Hacker Noon from a Community Perspective with Linh Dao Smooke
a podcast with OneMonth’s Chris Castiglione
This transcript was originally published on OneMonth. This episode of the Hacker Noon podcast would not be possible without DigitalOcean.
“Tech it’s basically electricity right now. It’s everywhere; it’s with everything that we do. So if you have a story that is related to tech we always and only judge the story on its own merit. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never published with us before. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never published anywhere before.”
“We are looking at Hacker Noon content as having three niches. We have the blockchain, bitcoin, cryptocurrency people. We have the general tech, startup people. And then we have software development. Software is where we started, so it’s always dear to our heart.”
What is Hacker Noon?
Linh: Hacker Noon is an independent tech media site. We are a contributor-driven network with over 7,000 contributing writers — and counting. We had a small and lean team with my husband and me to start in the beginning, and now we are up to four full-time employees and about ten different contractors all over the world.
How many articles are on Hacker Noon?
Linh: It is about 20,000 articles that we have published already. So we started in 2016, January of 2016, and so far every day we’ve been publishing about 20 to 30 stories. Probably a bit fewer in the beginning. But we’ve been growing pretty steadily, and yeah, we have about 20,000 stories in our library right now.
Who can contribute to Hacker Noon?
Linh: Most of these stories are by our amazing contributors who are the heart and soul of our platform, for sure.
What makes Hacker Noon so unique?
Linh: I think we don’t pretend to be the Jesus of publishing. We just kind of trying our best to be the reflection of the internet, if that makes sense.
Chris: Can you explain what the Jesus of publishing is?
Linh: So, there are a lot of platforms out there whose primary purpose is to really have every single person on the planet use their platform. I mean, it’d be cool if we ever had that, but I don’t think that has ever been our focus. We really are interested in what people have to say about technology, and we have a strong editorial team.
At the same time, we don’t police what people have to say about certain topics around here, so people feel like the freedom to express themselves, and the entry barriers are a little bit lower than some of the other tech sites. Like, you have to go through a lengthy review, lengthy editorial process, and a lot of the times not for that much better distribution.
For us, we accept anyone and everyone. Of course, we have three editors now who look into the quality, before that it was just my husband and me. And they have to meet a certain standard, with grammar and with best practices of hyperlinks and stuff like that.
But in terms of the actual content, we’re very, very lax on that. As long as you have an interesting story to say, even if you do everything in lower case, we don’t care. If you put a lot of memes and gifs and stuff like that, we don’t care. You don’t have to AP style or anything.
You have to attribute other people, but that’s pretty much it. We don’t standardize that kind of thing. So I think because of that people feel that sense of freedom of expression and freedom to tell their stories.
Chris: Yeah, there’s really like this democratization of content from the author’s perspective. You feel like, oh I can have a voice in this community. I think that’s the way Hacker Noon feels to me as someone who has submitted work myself. It feels like, oh okay, you know, I guess whatever you said with the tech Jesus, I like that term, tech Jesus, it’s a lot harder even just to get something in tech around. Because it’s very like, to use the word centralized, and hierarchical, to get the voice, as a comparison.
Linh: Oh yeah, or something like Forbes Technology where it’s also a contributor-driven model like us, but it can take up to weeks or months to get your piece up. With the number of submissions we have, that timeline just doesn’t work. We need to be able to move fast.
How did you get involved with Hacker Noon?
Linh: So, my story of getting involved in Hacker Noon goes all the way back to 2015. That’s when I, totally by chance, met David, actually.
I was traveling to San Francisco for business. I was leading the Asia division of this innovative, brand new university called Minerva. I was leading the marketing, sales, customer relations, like everything you can think of building a brand new identity for a university in Asia. And my office was on the ninth floor of Market Street, and there was a concert going on on that day, and I was just attracted to the music. So I went down, and that’s when I randomly met David [Smooke].
I guess he found it very entertaining that I was plugging my phone to my computer to charge it while being at a concert. Like talking about how technology infiltrates everyday life. So his line was like, “Um, you have a lot of technology on your hand,” or something like that, and that’s how we met.
So because of the way we met, we didn’t really have anything professionally. We were just building relationships. But whenever we got married, and I left my job at Minerva, I was witnessing the growth of Hacker Noon the entire time, up until that point.
I remember when Jay and David started Hacker Daily. When it first started, it was called Hacker Daily in January, and then they changed the name to Hacker Noon in April. Everyone thought that it was such a bad idea that it was called Hacker Noon, not knowing that that would actually be one of our proudest assets, the name, Hacker Noon. It’s really catchy, and it seems to be resonating with people.
So I was witnessing the growth of Hacker Noon for the entire year, just kind of on the sidelines seeing how hard David was trying to recruit all these stories, personally communicating with all of the writers. I mean even members, the first 500 or even 1,000 studies he published, every single story meant a lot to him. So I was kind of seeing all of that.
Chris: So let me just make sure I have this right. Because there’s a lot there. So a quick summary is you heard some music outside, you met David, fast forward to you fell in love, and meanwhile, he was starting Hacker Noon. He changed the name from Hacker Daily to Hacker Noon.
I think it’s also interesting to mention that, when you say you “started Hacker Noon,” — anyone can start a publication on Medium, right? But it sounds like what David had done was he had attracted writers who had something important to say. Because it’s not easy to get attention for that.
Linh: Yeah, I was going to tap into that. What I noticed was that out of all the publications, we also started one publication together on feminism called Athena Talks, actually, around that time. So 16–17 different publications were all around the first quarter of 2016. And each of them has a varying degree of success in terms of growth and how attractive they are to writers and readers.
Hacker Noon just by far was just crazily, insanely attractive to people. And I think it says something about a market or the lack thereof of a platform for these incredibly smart people. Software engineers, developers, blockchain enthusiasts, bitcoin-ers, students of computer science, to just say something from their own perspective, their first-person perspective.
Chris: I love that.
Linh: So yeah I mean it was fascinating to see how Hacker Noon is like ten, twenty, thirty times the growth of like all the other publications combined. So that was interesting. And I got to see all of that as it was happening. I think they got to like a thousand writers, either writers or stories, I need to get my story straight, in like the first ten days. Something like that. It was really, really crazy.
Did David Smooke start Hacker Noon solo?
Linh: Yeah, it was David who’s kind of like this publishing expert person, and then there was Jay who’s an engineer at Capital One. So they were friends from before, and they just kind of worked together to build this brand. And I think they did some time off script to sort of automatically recruit writers in the beginning, but that quickly got shut down. Like very, very quickly, like within single digit of days that they started it.
And it actually triggered a change of terms and conditions in Medium’s very own terms and conditions. So if you see something along the line of like, you can’t run a script in our app, it probably was triggered by that event back in 2016.
Do you have any advice on how to start a successful publication on Medium?
Linh: I think you should just find your vertical, whatever that works. You can’t just publish anything. So I think the most important thing first is to find your niche, find your vertical. Next, is just basically go for it. I mean I remember I was actually helping out a little bit with recruiting stories in the beginning, too, you just have to go at it.
Chris: When you say recruiting stories, does it mean you’re actively searching on Medium, and you’re asking people, “Hey, do you want to be a part of our publication?”
Linh: Yeah, yeah, exactly. We would look at this interesting story, and then we immediately messaged the writer. Back in the day they actually have a “add this story to your publication,” or something like that. Like “ask,” to add this story to your publication. They cut that functionality months ago, I think maybe even more than a year ago already.
But yeah, they used to have that. I think you should just kind of be vigilant and go for the best stories you can find. And I think people like that about us. We’re very transparent about our intention, and we just share with people like, “Hey, we just started this publication,” we do that with like 16, 17 other publications, too.
As for me; I’m very interested in fitness, and I’m very interested in feminism, so I kind of went out of my way, like spent hours just kind of talk to people about the stories that they wrote, and how interesting they are.
Chris: Because what I’m wondering if it’s interesting your strategy, if we call it that, for having an idea to make something a publication. It sounds like maybe the idea was hey let’s try a bunch of these and if one hits, we’ll go with that. Is that more of the story of how it happens?
Linh: Yeah, but also I think with Hacker Noon we also spend a lot more time just thinking about the bigger questions of technology and how that impacts every single thing that we do. Even the very software that we use to recruit stories is part of the story of technology, big picture technology. And I’m skipping the story way ahead, but now as we are shifting gears from a publishing company to a software company, it blew my mind how that happened.
Can you tell me a little bit about what’s going on with Hacker Noon and Medium?
Linh: So we’ve been building our following and our stories on Medium infrastructure for the past almost three years. And you know, around the beginning of 2018 they kind of communicated with us that after many pivots, they finally decided that publications are no longer an integral part of Medium business. And it was really detrimental for a lot of other prominent publications, and I really thought that was why people like Signals and Noise left the platform.
Chris: And Linh when you said they decided that, did they decide it by emailing you? Or was it just your traffic just dropped, or was that?
Linh: Traffic was still growing constantly. January 2018 was actually our biggest month because of this one story by David Gilbertson who exclusively publishes on Hacker Noon, it’s this very fascinating story about a data breach. But yeah, January was around when they started communicating at first, just via email about the intention, and then many, many long calls after that about their pivot.
This is not surprising to us because they’ve pivoted many times. They’ve kind of let go of a third of their staff earlier, before that, and then they also hired a new editorial team before firing them again. So we just kind of knew that they were experimenting a lot with their business directions.
Linh: But the particular news of publications no longer being an integral part was pretty detrimental to us. We tried to get into the partner program that they were trying to promote, they want everyone to pay them $5 a month, and we kind of like, “Yeah, if you want us to be part of that we’ll be happy to, we can help with distribution.”
But that didn’t go anywhere. So yeah, long story short, right around mid-May or June of 2018, we knew that we had to move off. They actually offered us a very small amount to move off.
Did Medium try to acquire Hacker Noon?
Linh: Yeah, they did. It was laughable, really, the amount that they offered. But they did offer some, and we rejected it, and we were kind of thinking of our own pivot. Now we actually have to do something. At the time, we already have almost 7,000 writers and about 18,000 stories in our library. And the thought of just doing all over again was really overwhelming, you know?
Chris: But what options did you have at this point? You’re saying they didn’t want you, so.
Linh: Yeah, we have three options at the time, at least in our mind. We either just shut it down altogether, as they wanted, and take their offer, that’s number one. Number two we can be working for someone else, like some other, bigger companies can acquire us and like take over this problem, it will become their problem.
Or the third choice, which is the hardest one, and I was kind of in denial for the first month or two that we had to choose that, to build our own software. Build our own infrastructure and just start everything over again. And you know after many, many late nights and many talks and pondering, we decided to go for that route.
Chris: Oh, so it wasn’t an easy decision, but that’s where you are now, is this decision where you’re telling me to leave, to do your own thing.
Linh: It’s been actually amazing, Chris. It’s like whenever we decided like we make that mental switch, everything changed. We approached one of our contributors who happens to be the CEO of this equity crowdfunding platform called Start Engine.
We didn’t know much about crowdfunding at the time, but apparently, it was only available since 2015, the Jobs Act of 2015, allowing basically every ordinary person, American or international, with the exception of a few countries, to invest in a private company.
Before that, it was never possible, only accredited investors could do so. And Howard, his name, was really helpful in just explaining to us that the crowdfunding platform is the best option for us because of all of the readers and followers that we already had.
Linh: And we just kind of took a leap of faith at the time and be like, “All right, if people want this company, this application to continue, maybe they’ll chip in.” Our goal is to reach for the sky. The maximum, which is 1.07 million dollars, and we didn’t know how much we’re going to be able to raise. And after a few months, we raised the max amount.
We were actually oversubscribed towards the end, meaning a lot more people chipped in more money, but because of crowdfunding regulation, we couldn’t get more than 1.07 from 1200 readers. So whenever people say funded by readers, we are genuinely funded by readers. And these are not donations or anything like, kind of like a Kickstarter or Crowdfunder. So it is equity.
What’s the difference between crowdfunding (what you did) and running a Kickstarter?
Linh: The main difference is that we don’t just give away T-shirts, which we do, or stickers. In return for your investor in us, you actually own a little bit of the company. The 1200 investors own about 14, 15% of Hacker Noon right now, which is our valuation is 7.5 million after the crowdfunding.
Chris: If you didn’t use Kickstarter, was there a platform for doing this kind of equity crowdfunding, is that what you’re saying?
Linh: Yeah, so I don’t think we were ever even considering just a donation campaign, because it just doesn’t bode well with what we’ve done. We have helped people a lot with distributing their stories, but at the end of the day it’s their stories, it’s the contributors’ stories, and they own those stories.
So to us, everyone who invested in us should own a little bit of the company as well. So that’s why we go for equity crowdfunding and not just the regular crowdfunding. So now we actually report to 1200 bosses. Like before that we were actually an S Corp, which the requirement is fewer than 75 investors. And we quickly passed that after like the first four hours of the first day of raising the fund.
So because of that, now we have a lot of people to be accountable to, and it’s amazing. We promised these people that we will do a quarterly, in-depth report of the state of the company, just every quarter.
And last time when I did it we sent an email to 1200 people, and like a thousand people immediately opened the email. I mean, I’ve sent a lot of emails before; but having an 80, 81% open rate on the first day, I’ve never heard of that.
Chris: I’ve never heard of it either.
Linh: So these people, they’re really, really true believers, and we’re so grateful.
Chris: Oh my gosh, yes, I love the story.
What percentage of the company do your crowdfunded investors own?
Linh: Altogether these 1200 investors own 15% of the company.
Chris: And how do you manage that? I know like CoinList, or there are some crypto ways to split equity, does this have anything to do with a blockchain token?
Linh: No, we would love to explore some of that, but right now they actually manage on Start Engine, the crowdfunding platform, and we do have their emails and all of their contact information. So we can either send it via Start Engine or via OCRM. Managers is a funny word because we really consider these people our bosses.
So what we do is we invite them all to our private community on community.hackernoon.com, which is a discourse instance that we built with the help of Digital Ocean. And it serves as our community forum. And these people are all invited to our private group on there. We also make sure that they are the first to know, let’s say if we have a beta product that we want them to test. Or if we have a special sponsorship opportunity or any kind of job opportunities, things like that, they would be the first to know.
Chris: All right, so this is amazing. So you made this tough decision to move away from this giant corporation, Medium, at this point. And now you have the backing of about 1200 people who have actually funded this idea. How do you then get all of the content off of Medium and onto your own platform? It seems like that’s a huge challenge.
Linh: Yeah, it’s a good question. So we’ve been backing up all the content since pretty much the beginning, so we have all of our content backed up on a third party.
Chris: A third party? How does that work?
Linh: They’re called Cosmic JS, and they’re actually also a contributor of ours, we just work with basically all companies that contributed to Hacker Noon.
Chris: The thing going on here is that you know all the smartest people in tech.
Linh: Yeah, I’m so grateful for that, like just an awesome unintended consequence. But yeah these people have a vested interest in Hacker Noon; basically, they want Hacker Noon to be successful, so that’s why they’re so eager to work with us. But we’ve been relying on Cosmic JS for years now, and they help us back up the content in their system. So right now, when we’re migrating the stories over it’s going to come from Cosmic JS.
Linh: Now in terms of what stories we’ll move over, it’s going to take me a long time to explain it, but we’ve been for the past four months after we concluded the crowdfunding company, making sure everyone is informed of this move off Medium.
All of our seven, eight thousand writers are informed of the move, and they give us exclusive permission to publish their content or to really remain, like making sure their content remain on hackernoon.com and no links around the internet, of which millions are broken.
Chris: I hate that, yeah, that’s going to be a pretty wild day when all those links break, so to speak. The internet is going to break. I have some of my writing on Hacker Noon, are my links going to break? I gave permission, so I’m curious if people gave permission.
Linh: No, your links absolutely will not break if you gave us permissions, then 100% it will not beak. We have the stories in our system.
Chris: That’s good for anyone else listening who’s either a fan or a writer to know that if you gave permission, then the links won’t break, great.
Linh: Yeah, absolutely.
I don’t think there’s any precedent for this before. Some publications, some companies have moved, but Medium usually is pretty nice to those companies, and have work like hand in hand with those companies, publications. So our case, this breakup, is I think a rare case. So we’ll see.
We’re still trying to work with them. We’ve been emailing them back and forth, and I think the last communication we had with Medium was kind of when they did that whole email thing to all of our contributors saying that we basically didn’t exist, so that was pretty abrupt. And yeah, after that they did try to reach out again, so we’ll see how that goes.
So Medium basically went behind your back and emailed your writers… what?
Linh: Like, “Hacker Noon is just a container within the Medium infrastructure,” and basically “you shouldn’t go there.” Something along those lines. It was a very surprising Monday.
Chris: Well, let’s talk about the future. And if people listening right now might want to contribute, what is the process, or what kind of stories are you looking for to get more of on Hacker Noon?
How do you become a Hacker Noon writer?
Linh: Sure, so we’re looking at Hacker Noon content as having kind of three niches. So we have the blockchain, bitcoin, cryptocurrency people. Then we have the general tech startup people. Then we have software development, which, you know software is always where we started, so it’s always dear to our heart.
But we kind of get to see the rise of blockchain as we publish stories, and we just educated ourselves a lot on the topic. And a lot of these companies, they can’t advertise or tell their stories anywhere else because talking about big companies, they have a lot of control over the exposure of blockchain. So, we kind of have an interesting intersection for that. We allow people to talk about their own stories and the future of blockchain.
Then outside of that we also have a lot of startup founders and technical, non-technical founders in general, and people who are building things just talking about how they build them. So those are the three topics that we know that there will always be an audience for them.
But even outside of that, I think like I say in the beginning, tech is just basically electricity right now. It’s everywhere. It’s with everything that we do. So if you have any story that’s remotely related to tech, and we will always and only just the story by its own merit.
It doesn’t matter that you’ve never published with us before, it doesn’t matter that you’ve never published anywhere before. In fact, the majority of our writers are unprofessional writers. They write stories as part of something else, they don’t write stories just for the sake of writing.
So yeah, it doesn’t matter, you can just publish or at least submit your stories to Hacker Noon. Right now, we have contribute.hackernoon.com, and it will directly go to the inbox of one of our three main editors. We also have me, myself, and a few other people in addition to those main editors, but yeah.
The three topics that I talked to you about, each of those is manned by one editor, and they will provide you with a minimum of ten minutes per story of like improving the headlines, making sure that search engine will recognize it. Also, improving the structure of the story, making sure it’s readable, easy enough for the readers to follow, any guideline around links around best practices.
Then you can just simply go to contribute.hackernoon.com for that. And if you would like to get a sneak peek into Hacker Noon 2.0, you can go to community.hackernoon.com where we, like I said it’s our forum, we have a couple of thousand readers, writers, shareholders on there already, and we do product updates and just polls of what features people want us to include in our software on there.
And we also discuss things like, “What will replace Google search?” You know, “What’s your spirit animal? Or like, what computer do you use?” That kind of thing, it’s really fun. Then you’re going to go on there, and if you want to reserve your handle on Hacker Noon 2.0 you can go to auth.hackernoon.com, and right now I think you might be able to reserve Chris, maybe. You know, like there are like 2 or 3 thousand handles reserved already, so yeah.
Do you have a favorite author or story on Hacker Noon?
Linh: I think it’s got to be Rick, Morty, and the Meaning of Life by Dan Jeffries, I mean how amazing it that? He just blew my mind. He exclusively publishes on Hacker Noon as well, and Dan Jeffries is set for life with his job. Like he sells software for some rich companies on his day time, and every other hour of this life is spent thinking about big questions like the future of humanity.
So yeah, I just love reading his stuff a lot. He and who else, Dan Gilbertson’s I Have Credit Card Numbers and Passwords from Your Site. I mentioned him a bit earlier, he’s the person who wrote our biggest story ever on the data breach, security breach.
Chris: What a crazy name.
Linh: There’s also this one from Cassie, who’s the Google chief data scientist, I believe. She publishes a lot on Hacker Noon as well, and she does one on Tensorflow, Long Live Tensorflow, Tensorflow is Dead! That one is interesting as well.
Where can people find out more about you Linh?
Linh: So, I’m Vietnamese actually, so I don’t use Twitter a lot. I didn’t know it was a thing until I went to the U.S., I study in the U.S. back in 2009, so four years in college then. But you can see all of my things on Facebook I guess, unlike a lot of other work people I’m still using Facebook. And that’s like a way for me to connect with my family back home, as well.
Facebook is still really big in Southeast Asia, and we have this chat, DaoTalk, which is like among our family that has been going on for years. Like literally, Facebook has been the reason for me being able to keep up with my family for a decade, so I have a different point of view on their place in the world.
And obviously they are very ambitious, and they’re doing a lot of questionable things, but people tend to use them as a scapegoat for a lot of their anger at technology as a whole.