Bitcoin Editor at Large
I met David Smooke last year when I randomly contacted him to see if he would be interested in publishing some of my articles. What kind of guy takes an anonymous writer with the name Pirate Beachbum seriously? Thankfully David did, and he has motivated me to contribute more articles ever since.
I finally met him in person in Austin at the 2018 SXSW Hackathon. We connected on many levels over dinner that night, and his passion for publishing and journalism along with his love for his family and basketball resonated with me. When I learned the history about how he founded HackerNoon along with several other sites, I knew I had to tell his story.
There are people in the world that you meet that are very special human beings. Their professional talent is the catalyst to crossing paths, but once you get to know them you realize they are much deeper than that.
David is such a humble guy and doesn’t care about the spotlight. It took me more times than I can count on one hand to finally get him to agree to do this interview. I really believe his story is both inspiring and motivating. Founding a company in the tech world is never easy. Being successful at it is even harder. I hope you enjoy getting to know David Smooke.
Name: David Smooke
Location: Edwards, Colorado. Sitting on my back porch.
Showing up. My real job is serving the new leader of the Smookes, my daughter. She’s demanding, and only speaks 5 words to date. In order of appearance: mom (“mama”), dad (“dada”), water (“baba”), dog (“duh”) and bubbles (“bu bu”). Apparently, she also said some version of “yellow” to the nanny while painting watercolors but I missed that because I was working.
Most of my time is spent on Hacker Noon. We’re at 200,000+ daily readers, and I work to make it a trusted independent tech reading site. We publish stories like Learn Blockchains By Building One, Driverless Hotel Rooms: The End of Uber, Airbnb and Human Landlords, and On the Rebound from Epic Failure.
Every morning I review story submissions. Can Hacker Noon stories be as good as just reading tech stories across the internet? I do things with the goal of making my morning reads better.
How do people know you?
The internet mainly knows me from making Hacker Noon — how hackers start their afternoons.
Also known for shooting the shit with creatives on ART + marketing, embracing truth in satire on Extra Newsfeed (which is now run by political satirists), promoting digital literature on PS I Love You (which is now run by writer/editor, Dan Moore, or @dmowriter) and the internet recruiting industry may remember me from bringing SmartRecruiters to market. The SmartRecruiters blog was my first testing ground for community driven publications, but I really didn’t understand how people can write where they read until going all in on my own sites.
The people that actually know me are the ones around me.
What is your background?
I’ve spent most of my twenties working on early stage startups. First other people’s, and then my own. In school, I earned degrees in economics and creative writing.
Where did you grow up?
Until college, I lived in rural Pennsylvania. In Lewistown mostly, and also Mercersburg. Both very small towns, and now again I live in a small town in Edwards, Colorado. Through college and my twenties I lived in California. In San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood mostly, and also Redlands. I miss Molinari sandwiches. And the sounds of the sidewalks. But Hacker Noon has grown tremendously while I’ve been in the country. Since moving to Colorado a little less than 2 years ago, we’ve grown our blog network from under 1M to over 10M monthly pageviews.
What kind of kid were you while growing up?
Good at math. Capable of reading comics and playing with action figures for abnormally long periods of time. Had some very public temper tantrums that my mom reminds me of to this day. One was in the breezeway of a JC Penny’s. People stared. My mom just sat and waited it out. What a woman. I was a generally kind kid. Ate too many gushers. Liked to walk. Very into sports data. Survived childhood with a smile.
What advice would you want to give your younger self at age 16?
Start another site yesterday. Good things take time to build — most people will give up before the thing gets good. Invest in Bitcoin. Create better physical and mental habits. Marry Linh — at a later date (16 year olds shouldn’t marry 14 year olds), but when the time’s right, youngfella (is that what you’d call a younger version of yourself?) Become better at selling, reading, writing, empathizing, maybe coding, maybe not, and internet-ing. Drink more water. Reach out to the people you find interesting on the internet. Know that everyone is fighting their own battles.
Do you have any secret talents?
I make delicious pork BBQ ribs. Gochujang is the secret ingredient. So, that cat is out of the bag. Success is about slow cooking, simultaneously maintaining the sweet and spicy taste profile while upping the savory, and then making sure the outside crisps just right. Also, I rap occasionally. The ribs are better than the rap.
When did you start getting into computers and the internet?
Oregon trail in the computer lab was among my early computer memories. When the first computer made it into my house I didn’t think it was a big deal. Floppy disks, meh. The breakthrough wasn’t the computer; the breakthrough was the internet. AIM & ICQ were game changers to the middle school social life. The introduction of instant textual interaction. Chatting it up. Away messages. Moving the power of words to the screen. Instant messaging laid the groundwork for “clarifying” the difference between 1:1 communication and 1:public communication.
I remember joining a ‘gifted’ program where we picked stocks after school with fake money. Musta’ been about 13 or 14. That’s actually where I first heard of Netflix, before I knew what it was. Matthew Satzer was dominating the group by putting so much into Netflix. He made so much fake money. Respect.
You are a big basketball fan. Do you still play?
Before I fell down the stairs in May, got a concussion, and tore up my knee, I was hooping 2–3x a week. So right now, not so much. A lot of physical therapy. Recently got off crutches! My favorite game is (was) Sunday morning 8am. The rest of the day is so much better when you hoop in the morning. Sore muscles. Dopamine of seeing the ball go through the hoop. There’s something about the ball in the air that makes me understand what dogs are so damn excited about in the yard. The 8 am game’s been going on for 20+ years in the Vail Valley. I’m not at liberty to say where it’s played, but if you visit — and my body recovers — I can take you to the game.
Do you really think you will play in the NBA and if so, what team?
I only believe that when I’ve very effectively distorted reality. Many of life’s grandest visions arise only in states of true reality distortion. If something doesn’t exist now, you simply can’t see it if you are seeing reality clearly. But playing in the NBA is a short lived reality distortion.
When I was cut from my middle school team I knew pretty definitely that playing professionally wasn’t on the table. Maybe I’ll work with the Warriors or Nuggets someday — doing something like content creation, ball boy, or general manager.
Who would be on your dream team?
Well unfortunately, I’m not good enough to be on my dream team. I think the best starting 5 ever would be Steph Curry, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Larry Bird & Bill Russell.
Steph probably hasn’t done enough his career (yet) to be in the top 5, but in terms of actual game play, you can’t overestimate the positive offensive impact shooting range has on the rest of the team. MJ is simply the GOAT. LeBron isn’t the GOAT but he’s better than the GOAT in most major statistical categories. Larry Bird is the ultimate competitor who also shows up in big games (plus he once scored 47 shooting with his just his left hand). Bill Russell is the greatest defensive anchor (a center’s primary job), winner (11 championships in 13 years), and NBA history’s most important player for Civil Rights in America.
Off the bench, I’d go Magic Johnson (Showtime), Julius Erving (Dr. J), Jerry West (the logo), Kobe Bryant (a killer — him and Jordan competing in practice would push everyone to their limit so there’s a chance this team self combusts), Scottie Pippen (staunchest wing defender ever), Tim Duncan (the big fundamental — steadiest teammate ever), and Shaq (just bigger and more powerful than anyone else ever). Before his career is said and done, Kevin Durant will probably bump one of these guys off the team — there’s always a next best person ready to take over the world.
12 players is the maximum for active players on gameday. In the NBA you can also have 3 inactive players in case of injury — I’d go with Steve Kerr, Robert Horry and Kareem. It’s painful to have the league’s all time leading scorer on the reserve list, but with the way the game is played now, the best lineups only have one traditional big man. Steve Kerr and Robert Horry are just those classic afterthought-oh-shit-they’re-open-oh-shit-they-made-it-oh-shit-they’re-celebrating-another-championship guys that I’d want on my team.
Were you always a writer or into writing?
Even when I understood numbers much better, I saw words as making a greater impact.
What was the first content you ever produced?
Probably poop. It’s true that most early work stinks. It takes time to dig into the process many times over. I did create pooppoems.com at age 28 in Hanoi. “Content” as a word has changed so much with the rise of the internet. Really it just encompasses too much in my opinion. It’s like everything is posted content and nothing is quality content. I generally like the word “story” better than “content.” It’s less transactional and more about how humans think. When we read, we don’t put blocks of content into our brain, we comprehend stories.
How did you get into publishing?
By chance. It’s been wild to live through the internet changing whatever publishing is now. The way I see it, we’re all publishers. Facebook, Twitter, personal websites, LinkedIn, Medium, corporate blogs, etc. More companies will exist to empower independent publishers.
What is AMI? How did you start it?
AMI stands for ArtMap Inc. I started my corporation while I was still working at another startup, and our first app was called MapShot (2014). I worked on my product management skills… if done right, every zoom would quickly create a beautiful mashup of a location’s best images; if done right, every zoom would quickly create a new piece of crowdsourced art. But I didn’t quite make it right. Turns out technology that makes art and satisfies users is unicorn-esque…. my self-funded resources were more like the equivalent of the mechanical bull outside the Safeway. So that app didn’t take off but I quit my job anyway because I had been making a decent salary, felt I did more work than I had ownership, and so why not bet on myself? I tried to turn people who wanted to hire me full time into contracts. I built 6 month contracts structured around cash and equity with 4–6 clients at a time. We scaled their narrative. Storytelling, writing, marketing, community development. Here were some of our early customers in 2015. Big shout out to my friend John Marshall for being the first person willing to work on ArtMap Inc. It’s like, I think what this company is doing is cool, but when others think that’s true too — and are willing to invest their time and careers into it — the business is much more real.
But we needed our own blog. That’s when I started ART + marketing. I found the stories more interesting than the marketing. With the help of Jay Zalowitz, I pivoted to make the stories the business in 2016. Read the details in the AMI Origin Story. By 2017, customers were paying for our publications. Newsletters, site takeovers, etc. on P.S. I Love You, ART + marketing, and of course, Hacker Noon. First half of 2018 profits were even better.
I decided to “go corporate,” and get a 3 letter twitter handle to house all our digital publishing efforts. You can find it, @ami on twitter. We also had some fun with it, writing out 101 brand names ami could stand for.
What other sites fall under the AMI family?
Our portfolio is aimed to create niche and high quality reading destinations, and increase opportunities for contributing writers. We have a long way to go, but here’s an overview of where we are:
Our reading destinations are:
If interested in contributing a story, please email [email protected]
We also built some custom digital publishing sites:
Which one is the most widely read?
Hacker Noon is the most widely read at 200k+ daily readers. Overall we average 260k+ daily readers in 2018.
Here’s a graph that explains the growth of Hacker Noon:
Your wife Linh is a big part of the AMI business. Tell us what it’s like working together and building AMI?
She understands me. The good and the bad. My approach to organization is growth first, stories second, and money third. She actually fills in all of the gaps. Makes my chaos appear more organized. She manages writers, partners and sponsors. Without her, this company would have run out of money long ago.
I have high expectations and so does she. Ultimately, it’s a luxury to work with my wife. I really don’t want to talk to many people.
How has fatherhood changed your perspective on your business?
All this business shit is secondary — when compared to family. Plus, I watch my daughter and work a lot at the same time sometimes. But the more she grows, the more I can’t work and care for at the same time. But luckily, I have more family.
Who else has helped you build AMI that you want to give credit to?
Mostly, thanks to the contributing writers. They’ve trusted us with 50,000 stories. Without stories, we couldn’t do all the things we do to create readership, and in the future, we’ll have more ways to serve the contributing writer. And of course, much thanks to our core team and our customers. It’s been great to work with sponsors like PubNub, Mixpanel, Ingot Coin, Segment, Odem, Manifold, Fullstack Academy and many others.
What was it like walking away from a regular job to do your own thing?
Empowerment. Relief. Stress. Relief. Stress. Empowerment. When you bootstrap your business, you have months where you don’t make much. And your other expenses do not fluctuate with it. The landlord will not accept this month’s rent in pageviews (and if they do… maybe you should move). You’re figuring out profit margins in realtime and not on spreadsheets. Late payments are stressful and common. The small guy in the room is the small guy in the room. But at the end of the day, it’s so much easier for someone like me to live with my business decisions being my business. For most, they trade their business decisions and expertise in exchange for salary. I understand the trade, and for many, it’s a good deal. A lot of it is timing. I think if you believe in your merit, and are able to map out your early customers confidently, you should work on your own business.
How many times did you think about giving up?
Many times. Still do. No business lasts forever. Lifetimes, sure, but not forever. Patagonia has a 100 year business plan. The Church has been around for thousands of years. Business is tough. Just think about the path of the dollar. I’m a guy who wrote a children’s book about “Onus” the one dollar bill. I think about the death and disappearance of the things I make. It’s whether work funds life and whether life fulfills work is on the mind of any one making things right now. Bootstrapping a business has major limitations. Every dollar you make already has plans to be spent before its made.
What’s up with the Hacker Noon green?
When we started the publication as the Hacker Daily on Medium, Jay Zalowitz thought it’d make us look like an old school terminal — and just make us stand out. Green is not green is not green. But since Hacker Noon’s RGB is (0,255,0) it has zero red, max green and zero blue. It’s as green as green can be. Also, this particular shade of green can’t be printed and stays true to its identity only on screen. We are digital, our green is digital. Some say it’s blindingly green. Interestingly Hacker Noon green looks different on different monitors, devices and phones. If that’s not a lesson in perspective, what is? The function of Hacker Noon green is to let the visitor know they’re on Hacker Noon. People consistently underestimate the psychological impact of color on screens. When we were debating, what should the Hacker Noon app be? We started with an app that had a push notification at noon every day announcing that its noon and when you clicked on the notification your whole screen turns Hacker Noon green. Needlessly to say, we’ve put our development resources into different ideas (like Story Licensing).
How did Hacker Noon come to life? And How did you come up with the name Hacker Noon?
Before it was Hacker Noon, it was Hacker Daily on Medium. I wanted to publish on my own domain. I searched for names that kept the hacker core, and also played into time. After many, many searches of available domains, I came up with HackerNoon.com. I wrote the tagline, “how hackers start their afternoons,” and then, INTERNET MONEY. It’s that simple, you can do it too ;-)
I’ve tried many sites, and this one grew because it showed promise, and then we fed it. It showed promise, and then we fed it more. Then we learn what makes it grow, and help it mature. There’s a lot of stages and cycles in the expansion of a site — Jay and I learned a lot about how to become more of a destination. Search engine traffic is over 45% and our direct traffic is over 20%. It takes a lot of work to get many people to type HackerNoon.com. Tech professionals want to know what hackers read in their afternoons. It’s a brand that just fits together IMHO.
And when I consulted people in consideration of rebranding from Hacker Daily to Hacker Noon, they generally didn’t like it and were at best indifferent. But that’s the beauty of owning your own company — you grow or die with your own decisions. I know I’ve made a lot of wrong decisions, but naming it Hacker Noon wasn’t one of them.
I’ve typed so many words into GoDaddy. It’s obsessive. It took hundreds of searches to find HackerNoon.com.
Here’s a current list of my domains for sale — each one comes with an accompanying site idea, like:
Where do you want to see Hacker Noon go?
Hacker Noon could become the last indie tech site that matters with a truly decentralized editorial. Right now, I’m working hard to instill my perspective but at the same time make it a business where the need for my time is obsolete. As they say, if it’s not making money while you sleep, it’s not a business. We’ve bootstrapped this to a good point, but we’re going to have to put a lot more into this to make it mature to what it can become.
I’ve been in many tech offices, and the engineers usually believe they are the smartest person in the room, but when it comes to speaking on behalf of the company, it usually comes from the voice of non technical people. Publishing engineers and product makers has been integral to our success. I want to get better at that — empowering the people who are actually making what’s next in tech.
Tech media is a reflection of the tech industry. We’ve covered the rise of blockchain and cryptocurrencies — and this movement is still in its early days. Hacker Noon will go much deeper into covering and implementing cryptocurrency.
As a company, we’re at an inflection point. We have to evolve our business, and we have some cool changes coming up. It’s a fun challenge, but it’s definitely a challenge. If you want to hear more about how I see the future of Hacker Noon — and how you can get involved — DM me.
What is the best way for people to contribute articles to you?
What type of stories do best on Hacker Noon?
Here’s ten Hacker Noon stories I recommend reading to understand what the community’s about:
What kind of people write for Hacker Noon?
People like you and people like me. People who are making things in tech. I firmly believe people should write where they want to read. On the Hacker Noon about page you can see 1,000 most recent contributors, but we have a nice multiple of that. Looking to do more to highlight contributors as experts in the future. People that write on Hacker Noon usually are also people that are doing big things in tech. Over 40% of our readership has founded a company before. It’s always easier to write your own experiences.
Have you ever been like, “Holy shit….XYZ just submitted an article?”
Craig from Craiglist was a big one. More recently, Apollo Ono — the olympic speed skater now runs a blockchain company because it’s 2018. Tolerance is not a moral precept was a groundbreaking story for me. It’s what the right essay at the right time can be in digital publishing. And when JK Rowling and Seth MacFarlane tweeted one of our stories (“Why Liberals Are Wrong About Trump”) — I got that feeling of damn, look who’s reading here. I used the @ami likes section to favorite 279 of those moments. It was also very exciting to form partnerships with sites I liked to read, like The Next Web and Quora.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers out there looking to get published?
Publish where you like to read.
Identify that sweet spot between the style of your story and the style of the place.
F*ck it, just write what you want when you want as long as you write better today than you did yesterday.
What advice do you have for any founders out there?
Pawnee Mayor Gunderson, in his obituary video, explained tech platforms as “Where there is credit to be taken I’ll gladly take it and where there is blame… it’s your fault.” Remember that.
Businesses happen fast and can consume your attention, remember to look around, smile and learn. The outside perspective will help you grow your business.
No words from someone like me are going to make your decisions or do the work. Ultimately, just be prepared to weather your storms. Perseverance matters more than intelligence IMHO.
Why do you think articles on Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies are so popular on Hacker Noon?
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.
Do you hold any Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies?
The only cryptocurrencies we hodl are the ones customers have paid us in. I wish my business made more, where it afforded me the option to invest in where I see the future — but at the same time, my business is publishing what the community thinks. Putting our limited money/resources into publishing systems is more rational than becoming a crypto trader. It’s just the reality of bootstrapping a startup. You just don’t have much money and the money you do have should be reinvested into growth (most of the time).
Have you had any crypto fails?
I’ve tried hard to sell axes and not gold. In some ways that’s made my business have a higher floor and a lower ceiling. I guess we could count publishing mistakes as crypto fails. It’s been a battle to find the line between crypto promotion and crypto stories — especially when published by the makers themselves — because every story on the entire internet promotes something.
What podcasts do you listen to?
Honestly, right now a lot of my podcasts are sports radio. It takes my mind off work. Big shout to Open Floor Podcast with Ben Golliver and Andrew Sharp, Ringer NBA Show and the Lowe Post Podcast. Nothing makes your problem in perspective like Andrew Sharp talking himself into why the Wizards should be excited to sign Dwight Howard. There’s a mindless to it. My most recent listen on the computer is Frank Abegale’s Google Talk. He does not look like an old Leonardo Dicaprio and it does not matter. His belief in the credit cards borders on sponsored content today — but beauty of his lesson is something worth learning — always have someone else pay first. In terms of work life, my wife Linh has turned me onto How I Built This With Guy Raz, and I binged those in no time. Steve Madden this week was so honest. I loved how he talked about how any business — even a business as large as his — can die at anytime. There’s a vulnerability to him that most founders block from their public discussion. Side note: I recently found out How I Built This ad rates — NPR is onto to quite the profitable business — maybe it’s time to kickoff the Hacker Noon podcast…
What books do you recommend to any startup entrepreneurs?
Honestly, books are not going to determine the success of your startup. Unless maybe you find a key learning. A key learning, a real competitive advantage or understanding of how it works, can most definitely be enough of a nugget to build a company around. Most companies start with simple premises. If you’re starting a company, you should read what shapes the mindset you need. It’s not about searching Amazon for startup books.
Some book recommendations… If you think you want a mentor, read “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” by Carlos Castaneda. Then read on the internet about how it may be real or imagined. If you want a distraction of your internet life to see a darker internet life, read “Big Red Son” by David Foster Wallace.
Where do you do your best creative thinking? (i.e. inside office, the toilet, skiing, the park)
Walking is good. When I first wake up is good. After creating something of value I can see, act and think more creatively.
Got to trust the process to reach new thoughts.
What technology gets you the most excited at the moment?
This ARkit on the newspaper is fun. Anything that uses cryptocurrency to reduce transaction fees is super practical and far reaching. I will be keeping an very close eye on how the blockchain — and the transparency it provides — works it’s way into industries beyond finance. The Social Credit Score in China scares the shit out of me — but that means it’s probably has significant implications — as are most technologies that become themes of Black Mirror episodes. The bees episode, man. Talk about a scary application of IoT.
The people behind the technology — and the people who use the technology — will always remain more interesting than the technology itself. We publish many qualified perspectives, and I believe that gets us closer to the truth. I also have a strong interest in UX, interfaces, and design because accessibility is so important to technology adoption.
Future mainstream technologies often eliminate a small annoyance (and cost), or completely change how we thought that was done. Before I die, will I be able to write my thoughts directly from my brain (no pencil or keyboard or spoken words)? When will self driving cars be the new norm? How will society’s fascination with the screen evolve? I hope human interaction is not the cost of adoption.
Technologies that open doors for many people — and how they were built — will always have a place on Hacker Noon. If you to contribute a technology story to Hacker Noon, email us.
What was it like judging at the 2018 SXSW Hackathon in Austin this year?
A great honor. I live in a three thousand person town where almost no one reads my site. But reality is, many people are reading the site, I just don’t see them. Going to SXSW was eye opening. Not only is it a time/place like nowhere on earth — but people there also read Hacker Noon. A stranger wanted to take a selfie with me. The person next to me in the Uber pool had read the newsletter I sent that morning. It’s not like my hometown!
How did you feel after meeting so many people who love your site?
I’m still operating under ‘how do I get that next reader?’ It’s wild to live where no one gives a shit about your site and then go places where a lot of people care about your site. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful things about the internet. How interest can trump location.
Who are some people that inspire you?
George Orwell. Animal Farm and 1984 changed my 8th/9th grade perspective, and then as I aged, I grew more appreciation for what he was writing when and where he was writing.
My mom. She’s the best. My dad. A smart dose of reality. My sister. Has and will always show me a good path to follow. My wife. I love Linh! My daughter. She sees the world through new eyes!
LeBron James. He’s the greatest basketball player my age in the world. Well I’m a little younger. The way he plays the game — on and off the court — is like no one before him. Instead of doing testimonials, take ownership.
Jeff Bezos. I don’t really understand how he does what he does, but somehow someway, everyone wants to buy from him.
Barack & Michelle Obama. I just miss them both so much and want to say many other people miss you too. Please continue working on public things.
Don Delillo. I know it’s not your most critically acclaimed book — but there is something about the character motivations in End Zone that will always resonate with me.
And recently, Jacinda Ardern. I was very moved by her video about motherhood.
Where can people find you on the internet?
Any last words of wisdom?
There’s a time to be an idealist. There’s a time to be a realist. Be aware of who you are now.
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