In this interview, Dane Lyons discusses how he first got involved with the successful site and delves into Hacker Noon 2.0, the tech publications new content management system marking its departure from Medium to pursue its own CMS software development.
We discuss what the competitive features and values the platform bring over Medium and how the company involves their large community base in their policy and development decisions.
Since removing Medium from Hacker Noon, the site has seen strong growth year on year. In 2019 Hacker Noon secured over $1M in equity crowdfunding and attracting investment from notable individuals like Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian.
How did you get involved with Hacker Noon?
I’ve known David Smooke for 6-7 years. He was recently a co-best man at my wedding. It’s rare to find someone so creative and willing to put himself out there.
Having creative confidence is a huge advantage when building anything. But it is especially important when building startups. How many people are willing to create a neon green, pixelated brand in this age of Instagram? Sometimes going against the grain is the best way to capture the imagination.
From day 1, I’ve wanted to work with David and finally got the opportunity a little over a year ago. Hacker Noon was in the process of raising money from the community and needed help building a small dev team to create a new publishing platform. I initially tried to help from the sideline but I was finding myself thinking about Hacker Noon all the time. So it made sense to jump in and invest all of my time to help get this new product off the ground.
What competitive advantage does your new CMS have over the incumbents like WordPress, Ghost and publishing platforms like Medium?
Every popular CMS on the market today is primarily a generalized solution. They work fine for common blogging needs and even have some extensibility through plugins. But they are not the specialized solution we need for our community.
Here are a few of our needs that aren’t well served by generic platforms:
1) We have over 10,000 writers and need an editorial workflow capable of managing hundreds of new submissions per day, without needing to track that data through spreadsheets and email.
2) Our writers are particularly interested in publishing code and integrating with tools like Codepen.
3) Our writers need a dashboard to manage their stories and track their stats.
4) Many of our writers publish on behalf of their company. We need a way to distinguish individual contributors from brands.
5) Technically dense content often requires a lot of context building. We need a way to display context for readers on-demand when they need it and keep it hidden when they don’t need it.
6) We need a platform that enables readers to subscribe to a combination of tags and writers.
7) The feedback loop between publishers and readers is not a solved problem in my opinion. Clicking a like button is a frictionless vote of support but it lacks context to help writers know what to publish next. Comments are great but are a big ask from readers so participation is low. We can do better.
We could build with an established CMS, and hacked a path forward. But building your own platform gives you so much more flexibility at every juncture. It’s still early days for our new platform so the differentiation might not be huge at this stage. But we will diverge from the generic CMS options and build something more and more tailored for technologists.
What are the biggest tech challenges that startups face today and how is Hacker Noon dealing with them?
One of the biggest challenges every startup faces on a daily basis is figuring out how to invest everyone’s time and energy to maximize output. I strongly believe this is not purely a management problem. As a manager, no amount of information can help you decide how each individual contributor should invest their time.
The reason for this is managers might understand business goals. And they might have a keen understanding of the capabilities of each individual on the team. But they lack the context to efficiently glue everything together.
Imagine a developer has been spending the last 2 weeks privately thinking about a part of your infrastructure or a particular problem one of your users is running into. It doesn’t make sense to throw away all of this invested energy and task them with something completely unrelated. For one, they might not be interested in the task. This results in less output because they’re distracted by the thing they are interested in. And secondly, it’s hard to manage dependencies to make sure people can smoothly transition from task to task without getting blocked.
To be truly efficient as a team, you just can’t treat people like emotionless resources. That might work in a large company with a lot of cash to burn. But to do more with less, you’ve got to inspire and empower rather than manage. That doesn’t mean pure anarchy where anyone can do whatever they want. Everyone needs to be working toward a common goal which requires compromise.
At Hacker Noon, we try to give everyone as much autonomy as possible by having a flexible roadmap which we call a “product funnel“. We also encourage contributors to self-assign tasks whenever possible.
How is the Hacker Noon community involved in shaping your product?
Just some of our systems of engagement include Discourse, Twitter, email support and we’ve even invited some contributors to our slack channel. We regularly publish updates on the site.
Honestly, it isn’t nearly enough. It’s so hard to build a decent feedback loop where the community is able to contribute without committing to something as heavy as a user study.
In a perfect world, we’d empower the community to subscribe, vote, and comment on upcoming features. This way we can feed the community with a ton of prototypes, concepts, and bug fixes we’re thinking about and get a stronger signal telling us what’s important and what isn’t.