Hacking Hacker News – How Wily Startups Leverage Social News Sites

This article previously appeared in Forbes.

I recently spoke with Michael Bleigh, Co-Founder and CEO of Divshot. I reached out to Michael after their surprising day at the top of Hacker News during early September. The innocuous post, which was simply titled "Divshot" generated over 110 comments and was awarded nearly 200 points by Hacker News' notoriously jaded readers.

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According to Michael, the Hacker News exposure was completely unplanned. Although the exact sequence of events is a bit unclear, it appears that Hacker News user "lukethomas"(who is unaffiliated with Divshot) was prompted to create the Hacker News post after reading a tweet about the initiation of the company's private beta.

The lessons learned by Divshot confirm that obtaining, and more importantly maintaining, visibility on the front page of a major social news site results from the congruence of three factors: audience, timing and engagement.

Audience

Divshot's Founders conceived of their innovative web development solution, which automatically generates professional-grade code during the wire framing process, during a Startup Weekend event in Kansas City. The team subsequently earned a coveted position in Launchpad LA's current accelerator class after winning the Crowdstart LA competition. (Note: Rincon Venture Partners is an investor in Launchpad LA, but otherwise has no affiliation with Divshot.)

When I caught up with Michael to discuss the impact of the unexpected Hacker News exposure, he began by commenting on the nature of the Hacker News community."For us, the audience was perfect. We’re a tool for hackers, designers, and entrepreneurs - effectively everyone who reads Hacker News. If we hadn’t done well on Hacker News we would have needed to have some serious product/market fit discussions."

Timing

Hacker News encourages entrepreneurs to solicit feedback by using the "Show HN" prefix in a post's title. This approach works if you are seeking legitimate feedback and are not attempting to simply pimp your wares. Such feedback is especially constructive when you have something physical that users can interact with, such as beta software, a working website, etc.

When I asked Michael about soliciting such feedback, he admitted that, "Timing is the hardest thing to control: you can carefully craft worthwhile content, word your message brilliantly and then post at what you think is the perfect time and still end up with zero traction. Alternatively, you can have someone randomly post a link in the middle of the night with no preparation and have a day at the top (of a major news site)."

Thus, the key to properly timing social news exposure is to channel your inner Boy Scout and be prepared to make the most of such opportunities, irrespective of when or where they arise. To do this, you must formulate a sound engagement plan in advance of receiving unexpected media attention.

Engagement

No matter how you end up on the front page of a major news site, getting there is just the first step. As Michael notes, "Social news is heavily driven by conversations. You will receive more upvotes if your post is heavily commented on. It is often a virtuous circle as the more comments posted, the higher your ranking, which often leads to even more comments and upvotes."

Michael offers the follow general tips regarding how entrepreneurs can obtain meaningful engagement on social news sites:

1. Be Yourself- Represent yourself, not the company in your comments. No one wants to hear corporate doublespeak in comment responses.

2. Troll Starving- Don’t feed trolls unless you can concisely and completely rebut their comments. Their remarks will be ignored by most and flow down the page as no one upvotes them.

3. Somethin' Somethin'- Offer something special to the people engaging on the site. We started inviting commenters into our beta immediately; it can be a chance to turn someone with a passing interest into an early fan.

4. Stay Macro - Engage discussions from a perspective that is larger than your company. When a discussion about the merits of responsive design spontaneously erupted on our thread, we commented from a industry perspective, without simply pitching our product.

Michael concluded his thoughts regarding managing engagement by stating, "At the end of the day, people read social news sites looking for links that are genuinely interesting and useful. The best way to 'game the system' is simply to develop a genuinely interesting and useful product, or blog post, open source library, etc., that is attractive to that particular community."

More Feedback, Less Neglect

Much like Divshot, Less Neglect recently received welcome exposure and real-world feedback from the Hacker News community. The company posted a Show HN entry entitled, "We built a better solution for customer analysis and support."

The posting resulted in 40points and about 30comments. The feedback was largely positive and instructive, ranging from the efficacy of the company's name, "Change the name.The double negative is confusing..." to actionable user feedback, "Just went through the demo. You definitely have a nice start. Seems like a combo of Mixpanel and intercom.io."

Hacker Downside

Although social media news sites can be effective market validation tools, they are not without their downsides. In particular, tech-oriented communities can be generous (as well as brutally honest) with their feedback. However, if your postings are perceived to be spammy, the exposure will be deleterious to your brand. Never ask a tech community for feedback when your true intent is to close a sale.

I recently heard Hans Swildens, Founder and Managing Director of Industry Ventures share the challenges he faced selling into a tech community. He lamented that sales at his former startup, Microline Software, were initially difficult to achieve because his target market was software developers.

Nearly every prospect indicated that they could replicate Microline's solution themselves. In a few instances, developers spent their weekends and evenings writing inferior versions of Microline's tools that they then released as free, open source alternatives.

Although Microline eventually proved its value proposition and achieved a meaningful exit, the proclivity of the developer community to knock off the company's products contributed significant noise and confusion within their market.

The same phenomenon is alive and well at Hacker News. For instance, one tongue-in-cheek respondent to Less Neglect's post commented:


Blowing Out The Beta

Michael ended our conversation by noting that when an entrepreneur has the chance to tell their unfiltered story to a community of potential customers, they should, "... engage as if the future of their business depends on how well they respond to the comments, because you never know, it just might." In Divshot's case, the response from the Hacker News post doubled the size of the company's Beta waiting list, which now numbers in the tens of thousands.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet lame Hacker News articles or tell you about that killer burrito I just ate.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.


Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.





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