Today we have the privilege of sitting down with David Smooke, the Founder and CEO of HackerNoon. With a unique journey from the East Coast to the West Coast and now in Colorado, David has been at the helm of a platform that has become a thriving hub for technology enthusiasts. We’ll dive into David’s insights about HackerNoon, his vision for the platform, and his own journey from the world of technology to becoming a steward of quality content.
David, you mentioned growing up on the East Coast. How did your childhood and family shape your interests and passions, eventually leading you to the world of technology and entrepreneurship?
I was lucky enough to have two great parents. That plus a bit of natural intelligence, gave me the confidence to make my own thing. In school, I excelled at math – even earning a perfect score on math SATs – and struggled with English – getting a few hundred points less than perfect on my reading SATs. As I aged, I learned I care less about math and more about words.
As a child, did you display any particular traits or interests that hinted at your future as an entrepreneur and leader?
In 8th grade English, our homework was to copy many pages from the grammar book, and I had just gained access to my first printer scanner. I scanned the grammar book, printed the pages, and pasted them into my notebook and a friend’s notebook. The teacher did not appreciate, welcome or reward this use of technology.
How did your experiences and upbringing on the East Coast differ from the West Coast, and how did each environment contribute to your personal growth and outlook on life?
The east coast has more ice than snow, so I suppose that made me rigid but I always appreciated growing up with more seasonal variety. Getting a college scholarship to head to California was, at the time, a dream come true. Now, I like living with a true four seasons in Colorado.
Many entrepreneurs credit early entrepreneurial ventures during their childhood, like lemonade stands or small businesses. Did you have any such experiences that ignited your entrepreneurial spirit?
I was a failed teenage eBay shirt reseller. I went to the thrift shops to try and find the high priced brands in decent condition. I underestimated how much logistics, listings, messages, shipping, and just work it takes to make ecommerce work.
Were there any hobbies or extracurricular activities you pursued during your childhood that had a lasting impact on your approach to problem-solving and creativity?
I used to be a pretty competitive ski racer, and have always been a consistent basketball player and walker. From walking, I learned patience. All you have to do is keep walking, exercising the forefront thoughts, and then the back of your mind will solve – or at least make progress on – your more difficult problems. Basketball challenges me to consider how to make my teammates better, and ski racing taught me how to show up on time and go fast.
How do you think your upbringing and childhood experiences have influenced your leadership style and decision-making as the CEO of HackerNoon?
Due to my upbringing at home with a tight knit family and at school with smaller class sizes, I tend to get the most out of small teams. I love that Joey Diaz quote, paraphrasing ‘give me three bad motherf*ckers and I can take over a country. With a small team, it’s easier to remain transparent about the company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. I like working with people who have skin in the game and care about outcomes bigger than themselves.
What were some of the most significant personal challenges you faced while building and scaling the platform, and how did you overcome them?
Looking back, it’s hard to just do it every day for 8+ years. Some days the kids are sick, some days you are tired, and being an entrepreneur often requires just plugging along anyways.
How do you ensure the team’s alignment with the mission of HackerNoon, and how has being a part of this team influenced your personal growth?
In terms of aligning interest, we currently only hire from our careers page and every potential hire has a part-time contract first – to mutually confirm working together long-term is a good fit. Our team is 18 people fulltime – and that is not many people to manage a community of our size: 1k+ shareholders, 3k+ customers, 45k+ contributing writers and 4M+ monthly readers. I’ve learned a ton from our amazing team about what to build, how to sell, when to think long-term, and why this green blob will grow.
How has curating and learning from the vast pool of knowledge on HackerNoon shaped your own understanding of the tech industry and personal development as a lifelong learner?
Learned about Bitcoin via a HackerNoon story submission, and I hodl a couple Bitcoins, so that’s helpful. I’ll check in on the editorial que everyday, editing and publishing some my favorite HackerNoon contributors. Lately, I’ve been thinking and tinkering more on how to determine what to read next. Nothing like a story that reaches you at the right time.
How has managing relationships with shareholders impacted your personal growth as an entrepreneur and CEO?
We are a publishing platform that was bootstrapped for a few years, then fundraised via equity crowdfunding and strategic rounds from technology companies like Arweave. We send fairly robust letters to 1,300+ shareholders. We publish shortened versions of them on our official State of the Noonion account. Each one forces a thorough reflection of the business. And as the top shareholder with Linh Dao Smooke, we do work to reach and exceed our own standards first. I’m very appreciative of the belief the internet’s found in HackerNoon. We’ve remained an entirely common stock company.
What key strategies or decisions do you attribute to the platform’s rapid expansion and popularity within the technology community?
From where I’m sitting, it’s been more like two steps forward one step back on loop – than rapid expansion. But thank you 🙂 We’ve increased revenue for 6 years in a row, and doubled it for 5 of those years. That means we are a consistently 2x business, but never really a 10x or 100x overnight rapid success. In terms of the larger need we filled, blogging can be very lonely. Knowing there’s someone on the other side of the screen who wants to help edit and distribute stories can mean the difference between an original thought circulating in the world or not.
What sets HackerNoon apart from other technology publications, and what are your future plans for its growth and success?
We exist in between social media and traditional media. Like social networking platforms, we welcome anyone to author original insights, no ‘journalist’ credentials needed to create an account or submit a story. But unlike social media and more similar to traditional journalism, every single story is edited by one of our human editors, and only the top-quality stories get featured on the homepage, translated into 13 languages, and featured atop our newsletters. Our distribution engine is over half million social media followers and half a million email addresses. We also build most of our tech ourselves, from the custom Content Management System (CMS) that powers HackerNoon.com, to our Startups of the Year and Noonies Voting software, to our various AI integrations within the HackerNoon editor. Our future plan for growth is to simply make more money than we spend. We have built enough infrastructure now, and demonstrated many years in a row that we could (and did) achieve profitability.
How do you manage potential conflicts and maintain a positive and inclusive environment for all contributors and readers in HackerNoon’s diverse global community?
We try. It’s impossible to be everything to everyone. We invest heavily in documentation. Through HackerNoon Help and The Editing Protocol, we can answer almost every incoming question (mostly via our Contact form, but occasionally via social media as well) with an explanation, a helpful tip, or a clarification. For example, one of the most common questions was why a story is rejected, which makes this Help Doc useful. We also attempt to serve the diverse needs of our readers by allowing up to 8 different translations on select stories and creating an audio file for every story. Translated stories also have their own homepages (such as this one), and their own newsletters, and very soon, podcast feeds.
Can you share insights into how you’ve built and maintained strong relationships with 2,000+ tech companies as customers and how they’ve contributed to the platform’s growth?
We’ve actually managed to serve almost 4000 businesses so far 🙂 The most common reason businesses reach out to HackerNoon staff is to get their company mentioned on HackerNoon. Many of our larger customers started with the request to publish a single blog post. Over time, we became a part of more publishing routines, and have moved more of our ad packages into public places with buy buttons, such as this Startups Special package, or this Trial Credit for Business Blogging form. One of our top revenue sources is writing contests, and the first writing contest was devised in collaboration with the customer, EverScale, who didn’t want to just advertise, but rather wanted to incentivize discussion of the #decentralized-internet. So together, we came up with a plan to reward the best stories on the #decentralized-internet tag.
With millions of monthly readers, how do you handle potential privacy and data security concerns, ensuring user information is adequately protected?
David, your upcoming documentary with the tagline “Is Web 3 really the future, or just a passing trend for people looking to make a quick buck?” sounds fascinating. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind this project and what motivated you to explore the topic of Web 3 and its potential impact on the technology landscape?
We’ve published 15k+ Web3 text stories, and I’m fairly certain the internet’s been and will be rebuilt a number of times. At our team’s core, everyone documents. It’s natural to experiment with new forms as a company and evolve. We’ll see how it goes!
How can people find out more about HackerNoon and connect with you?
- Read HackerNoon 🙂 Download the Mobile app (Apple, Google Play). Or write your first tech story, I still edit a couple of stories a week, maybe I’ll be your editor 🙂
Also Published as “Forging the Future of Digital Discourse Tech Alchemist: David Smooke”