So, those links would break and I don’t wanna break any links. So, I’m trying to serve the writer first and keep bringing them traffic.
If you’re really looking to serve the writer first, you want to keep growing traffic to their past stories. So, it would be a commitment to working together to continue to both of us drive traffic to those stories
Part of why we’ve had success is we’ve become authority on subject matter and the community helps grow that authority and then that helps the next community member get more readership. So, because we published on machine learning before, the next story that comes in will have better distribution on machine learning if that’s what they’re writing about.
So, that’s kind of like the … If you’re really looking to serve the writer first, you want to keep growing traffic to their past stories and that’s what serving it would be. So, it would be a commitment to working together to continue to both of us drive traffic to those stories and, on our end, we would stop publishing on Medium and they would be more branded in the URL ’cause if the first word is medium.hackernoon.com, people see medium first and I’m giving them this branding gift that they do not have right now and I thought they were gonna take this. And their most recent e-mail-
Trent: Sounds reasonable.
David: It’s very reasonable and the most recent e-mail a month ago was “We’re open to taking this.” And then, they cut off communication, I follow up multiple times, and the next communication I hear from them is all these writers forwarding me this e-mail that they e-mailed all the writers. It’s just like … And then after that, on Monday night, they reach out to me and say something about changing our terms which we did just change our terms to make it more clear that the contributor owns their story and they can remove it at any time if they want.
We don’t want any stories on our site for people that don’t wanna be on our site. Never did, never will, not interesting to me. And then we also made it more clear that, no matter what we do with the content, we’re gonna accredit you appropriately which is something I think we’ve always done. We’ve always tagged people in every newsletter, we’re tagging people as much as we can on Twitter, and on 2.0, we’ll have better automation to distribute the tweet and make sure that we tag the writer every single time.
So, it’s like putting the writer first is what got us here and it’s what helped Medium grow so much, too, that this subdomain compromise, I thought, was great and it gives a clean break and we don’t have all these confused writers complaining but that’s not the … They chose instead to e-mail all the writers and say ‘Don’t do this.’
Trent: They made some other decisions as well. It’s not like this e-mail came totally out of the blue. Obviously, it was unexpected but, since I’ve been involved with Hacker Noon in a more official capacity, I’ve been watching as features within Medium are getting depreciated. Ability to access everything from the newsletter to being able to curate stories. Even just loading the necessary windows to be able to curate and do certain things in the settings.
It’s almost as if they’ve turned caching off or something. Things are breaking on a regular basis and Hacker Noon’s been losing access to features that have been available for years.
I’ve been watching as features within Medium are getting depreciated…..It’s almost as if they’ve turned caching off or something.
David: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the one that’s bothering me right now, a lot of the value is … Writing a good headline changes the whole trajectory of a story. It just completely changes it. What is the headline is such an important decision and we’re rewriting most of our headlines and they know this ’cause they wanted our behavior and I’ve told them this and now, if you rewrite the headline, and then you hit the publish button, they keep the SEO settings of the old headline and they keep the URL of the old headline.
Whatever the content is, should be what the URL is, and should be what the H1 is to the search engine. It’s like total common sense but (when) you just take that feature away, you now steal more time from the editor.
Whatever the content is should be what the URL is and should be what the H1 is to the search engine. It’s like total common sense but you just take that feature away, you now steal more time from the editor.
Trent: Let’s talk about links for a second. So, when you used to link to Hacker Noon, it showed up in every social network, it showed up all over the internet, on Twitter, on Facebook, or whatever as a link from Hacker Noon. Now when you try to do that, it’s showing up as a Medium link and it redirects you through Medium before you even get to Hacker Noon.
Can you talk a little bit about that link change and what happened there?
David: I mean, it’s not happening everywhere. They’ve built the strongest relationship with Twitter in terms of embedding a URL and then having a rich embed and trying to make it go from Twitter to Medium to Hacker Noon even when the user types in hackernoon.com/storytitle and it’s something that you have to be a more powerful person and you have to be interacting with these social networks and you have to change the way embedding works and talk to them and do that.
So, I used to get upset about it. I remember the day they changed the tweet button on my site … So, if it’s like you wanna tweet a Hacker Noon story, you hit the tweet button and now, they auto do text of Medium.com/something. So, you’re literally on hackernoon.com hitting a button and they wanna send it back to Medium and it’s such low hanging fruit to make a better site.
It’s like “Oh, how do you make a better share button?” You don’t send the link to a different site. Like how much else can you make it less misleading? Well yeah, you send it to the site you’re on! It’s like pretty simple. It’s like do you rip a band aid off or do you try and make the person bleed out?
Some of it is, I think, internally, they didn’t seem very empowered. Like when I’m talking to them, it’s like “Okay, if you’re gonna kill custom domain, just tell me, and I will evolve and move forward appropriately” but its’ like “Oh no, we’re just gonna stop offering it to new users” and then “No, no. It’s gonna be fine” and they’re calling everybody up asking them to move their custom domain to medium.com and they’ll give them some other benefit and that’s the reason they tried to buy us out. So, it’s a tough …
When I look back on them, it’s like it would have been so much cooler if they had just kept going down this path of a better Word Press empower millions of sites to be better across the internet and cut out most of this noise and have a simple way to make some money and that’s such a better thing to me. And if you are gonna fully pivot to helping all these people publish on all these different sites to just publish on my site, start a new company.
Don’t take all the good will you created in this cool business model but a cool business model can still fail. If it was going to fail, let it fail and then start something new as opposed to trying to switch so that everyone now has a different behavior and all these people that grew businesses with you are now in a tough spot.
But that is something that’s not unique at all for small businesses. Like first when this news happens, I’m upset about it, but then it’s like “Okay, maybe I made the wrong dependency. Maybe I’m part of the problem here and if my business isn’t strong enough to survive this, it’s not a good business and I should be doing a different business and if it’s not a good enough business, I will. I will kill it and go on to something else because it’s something different.”
Trent: But the community rallied. I mean, over a thousand investors have invested in Hacker Noon. No one has done this in publishing that I’m aware of. This is significant and you pulled together a crowd fund like overnight. This was no easy-
David: No, it wasn’t overnight. I mean, one of the good things about having a big community is there were a bunch of people interested in buying us. I explained my story. I talked to them. There were people interested in investing in us and it became clear to each person I talked to the solution is to have more resources and move off.
“Dude. You have 200,000 readers a day that want this thing to continue to exist. You have all these thousands of writers depending on you. Just ask them.”
No one hears the story that I have talked to and they’re like “Yeah, figure out a way to work with them.” So, it’s kind a challenge of how do you do that? So, we got some solid buyout offers; a couple that were 10x Medium’s offer and, frankly, we considered pretty strongly but the more people we talked to, the more we understood our situation and how to grow from it and Howard Marks is the CEO of Start Engine and he’s been writing on our site for a year and whenever he heard this story, he’s like “Dude. You have 200,000 readers a day that want this thing to continue to exist. You have all these thousands of writers depending on you. Just ask them.”
And so, we ran an equity crowdfunding campaign with Start Engine and Linh, my wife, did most of the work because it’s a ton of work. It’s so much work behind the scenes that you don’t see. The review with third party accountants, with third party lawyers, with getting all of your information, it’s a mini public offer. So, I don’t have to go through the same level as an IPO. At the time, we were a two person company, so obviously it doesn’t make sense but we released hundreds of pages and worked on telling our story and it forced us, also, to think bigger and plan about how we’re gonna be a better company and model it out.
So, it was …
Trent: But you did that while you were still running Hacker Noon which was already a full time job and you’re being undermined left and right by Medium and they kind of cut you off from your revenue.
David: Yep. Yep. So, revenue was cut off and then … Yeah. That was pretty tough.
Trent: And at the time that we’re-
David: You know what was tougher about it? So, they cut it off in September, we’re booked through the end of December. So, I’m over there picking up the phone “Hey. So happy that you trusted to work with us. Love that we signed that contract. Love that you’re a third time renewal customer. Guess what? I can’t serve you. We can’t do a sponsorship. I can only advertise myself and I can only advertise Medium and those are the rules they’ve placed upon me while making me a low ball offer to try and get the asset.”
So, it was a very tough spot. I mean, really, the company would be dead if my wife wasn’t working with me. She led the crowd funding, wrote most of the messaging, did most of the work, and it was pretty simple. This is the story, we’re gonna build a small tech team to build our own infrastructure, and have the building. We own the land, the URL is the location, land is location. We owned the land, we did not own the building.
When people say “Funded by readers…”
They had the infrastructure. If they wanna come in and say “You don’t have a bathroom here” and you’re like “Oh, I need to pee.” It’s like “Tough, dude.” So, it was a lot of ups and downs. It really was. Some of the harder things, you know, but like seeing the community believe in us ’cause all we … The marketing of the campaign was so simple; put it atop our site. Put the crowd funding campaign atop our site and that’s where 90% of the traffic … 88, 90%, whatever ended up at, that’s where all the traffic to the page came from.
So, when people say “Funded by readers,” people are coming from our site and saying “We want this site to get bigger and better and I like your plan for how you’re gonna do it.” So, it’s a pretty empowering thing and now we have this community of 1200 people ready to go to battle for us and giving us tons of ideas about how to grow it and introductions and …
Yeah, crowdfunding is not right for everyone but if you have a large online community and either your business model isn’t figured out or your business model is being threatened by a larger company, it makes perfect sense because now you’re getting people that like your site and believe it will be bigger to own a piece of it.
So, when you’re paying a subscription fee to Netflix, you don’t own some of Netflix. You’re not buying shares. We’re gonna keep all of our content free and we can do that if we have a sponsor on each page and someone sponsors the page and it’s not an intrusive ad. It’s just there and, hopefully, it fits to the content. We’ve rejected a lot of companies that we don’t think fit the content and if you’re not a good tech company or a good blockchain company, or having something about how technology changes the world, you’re not a good sponsor for our site. I’m not interested in selling party supplies or balloons. That’d be a bad site.
The sponsor should be relevant to the community. When you go to events, if you’re going to a concert, the sponsors there … They fit more to the community and you’re not like “I can’t believe they’re hear asking me for money.” You’re like “No. It’s sweet. I wanted a cheeseburger. This is the place that I would eat a cheeseburger so I will pay them. I’ll go from the concert to the cheeseburger stand and buy the cheeseburger.”
So, I think the model’s gonna work pretty well. I think we can get back to profitability in the fall ’cause it’s a pretty tough move. We were relying on a lot of free technology. We’re gonna continue to have free hosting. Google gave us $100,000 grant in credits. So, that was gonna be our largest non people expense. So, that’s definitely reducing a lot of risk.
Trent: Well, you brought in a new head of product. What title is Dane going by these days? I’m not even sure anymore.
David: He started as interim CTO and then he got really into it and really liked working with him. I used to work for him on his old startup and we’ve kinda come full circle. Dane Lyons is the Chief Product Oficer and then Austin Pocus is our Full StackDdeveloper and that’s our four person team. Then, we have part time people around it in editing, design, front end, and podcasting, of course.
Trent: Myself included in that. So, for the listener, yes, I joined Hacker Noon right as it was a sinking ship.
David: Smart man.
Trent: Not sure if you’ve heard the full story here but we’re hoping to write this thing. The reason we did the podcast was … It was another way to further the intentions of what Hacker Noon was doing. I was already running your crypto podcast. It just made sense. I was getting most of my traffic from Hacker Noon ’cause I was publishing all my episodes on Hacker Noon. I was like “Why am I doing my own thing?” It just made total sense to join Hacker Noon and do this and then continue to work with you and see this process through.
We’re potentially weeks away from getting Hacker Noon 2.0?
David: Yeah, yeah.
Trent: Yeah. So …
David: Things are happening fast.
Trent: Yeah, and we need to get our CEO off Twitter arguing with the former Twitter co-founder about e-mails that are being sent. So, I hate to bring it back to that but let’s talk about the last three or four days here. I mean — how to put it?
David: I mean, a lot of it really started with two viral tweets: One is Garry Tan from Initialized Capital who invested in our crowdfunding campaign talking about what this message that they sent to our contributors is insane and that really resonated with a lot of people and then Owen at OW on Twitter, he got the message and he was extremely confused and thought that we were trying to take their content and own it and have like this license that we didn’t intend to have.
We wrote it a while ago and, frankly, did not spend much on it because we did not have much money and that shows you, RICH PEOPLE PAY FOR GOOD PAPERWORK.
But there was truth and the community came out and said “We didn’t write our nonexclusive license as clean as we should.” We wrote it a while ago and, frankly, did not spend much on it because we did not have much money and that shows you rich people pay for good paperwork. That is the lesson here.
So, we’re getting attacked for these things that we didn’t even intend to do. So, then the next day, we’re e-mailing the lawyers, we’re getting on the phone with them, we’re cleaning up the terms and conditions. We’re like “Hey. You can remove your content at any time. You will always be accredited. We just wanna publish people that wanna be here.” That’s our intention here. A simple non exclusive license which is not a simple thing to do. It sounds like it is but it’s really not.
So, that was pretty stressful and then writing statements ’cause our response when we saw this e-mail from them was like “We have to respond to that.” So, I wrote my own statement, we had a company statement, so I’m @DavidSmooke on Twitter and Hacker Noon is @HackerNoon on Twitter so you can see on there if you want but they’re essentially saying “No, we’re not trying to take any content. We’re trying to keep it on the land that it is, on the URL, on the location that it is where all the links go to. We’re serving the writers and writers now have a choice. You can either opt in to keeping your content on hackernoon.com or you can choose to remove it and a bunch of links to your story will break and it’s up to you.”
Our success is not going to be determined by the transitioning of past stories.
They’re past stories. Our success is not going to be determined by the transitioning of past stories but they’re stories that all the writers wanted to publish on Hacker Noon and they are in hackernoon.com. It’s a tough process and I talked to multiple lawyers as these threats were going on and many people think there’s no reason to even go get another license and another agreement from these writers.
Trent: I’m one of these people. Can you talk a little bit about this ’cause I think this is really important? Why can’t you just take the content that everybody submitted to hackernoon.com as its own, essentially, independent site … Why can’t you just take that content and move it to hackernoon.com?
David: I mean, the short answer is I believe I can but lawyers have different points of view and amongst themselves they do. So, I think it’s better to cover my ass and get additional agreements and also it means I’m working with more of the writers who believe in us more which is what I wanna do, too. So, the process has been really fun and just, in terms of getting to communicate with the best writers in the community.
So, the short answer is if you agree to publish on hackernoon.com and Hacker Noon changes its hosting provider or changes its whatever which goes from react to vue on the front end. It’s still on the same URL and it’s never been on a different URL. So, to me it’s pretty simple but it’s never simple. It’s just like if it’s affecting another business, another business is gonna react and they’re gonna have their own point of view.
There’s no writer on the site that didn’t agree to publish on the site but it’s better to be thorough and, as the little guy, it’s better to be thorough than spend money on lawyers.
So, we’re putting in the extra work and we’re communicating one on one with thousands of writers and it is a lot of work. I wish we were just putting all of our labor into just growing the site and having ways to raise the quality and grow the community. It’s frustrating to be wasting time on things that were already done. There’s no writer on the site that didn’t agree to publish on the site but it’s better to be thorough and, as the little guy, it’s better to be thorough than spend money on lawyers.
I’d rather engage with the community and I’d rather do it this way but it’s definitely more work than a riskier person would do. A riskier person would just keep the content where it is on hackernoon.com and move on with their life but I think this is better and, really, I just wish the transition plan was smooth and I wasn’t getting Yes, no, yes, no, yes … Silence, silence, silence, what’s going on? Follow up, follow up. Nothing.
So, yeah it’s been a pretty tough time.
Trent: You’d think Medium would have put together some kind of transition terms or figured out what this is-
David: They did. “Don’t do anything else. Take our low ball offer.”
David: That was their ideal transition terms.
Trent: That’s not right.
“Don’t do anything else. Take our low ball offer.” That was their ideal transition terms.
David: I mean, it’s not really about right or wrong. I would not do business that way and I did not agree to that deal but other people did, you know? The Bold Italic is now not The Bold Italic anymore. So, for some people, it’s the right decision, but to me, the idea that I would take literally two cents on the dollar is infuriating and it’s insulting to the thousands of hours and thousands of hours of labor that me, my team, and the community, and the part time people have put into this.
Trent: Yep, and now those people are being e-mailed from Medium with disparaging remarks and just kind of muddying the waters. I don’t know how else to put it. I mean, systemically, this isn’t just happening to Hacker Noon and Medium, this is happening with Twitter, this is happening with Facebook. There’s actually gonna be another episode of the podcast soon where I talk to Christian Warren. She’s formally of Mashable and Gizmodo and I go into detail about this so I won’t talk too much on it right now.
When that episode comes out, definitely take a listen. It’s pretty awesome but this is happening in Silicon Valley. This is happening with all of these major social media sites. They’ve changed their algorithms, they’ve changed how they operate with publishers, they’ve changed how they operate with their users. Just the other day, I think, Facebook is being criminally investigated with how they’ve handled user data.
So, there’s a lot of different things going on right now in Silicon Valley, in this tech space, and what’s happening to Hacker Noon is a symptom of this same disease or disorder that’s happening across all of these social network sites right now and it’s kind of sad to see but on the other hand, there is a silver lining here because Hacker Noon 2.0 has a future. Can you talk a bit about where you’re going now? What does the future look like for Hacker Noon? What are some of the things that this team is working on?
David: Yeah. Yeah, these social media sites, man, they change so much over time. It is frustrating. With Hacker Noon 2.0, we wanna raise the quality of the content and that starts with editors. So, we’ve already brought on more part time editors and we’re gonna have a minimum baseline of how much time they spend on each story and then we’re also … We wanna get towards great expertise leads editorial line and that’s’ where the authority on Bitcoin, now because they’ve written so much on Bitcoin and they have proved the authority of the site, they now have the power to publish other people.
So, we wanna keep the essence of … There’s also a second person to review your story if you want and there’s always someone in the community to help you make a better story and that simple level of quality control makes … It’s so much better. It’s not the same as an editor spending three hours rewriting your story, but it’s so much better than you just hitting the publish button.
(We can) tighten that communication and empowering contributors and editors, (so) contributors to know when their draft is open, know what changes the editor made, and know when the story’s scheduled.
So, there are many features where the community wants to help but they cannot because of the way the software is designed. The way Medium designed their software is there’s one editor, they can edit every single page on the site, and that’s it. The communication is private, no … Hard to get history. So, looking at tightening that communication and empowering contributors and editors, contributors to know when their draft is open, to know what changes the editor made, and to know when the story’s scheduled.
There are simple communication points that we just can’t do with our current software and editors are a gateway. They’re a gateway to contributors getting published and right now, we have too many contributors and the volume of submissions is too high. So, there’s always gonna be a balance between the amount of editing and the amount of stories submitted.
So, that’s kind of the rate of publishing side of things. On the reader side of things, we wanna keep what’s working in the current environment and with this content management system. Making it just text for a bunch of it and never interrupting the story with anything else is in our blood and we’re gonna stick to it and we’re not …
Because our model is a sponsorship, an eyeball that’s not logged in is still valuable to us. If your model is not that, that’s not true. So, we’re not gonna have a pop up ad when you get to the story to create an account for us. It’s your content. There’s not business of Hacker Noon putting a pop up ad on top of your content when you or someone else drove traffic to the story. So, that flow is infuriating whenever the traffic’s coming from elsewhere and then someone else is putting a pop up ad in front of it.
Because our model is a sponsorship, an eyeball that’s not logged in is still valuable to us….Our readers will create accounts when they wanna take actions.
Our readers will create accounts when they wanna take actions. If you wanna react to the story, if you wanna comment on the story, if you wanna build a book mark list. If you wanna do those types of things, you’ll create an account in the moment you wanna do the thing. You don’t create an account just to access the free content. So, that’s what we wanna stick very firm to and I think it’s gonna service very well because we’re reducing barriers for people to read.
If you put an ad, or you put a layover, or you put a prompt or whatever you wanna call it in the way of people reading, people read less and I’ve seen, in our bounce rate as I’m monitoring how often the Medium account creation comes over the hackernoon.com story. So, it’s a tough balance and it just doesn’t make sense to us ’cause I don’t wanna read all that.
There’s also that level when you’re building something of like “Would I use it?” And if I don’t endorse it, I cannot put other people onto it.
Trent: Well, hopefully here, that’s gonna be changing very soon with Hacker Noon 2.0 which, from a user standpoint, all you have to do is continue to go to Hacker Noon. There’s not really much else for them to do. They might have to re-register an account or maybe go through some kind of process like that but is there anything else that users can anticipate other than, potentially, a better experience?
David: I think we’re gonna be a little softer on the green. With Medium, we don’t have much control over the design. We basically just pick a color right now and our green is 0 red, 255 green, and 0 blue on the RGB scale. That makes it green; very green. Some people have complained and I think we’ll have better design. We’re never gonna lose the green. It’s just it won’t be as many pixels but I think we’ll create a great community.
We really wanna just have … Those first person stories are my personal favorite just in terms of like really getting into the expertise of your job or where your field is headed but there’s a lot of great how to and how they’re building and we’ve had a lot of cryptocurrency content and a lot of block chain content because I believe cryptocurrency is where technology has the potential to change the world the most in cutting out these institutions and intermediaries and letting peer to peer people make decisions and interactions without having to pay a transaction fee on all that stuff.
There’s a real-
Trent: There’s some parallels there.
David: Yeah, and I mean, long term, I firmly believe the highest … In the short term, we’re going to make money with the top navigation sponsor and the brands that we’ve been publishing like Alibaba Tech and AngelList, we’ve been doing that for free but in the future, if you want the brand as author, it’s gonna be a small fee.
So, that’s gonna be our group of small payments and subscription payments and if it’s great content … And that’ll still go through the same editorial process, it’s just if you want the actual author accreditation to be a logo instead of a human, that’s something that people will pay for and that’s where I believe the Google developer blog and all these top tech company’s blogs are content tech professionals should read and they are reading and it’s something they could read on Hacker Noon instead of going to the Google developer’s blog.
So, I think it’s a nice happy medium of serving the reader by getting them content that they wouldn’t normally read but also, if the brand wants their logo there, there’s a small fee. So, that’s kinda the two that’s gonna take us, I believe, to profitability but the longest term (highest ceiling) path of this company is all the contributions not to a cryptocurrency and that cryptocurrency has a price and it can be bought and sold elsewhere. And every time you hit some mile stone, you create a day of time reading. Like you write a good story, people literally spend a day’s worth of time on it across all the thousands of readers, that’s a mile stone I think would earn a currency.
I believe the longest term (highest ceiling) path of this company is all the contributions not to a cryptocurrency and that cryptocurrency has a price and it can be bought and sold elsewhere.
So, that’s kind of the highest future we have and we may not get there. We may just successfully have these two, three revenue streams, events, podcasts, and grow from four to eight to 10 people and serve contributors and grow their communities but I just think … You’ve seen the community. 1200 people own shares in the company and wanna own it. There’s a reality that this community can become much bigger and tech is infiltrating everything and the stories of how technology’s built, why it’s built, where it’s built, when it’s built, those stories are going to get more readership in the future whether it’s on my site or elsewhere.
That’s something that’s just going to happen in my opinion. So, I think we’re gonna end up with a much better site than we have today. I definitely have better people on it; people that are better than me. When it’s just me, it’s my fault so now I have other people to blame, too, which doesn’t really work. All the blame still ends up falling on me but it’s fun. It’s so cool to have a team and I’m really excited to go to work. I’m excited to move past Medium and stop using their content management system and just have that be a story of the past ’cause I am thankful that they helped us grow. I’m thankful that they offered a CMS that was so plug and play and people like me could get started and see if their thing is true ’cause I failed in 15 other publications.
Some of them would have peaks, some of them would make some money, sometimes it would work but the reality was it wasn’t a strong enough fit and it didn’t hit the spot like Hacker Noon did as a place to read and enough people that really … Well over the thousand true fans and so the idea that a company could … Like I said in the beginning, I didn’t set out to build Hacker Noon. I set out to try things in publishing and do things that worked and if it made more money, do it again, and if drew more traffic, do it again and it’s like through this process of iteration, I ended up at this point.
It’s the same problem. You run into a problem, do you kill it or do you iterate? And we’re people that are just gonna keep iterating on this thing so when Hacker Noon 2.0 launches in late March or April, it’s not going to be perfect. There are gonna be key things that are better about the site than it is today but it’s made by four people in four months and we’re trying to like … It’s just not going to be perfect and I’m totally happy with it because there are key things about it that are gonna be better in how the community can interact with each other and I think there’s just a lot of activity that is happening around the site that …
The best part is when the contributors interact with each other. That is happening in Facebook groups, or WhatsApp groups, or Discourse instance. It’s happening all over the place and we can bring it together, I think, and create a thoughtful, intelligent, and respectful technology community.
Trent: So, David. I gotta stick with tradition here so I gotta ask you what’s some time in your life you had to hack something? I know you just probably listed about ten examples but I’m gonna need one more.
David: Oh, one more. A good one of hacking something. I mean, let’s see … I guess I should’ve been prepared for this question, huh?
Trent: I think, actually, you originally came up with this question and told me I should start asking all the guests this at the end of each episode.
David: Yeah, I did do that.
Trent: So, I’m throwing it back at you.
David: So, this may sound like a silly one.
Trent: Go for it.
David: My daughter’s in that age where we’re almost moving from the crib to a bed and right now, in her room, the way we set it up is there’s the crib and then there’s this guest bedroom, basically, a guest bed next to her and I was like “Okay, are we gonna get her a kid bed? I don’t want her to fall off the bed” and the way I hacked it was I just took apart the bed frame, got rid of it, and put the mattress on the floor.
So, now, she has a giant bed on the floor, no threat of rolling off, and instead of buying a two year old to five year old bed or some one of those little kiddie beds, I just destroyed the guest bed and have a mattress on the floor. So, less is more. She loves it. Plenty of room for all these stuffed animals and that’s a story of how I threw away a bed.
Trent: But also gained a bed at the same time.
David: Yeah, yeah, that I didn’t have. If she was on a real bed and she falls off, that’s super scary. I reduced a lot of risk.
Trent: There we go. Let’s summarize this kind of for the audience. Just kind of recap what happened with the Medium situation quickly and where Hacker Noon 2.0 is going now.
David: So, we build on their content management system, we’re moving off their content management system, building our own infrastructure on hackernoon.com. In the transition, writers can either keep their stories with us or remove ’em and they can always remove their stories if they want and they can always get their stories review by an editor.
They can’t always publish with us. It depends on the quality of it but it’s going to be a much better site, I believe. I think it’s gonna be a more open site, less barriers to reading, and I think more experts curating the content is gonna create a better experience to get to your next story as opposed to machines curating it or someone like me curating. I’m not an expert on block chain, I shouldn’t be curating the blockchain page.
So, I think empowering the community to curate and empowering the community to publish others is going to raise the quality of the content on the site and just make it to readers not … Like don’t get in the way. That’s like the primary job. You found our site somehow on the internet and you’re gaining value from it, I’m just not gonna get in the way. That’s the like the main thing I’m going to strive for and then, hopefully, with the community curating better and the community being empowered to curate, the reader will get a better next story and when they get to a group of stories, they’ll have a more relevant collection.
You found our site somehow on the internet and you’re gaining value from it, I’m just not gonna get in the way.
So, I think it’ll be a better reading experience. I think we’ll publish more people and I’m looking forward to Hacker Noon 2.0 and I hope you’ll just give it a shot.
Trent: Yup, and we’re gonna continue to have a lot of those contributing writers on the podcast, as well, and we’re going to keep pushing forward with the show, as well and, continue-
David: Oh, we set up contribute.hackernoon.com for anyone to submit a story. So, it’s a pretty simple workflow if you wanna share the cool stuff you’re building, we’ll be happy to review, improve, distribute, and get your story out there.
Trent: Awesome. And where else can people find Hacker Noon?
Trent: Or on YouTube, too, where this video is right now. So …
David: Oh, yeah. You can type in hackernoon.video and you’ll end up on our YouTube channel or YouTube, if you’ve heard of it, they host videos.
Trent: Well, thank you for coming on the show, man. We’re gonna have to get you on more often hopefully under better circumstances but I thought it was really important to have you on and clarify to the Hacker Noon community what’s going on and, hopefully, we’ve accomplished that and things continue to move forward with Hacker Noon 2.0.
David: Thanks for nudging me to do this, Trent. It was fun.
David: Back to the internet.
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