Alex L

@aloukissas

My side-project reached the front page of Hacker News… in under 30 minutes!

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

So, what happened? My first “Show HN” submission on Hacker News got to the front page in under 30 minutes (and reached #2 in under 60 minutes). It also got me from zero to over 4K page views in a single day. All of that with zero planning and for a project that didn’t even exist a week prior to my post submission. This was pretty nuts, which is why I decided to write this.

What is Hacker News?

If you’re in the tech and/or startup world, you can probably skip this section. Still here? Cool. Here’s a quick overview: Hacker News is a reddit-like website run by Y Combinator. YC (as Y Combinator is often referred to) is one of the most prominent startup incubators in Silicon Valley. Users can submit posts, which often include interesting news articles, new product announcements, and in general “anything that gratifies one’s intellectual curiosity”.

A special kind of posts are “Show HN” posts (short for “Show Hacker News”). This is meant for people to share something that they’ve made on Hacker News. This is usually a new product/startup or a cool side-project (often related to technology). Just like reddit, people can upvote and downvote posts, with the most interesting/newsworthy bubbling up to the front page.

They also employ methods to prevent manipulating the system, such as detecting when people solicit for upvotes on social media. This all seems to work pretty well most of the time — the Hacker News front page (a common daily destination for people in this community) will very often contain many interesting (maybe even time-wasting? 🙈) posts.

A little bit of background

My Hacker News submission was about a side-project that I recently built called YC Review. It’s a website where people who are thinking of applying to Y Combinator can have their application reviewed by a YC alum before they apply. This all started literally six days prior to my submission. After casually mentioning the idea to a friend, he nudged me to just “build it”. And so it goes.

Friends don’t let friends leave cool projects unfinished

A few moments later, I was quite surprised that the first domain I thought of (ycreview.com) was available, so I quickly bought it and put this thing together. Within just a couple hours, the site was live. I then reached out to a few YC alumni in my extended network to test whether there was willingness from their end to be part of this experiment (since a two-sided marketplace without supply is rather useless).

After getting a decent number of signups within the first few days, I decided that it was time to share it with the community. And of course, this meant submitting a “Show HN” post. Mind you, up until that point I had mostly been perusing Hacker News as a reader and had never actually submitted anything.

Off to the races

I’m sure there might be optimal ways of doing this (e.g. looking into whether some days of the week or times of day can statistically yield better results), but I honestly didn’t have time to look into that. Aside of building my own startup, I also had to prepare and pack for a long trip to Europe on that same day. So, as I was having my morning coffee, I decided to bite the bullet and just do it, hoping for the best. What happened next was beyond any expectations (cliffhanger, much?).

I didn’t check Hacker News for a while, as I switched to reading news updates about the terrible fire disasters in my hometown of Athens. However, as I checked back roughly 30 minutes later, I just couldn’t believe it — my post had not only climbed to the front page, but it was at #4!

What the what?! I’m on the front page of HN!

Obviously, I refreshed to make sure it wasn’t a mistake and checked that I was on the right page. Nope, it was the real thing. And yes, of course I turned into a “refresh page” monster for the next few minutes. It wasn’t until another 25 minutes later that my submission reached #2 on the front page. By that time, my fiancee had gotten out of her daily morning virtual standup with her team, so when I saw her, I yelled:

My Hacker News post has reached the front page! It’s at #2!
No fake news — we made it to #2 🙀

This was absolutely nuts!

Oh, and did I mention that in the midst of all this I got locked out of Hacker News? Yup. The website has this nifty “anti-procrastination” feature, where you voluntarily tell it to lock you out after spending a certain amount of time on the site. Luckily for me, the guys that run Hacker News at YC responded really quickly after I emailed them at hn@ycombinator.com and within just a few minutes, I was once again able to engage in the discussion. These guys are really amazing.

The post had quite decent engagement in the comments (including some cynicism — this is a tough crowd, I’ll tell ya!) and it ended up staying on the front page for a good few hours. Once the day was coming to a close and my post was eventually finding its way past the front page, it was time to see what this whole madness yielded.

The result

I would like to claim that this was a well thought-out experiment, with clearly defined goals and targets. But as you might have guessed by now, this was far from it. OK, I had set up some rudimentary Google Analytics events, but that was about it. The screenshot below tells the story: the site went from almost zero users to almost 2K users and over 4K pageviews, just in a couple hours. I’d expect that such a bump is typical for projects launching on Hacker News or other similar outlets, such as Product Hunt.

Finally, there were quite a few people who signed up, at least enough to keep me much busier than I had planned for the next few days.

So, how did this happen?

I’ll try to make some sense of this and how this happened. Maybe there are some repeatable learnings here, but honestly, YMMV. Probably by a lot.

Sheer luck. If I haven’t made it clear enough, I submitted a post for a project that was less than one week old with almost zero preparation. Maybe my timing was right? Perhaps the post title was catchy enough? Who knows. But I’m sure luck played a decent role here.

Content that speaks to the audience. A decent number of the Hacker News audience is involved in the startup scene, with many of them being founders themselves. Posting about something that speaks to them, especially on a topic related to a common pain point (in this case, getting your YC application as perfect as possible) can definitely work in your favor. After all, this is in fact a product-market fit test.

Have a clear, concise headline. Great headlines can make a huge difference. My mentor for YC Startup School once gave me great advice on this topic, which I end up referencing quite often. In short, a great headline should:

1. appeal to self-interest
2. pique curiosity
3. be newsworthy, and
4. come across as quick & easy

You can’t always have all these four attributes, but the more checkboxes you tick, the better. I think getting this one somewhat right probably helped here.

Be honest and nice. There were a couple comments early on in the post, where people were questioning the motives behind the project, as well as the fact that the names of the creators were not mentioned anywhere. Honestly, all these issues were due to the fact that I put this thing together so quickly and some things slipped through. However, I decided to be 100% honest and own these issues in the comments. I also decided to be quick in updating the FAQ section of the website to avoid further confusion. You will have people throwing negative comments and harsh criticism at you. But in my opinion, the best course of action is to simply take all feedback and criticism as hints for improvement (even in real time, as it was in my case), without being confrontational. Remember, it’s not uncommon for some of your harshest critics to quickly become your most hardcore fans.

Conclusion

I really hope this helps and inspires you to get whatever you’re working on out there, as soon as possible. If you want to see what all this fuss was about (especially if you’re considering of applying to Y Combinator for the upcoming batch), check out YC Review — it’s completely free and anonymous. You can also follow YC Review on Twitter, where I post helpful, relative content.

Now, go build something awesome 🚀!

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