How Hacker Noon became an industry-leading publication

This episode is a discussion with David Smooke – Founder and CEO of Hacker Noon. We talk about how Hacker Noon was able to become an industry leading publication (with more traffic that Forbes) in just 4 years, how they used contributors and SEO to drive that growth, how they used equity crowdfunding to support their future growth plans, plus we touch on blockchain, A.I. and the state of the news industry in today’s world. We go on a few tangents in this episode but I’m sure you’ll like it.

LINKS

You’re listening to The Growth Manifesto Podcast, a Zoom video series brought to you by Webprofits – a digital growth consultancy that helps global and national businesses attract, acquire, and retain customers through digital marketing.

Hosted by Alex Cleanthous.

SHOW NOTES

  • 00:01:01 David’s introduction to the Growth Manifesto Podcast.
  • 00:02:05 What is Hacker Noon?
  • 00:05:12 How did you get the idea for Hacker Noon?
  • 00:09:44 What’s your approach in attracting contributors to your blog?
  • 00:11:51 Did organic traffic play a big part in Hacker Noon’s growth?
  • 00:13:37 David talks about writing trends he’s found along the way
  • 00:15:56 What tools do you use to improve organic performance?
  • 00:18:30 How did Hacker Noon become the tech platform of choice for so many people?
  • 00:22:15 David talks about what it was like when he first started Hacker Noon and how he eventually scaled the company
  • 00:27:52 How did you meet the challenge of balancing your published content with your monetized content?
  • 00:31:58 David and Alex discuss their thoughts on the media and journalism industry
  • 00:38:04 How an equity crowdfunding campaign helped Hacker Noon grow
  • 00:44:00 What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from the equity crowdfunding campaign?
  • 00:46:26 David talks about investing in the tech behind Hacker Noon platform
  • 00:48:54 How does having your own software and platform to publish content help you get to the next level?
  • 00:54:30 David talks about the blockchain experiments they’ve been doing on their tech
  • 00:56:01 David shares his thoughts on Bitcoin and digital cash
  • 01:00:28 David tells us where he thinks the blockchain industry is heading
  • 01:02:35 What are some of the coolest tech innovations you see coming in the near future?
  • 01:04:50 What are the concerns of AI starting to write news and content?
  • 01:07:15 Where do you see life eventually going with all the technological advancements happening right now?
  • 01:08:33 What would you want the people listening to this podcast to do?

TRANSCRIPT

David Smooke: Media companies have 3X revenue evaluation; software companies have 10X evaluation. They just look at their little rule of thumb, which one are you? Okay, let’s multiply your revenue. So there’s that rule of thumb valuation, and it is real, though, because we could take our content management system and build 50 more sites.

Alex Cleanthous: Of course.

David Smooke: Because it’s our software, and it’s not the same as, “Hey, we’re going to take WordPress and white label it and say it’s Smooke Press.” And now we have it… There’s a level there of how good are your actual growth paths? And software or something like with the Noonies is a voting software we built, and now we’re going to put it in more types of voting locations. And we built it, and now we have a software that allows people to vote on different items and securely vote and track votes and that stuff. So there’s an element of how do you grow? And sometimes, with software, it allows you to be horizontal, as opposed to just saying, “I’m just building hackernoon.com.”

Alex Cleanthous: Cool. All right, everyone. Hello. Today, we’re talking with David Smooke, founder and CEO at Hacker Noon. Hey, David, how are you?

David Smooke: Good. Thanks for having me on the show.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, for sure. Now, for those of you who don’t know, Hacker Noon is one of the leading tech publications on the internet, and I quote from the website, where hackers start their afternoon. So it may have started with hackers, but the site was founded in 2016 and drives more traffic than Forbes, which was established in 1917, with millions of visitors each month. And so today, we’ll be talking about Hacker Noon’s success, including the initial growth, the evolution of it, and then we’ll get into the tech stuff because there’s been quite a lot of stuff happening across the blockchain space recently. And Hacker Noon, I first heard about this back when we got into the blockchain marketing side of things. And Hacker Noon was and still is the place to go for that level of tech news.

Alex Cleanthous: And before we get started, just make sure to go ahead and hit the subscribe button so that you get the latest episodes as soon as they’re released.

Ah, David, this is going to be a fun chat. But I thought it would be good to start by talking about Hacker Noon and just explaining what Hacker Noon is for people who may not have heard about it before.

David Smooke: Great, I’m looking forward to this as well. So Hacker Noon is a technology publishing platform. We publish about 30 stories a day by technologists across all different job types, product managers, software developers, founders, CEOs, investors. And then, we have an editorial team that will review and improve this content, and then we built a number of distribution systems like a typical publishing company. But most of our software, we build entirely ourselves. So we also have a software team. So we’re exploring different ways to push the boundaries on what publishing technology could be and bring our software into more locations than just hackernoon.com.

Alex Cleanthous: Okay, that’s a really good intro. Let’s just take a step back a little bit; Hacker Noon was your third business, right?

David Smooke: Well, sometimes it’s tricky on how you count, so you…

Alex Cleanthous: How do you count it?

David Smooke: A lot of times, I’ve actually just put the failures all into one company. And I’ve had a number of failures, and we started… The original name of the company was ArtMap, Inc., and we were about scaling people’’s voices on the internet. And really, I just tried to work with the smartest entrepreneurs I knew. And I would contract with them, get a stake in their company. And then on the side, I was building 10, 20, 30 sites at once and trying to build different content destinations, different digital publishing solutions, different things about… just curious around text on the internet and how that’s going to change and what business models are going to grow around it. And in that time period, Hacker Noon became the most popular site. And so slowly but surely, it went from my part-time interest to my full-time focus.

David Smooke: And as it made more money, we brought more people on, really the first two years was just me and part-time people and then my wife, who is more talented than me, joined, and that’s when things started to grow a little more significantly. It’s been a pretty fun ride. Right now, we’re at seven people full-time and eight part-time. So I’m enjoying the life of a small remote team and how to just have fun on the internet together.

Alex Cleanthous: And have you always… So like in… Well, you started a few years ago, there are seven people now, is everybody remote?

David Smooke: Well, my wife lives with me. Yeah, everyone else is. So our Chief Product officer, we were friends for eight years in San Francisco where I used to live. And then, in February, he decided to move to New York City, which was a pretty tough thing to do. So he ended up actually relocating in Colorado, so he’s about two hours away from me. And then we have two people in Michigan, India, Amsterdam, Hanoi, so all over the place. It’s nice for editing, too, so people get a different perspective, and also, they’re online at different times. So you get a little more rolling submissions and a little better response time.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, that’s great. That’s great. That’s great. And how did you get the idea for Hacker Noon? Because you said you were doing 30 sites or something, trying to publish a bunch of content, but how did you get the idea for Hacker Noon?

David Smooke: So originally, it was the Hacker Daily, and we built with Medium software for a while before it was Hacker Noon. And just before that, I was with a company called SmartRecruiters, and I built up their corporate blog from nothing to 400 contributors. So this idea of making a trade-off of helping people get their content online and have it look better online and have the content be a little better and distribute it, was something that I had done with hundreds of people, so it kind of became like, “Okay, how do I cut out the human parts of this process?” Because you remember, six years ago, it was still pretty tough to use WordPress and publish a blog post. Not that it was impossible, it was obviously tougher 16 years ago and 26 years ago was impossible. Or ish. So, that’s the evolution of it. It just got much easier to move content around.

David Smooke: And I think it’s going to continue to get easier. Different plugins and people wanting to speak better to each other; where you own your content, it’s in one place, and then you distribute it to Hacker Noon and many other sites. So that’s kind of like… What I saw is like a trend is how people wanted to behave, and the challenge of growing your online presence is everywhere. Why are you an expert? Why are you doing a podcast? How do you meet new people, especially as you know, we’re all in America, we’re all locked down. I don’t know; maybe it’s a little better for you.

Alex Cleanthous: It’s rolling. Sometimes it’s locked down; sometimes it’s not locked down; it depends on the week.

David Smooke: And then with this model, the technologists just makes more sense, because they’re already writing, they’re already using the keyboard all day, they’re already writing, documenting how they’re coding, they want more people to read the ideas they have and the ideas is the currency. The readership of the ideas is the currency. So it kind of hit an industry where if I tried to make a community-driven blog with manufacturing advice or retail advice, it’d be a less interesting destination and just less virant].

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, sure. And let’s just jump back a second to one of the comments you said. You said that in your previous role, you built up a blog to 400 contributors. And I’m assuming a bunch of traffic, and I’m assuming a bunch of success as a result of that. It sounds like your approach is the contributor-led approach to content publishing, is that right?

David Smooke: Yeah, absolutely. So our model is contributors own their content, and they give it a non-exclusive licence to Hacker Noon, and we can edit and distribute it. So this is a good model because it’s between social media and traditional publishing. If you publish on Forbes, it’s a lot of pitching; it’s a lot of back and forth, it’s kind of a clunky login and submission of content. So having a good contributor experience is there, but not going as far as anyone can publish and there are no rules here. Every post goes through a second human, and there are quality control issues, there are content improvement efforts, so that’s like just a better experience. I think the second human rule is something; everyone should use when they post online. Let’s just be sure a second human sees this before I put it to every human on the planet, or every human on the planet could find it.

Alex Cleanthous: Yes.

David Smooke: So I think that’s like, if you want to look at how you could have one rule that would increase the quality of content online, that would be a good one. I think a lot of… Sometimes it’s a little powerful to have just the whole internet at your hands and for people to post things they’re going to regret in the future. So I think, as we think about the future of the internet, a little more quality control is probably a good thing for how we can read and write and not harass each other.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, right. And so your approach is to produce a lot more content because you get other people to publish it. There’s often this approach where everyone thinks that I need to create content just to share with my audience. And so they go out and create it themselves. But your approach is to get other people to contribute that content and to create the location where everybody comes to for that content. Is that right?

David Smooke: Yeah, yeah. That’s accurate. Definitely, we’re a publishing company that doesn’t employ writers. So we employ editors, and we want to improve content, but we all write ourselves, and we all publish multiple places and stuff like that. But yeah, at the core of it, we’re creating a destination and a community.

Alex Cleanthous: And what’s your approach in attracting contributors? For example, in the previous role, you got 400 contributors for somebody’s blog, right? So how do you approach that?

David Smooke: Well, this may surprise you, but people are pretty vain, and also the internet works a lot on validating multiple sources and having third party validation for your ideas. So there’s always going to be a value and not just saying, “I say this and I verify it.” Having someone else say it and verify it. And in general, as blogging has gotten bigger, especially professional blogging, not professionals as in blogging is their job, but professionals know they need to spend time writing on the internet to grow as a professional, as that’s become more of like a clear thing, it’s been a lot of organic traffic, and people are honoured to be asked that a site this size would want their stories. Then the best thing for recruiting content is just a good story. A good story goes out, and if it’s about JavaScript, you’ll see 50 more submissions that are JavaScript related advice come in. And so the absolute best thing to recruit content is just a great story.

Alex Cleanthous: And then how do you get traction on that? Because in the beginning, it would have been challenging to get people contributing, when they had never even heard of Hacker Noon. So how did you just get started in the beginning?

David Smooke: Oh, well, we sent a lot of messages. We asked a lot of people just like a sales funnel. And so we’re kind of feeding the market and fueling the market of it. And then it’s something that builds up over time. A site as it moves up to higher authorities, a lot more organic, good things start happening, a lot more citations start happening. And then you just build a lot more systems to amplify the publish button. When you publish here, who gets emailed? When you publish here, where do social media updates automatically go? How does the RSS feed work? How do we get more traction on all these distribution channels we have? So we spent a lot of time thinking about how to amplify the publish button. The more things that happen the moment we hit that button, the better off everyone is.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, right. Yeah, right. And so I’m assuming then because it started off as a part-time gig and it’s not a small team, but it’s not a huge team, you have been bootstrapped. And so I’m assuming that you relied a lot on organic traffic to support that growth. Is that right?

David Smooke: Yeah. Today it’s still organic traffic. We started bootstrap, but we did raise some money a few years into the operation. But Google Search, search traffic is…number of search and direct are number one and two right now. And then social networks, referrals, emails on down. So I’ve always liked search just in terms of the pureness of intent. And if you write very specific titles, you’re going to have this kind of long-tail intent as opposed to like… It’s much better traffic than trying to gain the Facebook newsfeed or whatever and you’re trying to clickbait and incentivise this thing and get this short term bump, and you’re like, “It’s over.” But if you have more specific headlines that will serve people that are at that moment in time many times over, you have a long tail, evergreen group of your library that helps you have more stable traffic.

Alex Cleanthous: Does part of your process when people contribute articles to help change those headlines a little bit to rank higher?

David Smooke: Absolutely, most headlines are different on the other side, when they come in, and they come out. And that’s… We looked around taking some AP testing tools too, but just in publishing, 65, 70,000 stories, we’ve learned a lot of trends and then we teach that to our other editors. And that creates more, hopefully, long term benefit for the writer and us.

Alex Cleanthous: So, that is giving away all of your best stuff, what have been some of those trends that you’ve found?

David Smooke: The trends that people know and they don’t want to admit are things that are pretty simple, like numbers in the headline work. That’s a pretty simple thing of like, it lets people know what they’re getting into. Sometimes it can be a little… It can feel a little cheaper. So you know that’s a tool that you want to use with smart discretion. You can also make fun of it, and you can use it in headlines where it’s kind of funny, but it’s still a value. Just more specific is like, specificity is a lot of times what people lack and especially as you get on to different, how to integrate this with that, how you write that information is actually, you want to know what the intent of other people that are looking for that is. So there’s just a lot of thought there, I hate misleading the reader. I want you to come here because you know what you’re going to get.

David Smooke: So, that’s where I think like… And there’s also practise, like most bloggers and professionals, they won’t spend the 20 minutes to write 20 headlines. Just that exercise of saying, “Hey, I’m an editor, I know this headline doesn’t work, I don’t know what the answer is, here’s 10. Let me take a deep breath, have a drink of coffee and pick one.” And even just doing that moment, is something everyone should do. But if you don’t, we can do it with our editors at Hacker Noon.

Alex Cleanthous: And it’s so interesting as well because you spend so much time creating the content and yet that headline is the number one reason that anyone is going to read that content. But because that content has often taken so long and taken up so much of you emotionally, physically, at the end you’re just like, “It’s a pretty good headline, I just want to hit publish so that I can get on to my next task.” Like done. But it’s such a good piece of advice, spend 20 minutes and write 10, 20 headlines, then step away, then come back.

David Smooke: The other reason people don’t do it, they put all this work in, but it’s also you have to admit to yourself, where I’m at now is different than where I started. What I sat down to do was write this; what I did was actually write that. And it’s related, and it’s very good, but it forces you to take a moment of like, “I didn’t quite do what I wanted,” which people don’t want to do. “I did what I wanted. Done.” So it’s a little bit of both of why a second human is really helpful there.

Alex Cleanthous: That’s great. That’s great. And so just from an SEO tactical perspective, are there any tools which you use to help improve the organic performance at the time of publishing or in terms of the structure itself?

David Smooke: So we’ll have tools for writers at that point, we don’t have it right now for writers in terms of identifying opportunities, and we’re talking to SEMrush about different integrations with them. And we’ve used them and Ahrefs internally and Google Search Console. And Google Analytics itself as well is pretty useful. And also just monitoring some terms and learning from there, but now one of the editors, our AI and machine learning editor, Lamarck is also our SEO lead. So we take a structure where everyone has two roles for the most part. And he knows a bit more than me; I think, but search is ever-changing. And it’s something where it’s a very dominant market, and that market leader has many other products and is being looked at by—and they have many other relationships with other companies—and they’re being looked at by the government for different things. So we’ll see how that all plays out. But it’s probably not going to be as centralised as the market as it is now in the future because search is… The technology has gotten so much better.

David Smooke: Google’s advantage over everyone in 2003 is not what it is today. So there’s that element of it and how much do you want personalised search and search based on what I’ve done before on the internet, versus how much do you want search based on pure intent and what does the aggregate of the internet think when this term comes in? I like that in terms of subject matter expertise, finding what you want to look for, looking beyond my circle. My bubble is my bubble. If they have information, I’ll find it, but I really would prefer to take a step away from my bubble and learn what the internet thinks this word means or what I should find when I search for it.

Alex Cleanthous: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, right; yeah right. And this time, a quick shout out just one of our clients as well, I have seen what seoClarity does, and they’ve got some awesome AI recommendation engine for content. So just kind of have a look at them as well there, David, because that might just give you some alternate ideas and they’ve got some…

David Smooke: Happy to take a look.

Alex Cleanthous: … pretty huge clients. I had to say that because for your site, I think it’d be super interesting to see what it could do. Thanks for sharing so far. I want to keep going down this path. How did you then take this information…and how did you become a tech platform of choice for so many niche or niche industries? It depends on which country you’re from. But how did you… Because I hadn’t heard about you when we got into blockchain, and then as soon as I heard about you, I was like, “Wow! Okay, this is a big site.” And all the tech companies, they know you, they all want to be on Hacker Noon. If they’re on Hacker Noon, then all of the other… The audience of Hacker Noon is very specific. How did you become that place of choice or the destination of choice?

David Smooke: Mostly showing up every day. There’s a lot of just showing up; you have days where traffic is higher, traffic is lower. But if you show up, it just keeps slowly going forward. So there’s something of like four years of just building up the brand over time, but also a willingness to… The rise of blockchain, it wasn’t something I said to myself, “We have to go out and publish more.” It’s something like good stories were coming in. Some of the most cutting edge tech people were moving out of software and into cryptocurrency and talking about it. So it’s something that we saw people just talking about it and just let them know, here’s the place you can talk about it. And that was definitely helpful. And coming back to amplify the publish button, the more systems you build, where you just have a little more support, and I have a little army behind me that’s not just me and you publishing a story and sharing it to our Twitter.

David Smooke: So we get a little more systems, and that builds up over time too…and we’re pretty good about tracking stats, and we recently did an investment from Coil, where now writers can stream small micropayments from Coil subscribers to Hacker Noon writers for their time spent reading. So there’s like, how do you get more little carrots and how do you build out these more little benefits, these more mentions and just how do you serve the contributor? And that’s something where more readers is one of the simplest ways to do it.

Alex Cleanthous: So was there an area that started first that had driven the initial traction? Was it because of blockchain and because that went nuts back in 2016, ’17, ’18? Is that the area which started it or kind of had it started before that point?

David Smooke: That definitely helped, but with blockchain rise and there’s been viral stories where people that help… When net neutrality was trending in America, getting a good sentiment analysis of how many of these tweets are actually from bots and which side are they on? That was a story, some data journalism that really helped us. But overall, the simplest thing you can do is just increase the rate of publishing quality stories. If you just ignore traffic, and you say, “How do I make my site better?” This is the barrier of what quality is, I want more of those, and then more people can read more of those. And you just ignore traffic for a while, and you just focus on publishing more quality stories, good things will happen. That was kind of the leap that I made. And so how do we figure out how to publish more quality stories?

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah. And because I’ve been… So I’ve been in the SEO game since 2001, so I’m kind of older now. But the one thing that has been consistent since that time is the more content that you publish that’s quality—in the beginning, it didn’t have to be quality, but these days it’s quality—so the more quality content that you publish, if you structure the site correctly, which is not too hard these days, your organic traffic starts to grow. And if you then add a little bit of promotion, outrage, a little bit of strategy behind it, it can really start to accelerate. And so, it’s interesting how you explain it sounds so simple. And yet, it’s a bit of a process to find content, publish it, edit it and to do that consistently on a daily basis and then continue on. How did you balance that in the beginning?

David Smooke: Part of it was self-motivation like, “How do I make it that Hacker Noon’s submissions are as good as what I would read on the rest of the Internet.” And try and get to that and so that also forced the process of all the submissions in, I’m judging the order which I read them by the quality which I deem their headline or the person who wrote it and whether I like reading them. So, in the early days, it was just me publishing the stories, there was a selfishness. And it’s like, how do I get to the stories I want to read and getting upset if I get through my queue, or I get near the end of the queue, and they’re not good enough, let’s go out and see who I can talk to, or find new ways to get stories I’d like reading in the morning. Now I’m publishing more like five or 10% of the stories, and the editors are doing more of it, and I’m split between reading the stories in draft and reading them after they’re published.

David Smooke: So that area is a little less self-interested than it used to be, just in terms of spending my time and it was… It took over because people wanted to advertise on it. And it was enough to pay for the… Once Hacker Noon was more in demand than my other clients, I was taking Hacker Noon money. So the goal was if I’m trying to make money, the simplest way is leave your job, get a consulting contract in your area of expertise. That’s something anyone with some level of proficiency in the market, and that the market is hiring part-time people, you can do it. And that’s how I started, and then it’s, “Okay, how do I scale?” Because at the end of that, you can really only scale by scaling up your workforce and selling your workforce to somebody else.

David Smooke: So I was really just searching for ways where it’s my site, it’s a thing that works while I sleep, it’s a machine that keeps operating, and if I’m hit by a bus, it will continue to exist. And that means it has enough value that it can grow with or without me. If it can’t grow without you, it’s not a real business. It can still be a business, selling endorsements for athletes, while the athlete is not there, they can’t sell the endorsement, but that’s a lot of money, but it’s not the business in the sense of it’ll outlive you, or it can do stuff without you.

Alex Cleanthous: And so I’m assuming you had a lot of late nights with content editing in the beginning. Is that right?

David Smooke: Yeah. Yeah, and a lot of early mornings.

Alex Cleanthous: Early mornings.

David Smooke: Yeah. I had clients too, so I was writing for them, advising them how to grow their business. So that was like… It was a fun time. This was the passion project, then it took over and then it’s a little more serious, and you have to figure it out. But definitely, anyone considering doing their own business, I would totally just set a window. When I left I was like, “Hey, I can do this six, eight months,” has to make more than it spends and just trust yourself. Nothing like putting yourself in… you need to get money more than you spend by a certain time frame to figure out how to do it.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, sure. And so, it must have been really exciting to see that organic traffic chart shooting up in the early stages. Because if it were me, I would be looking at Google Analytics daily, I’d have the real-time app just on the side, so I could see how the real-time traffic is going. But how was that experience, just seeing that traffic starting to just really shoot up?

David Smooke: It’s a real catch 22 because you have those highs, you’re just like, “Look at that number.” And then you’re like, “Look at my bank account.” You’re like, “Wait a minute; these numbers don’t align.” If you get traffic growing first, but there’s not a good system to make money, you end up in this thing where you’re like, “Oh, it’s going to grow, but I can’t spend on the things I want to spend on.” If you don’t have revenue, you’re not reinvesting in the business. So it’s a lot of highs and lows because you feel great about seeing the traffic, but not great about coming up with a business model. And in our case, we ended up having sponsors and 60% of our revenue right now is a 10 pixel tall, yellow banner at the top of every page on the site.

David Smooke: And that creates the incentive of just more time reading, more impression, no click-through, no tracking, a really simple ad that we sell directly to companies. And so that’s the stance we’ve taken on sponsorships and ads. And then we want to absorb companies, corporate blogs and tech releases and be a trusted source where they can distribute their news. So, that’s a little more of the direction we’re headed in terms of how we work with tech companies.

Alex Cleanthous: And is that a subscription model? The one which you’re talking about with companies, or is that coming soon, and you can’t talk about it yet?

David Smooke: Yeah, that is coming soon. So we’ve done more of a post packages and buying for republishing your blog by 100, by 10, and do it on a piece by piece. But yeah, we’ll be moving brand publishing, we’ll offer a subscription offering to keep it stable and just have a few more bells and whistles that we can start… Because once they’re subscribing to us, then we can justify investing more in the software and the experience for brands specifically. So we’ve invested a lot for the writer; specifically, we’re investing more and more for the reader and brands’ experience, it’s like we haven’t really spent as much on it. So we’re looking to serve all three groups with Hacker Noon.

Alex Cleanthous: And it’s… The publishing industry over the last ten years, from the newspaper, “the downfall” of the newspapers and journalism has caused this real friction between publishing and monetisation. And so, that would be a really hard challenge, because, on one hand, you got to the traffic which you got, because it’s been a pure, clean website, and then on the other side, you got to monetise it because if you’re getting that much traffic each month, you’re going to have to be investing in ensuring the site is always up. That the site doesn’t go down because somebody awesome, which you would absolutely want to post something and a couple of million people would just hit the site at the same time. So how did you balance that challenge?

David Smooke: Surviving is the balance. There’s definitely up and down. It’s an interesting model now. So much of the money has moved from the publisher to the tech company. So, that’s like… Excuse me. I tested negative for COVID recently, but I do have a little cold.

Alex Cleanthous: Okay, cool. Well, congratulations.

David Smooke: Thanks. I felt good afterwards. Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah. You’re like, “I still feel sick, but I feel way better.” Go ahead, David.

David Smooke: So there’s that and then… One thing that really influenced me was learning more about the history of BuzzFeed. And it came from… the BuzzFeed founder was one of the co-founders at Huffington Post. And the Huffington Post built no relations with their sponsor and just plugged in Google Ads or whatever other ad service they could, and everything was about building all their software and their system around that, and it’s not integrated with how the company makes money. So as the company spends all their efforts for contributors and readers to have a better experience. When they get a better experience, it doesn’t necessarily correlate with how much revenue they get. So that definitely influenced me, have a direct relationship with your customers, have your sponsors buy from here, they’re buying because they trust the relevancy and the quality of this, the experience for the readers. So I think it’s owning a relationship with the customers is a big one. And I think also with subscription models; I think it’s better… I’m more of a fan of the Patreon and the individual creator than I am of Comcast.

David Smooke: And I think as you look at individual creators connecting directly with their fans, that makes a lot of sense, the value of grouping together 10, or 100, or 1000 sources, well, I can kind of do that on my own in terms of how that works. So I think that’s kind of where I ended up on learning about this. But it also depends on the industry; it depends on the content. There’s not a set business model for anyone that’s writing stories online. For you, it’s probably your blog is all about your clients and the moment they sign that big check, you’re like, “I justified the time on the blog.” That was part of it, that’s part of the buying journey. It’s not like you want a dollar from each one of your readers, and if they don’t read it, they don’t pay you a dollar, and you don’t gain a reader either. So, that’s… People should pick their own path when they’re trying to make a business model; for us, we want to keep all of our content free.

David Smooke: How do you do that? Well, 10 pixels on the page is going to go to this guy, and this guy is going to tell you he’s launching his new open-source tool, and you can check it out and maybe build an app on it, and then they win. So that’s the spot I ended up on it, but it depends on your company, it depends on your field. There’s not really… It’s a bit of a free for all; it’s not as simple as other industries where they know what the best business model is.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, that’s right. And also.. it’s changed so much, and it’s changing so much, and nobody’s really figured it out yet. And so you do have a real opportunity to create a new… What do they call it? A category. You can create a new way for publishers to publish content and to get paid for it. Right? Because I get super concerned about how journalism is just going by the wayside a little bit because of the spate of social media, the spate of requirement, of content, the spate of all these journalists having to write their own content and having to get ideas and not having time to research them properly. Because the news cycle is so quick these days. It’s a real concern. And so, there’s certainly a big opportunity, I think, to really open this up and have people share the news and actually have it corroborated or confirmed through sources.

Alex Cleanthous: It’s still a problem right now, the fact that I can just say something and it can be referenced 20 times, and I could have just lied, right? And so there is opportunity about that, but let’s just quickly…could you talk about your thoughts on the media industry, the journalism industry and so on? The papers, the places that we get our news?

David Smooke: Yeah, so I don’t watch cable news anymore. That’s I think, a good first step that everyone can take. The commentary is so heavy; I’d rather read the story in a simpler form than to hear it performed for me. So I think that’s like… In terms of the health of citizens, I think health would go up a lot, mental health if they just didn’t watch the news and they read the news. So I think that’s a step I made in my own life that I recommend highly to others. The newspapers, they consolidate a lot, there’s not that many companies that own all the newspapers in America. So all these small papers, they are mostly owned by other people. So there is something we’re like, wasn’t that good in terms of print ads really working and local journalism working? Fifty years ago it wasn’t really that much better than now? There’s definitely less choice, and the things were less dramatised, dramatasised—whatever—all the different forms and spins of it.

David Smooke: And I know I’ve spent too much time on Twitter in looking through the news that way, and now you’re saying an algorithm-based organisation, is the way to curate the version of this story? And then on top of it, it’s like, “Okay, how do I just filter by stories that aren’t paywalled? Or how do I filter by stories that are original reporting versus regurgitated?” So there’s search things that I’m hopeful companies can do better over time about how to find news. So the echo chamber stuff, it’s like you see why it works. If you’re trying to say engagement is the answer, what you want when you surface content, what you want is engagement, you just create sensationalism in a bubble. If I publish what I like to ten people that I know already like it, it’s going to go great; it’s going to go great. They’ll all going to like it.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, sure. Yeah, sure. Yeah, sure. Thanks for that quick aside. I get super passionate about this stuff because it’s the news and it’s what they tell us…

David Smooke: How are you reading and consuming the news lately?

Alex Cleanthous: I’ve gone back and forth on channels. I stopped watching TV five, ten years ago. So I don’t watch the news. I stopped reading the papers for quite a while, except for the business news, I was getting a lot of my stuff from social media, but then I stopped that too. Now what I do is I will get a few apps that are from the different newspapers out there. So I’ll get, say, for example, get the one on the right and then I’ll get the one that’s on the left. And then I will just read the one that’s in the middle. And I’ll just see what are the extreme opinions and then what’s the one in the middle, and I’ll try to make my own assessment of the story. And then I will go, and I’ll have a look at the things that they say to corroborate it, or just to confirm that what they’re saying is actually based in truth and trying to read between the lines of what I’m being told.

Alex Cleanthous: Because I understand that they’re a business and they’re owned by people and those people, they might have agendas or not. And so, that’s okay, and so being aware of that… To read what the US says about coronavirus, and then to read the South China Post, and then to read the Russian Today, just to see what everyone is saying about the same thing and see how it changes. And then between all the stories, there’s the truth somewhere, hopefully, right? And that’s the way I try to keep across things without feeling like I’m being told what to think. If that makes sense?

David Smooke: That’s a good way to do it. It’s definitely good to read outlets that aren’t aligned with your view. That’s a good way to see how do I circle around what this story is?

Alex Cleanthous: Jordan Peterson was the one that happened that basically opened my eyes to say, if you believe something so much that it’s the absolute truth, that’s where all the worst things happen in the world. That’s where all of the worst stuff happens in the world. And also, most people are generally wrong, and not everybody can be right. So then it is good to have some scepticism about how strongly you believe something’s true. If you believe it’s absolute, is it absolute? Can it ever be absolute? Or is there another way?

David Smooke: It reminds me of something Sinbad said, the comedian. He calls them keyboard gangsters. And once you’re behind the keyboard, you’re so much easier to be extreme and go further into these things that you really, kind of believe. It’s so much easier to go further—because you’re just using your internet and your keyboard, You don’t have to actually explain how you’re going further down the rabbit hole to a sane human sitting next to you. You can just go, and you can document your path out of it.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, exactly, exactly. But I am aware that we’re going way off track. But I do love this conversation. And I had this conversation for hours with friends and stuff. But let’s come back to Hacker Noon, right? Because you’ve now got some traction, and then you bootstrapped it for a couple of years, but then you raised some money through a crowdfunding campaign. Yeah?

David Smooke: Yeah. So we did equity crowdfunding. So we raised a million dollars from 1,200 people. So kind of a smaller, sizable donation. We were made entirely common stock company. And the strategy here was to build a software team, make our own platform and have software be one of our competitive advantages. To me, if you’re in digital publishing and you can’t control the software, you’re always going to be capped, and you’re always going to have directions you want to go that you can’t do. You’re going to wait for someone else to build it and then use it, it’s kind of boring. Just kind of build it and customise it for your needs.. But equity crowdfunding is a really cool idea. It came out, America started in 2015 from the Jobs Act, and it allows anyone to own shares in a private company.

David Smooke: So we had to do a lot of due diligence, spend about 30 grand on lawyers and accountants and third-party reviews. So it was like… It’s still a pretty good cost, and it takes a lot of time to write the campaign, but for the most part, all we did was put the crowdfunding link atop our site, and people clicked through. So, 85, 90% of the traffic to the Start Engine crowdfunding page was from hackernoon.com. So it was this cool thing of like, you’re visiting a site, you can buy a stake in it. So that was what we played into of how to grow, and then it also creates people like some of our largest customers have come from introductions from shareholders. So you have this little army of people that have a vested interest in growing their stake… Because they like this thing already and they see it could be bigger and better.

David Smooke: So in terms of aligning interest, it’s a lot cooler to have 1,200 people that already like the site, than one venture capitalist who thinks you have an interesting idea and may want to change the direction you’re trying to take this thing, or you just have one partner who… It’s a lot more fun to have the community owning a piece of it and whenever I grow this thing in the future, that they’re going to be rewarded for believing this.

Alex Cleanthous: And so they actually own a part of it?

David Smooke: Yes.

Alex Cleanthous: So, it’s not like those other crowdfunding sites, like Kickstarters and stuff, it’s more…. It’s equity crowdfunding.

David Smooke: Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous: So they’re getting a piece of the company. Is that right?

David Smooke: Yep. Yep.

Alex Cleanthous: How does that work exactly? Is it a large percentage, is it a small percentage? How much have you given away?

David Smooke: With equity crowdfunding, the range is they’ve bought about 13% of the company for around a million dollars as a group. So it’s kind of the ballpark, you can go to startengine.com/hackernoon, and they have the full details of what they bought. But that’s the… So you know it’s a…

Alex Cleanthous: So it’s a million-dollar company basically, instantly overnight because of the crowdfunding, right?

David Smooke: Well, I’d because of the traffic it had. The market, putting their wallets there, validates that it was worth…

Alex Cleanthous: Validates it.

David Smooke: I think it was valuable. I thought it was valuable before crowdfunding, but it’s nice to have 1,200 people say it is this valuable.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah. And as black and white as well, because everyone thinks their company, their baby is the best one in the world. Right? But it’s only when you get that external validation. And especially when it comes to valuations, it’s absolutely black and white. So when somebody spends money for a percentage, that’s the value. That’s absolutely black and white. But it also shows the passion and the quality of the company, of Hacker Noon, right? The fact that you raised quite a lot of money. And I would suggest…well…I would think it was probably wasn’t that long, because of the volume of traffic on the website. That must have felt pretty rewarding at that point.

David Smooke: Well, it was fun because you’d wake up and there would be a different number each day. It was fun to go through that process of do work and then suddenly, oh, a $10,000 investor came in, you just see the number live in real-time changing. So it had a little just like you’re watching your sales metres in your startup numbers, I had a little bit of that for sure. That was pretty fun.

Alex Cleanthous: It’s like Google Analytics on steroids. It starts with the money. I would just love to see the Google Ads, the dashboard inside of the Google headquarters, to see just…. Because we calculated it back in 2016, we did this chart on… it was like an infographic on how much Google makes per second, and it was just out of control. And I was just thinking if that was… That would be a cool report. But this is not like Google, but still super fun. Well, how long in terms of that whole process? So you launched the crowdfunding campaign, how long did it go for before you closed it off?

David Smooke: All the third party reviews ended up taking about two months to go from when we decide to do this too when we put the page live. So a good bit of work and time and money there in that front. And then I think we ended up running five months, something in that range. So it went for a good bit, actually.

Alex Cleanthous: OK

David Smooke: It’s 1200 people; it’s a decent amount of people making decisions and over time…. So it’s just like a marketing or a sales campaign or other ways of fundraising. It’s effort. You’re not going to just…. Even though most of the traffic was from Hacker Noon that you have to keep working on. You have to keep growing the thing so that the link at the top is getting enough referral traffic to grow the next thing. So it’s a… it’s a lot of work.

Alex Cleanthous: And so what are some of the biggest lessons or the best pieces of advice which you can share with people who are listening and who may be considering equity crowdfunding.

David Smooke: Yeah, just preparing for the marketing and sales side of it is a lot. And making sure that you’re making enough revenue that you can budget for the cost of fundraising. So that’s whether you’re flying around the old way and meeting people and trying to spend in the networking side of it, or you’re building a marketing campaign, or you’re building your sales pitch, it’s a lot of upfront work. So, I’d say that.
And then also it’s like, what business models fit this? Why we’re a good business for this is because we had a large community. We had a lot of people that had vested interest in this thing getting better. They want to read it; they want it to be a better writing experience. There were things that they selfishly wanted. So if you look at media and larger community-driven sites…. I think people with large Instagram followings and super fans like that, looking at saying, “Hey, how do I turn someone that really likes and believes in me into a shareholder?” That’s the group where I think equity crowdfunding is going to grow a lot.

David Smooke: If you’re trying to sell another shoe and most of the people that visit your sites are interested in shoes, you’re probably not a great fit for equity crowdfunding unless maybe you figured out Tod’s, a mission-driven shoe company, but if you’re not as mission-driven, equity crowdfunding is probably less viable in a lot of ways.

Alex Cleanthous: The mission-driven is a big part of it.

David Smooke: Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah.

David Smooke: For us, it’s being a free location to hopefully learn anything. That’s where we would like to get… The cool parts about the internet to me are how these libraries are online. You can learn so much and then go to college, and you’re like, “Oh, I need my JSTOR login.” If you want to learn…there’s a lot of just people putting a lot of stuff online for free and how do you actually level up human knowledge as a whole. The internet has a real chance to be a huge part of that, but, it’s more likely that it becomes the next TV in terms of business interest and the incumbents making it more like Comcast. TV could have been like this, not like this, but it could have been much, much different about how many people could submit content to TV, as opposed to how many levels of barriers there are. So…we’ll see. It’s hard to give up market share. Once you have it, it’s hard to change your business model once you decided that’s the way it should work.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, for sure. And so you spoke at the very start, and you mentioned that you’re investing quite a lot time in the platform itself, in the tech behind the platform. Can you talk about that?

David Smooke: Yeah, so we built a content management system atop Firebase. We had a $100,000 grant from Google to start this. So we’re just towards the end of that. So we haven’t really been paying hosting much in a while. Then we also built with Next.js and Vercel more recently. So writers can log in, write posts, we built an editor with Slate.js. So it’s an editor of something that’s just a constant iteration. A text editor that never ends, it just keeps finding these little use cases that you’d have to optimise for, so it just continues and continues. And then stats for writers and then readers can do things like react to stories with emojis, bookmark, choose their subscriptions, customise their email, stuff like that. So it’s been pretty fun to make software and just control where the button goes and learn. It’s just fun. I don’t know; I started to like it more and more as I’ve done it more.

Alex Cleanthous: Have you always been into software, or was this the first forced requirement to get into software?

David Smooke: So my degrees in school were economics and creative writing. After that, I was…

Alex Cleanthous: So, no.

David Smooke: Yeah, but after…my first serious job, because I newspaper reporter for a little bit, small town, but my first serious job was a tech startup. And so day one was like, I’m the first American, the first marketing person, I’m going into a meeting with a bunch of European software developers and the CEO. And I was just shadowing of how they build and learn. So the value I was adding was much more writing and story and messaging, but the only other people in the room were software developers. So I learned a lot about it. And also, just once you become the public-facing person of it, or you’re interacting with company channels, you get all the complaints of the software, and you learn how much the software is like, “Okay, how did that complaint happen? Why doesn’t it work the way we thought it would? Or, why did we think this was so obvious, and they can’t get to the next stage?”

David Smooke: So it definitely created a lot of thinking like that. Now I habitually do, and I hate my phone, and I hate the computer, I don’t like the way it works. And you get frustrated and distracted. So, we’ll probably want to start a phone company next.

Alex Cleanthous: But the reason that you created your own platform is so that you could have full control over how people engage with it, what extra features, is that the reason?

David Smooke: How it works. If you don’t control the software, you don’t control how it works, so…the ceiling of a company.

Alex Cleanthous: What was lacking before? Because like you said before, if you publish the right content and if you publish it regularly, things go up, and they have for you, right? But now you’re saying. “Actually, there’s another level.” What’s that next level that the software is going to help you get to?

David Smooke: Well, before we were working with Medium’s content management, medium.com. And so that hit a limitation where they were putting paywalls on stuff and pop up account creation ads and all this kind of stuff, where it’s creating value for other people that aren’t the writer or the publisher, so there’s that trade-off of just providing experience that doesn’t have the negatives, that doesn’t have the tracking Google Ads and stuff like that, where you’re like, “Hey, those are softwares that are like… I understand why they exist; it’s just not for me.” So you know that. And then even if you’re looking at like, “Hey, I’m going to go build on Ghost or WordPress,” it became a matter of your directions are limited. You can’t just like… You can put a plugin in, but you can’t control the way a page works. You can’t control the way data flows; you can’t control even something like an emoji reaction. It’s like how do emojis get stored? How are they floating around? How do they aggregate? Once you own the system, or you build the system, you can control the different ways it works.

David Smooke: So you’re just only going to get so big. Why does the New York Times have such a large tech team? Their tech team is massive, their tech is all built exactly for what they want, and they have billions of dollars, over a billion dollars a year in subscriptions. So, that’s like an online experience they’ve created. So you just get capped as a media company, and you see it. If you want to look at it in the reverse way, you look at how a venture capitalist talks about it. Media companies have 3X revenue evaluation; software companies have 10X evaluation; they just look at their little rule of thumb, which one are you? Okay, let’s multiply your revenue.
So there’s that rule of thumb valuation, and it’s is real though. Because we could take our content management system and build 50 more sites because it’s our software and it’s not the same as, “Hey, we’re going to take WordPress and white label it and say it’s Smooke Press.

David Smooke: And now we have… There’s a level there of how… what are your actual growth paths? And software or something like with the Noonies, is a voting software we built and now we’re going to put it in more types of voting locations. And we built it, and now we have a software that allows people to vote on different items and securely vote and track votes and that stuff. So there’s an element of how do you grow? And sometimes with software, it allows you to be horizontal, as opposed to just saying, “I’m just building hackernoon.com.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, that’s fantastic. And just on the point around the inline emoji reactions. When I was reading about that, I thought, this is really cool. This is where you can actually… actually…. Maybe you should explain it. Could you explain what….

David Smooke: Yeah. We built some pixelated emojis because we love eight-bit stuff, we’re just kind of the ode to the old internet. And these emojis, you can react at the story level, or the paragraph level, or the word level. So you can just highlight some text and react to it, and then you get… What we’re trying to get towards is, how can a reader convey value to the writer in the least amount of work?
So as you look at it saying, “Hey, I could like it,” and you click one button at the top, and you don’t know what section of the content they liked. So actually getting the reactions to where the content is in the story is much more valuable information to share with the writer and share them specifically what resonated in the story. So that just like…on the opposite side of it…looking at where they drop off the story, is also very useful information or where they provide a thumbs-down. So we kept the thumbs-down in as one of the default reactions.

David Smooke: And it was mainly because…what do you say if someone has a grammar error? What do you say if you disagree? We don’t want people to use it to hate on people. So we didn’t put it at the top of the story. So that when you first get to the story, you can’t say it’s negative because you haven’t read it. But if you get to a part where you’re actually reading, you can give a thumbs-down and a negative feedback. So figuring that out was kind of fun…of just how do I not be the platforms I hate?

Alex Cleanthous: That’s a good one. Is that information public as well?

David Smooke: Not yet. Some of it is now, but it’s not driving curation as much as it will. So as we start to think about how do you filter content, and whenever you’re looking at the different emojis, we’re going to do more there. But right now it just aggregates, the total number of emojis that people did on the story.

Alex Cleanthous: It’d be cool…because there’s so much content to read. Like in my pocket app, I just have saved so many stories that I just never get to, because I don’t get to them. They’re 7000 words, 20,000 words, 10,000 words…content has gone out of control. And so having a way to scroll to where all the emojis are, and see why did people like that? And why did they not like that? That’d be really cool. Just helping people consume the best parts of content as curated by others.

David Smooke: Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous: I think that’s just a really cool feature. So I’m starting to get just why creating the platform itself is so much better for the reader as well.

David Smooke: Yeah.

Alex Cleanthous: You also—and correct me if I’m wrong—but does the tech also have a component of blockchain in it?

David Smooke: Yeah. So we’ve done a couple of blockchain experiments. So most recently, we integrated with Coil, and they’re built atop Interledger, which is an open protocol built by the Ripple staff. So with that one, writers can put their payment pointer, and when Coil subscribers who pay five dollars a month read their stories, they’ll stream small payments directly to their Uphold wallet. So, that’s happening in the browser. So writers… We’re making no money on that. Right now the Coil subscribers go directly to the Hacker Noon writers. So it’s kind of an interesting use case in terms of…. I love that streaming payments can happen in the browser without disrupting the reading experience whatsoever. And you just have pennies all the time moving around, and it’s something where the reader doesn’t have to take an extra action to do.

David Smooke: One thing I like about the Coil model is what you consume online, give them that portion of my budget, based on how much I consume it, just they earned it. So that’s the area where I really like the direction they’re headed and why they’re a good partner for us. So, that’s been our most successful blockchain experiment so far.

Alex Cleanthous: And you know what’s cool about that experiment? It’s actually one of the only ones I’ve heard of that’s actually live in the world. I’m sure there’s a lot, by the way, I’m sure there’s plenty.

David Smooke: Did you see the price of Bitcoin today?

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, let’s jump on that quickly, because the date today that we’re recording is Thursday, the 19th of November. That’s in Australia; you’re probably Wednesday, 18th there. But it’s almost $18,000; it’s $17,785 right now—because I’ve got a little thing at the top of my browser, so I can always…it’s on there 24/7—it’s almost at $20K again. They’re pretty close. What do you think is the cause of that? Or what do you think is the driver of that right now?

David Smooke: So I uh…price speculation…. Bitcoin has a lot of speculation in it. The way I like to think about it is, Bitcoin is the mascot of digital currency. It’s not the best one really in any way in terms of different functions, but because it’s the mascot, it’s created a store of value effect much like gold. And the fact that you have these billionaires keeping 15% of their money in Bitcoin and stuff like that is huge in terms of whales and perception and people buying and holding it. So I think for the industry as a whole—by industry I more mean digital cash, as opposed to specifically blockchain-based currency, just that blockchain has proved to be possible. To make digital currency without a central entity, it doesn’t mean it’s the best thing that will exist to do that role, but it’s proved that it’s possible.

David Smooke: So, that’s huge because…to me, the credit card fees are, “Why?”
“Why/” it just like…. You just look at a bank account; there’s just so many fees where you’re just like, “Why?” Is the central entity helping? What the central entity really has helped with historically is trust; in making—over time—to believe that the currency remains this amount. If community trust is high enough, that that amount is true, the central entity isn’t needed anymore. So I think that’s a direction that cash is definitely going and Bitcoin is part of the story. It’s not going to be the end thing of how I pay you, and you pay me…is kind of where I see it. But because it’s such an important part of the story, I think it’s a good store of value and the market reflects this and it’ll go down again, but in the long run, it’s going up in my opinion. Still.

Alex Cleanthous: Some people in our team are suggesting that it could either go to $100K, because some people are speculating $100K, if it hits $20, it’s going to hit $30, it’s going to hit $50. What do you think?

David Smooke: Well, I guess price prediction, I think…

Alex Cleanthous: What do you think just as a personal opinion?

David Smooke: I think a year from now…

Alex Cleanthous: No to invest; this is not investment advice. What are your thoughts on that?

David Smooke: Well, there’s a world where digital cash takes off, and Bitcoin goes down. So I fundamentally believe digital cash is taking off and it’s just going to continue, and the paper dollars and the penny shortages in America and all these things of that is just that larger trend, and that’s going to keep happening. So how to capitalise on that trend? Bitcoin is one way to do that, but it’s still…it’s a lot of energy on the transactions, it’s still not as private as some people would like it for different use cases. And then for other use cases, there’s so much Bitcoin sitting in empty wallets, and what people don’t know is that money is not accessible because they lost their private keys and it’s out of the economy or is it, hey, they’re going to ten years from now you’re suddenly just going to see it move? So there’s things in Bitcoin where, like I said, the mascot is how I always think about it in my head. You think about digital cash is the truth, and that’s the way cash is headed.

David Smooke: And then what Bitcoin is doing is a parody of that almost… . It is true that it’s doing it, but it’s also just like the face. It’s a good name. They kind of cover in the story…. I love having an anonymous founder or group of founders and not having a company at the core of it; whoever did that they get it. The story needs to be decentralised at the core for the thing to grow up; even if that person is sitting on so much Bitcoin right now, they’re just laughing their ass off that they think that because there’s not a company, it didn’t make me everything.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

David Smooke: But the story, it fits the technology. When the story fits the technology, you can get a lot of adoption.

Alex Cleanthous: And what do you think about the blockchain space? Well, the first time I heard about it, I was like, this is going to change everything. And I still believe it’s going to change everything. But I thought it was going to change everything quicker than what has happened. And last two years have been pretty low in terms of the whole industry across the board. But where do you see it going?

David Smooke: Like many exciting industries, there’s just too many scams in the beginning. And that hurt a lot of credibility, but it also was a usability problem. And a UX problem of, if you’re going to build a decentralised X, it’s like how many different layers you have to build just to get what you could get out of the box today. So the infrastructural challenges of the industry were just underestimated by most. And say, even if you had a good idea and a good use case, you’ll end up spending 90% of your dev work on this infrastructure stuff that doesn’t affect the user experience. So, it’s just a lot of work in that way that was underestimated by most people. Really, the blockchain solutions to grow adoption, they have to be as plug and play and as simple as the alternative.

David Smooke: And it just needs to be, “Hey, I’m choosing the blockchain, for this reason, to not deal with surveillance capitalism,” or whatever your reason happens to be watching treats that use case is slightly better and then you have to do no extra work to instal it or to integrate it. And it’s the same amount of work if you were taking a competitive solution that’s not blockchain-based. And so when that is closer to true, we’ll be in a better spot. But, I do think blockchain may not be the best solution to digital cash. And digital cash with a zero transaction fee is something that I think we’ll get closer to existing and it may or may not be a blockchain-based solution.

Alex Cleanthous: What will it be if it’s not a blockchain-based solution?

David Smooke: I don’t know.

Alex Cleanthous: You don’t know? Okay.

David Smooke: I’m leaving the door open here. I’m just saying that’s the thing you’re trying to solve for. There’s many people thinking about it, and it could be something different, but it could be blockchain and blockchain is already…

Alex Cleanthous: It’s Hacker Noon cash. Yeah, for sure. There’s one last point, and we’ll see how long this goes for. But you get to be across a lot of tech stuff, just being across all the Hacker Noon stories and so on, what are some of the coolest tech innovations that you’re seeing coming in the coming years?

David Smooke: AI is pretty exciting. And in general, for somewhat bittersweet causes—looking at how artificial intelligence is absorbing customer support, is kind of wild and scheduling is something where it’s getting closer, and that’s…. Those two are big…. There’s a lot of people doing those jobs. And then you look at the different machines powering the Amazon warehouses, that’s also a lot of jobs. So someway, what is disruptive technology? If it eliminates marginal costs that can sometimes be the technology that makes a lot of money, even at the expense of other people, where it’s not as exciting? But the cool thing about AI ones are more like, “How can the small business owner be helped?” Well, if they don’t have to deal with scheduling customer support, or those things are funnelled down to an effective, I only get to the actual ones that matter and the noise.

David Smooke: My machine deals with the noise; it gets me the decisions, I make the decisions. How to get your workday towards non-mindless work, because you always get to a point where you have to copy and paste, isn’t that kind of mindless work? There’s something where those technologies are exciting. And I think getting better at writing, which is a little scary, making machines that can write books and the different stuff like open AI is doing specifically. There’s some… Yeah, it’s still a lot of data in the early days, but like you read about sports, a baseball report can get pretty close of just them translating a box score into human language and learning from it. And it’s you can get the story of the game, especially the baseball where it’s kind of boring, and it’s very like, they swing, they either miss, they get a signal, or they get a double, they get a triple—there’s not as much fluidity as you football or basketball.

Alex Cleanthous: Got it. And so, I did read an article I forget which publication it was—it must have been Hacker Noon—I’m joking, but where the AI had written the whole article and says, “Hey, I am artificial intelligence, and I’m the entity that is writing this article.” And it went on, and it was a really good article. And the whole point of it and I just assume it was AI. This is one of the things that I didn’t check. So you can’t quote me on it, but the whole point was that this article was created by AI. Now, if AI starts to write our news, what will be some of the concerns about that?

David Smooke: Yeah. Knowing whether it’s today AI or not, is pretty important. We’ve done the same thing; the Next Web has a series that’s actually pretty good. There’s been a few companies that are doing these cool like, “My AI wrote this.” And if AI reads all Shakespeare and I haven’t read all of Shakespeare, and you tell them to write like Shakespeare, they’re going to do it better than me. It’s all about the data set. And they can learn with a large data set. They can learn a lot. So with news specifically, humans, you need them. You need the headlines; you need to know if you’re putting out…. If you’re trying to break news and it’s misleading and wrong, it could have massive effects. That if one person puts out a misleading or wrong thing and the algorithms push it further, we’ve really hurt everyone involved in the situation. So more review, it’s trusting your sources because it has been getting tougher and it’s going to keep getting tougher. It’s a very difficult problem.

Alex Cleanthous: The biggest…. Well, one concern I would have is that if AI is writing the article and if the article is then seen… And this is how fake news proliferates—you create an article, and then you create a bunch of other sites that are linked to that article, and they’re all the sources, and then you create a bunch of other sites that link to that…. It’s like a blog network that SEO companies have used in the past, but now it’s done for content creation. I would say that that would be a real challenge because they don’t have any cost of creating content, it’s just the machine that makes it, and they can just create a web of content that supports itself. I think AI is really awesome, just the application of it and how it’s coded. It’s still coded by people. And the singularity, which is, I think they said, 2042 or something like that. And we don’t know what life is going to be like after that. I like life now. That’s cool. You know what I mean?

David Smooke: I’m happy to be alive as well.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah. Where do you see it eventually going?

David Smooke: The stuff you’re talking about is scary. And you combine it with the deep fakes, that’s pretty scary too. You can spread fake news and then you can have a video that shows the leader validating that the news that is fake is real and then you have…. Because once you get to the… Tech’s fake news is like you’re looking at the source and you’re looking at text and the font looks the same to everyone, and that’s the thing. Once you see a face actually saying the words, your inclination to believe it real is so much higher. So, that’s where… Also, very scary.

Alex Cleanthous: I don’t even know where to go with this. Listen, this is a good chat. Let’s just leave it there for now. I could go down a rabbit hole right now; this is not the Joe Rogan show. So we’ll stick to growth and marketing and stuff like that. Hey, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. It’s such a good…

Well, congratulations on the success of Hacker Noon, I’m excited about what’s coming next. If there’s one thing that you want people to do as a result of listening to this podcast, what would it be?

David Smooke: Well, read Hacker Noon is a great option. We have tech company news pages coming out, so we’re going further down the route of telling the story of the different tech companies because we’ve done a good job of saying, “Hey, this is the person, this is the technology.” So the what and the who and then the why and the how they’re building it, but how does the money come in? What greases the wheels? So we’re using the big news API to aggregate news from around the web, put it next to business overview information, like employee accounts and Alexa traffic and then mentions on Hacker Noon. So, in terms of getting more of your tech company news from Hacker Noon, we hope to do that. And always anyone can submit a story on Hacker Noon, it’s just publish.hackernoon.com, and you go into our editor, you can submit it to an editor, you’ll hear back in two to four days. And so you can tell your tech story, your business story, your software story, your crypto story. Yeah, publish with us.

Alex Cleanthous: Awesome. Thanks so much, David, for coming on the podcast. This has been such a cool chat. We’ve gone on to more tangents in this podcast than I normally do.

David Smooke: If we don’t do tangents, what’s the point?

Alex Cleanthous: That’s all about the tangent, isn’t it?

David Smooke: It is. Absolutely.

Alex Cleanthous: Yeah. I just kept looking at your tree in the background by the way. It’s such a beautiful tree. That’s gigantic.

David Smooke: Thanks.

Alex Cleanthous: How big is that tree?

David Smooke: Maybe 30, 35 feet. It’s not mine. It’s out my window, but it’s not mine.

Alex Cleanthous: It’s out of your window. Yeah. But listen, man, this has been such a good conversation. And thanks for coming on the podcast, we’ll speak soon.

David Smooke: Cool. Thanks again. See you.

Alex Cleanthous: Thanks, man. Bye.

Thanks for listening to the Growth Manifesto Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. For more episodes, please visit growthmanifesto.com/podcast. And if you need help driving growth for your company, please get in touch with us at webbprofits.io.

Adrian Clark

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