How did David Smooke grow HackerNoon from 0 to 4 million readers per month?

David Smooke, Founder & CEO of HackerNoon, a technology website that publishes 50 stories per day read by about 4 million people every month.

He takes us on the journey from selling his skills as an agency, through the grind of building HackerNoon for years without pay, until finally landing their first advertising deal.

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Show Transcript

This is an automated transcript, so there are definitely mistakes and occasional weirdness that the robots got wrong. But it’s close.

Paris Vega (00:02.618)
Welcome to the First Customers Podcast. Today, I am honored to have David Smook on the show. He’s the founder and CEO of Hacker Noon. They publish 40 to 50 technology stories a day and they get about 4 million readers per month. David, welcome to the show.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (00:19.871)
Hey, thanks for having me today.

Paris Vega (00:24.419)
So glad to have you here. Let’s jump right into it. How did you get those very first customers? I guess in your case, those first readers for Hacker Noon.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (00:32.670)
Well, the very first customers of the company were actually the people that wanted to hire me. So I had left my other job at smart recruiters and I had build out a blog there with about four or 500 contributors. And I didn’t really know what business I wanted to do next, but after four years working for someone else’s startup, I kind of realized like, you need your own site, you need your own product, you need something that makes money while you sleep. Otherwise, it’s just a business

always selling my hours or my employees’ hours. And that was kind of the realization that I made, but I didn’t know how to do it. So what I did was all these people that wanted to hire me, because I had a little bit of a reputation within recruiting technology, so whenever I left this job, people reached out to me trying to hire me. Those are the people who I said, I can’t join you full time. I’m really happy to meet with you. Let me talk about buying some of my time and pitching them on marketing services

services and starting to build the initial cash flow of the business was just me selling my time to the people that wanted to hire me. And that was kind of my strategy of like, hey, that grows the net stake. That buys me times to start building sites, to start hiring contractors, to build my own ideas. And so that was my strategy was very much, you know, market out the services that people do want to pay me for, get that money in the bank and then figure out what to do with it later.

Paris Vega (01:34.600)
Okay.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (02:02.650)
because I didn’t know it would become Hack or Noon. I didn’t know it would become a software company. I didn’t know those things would happen six, seven years ago when I was starting out. It was much more, who wants to pay me? How can I get multiple companies to pay me at once? And that’s how the first group of customers were all these tech startups in San Francisco, mostly referrals from my network and my friends of people that needed help telling their story. People that needed,

Paris Vega (02:05.498)
Okay. Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (02:32.870)
What are they in a word? How do they build out their initial page? What’s their content strategy? So it became very much about that. And then on the side, I was building dozens of sites, trying to find a sweet spot where how can I build a site without a tech team? What tech products can I come in and place in here and kind of get a bit of a community going? How can I start to build out the community? Because if you’re not a technical founder, especially six, seven years ago, it would

It was very hard to get a product out the door. Every year that passes, it’s easier and easier to get an MVP out the door. There’s just so many different options for so many different types of sites that it’s really an exciting time to be a builder and start your own business. So I’ve been in business with Hacker Noon seven years now, so the first customers are a bit ago. But it was the first two and a half years.

Paris Vega (03:11.000)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (03:17.478)
Bye.

Paris Vega (03:23.942)
Sure.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (03:32.710)
marketing services funded the entire business and got everything going. And it wasn’t until we had an audience in a community, we went and we got some equity crowdfunding because we had an audience and we raised money from our readers to buy equity in Hacker Noon. But that was three years into the business, a lot more customers later. And then with Hacker Noon, we started to get tech companies buying the top banner of the site. So we just kind of tried to make the simplest way to co-brand.

the top of the site, make it yellow instead of green, and you buy one ad atop the whole site. And we were trying to also have this big challenge, and what appealed to me about this podcast was that so many sites have grown where they say, hey, get traffic and plug in someone else’s ad tech and you make money. And it’s like, wait a minute. So you’re saying I have no customers. Someone else’s ad tech comes in, places the ad, Google runs an ad on your site, and you have no relationship with whoever that ad was.

Paris Vega (04:23.322)
Right.

Paris Vega (04:30.220)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (04:33.150)
us. So I was really trying to sell directly and we still do this at HackerNoon and we’ve sold down to thousands of companies having a direct relationship with the customer because that means

Paris Vega (04:44.878)
So you have your own ad platform that you guys built out.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (04:46.450)
Yeah, it’s really basic. So we place ads based on content. So every story will get one category and eight tags. So you can buy a whole category. So your story will only, you know, if you buy up like the Ethereum section of the website, you know, your story will go next, your ad will go next to a story that has Ethereum as one of the tags. So you can kind of, we do, we built kind of a relatively simple placing ads by content relevancy. And then we’re, you know, running our own ads and send

Paris Vega (04:49.442)
Okay.

Paris Vega (05:07.623)
Interesting.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (05:16.610)
running your own ads atop the site. We have a little ad management thing for brands. You can actually buy ads as a company on Hackernoon.com if you’ve created a business account. So it’s one of the users we serve. We serve the reader, the writer, the editor, and the sponsor.

Paris Vega (05:36.378)
So do they, like the advertisers, do they have the ability to like bid similar to like Google and those other platforms or is it just here’s the price of a category and as soon as those all the categories are gone, we’re locked in for the month or something. Okay.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (05:47.910)
The latter. Yeah, so there’s still you can there we’re not bidding on individual ad placements It’s not a large enough even at you know, four million a month. It’s not a large enough inventory where I You know, it’s also a sales challenge of like if you create a bid on every single story It’s like okay Well if the buyer wants to spend five grand, but this story only cost ten dollars for the month Isn’t it easier to just go after the five grand and have them buy more stories? so

Paris Vega (05:55.279)
Really? Okay.

Paris Vega (06:00.761)
Really.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (06:17.890)
I mean, we’ve served customers anywhere from $100 to $200,000. And that’s, you know, so it’s a pretty big range because you can publish a single post on Hacker Noon. You know, you can, as a brand, you can come in, claim your free credit, publish one story, see how it goes, and then brands after that pay per post to publish. So that’s kind of your entry-level experience of Hacker Noon. And then our largest revenue stream is actually writing contests, where we’re saying if you, for example,

Paris Vega (06:18.660)
Gotcha.

Paris Vega (06:24.363)
Wow.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (06:47.770)
Put a hacker noon story on and you tag e-commerce you enter a writing contest for I think it’s elastic path and They you know they give a portion to the writers and a portion to us and the idea is to reward the best stories on that tag And they’re getting you know the ad space on that tag So we kind of have a few we work with companies in a number of different ways now You know we can really help pretty much any startup or tech company Just have a better internet presence and that is you know a challenge

challenge for companies to do for sure.

Paris Vega (07:17.522)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (07:24.391)
Sure. Okay, let’s back up for a minute here.

Paris Vega (07:27.818)
So let’s roll it back to when you started offering those services to companies to help kind of self fund. So you basically had a marketing agency, it sounded like, was it just purely being a freelancer? Did you like officially make an agency that was like the public facing thing you were doing to generate money?

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (07:31.650)
Mm-hmm.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (07:45.730)
Yeah, so the original name of the company is Artmap Inc. And we were trying to put art on the map, saying that’s our philosophy around marketing. Because they were buying marketing services. Now you’re buying more ad placements and story placements on Hacker Noon. But yeah, back then, I would try and get a contract, outsource some of it, do a lot of it myself. And I was just trying to get cash into the business. And I knew longer term I wanted digital assets.

Paris Vega (07:51.220)
Okay.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (08:15.530)
I wanted a site, I wanted a product, but they had no money to build those things. And I spent some of my own, you know, and I invested it into the company. And the first, the first app we built didn’t work at all. It was called Map Shot, and you could put the picture on the background of the map. And this is before that was like a feature in iOS. This is dating me, but it was, it was, you know, it was a very tough challenge. And it had no path of revenue really. I was thinking like how to sell local ads, but it like had, you have to get a massive adoption. And.

Paris Vega (08:23.120)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (08:46.250)
But it was very much like get money in marketing services, figure out a way to build a little site or a product and go from there. And that was kind of the trade-off. I was running more like a labs operation using my time to fund it.

Paris Vega (08:51.644)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (08:55.763)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (09:04.698)
Okay, so you were just, yeah, like you said earlier, you were building all kinds of little sites and projects to try to get traction on something. So apparently you’ve had lots of other experiences in business or startup world before this point where you started art mapping.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (09:09.192)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (09:18.470)
I kind of, I have four years at a company called Smart Recruiters and they, they’re now a unicorn company in the HR tech space. And you’ll see them like when you apply to jobs and career pages and stuff like that. So, and it, and that was, I kind of looked at it like my graduate degree. I mean, four years that kind of a startup going from like six people to like a hundred some people. It’s just like, it’s a whirlwind. And it’s like in that phase, it’s a lot of different companies, you know, like the first six, one years ago, joining the six people.

Paris Vega (09:23.483)
OK.

Paris Vega (09:26.742)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (09:31.985)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (09:41.820)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (09:47.441)
Right.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (09:48.510)
so important. And then as you get bigger, you get specialized. And I was much, I liked the beginning of the company better. And frankly, the CEO’s job was more interesting, you know, building product and doing investor relations and doing customer relations, and then also maybe marketing, you know, as opposed to I got a little pigeonhole of like, Hey, if you need writing, go to David. But it’s like, Okay, that doesn’t really, you know, that that was a, I got pigeonholed a little bit in that business as you have to, when

Paris Vega (09:57.842)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (10:09.142)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (10:18.450)
scales like that, you really need each department running a functioning little business. So, it was a natural evolution, but it was a really great education on just how these small companies grow. With your personality types, sometimes you know, like, hey, I want to have my own business. And that’s something I knew I wanted before I knew what the business was.

Paris Vega (10:25.020)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (10:42.278)
Yep.

Paris Vega (10:45.698)
So did you have that idea of assets that earn while you sleep and all that? Was that stuff that you learned beforehand or was that throughout that process? Where did you pick up? Because for me personally, it took me a while to understand, it was like, oh, that’s how people are making money. I see, I’m over here slaving away hour by hour. And then you see the people that own all the things are the ones who are just kind of chilling, breaking in all the cash. And I was like, oh, I gotta own something.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (10:56.036)
Um

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (11:13.330)
Yeah, I don’t know if there’s like a one moment, but it is. I mean, the way you said it is the way like you don’t realize it in the beginning, you know. And even if you even if you’re a lawyer, like who’s the richest doctor, it’s not the most talented doctor in the world. And it’s not the doctor who the hospital is paying the most. It’s the doctor who owns the practices and owns the hospitals and the doctor like you’re, you know, even at the top level of these highest hourly wage people, it’s still the best at their job. You know, Ryan Reynolds, look at how he’s actually making his money now.

Paris Vega (11:22.786)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (11:34.325)
Bye.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (11:43.730)
He’s getting paid more per hour when he acts, but he’s getting more paid total when he sells these businesses. And so it’s at every level that if you can just be closer to the ownership, it makes more sense. I mean, even like, so I didn’t really think much about equity in college, but even as I got my first job at a startup, I was like, wow, this equity is amazing. And I ended up, you know, cashing it out for the down payment on my house. It was the only time I’ve gotten, you know, more than a year of salary at one time.

Paris Vega (11:44.482)
right.

Paris Vega (11:51.020)
Right.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (12:13.510)
So it’s been life changing, but I still look at the numbers of like, oh, let me divide how much I sold versus the value of the company. And I’m like, oh, that’s still, you know, you start to think, hey, was I that percentage of the growth? And you have the deals that are available to you. That’s an entry level person in a startup. That’s what you get. And I’m thrilled I got it. So it would be nice if all of this country is operating under some form of ownership.

Paris Vega (12:14.842)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (12:37.020)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (12:43.270)
you’re making minimum wage, if your minimum wage as the person at the liquor store also came with a tiny cut of the liquor store, maybe when the liquor store sells in 15 years, you get another check for that minimum wage job you worked for three years. So I think there is a really cool thing about how startups have successfully taught everyone that even if you get a little cut of the pie, it’s still better than not. You’re still a part of owner, there’s still a moment in the future where you’ve built the value of the asset and the asset caches out.

Paris Vega (12:43.320)
Right.

Paris Vega (12:52.399)
Sure.

Paris Vega (12:57.304)
right.

Paris Vega (13:00.199)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (13:08.398)
Yeah, that’s it.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (13:13.490)
because if you work in a startup for seven years and it goes on for another three years and then sells your seven years is still You know that was something that was contributing to the whole base and it’s really great that that you know We have all these shareholders at hacker noon and everyone on the team has shares in hacker noon And if we ever have a liquidity event of some kind It’s like all these people get to win for believing in this later whenever you’re a startup And you can’t maybe pay as much as some of the larger competitors in your industry that like so

Paris Vega (13:32.446)
awesome.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (13:43.631)
I really, I mean, at the whole, I love equity, and I think everyone should have equity in what they build.

Paris Vega (13:48.478)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (13:51.678)
Yeah, that’s a really cool idea. And I think you’re right that that’s been one of the, even though there’s a lot, even in the news now, a lot of hate sometimes towards Silicon Valley or the startup culture or whatever. But I think that’s a really powerful principle, that idea of how much having equity or ownership in something can really change your life more than just about anything else financially. And it’s almost like a constant delayed gratification test happening. Like, whoever can

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (14:18.635)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (14:21.578)
Understand it’s like oh wait if I sacrifice in the short term to get ownership in something I can get a huge payout eventually Hopefully it’s not guaranteed but

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (14:30.630)
But that, hopefully, is something you also need to understand. These can very much go to zero. I took discounts on some of these early customers that were startups and I said, pay me 25% in equity and 75% in cash. And some of them went under. And that’s just 25% I never got. I didn’t get any of it. So there are tradeoffs to all these things.

Paris Vega (14:37.120)
Right.

Paris Vega (14:46.898)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (14:50.682)
right.

Paris Vega (14:53.141)
share.

Paris Vega (14:55.758)
Yeah, that’s cool that you’re doing that with the team to where you’re giving everybody that sense of ownership. Because you could argue that also it helps maybe the company work better or, you know, makes everybody do their job with a little more pep in their step if they understand that they’re part of it long term, like no matter what happens with the company, they’re getting paid in the short term and they benefit from the end goal. That’s really cool. All right, so how long did it take to go from your hustling,

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (15:16.971)
Yep.

Paris Vega (15:26.921)
to having enough customers or maybe the first advertising customer. Like, when did that, how long was that gap?

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (15:33.490)
about two years. Yeah, first, first advertising customer. Yeah, maybe, maybe a year and a half, maybe just under two years. So yeah, it was a lot of grinding. And even as Hacker Noon started to grow, it grew in traffic and readership first. And it wasn’t, and it was built on someone else’s content management system, I built with medium.com. And so I has limited on what I could do. And so as I was gaining these readers and contributors

Paris Vega (15:36.619)
Really?

Paris Vega (15:39.880)
Whoa.

Paris Vega (15:52.878)
Thank you. Thank you.

Paris Vega (15:58.822)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (16:02.890)
this community, I couldn’t control the software and how the site worked. And all these pop-up ads were coming to create medium accounts. And it was just like a mess. So it was a business where you see this happen with all types of influence where something can grow online first, and then it’s like, how do you monetize it? And most people don’t even solve the next one. It’s more just like, hey, it grows, then it dies out. But the simplest thing to me was just put their logo

Paris Vega (16:12.620)
right.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (16:32.830)
top the site next to mine. If it’s valuable to visit this site and it’s valuable to come here, it’s valuable for someone else’s logo to be right next to mine. And so that’s what we sold and it was, yeah, that we would sell the whole site in the early days. You would buy the whole site, you’d buy every newsletter ad and you just, whatever we could get you to pay for the site this week, that was the money. And then that was enough for me to be a full-time job.

Paris Vega (16:48.378)
Who would be the king of first?

Paris Vega (16:52.883)
Okay.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (17:02.810)
to join me and be a full-time job, second full-time job at HackerNoon.

Paris Vega (17:08.598)
So can you share a little bit more about that very first advertising sale? Like how did you go about, like, did you approach somebody? Did they contact you because you were getting traffic or let’s get into that very first one?

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (17:17.670)
I think it was from the contributor network. I think Hyrd and Pubnub were the first two that came in. And Pubnub, I just saw them, they still tweet Hack or Noon articles. And so Hyrd does sometimes too. And yeah, because we had a large network of contributors. Even when the time the first advertiser was coming in, we had already have 1,000 people publish on the site. So they had already, that’s a pretty large network of people that could, they’re working at tech companies.

Paris Vega (17:22.904)
Okay.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (17:47.709)
that’s who our contributor was, that’s who our reader is. So trying to find the right person in the community to rise forward and pay is an interesting challenge because it’s the person, you know, if you’re reading the site, you’re much more likely to want to advertise on the site. Like why would you advertise on sites you don’t even read? You know, so I’m a big proponent of like, usually the person you’re looking for is already there. You know, so I haven’t been as good with outbound sales. You know,

my background came more of create the content, put the content in the right way, and the interested people will come forward because they gain value, because they want to be here, because they are here. That’s then more of my philosophy, but we have, as we’ve grown, we’ve grown out a lot more sales and we have a pretty large outbound efforts now. But the early ones, yeah, the referrals were seven of my first eight customers in the business’s history.

Paris Vega (18:41.042)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (18:47.589)
and the contributor network and the readers themselves and saying, you know, sometimes you’ll be on Hacker Noon and you’ll still see an ad that says advertise on Hacker Noon. You know, our unused inventory is just like the empty billboards, just like the empty stuff on that. Like your unused inventory can be your best thing. You go to a movie, you know, and you see the beginning. It’s like advertisement, advertisement, put your ad here, advertisement, advertisement. So, you know, more of those inbound structures have been just more my DNA about how to, you know,

Paris Vega (18:59.119)
I will getcha.

Paris Vega (19:07.162)
Right.

Paris Vega (19:10.800)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (19:20.198)
So when they would advertise, especially those early ones, would they advertise the content they had written on Hacker News or would it be advertising to offsite, like their own website and that kind of thing?

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (19:31.550)
on hacker noon, the ads would all be on hacker noon.

Paris Vega (19:37.878)
I mean, like, would they advertise the content? Like, would they want to promote their own stories that they’d written? Like that kind of thing, like boosting their content.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (19:45.350)
So, yeah, I mean, it’s still true today. It adds on the site and content marketing, so their own post. So they’ll republish, you know, like Amazon, IBS, they’re a division of Amazon. Every technical blog post, their processes, they put it on Amazon, they put it on Hackernin. You know, and that’s how they, you know, and then we’re getting traffic to it on our site, they’re getting traffic on their site. So, in the early deals, you would buy the whole site and we would give, you would be the author of the post. So we would try to always make it clear, like, this is your content.

it, yes, you can publish it here too, but we want to make it clear it’s owned by this business. Because we get so many people wanting to publish on our site every day, a lot of them, they’re trying to put content that’s owned by somebody. And if that somebody is a business entity, that’s a business relationship we’re having if we’re going to publish their content. So we kind of, sometimes the contributors will come in saying, hey, I published on this

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (20:44.730)
Can I publish it here? You know at that point we’re going to try and push you towards a business relationship as a customer As opposed to saying you can publish like anyone else because it’s not content you own if the business owns it We want to have a you know have turned them into a customer because we’re benefiting them You know we’re just we’re distributing we’re validating we’re editing We’re doing all these things that help their content on the internet and that’s a good relationship with us for an individual You know as we grow our library, but if it if the business owns it, you know, we want to move them towards a customer so

Paris Vega (21:00.463)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (21:16.393)
So yeah, I mean finding the people in the community that already want these services, that’s what I’m trying to prioritize now, making systems like that.

Paris Vega (21:26.020)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (21:29.178)
So when you started, were you writing content to like fill out something on the site? Like when it first launched or were you like promoting it on your social networks to get? Because it sounds like it’s mostly user generated now, right? They’re all over.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (21:41.710)
Yeah, we have our staff writes. We employ editors who write. We employ software developers. We employ salespeople, about 20 people full time. So it’s not too big. It’s not like a large writing staff. But yeah, we have writing contests. And then we have a community. And I was writing the first newsletter. So every week, I would round up the best stories, give my commentary, grow this newsletter.

letter list and work from there. I mean, I was editing my early days of the job were basically doing writing and marketing service for other people, editing Hacker Noon and trying to get the best stories and messaging everyone I could about, you know, hey, this is a place where you can get a free editor and free distribution. I want to try it out, you know, and then there’s also like 2016, 17, 18, it was still a little harder to build a personal site than it is today. It was hard.

It’s still hard to get distribution on a personal site, even though it’s just hard. It’s hard to, over the years, build up more and more systems to distribute content to the right person, to the relevant person who actually wants to receive it. That’s like having a lot of long lists. I mean, I’m writing pretty much every day, but as the team’s bigger, it ends up being a lot more internal writing. We actually build an app to turn Slack into a blog post called Slogging, and we build it just because we were spending so much time writing.

Paris Vega (22:45.942)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (23:11.570)
on Slack and we weren’t publishing enough. So, you know, we’ve published our first five or six hundred posts with it and kind of tried it out to like curate our best Slack discussions into public posts. But yeah, it’s, I don’t know, writing is the important skill. And it’s what we’re selling to, you know, our community of like, if you’re a professional in tech or pretty much anything, who says you’re a professional? You know, you could put your resume online, but you have to start

Paris Vega (23:14.266)
Oh.

Paris Vega (23:16.978)
Thank you. Thank you.

Paris Vega (23:27.899)
That’s it.

Paris Vega (23:41.703)
Right.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (23:41.790)
and show it in multiple places. You know, you don’t want to just, if everything’s on your personal site and none of these other sites showcase your expertise, are you an expert? You know, it’s the same thing of a tree falls in the woods. Like, it’s better if you’re published on many sites and you know, you see everyone in their bios loading up Forbes contributor, Hackernoon contributor, IVF, you know, they load up where they publish as like, hey, go look at me on, go look at what expertise other people say I have and, you know, go through. So, there’s, I’m a big proponent,

Paris Vega (23:52.578)
Bye.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (24:11.610)
of just writing every day if you can. It’s hard to keep the discipline. We end up running into people in the moments of their lives where they find the discipline. Normally they’re a software developer, but this Thursday they have a story to tell and they end up on Hacker Nune to get one story out. That’s a fine relationship by me.

Paris Vega (24:32.678)
That’s cool. So that brings up an interesting, you mentioned specifically, you know, just displaying or proving your expertise. I feel like there’s been a lot of talk about that in the kind of publishing world lately and like SEO because of Google’s algorithm changes and pushing the whole EAT or EEAT score where they’re looking at the experience, expertise, authority, trustworthiness of a given page on the internet. And it seems like you could help kind of contribute or.

Yeah, help somebody build up a little bit of expertise by publishing on Hacker noon is what you’re saying Okay

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (25:06.850)
Absolutely. And, you know, we’re trying to be a part of establishing that authority. You know, so you look at your Hecarinoon profile, you know, it links to all your social pages. You can put a big button that’s a call to action where you can link to your homepage or whatever your corner of the internet is. And we aggregate, you know, all the reading time you create. So, you know, and then you can have a page where you have all your stories and you can say, you know, and then we tell you how many people visited your profile. So you kind of get some information about, like, they’ve created a month worth of reading time with these 10 posts.

and that element that there’s someone on the other side of the screen and we can give you an estimate about you know how many people there are that trust this person. Then we’re running into it. We’ve built something called emoji credibility indicators where writers and editors can set stuff like, hey, there I was associated with this company. You know, when I if you mention a company in a story, you should say you were associated, you know, like disclosure of vested interest. You know, it goes a long way or even just saying like, is this story a tutorial?

And now we’re running into the challenge of did AI contribute to the story? You know as we’ve now we’re checking for every story We were checking just for plagiarism now We’re checking for AI writing and it’s also a challenge of like how do you explain this? You know, so it’s rejecting accrediting and Google They have so many challenges in front of them with this AI boom that’s coming in of like these near human level writings that There so the other big one we have there is you know serving towards identity

Paris Vega (26:13.641)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (26:16.003)
Okay.

Paris Vega (26:34.242)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (26:37.390)
And this is David Smook’s profile, you know, that means if it was AI at least David Smook said it was and I’m You know and then I’m known as someone who publishes stories like that if that were the case So I think there’s your identity online is going to really change over time and it’s I guess I’m just a little concerned with all these machines producing this mass amount of content and we’re gonna have an interesting wave coming in of like

Paris Vega (26:41.478)
Okay.

Paris Vega (26:50.740)
Hmm.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (27:07.010)
I think the most we can do is be clear about who produced it and who owned it. That’s something that’s a real value add that you don’t get on most sites. You don’t know, maybe you get an AuthorBio area, but you don’t know if someone else, you don’t even know who owns the content on a lot of the sites you’re on. When you’re on our site, if it’s the AuthorBio, they own the content and they’re licensing it to Hack or Noon. So that’s something that hopefully Google can recognize. They’re always changing. The thing you brought up, they added a second A to the E.

Paris Vega (27:34.219)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (27:37.171)
Is that what it was? The second E to the E. Well, is it again? What did it stand for? Yeah.

Paris Vega (27:40.278)
Second E to the, yeah. I think it was experience. Like for example, like a product review website, they wanted it to be like unique photos and video of like the person actually having hands on experience with the thing is an example of how that might be interpreted. Instead of the aggregate product reviews type posts where it would just be obviously just summarizing every other website and putting it on there, but there’s not actually any

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (27:57.114)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (28:10.338)
experience involved with the product that’s being reviewed. Um, and I actually had a little side project website. They got destroyed in rankings after that update came out. Cause I was messing around and I hadn’t done much in the product review space at all. And I bought this little product review site and then like three months later, it went to zero and I was like, Oh shoot.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (28:30.750)
What was that morning like? How did you find out the drop? Did you think it would happen, or was it just, you just logged in one day?

Paris Vega (28:38.778)
I mean, I knew that it was, I knew that the previous owner had tried some sketch stuff and, but I was like, you know what? I know enough I’m going to save it before it gets eliminated from the rankings. But then like that, like this past summer is when Google did that product review related algorithm update. It was specifically targeted at those types of websites. And it was done. Like I’ve been working on it a little bit here in their sense, but it has not

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (28:41.914)
Mm.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (29:08.250)
That’s a bummer.

Paris Vega (29:09.558)
And so I guess, yeah, it was crazy. But it didn’t deserve to be a highly ranked site at the time. You know, compared to what else was out there, they had obviously used tactics in the past that were trying to kind of game the system. And I just wasn’t able to update the content fast enough before that hammer dropped. So yeah, you’re right. Like the algorithm’s always changing. You never know. Everybody’s kind of, especially in the publishing industry,

How’s this next update gonna gonna affect us? But that’s all I was curious about what your perspective was on all this AI content It’s interesting that you’re taking more of a kind of a neutral position of sure you can put it up there, but It’s gonna be known that like there’s some kind of I guess there’s a visual that shows the like percentage Okay

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (29:55.590)
Yeah, it’s a little icon, and then it’ll hover over and say some details about what part of it’s AI written. Yeah, and we are using AI. We built it into our content management system. So every story gets read by AI and suggests headline options based on our expertise on headlines. And we’re using it to summarize the articles and then use those summaries to distribute the articles further. So we’re using it across the product.

Paris Vega (30:20.920)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (30:24.350)
In general, the excitement of creating something from nothing is what chat GPT can explain. It has a good aha moment, but to me, the more beneficial things is actually summarizing massive amounts of data. Instead of having to read a whole legal case and you’re as a paralegal, you get the bullet points and then you get cited to the right stuff. I kind of like that area more in terms of making the labor more powerful.

Paris Vega (30:32.418)
Yeah. Yeah.

Paris Vega (30:41.878)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (30:46.378)
share.

Paris Vega (30:49.422)
Yep.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (30:54.630)
and turning someone just how much output they can put out and how much work they can do. I think that stuff’s a little more exciting. But I mean, back to Google, we’ve become less and less reliant on Google search for our business. And you’ve seen it across the publishing industry, less reliant on social media, less reliant on search. Everyone trying to be more in your inbox. Everyone trying to have more direct relationships with your readers. So we’re, yeah.

Paris Vega (31:20.078)
Bye.

Paris Vega (31:22.478)
They can’t take your email list from you.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (31:24.650)
Yeah They don’t call it taking your email list right because they already have your email they have everyone on the list already I Mean it’s tough these big companies, you know Thousands of little companies just depending on them for all their foot traffic, you know You think you’re paying rent so you get this many People and you put the right stuff in your window and you think it’s gonna work and then the terms change and I mean But it’s every it’s just something like there’s not really another way to do it

Paris Vega (31:32.438)
Yeah. Right. Right.

Paris Vega (31:51.978)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (31:54.250)
because what you don’t update the algorithm, it’s like every time they update it, there’s winners and losers. It’s not just that, you know, your site lost, you know, you’re just one site in all this traffic flow.

Paris Vega (31:59.218)
Right. Yeah.

Paris Vega (32:05.699)
Right.

Paris Vega (32:08.938)
Yeah, they don’t care that it was me personally taking an honest risk and trying to build a legit business. It’s like, it did not meet the standard son. Sorry.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (32:14.491)
Yeah. We will not tell you why.

Paris Vega (32:22.078)
Yeah, go figure it out. Okay.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (32:25.050)
I’m hopeful that search could become a little more open about why results are the way they are. It still feels a bit like a black box. And I admire that Bing is like saying, hey, we can give it a shot. We’ll put the best new tech in and we’ll compete with you, Google. It makes the whole thing a little more interesting. It’s just got a little too complacent of like, oh, we changed the algorithm and you’re at our whim. Like it needs to be more feel like a dialogue with the users to be a successful long term place

Paris Vega (32:32.280)
Yes.

Paris Vega (32:40.742)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (32:50.463)
Right.

Paris Vega (32:52.820)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (32:55.050)
anything on the internet.

Paris Vega (32:58.438)
For sure, because like there’s no other type of bit. Like it would only happen like this in a digital world where there wasn’t a physical relationship between like the two people, the two parties involved. Like, because if it was like, you were raining office space somewhere and just the next day you were out locked the doors for no reason and they’re like, we’re not gonna tell you what, like you could call the police or so like you’d have some kind of legal case at least. Like they just locked the doors to your business

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (33:23.937)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (33:28.638)
operate anymore, but that’s basically what happens if you have a website and something you did that you weren’t even aware of possibly triggered the algorithm the wrong way and your business is shut down the next day and You really can’t do anything. I guess there’s class action lawsuits. Maybe that happened every once in a while for different reasons. Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (33:40.618)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (33:45.730)
Yeah, but it’s not worth it. You’re just a whiny whatever that’s mad that your site isn’t doing well You know, it’s like just make your site do well like put that energy into getting new traffic You know, that’s kind of the simplest way you can start to think about it I mean there because that house it’s also a testament if the business is only getting traffic from google It’s partially owned by google, you know And if they want to shut it down they partially can because it’s it’s not it can’t stand on on its own so

Paris Vega (33:52.842)
Well.

Paris Vega (33:56.218)
Yeah. I’m sure.

Paris Vega (34:01.822)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (34:10.900)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (34:16.805)
And, uh,

Paris Vega (34:18.078)
So that’s an argument for definitely building up your own brand. And I think I hear more and more people talking about that because of maybe how dynamic the results have changed over the past decade or so. It really is important to have your own brand, build your own email list, because that is the one thing that you do have that consistent or persistent connection with your audience if you’ve got that email address. I guess, yeah, yeah, I guess I could send you to spam,

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (34:34.192)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (34:41.850)
Yeah, if they want to keep opening your emails. If they, you know, you have to keep delivering good stuff. Yeah. Yeah.

Paris Vega (34:48.078)
Eventually, yeah. You gotta take good care of that email and not blow it up too often.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (34:52.874)
Uh-huh.

Paris Vega (34:56.078)
Okay, so you source your customers from the readers mostly, and that’s where the first advertisers came from, or from the, not just readers, but the publishers, the people putting up content and the readership.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (35:09.410)
Yeah, my campaign coming up, we did this before, but we did startups of the year by location and we have a vote. And so this is the top couple thousand cities in the world, every city above a half a million people. And we source all the different startups and that creates a giant email list of people we can do other business with. You know, so we’ll be launching this pretty soon and it’s startups of the year for 2023. You know, so it’s 50,000 different people where they’re getting nominated for an award. But now, you know,

they’re starting down the path of creating their Hacker Noon business profile. So, you know, we moved in the past a lot more from optimizing for the contributing writer in the reader. And now we’re also building more for the business and saying, you know, like the reader does their identity here, like the reader or like the writer has more of their identity here, more of their content here, the business can also have more of their identity here and more of their content here and have a good page that curates news about them and has a fact check on their employee count, you know,

Paris Vega (36:08.184)
Okay

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (36:09.250)
public-facing, we call it a tech company news page. So we’ll use the Bing API and we’ll look for news around the web about that company. And then you like Glassdoor, if you want a premium version of that page with some extra features and bell and whistles, you can kind of upgrade. So there’s growing, I’m trying to widen the base on the site of, you do it like if you publish a story about React, you get React developers that want to read it, but if you also publish a story about the business itself.

Paris Vega (36:31.842)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (36:39.290)
you get the business leaders and the marketers who want to read that story. So the tech company news page kind of opens us up for a page that, you know, tech leaders and tech marketers would like to have the best version of that for their company.

Paris Vega (36:54.378)
Yeah, and that gives you a new type of page to rank for in Google as well, or the search engines. Because I know sometimes you’re… .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (36:56.150)
Mm-hmm. Yep, and yeah, we actually just optimized all the titles, H1s, H2s, H3 of those, we’re gonna did a little loop, you know, a little refresh. But yeah, if you type in a smaller company name, and then company news, you know, you’ll see the hacker noon page come after that for the smaller companies. So it’s, they’ve been online like, before people had to earn them, you know, and get above a certain size, but we’re kind of lowering the size of the business a little bit and making it freemium. But there are, you know,

Paris Vega (37:04.386)
There you go.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (37:26.230)
2,000, 3,000 are out there of the 2,000, 3,000 largest tech companies. I kind of all have pages and now we’re going more into the startups.

Paris Vega (37:38.379)
I’m gonna check it out and set up a profile. I haven’t published anything on Hack or Noon before. I’d heard the brand name before and seen it around kind of the interwebs cruising around social media and different things.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (37:50.550)
Cool, try it out. We also have an AI image generator in there. So if your feature image, if you just wanna put your headline or you wanna give it a more creative prompt or descriptive prompt or direct prompt, you can kinda do that. And then you submit to an editor, takes about two to four business days, a human will read it and will run our AI checks on it and then we’ll publish it or we’ll reject it or we’ll tell you why. So it’s kind of on the fence, we’ll write one sentence for them. And then, but I’m sure if you put in,

Paris Vega (37:55.342)
Okay, cool.

Paris Vega (38:15.878)
That’s cool.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (38:21.010)
So we want real humans that do real jobs to share, you know, about how they do those jobs and why And what they build with, you know, those are the types of stories that we like And you you have a lot of you know experience on the internet. That’s what we want to share

Paris Vega (38:23.020)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (38:36.025)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (38:39.058)
talk about all my failures. Other people learn from. How, what do you use for, you said, like you’re helping people with distribution and you put it on hacker noon itself. What are you doing to promote hacker noon? Is it just purely the focus on the content on the side, or are you doing other, using other marketing platforms or advertising or things to drive traffic in any other ways?

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (38:39.370)
Ha ha ha!

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (39:01.630)
So we don’t really buy much ads some of our sponsors when they buy our Brands businesses when they publish their content sometimes they’ll buy an upsell like a social media boost And that’s the little bit of ad we doing but you know a lot of stuff happens when you hit the publish button You know it goes on to the different All of the rss distribution is by tag So all the tag all the top tags go to all these different readers so you can kind of get your story out that way then we’ve kind of

Paris Vega (39:28.618)
And the tags are those defined by the writer or is that Hacker Noon deciding somehow?

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (39:33.030)
The writer submits tag and then the editor can edit them. So yeah, and we wanna go with kind of a mix of long and short tail tags where you’re getting kind of the high level categories, but you’re also getting terms that like, right away if you have a three word term under 25, like 22 to 30 characters, like you can rank really fast on Hacker Noon. Cause you get that high site authority, we’re in like the high domain authority in the 80s and 90s. So then you get your H1 there. You know, so it is a good,

Paris Vega (39:37.522)
Okay.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (40:02.650)
main authority itself, then we have the tech brief automated emails. So once you publish, the readers are all subscribed to tags and parent categories, and those populate their emails. So a lot of our emails are sending without human editors writing anything. It’s just bringing in the relevant content to the right person, to the person who picked that type of content. Then we have like, yeah.

Paris Vega (40:09.200)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (40:24.878)
But it’s written content, like people wrote that content and put it on the site, but as far as generating the newsletter itself, it’s pulling from that human written content, which you’re just saying that the newsletter itself isn’t put together by a human. Okay, yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (40:35.170)
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So it’s just ensuring that, you know, we distribute the content to the tag. And the tag is done by the human picks the content, but it moves the link to the it moves into the emails without it’s doing anything. Yeah, that part’s fun. We’ve built a lot of little social media apps. So we’re connected to like Twitter and LinkedIn, and we can do some auto update and posting. And then we have a head of social media who’s doing a

Paris Vega (40:51.998)
Right.

Paris Vega (40:54.678)
cool.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (41:05.130)
of posting as well. So there’s things happen, you know, when you hit the publish button, that’s the goal. I mean, it’ll come up a lot in product meetings of like amplify the publish button is a big goal. Can you tie this project to that? You know, so as we look at our business a lot, like how many words do we publish? How much time reading do people spend on the site? And then how much money do we make? You know, so as we look at the projects, you know, how many words do we publish on the site? And how many people read?

Paris Vega (41:12.422)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (41:30.878)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (41:35.050)
much time they spend reading, it’s a lot easier if a lot of things happen the moment the publish buttons hit and you’re not going one off where to distribute it. So over the years we’ve built up a lot of those little apps and systems to distribute content.

Paris Vega (41:52.278)
That’s cool. So it auto shares to some social, like your, your own social accounts for Hacker Noon.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (41:56.610)
Yeah, so the automation is social accounts, email, and curation across the site. So that stuff’s automated when the publish buttons hit.

Paris Vega (42:09.359)
Awesome. Okay. Man, this has been really cool. I really appreciate you taking the time and sharing the insights into how you’ve done everything up to this point. Is the long-term goal to, you know, sell off Hacker Noon in a few years or what’s that look like?

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (42:23.270)
I mean, I like doing what I’m doing and we’re making more money each year we do it. So those are all good things. And I feel better than ever about the team that I have and who I’m working with and how I’m spending my day to day. So I mean, long-term it is a startup and we do have a thousand shareholders from equity crowdfunding and I want them all to be rewarded at some point. So that’ll happen at some point, but I’m not at that point. I’m still

Paris Vega (42:26.828)
No.

Paris Vega (42:31.763)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (42:41.622)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (42:47.720)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (42:52.863)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (42:53.510)
ready to go. I’ll be here tomorrow.

Paris Vega (43:01.518)
All right, and let’s say we’ve got 1000 people listening that are your exact target customer on the paid side, like target advertising audience. What’s that pitch that you would tell them if you did have a meeting or something with an advertiser? Let’s close the show with that kind of pitch.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (43:14.854)
Yeah.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (43:17.870)
I would say, I mean, I know you have great content, but what you want to do is be part of the broader discussion. And so that’s where our writing contest come in. You can buy an individual tag. You can say buy the blockchain tag. Your logo immediately goes at the bottom of the 8,000 stories we already have on blockchain, and a portion of the money you’re paying us is going to go to the highest quality stories on that tag. So every writer that writes on the blockchain tag will enter, and you’ll reward some of them, and you’ll pay us for running the writing contest.

Paris Vega (43:47.720)
Wow.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (43:48.230)
It’s going to put you right next to the keywords that matters and that’s why writing contests are the highest growth section of our business It’s making the most money. It’s making the most return customers and there’s a lot of available tags So if you want to come in and run a contest get tons of social media updates announcement with winners direct connection to Influencer marketers who are winning the contest and thrilled to be paid by your company You know and some of these people don’t even know they enter a contest when they do it They’re writing here just for editing and distribution and they use the blockchain tag and suddenly like oh

What is this company? That’s the company who I’ve entered the contest and that’s where I won. So the writing contest is really our way to put your brand next to the larger keyword that you want to be associated with.

Paris Vega (44:24.000)
Wow.

Paris Vega (44:32.078)
That’s awesome, man. Okay, I’m sold. I’m gonna definitely try Hacker Noon from both angles, I think.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (44:37.790)
All right, well, we can talk more after this. I’m thrilled to be here. I like the idea of your podcast, going back to the beginning and being revenue generating. And that’s kind of, if you can’t get any revenue, you don’t really have much. So you gotta find that sweet spot of the first people willing to pay you.

Paris Vega (44:42.599)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (44:52.278)
Yeah.

Paris Vega (44:56.778)
Bye.

Paris Vega (45:01.778)
David, thank you so much for being on the show and everybody listening. Go check out Hacker noon and use the site. Sounds amazing.

david_smooke__hackernoon_ceo-nkyx3ev (45:08.650)
Cool, later.

Paris Vega (45:12.119)
See everybody next time.

Show Links 

HackerNoon: https://hackernoon.com/

HackerNoon for Writers: https://app.hackernoon.com/new

HackerNoon for Brands: https://app.hackernoon.com/brand

David Smooke on HackerNoon: https://hackernoon.com/about/David

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