How to Get to the Top of HackerNews

So you wrote a good blog post or made an infographic. Maybe you have a product launch story in TechCrunch. Now you want to get it on HackerNews, because the site can send massive traffic.


Seriously, you need to stop trying. I say this not because I don’t want spam; I want you to win! Your efforts to manipulate the site are going to hurt you.

For context, I’ve been posting to HackerNews for years. I would routinely hit the front page.

This matters because getting 10 points and hovering on the second page will send orders of magnitude less traffic. Content marketing is in vogue, and many are learning the hard lesson that over half your efforts should be spent on distribution. Here is a graph of our last 10 blog posts by traffic. Guess which ones got onto HackerNews? Hint: two did well and one did OK on HN.

Screenshot 2015-06-04 10.24.46

What used to work: you could get a few friends to submit a story and vote. It seems harmless enough, getting 2 or 3 people to vote on a story right after submitting. It would get you to the front page, and if your post was good enough, it would stay. If you engaged in the comments you could help out the effort. If you asked others to comment, that also helps, but it’s a bigger ask.

What changed is that the software team at YC got a lot bigger. There are people besides pg working on it. They focus on scaling, but also on killing spam. They implemented a voting ring detector that is now incredibly aggressive. Your story will stay alive, but it won’t hit the front page.


So what should you do now?

  1. Make great content that you think will resonate with the community on Hacker News.
  2. Ask friends to make comments. If this is about a product, you could ask good customers to chime in. This isn’t that different from asking for a referral or a testimonial on your home page. You could take their comment and repurposed it as a testimonial anyway.
  3. Think of Hacker News as just one of many places to get a story distributed. There will be downstream positive effects because some small percentage of your audience that promotes your story elsewhere. I’ve been told repeatedly that the #1 source here is the built up list of people that subscribe to get each new blog post. Growing that basis makes distribution higher for every new post.
  4. Review performance of your content regularly to understand what resonates with what communities. Make sure to track to your real goal, be it recruiting, subscriptions to your mailing list, or signups for your product. You don’t want high traffic to posts which converts very poorly to your goals.

What is our goal for this blog? We make YesGraph, a new product that helps companies grow. We blog to help companies with their growth and explain how to use YesGraph. Our concrete goals for each post are getting more subscriptions to the blog mailing list and getting visitors to try YesGraph. If you see any share buttons or prompts to subscribe, now you know why.

If you have questions, ask me in the comments on Hacker News 😀

When to Layer Virality

Pernicious ideas around virality are too common. People think they can just sprinkle virality on top. People often think they need to work on virality really early when developing a product. The right answers are more textured.

Screenshot 2015-04-28 08.52.23

Activation and retention should be your primary focus. Don’t worry about top level growth. Don’t worry about K-factor or some other viral jargon bullshit. It is much simpler than that.

Just answer this question: “do people like my product?”

Activation is a measure of someone getting into your product to really experience it. At Dropbox, activation is measured by installing the desktop client and syncing a file. Mobile might be changing this, but for years it was an excellent measure. The reason is that almost no good users didn’t first follow those steps.

Onboarding is tricky, and getting someone to have a great first experience is an essential part of making them stick around, a.k.a. retention.

Retention is actually the most important part of virality. Go read this post of ours on the core metrics to any viral flow. The very first number I recommend tracking is what percentage of your users are sending invites. Practically, only retained users are sending invites.

If only 25% activate and 25% of those that do are retained, then your user base you hope starts inviting others is much smaller. It is easier to make activation go from 25% to 50% than it is to double your virality. Plus onboarding and retaining invited users still matters — so increasing retention increases the number of new active users you get from those invited via virality.

Exception: Density Impacts User Experience

There is an exception to this focus. Some applications have a dramatically different user experience when they are empty or full of your friends. Google+ is a bad experience because no one is on it, not because it lacks feature parity to Facebook.

How do you get density without being huge? Isn’t there a chicken and egg problem here?

The solution is to focus on density at the start. Facebook started at Harvard, Airbnb started in San Francisco, and eBay focused on niche products.

Alternatively, make a single player experience in your app that works without other people. Instagram made your photos look cool and easy to share to other networks before they had their own network. Dropbox syncs files across your computers before you had any shared folders.

Density can be achieved with community engagement or paid acquisition targeting a narrow area. It can also work with people inviting friends because friends tend to be in a cluster.

For YesGraph, we have a network effect with data not with people. The more we see, the better we perform. Luckily, we have a “single player experience” that helps us understand your data without needing to see all the data in the world.

Exception: Density Impacts Operations

If you’re working on an on-demand product, often times the density will affect whether your business is viable or not. You often have fixed costs proportional to peak load, meaning low density might cause negative unit economics. You lose money per transaction. With higher density, that can be flipped, so that your fixed costs help you scale really fast. 

This and the previous example are both network effects, and you need a way around them. Most on-demand services start in a single city, even a single small area within a city.

Make Sharing and Invites First Class

If you do think being social is an essential part of your experience, you must make it a first class citizen. You must make the sharing and invite features so central to your app and so obvious to use that almost everyone in your app does them.

The best example here is probably WhatsApp. It’s a messaging tool that literally doesn’t work without others. There is a social network effect with no single player experience. Even Facebook started with building profiles for yourself.

The invite flow is so good it feels like a native experience. It is also incredibly easy to get into the flow — just try to message a friend.

YesGraph Helps You Grow

Our goal at YesGraph is to make your sharing an invite flows perform a better. So when you do focus on this, try us out. Here is how it works: we can recommend who a user should invite. We first process a user’s network, like their mobile address book, Facebook, or email contacts. Then we recommend the top contacts for the app. We adapt and tune the ranking for your app — whether it is B2B or something for consumers.


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YesGraph’s Traffic and Conversion Numbers from TechCrunch, Product Hunt, and Hacker News

nuclear artillery

YesGraph is just getting started with our growth focused API. We announced our seed round on TechCrunch, then opened up our closed beta on Product Hunt. More recently, we had a few blog posts on front page of Hacker News.

Because we’re so young, it is really easy to differentiate traffic and impact. When you get a big spike, you know where it came from.

This means that we can compare the stats from those different sources, and also the downstream behavior.

When we announced on TechCrunch, we weren’t open for signup. So as a proxy, we are showing subscription to our waiting list. For Product Hunt and Hacker News, those are actual signups.

We’re showing total number of signups and visitors, not breaking out the source. So when we hit our mailing list that you could sign up, lots of conversions probably came from there.

We have a developer facing product. That means companies integrate our API into their products. As a result, it isn’t like a signup is what we really care about. We care about apps live in production. The eventual conversion rate isn’t obvious because that takes time to accumulate. So we’re not showing those numbers.


  • Story link
  • Date: February 27, 2015
  • Uniques: 2,281
  • Mailing list signups: 369
  • Conversion rate to mailing list: 16.2%

Product Hunt:

  • Post link
  • Date: March 25, 2015
  • Uniques to PH specific landing page: 4,767
  • Total uniques: 9,081
  • Votes: 376
  • Mailing list subscribers receiving announcement: 6,237
  • Opens on announcement email: 2,511 (40.3%)
  • Clicks on announcement email: 470 (7.5%)
  • Signups: 705
  • Conversion rate to signup: 7.8%

Hacker News:

  • Store your own analytics data:
  • The Math of YC Dilution,
  • What Changed at YC from W08 to W15,
  • Uniques to home page: 1,855
  • Signups: 44
  • Conversion rate: 2.8%

So what can we conclude from the numbers? The conversion numbers are a little off. It is easier to signup for a mailing list than for a service. Also my blog posts brought some traffic but it didn’t convert well. The post about analytics actually converted traffic to signup much better than the posts about Y Combinator.

We also see the relationship between Hacker News votes and traffic. The visits per vote go up with more votes.

The elephant in the room is that Product Hunt sends a hell of a lot more traffic than TechCrunch. I think the reason is that there are lots of TechCrunch stories that split attention, but we were in the top 5 on Product Hunt for the whole day. TechCrunch has a larger audience for now, but Product Hunt’s audience likes to get out and try things.

Overall, you should borrow these numbers if you’re trying to estimate impact of a press launch. Each of these bits are successful. It’s great to be featured in TechCrunch, we were at the top of Product Hunt, and we’ve had multiple front page of Hacker News blog posts.

I often see people have unreasonable expectations around what getting each of these produce. The best is to focus on building a great product and take a measured approach to getting publicity. It isn’t a silver bullet, because silver bullets don’t exist.


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Radical Transparency: Here is YesGraph’s New Content Marketing Strategy

press room 2

YesGraph is embarking on a new direction, which changes our marketing audience and goals. I recently wrote up some notes on how we should use this blog and other marketing channels. Because YesGraph’s new product is all about helping companies grow, I thought the community would want to see how we think about part of our own growth.

Below is the internal doc I wrote, edited only for clarity for this blog’s audience. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments, on Twitter, on in email:

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This document lays out YesGraph’s new content marketing strategy. The goal here is to get a cohesive picture of what the next few months look like. We should also flesh out some of the challenges and ways to address them.

What Are Our goals?

This is not immediately a traffic and sales play. We don’t need to drive quantitative metrics. Part of that rationale is that our sales process is ill defined and we don’t have a launched product yet.

Instead, the goal is to impact a few different areas:

  • brand
  • pre-sales
  • recruiting
  • press

Brand. We want to establish YesGraph as the best place in the world to learn about how to grow your product. Our content should be world class and authoritative. We’ll do this by writing about what we know, and interviewing experts who know more than we do. When potential customers, employees, and investors do diligence on our company, this content will convince them we’re credible.

Pre-sales. People that want to learn about growth will be qualified leads for our product. Eventually, our content marketing will become part of our sales machine. At the start, I just want to talk to more people that might be customers. This is still an early customer development stage, and funnel optimization for sales isn’t as important as building an amazing product.

Recruiting. We only have a few customers that are live with our API. We don’t have a good demo to show. We also haven’t made any noise in the press. All of this combines to make recruiting harder because convincing people to join our company comes with no background on what we’re about. What we write will showcase what we’re all about. YesGraph can help your company grow. This is an incredibly high leverage position, helping multiple companies at once. It’s also a complex engineering challenge. We have everything we need to convince people to join, and this content is going to help get the word out.

Press. We’re telling an outlier story with YesGraph. We are experts building something every developer needs. It is core to their business, and doing it yourself is hard and won’t work as well. Part of telling this story is showing it. The content we create will help us tell our story to the press. The content itself might be a story too. Our product helps customers, but there is so much knowledge that can’t be productized that we’re writing about it as openly as possible. This fits a good narrative because we’ve already blogged successfully about growth and also about startup ideas.

What Is the Format of the Content?

There are three formats: blog posts about growth, interviews with people about growth, and office hours with companies.

Blog Posts will match others we’ve written on and Some examples:

Each of these are thoughtful posts of moderate length covering an aspect of growth. Some are more tactical, others are more strategy.

Interviews are ways of creating compelling content without the overhead of writing clearly. Plus people we interview have their own audiences which can help with the promotion. Most importantly, getting people in the trenches working on growth to tell their story will likely product some really compelling content. Some of the content might be expanded into blog posts.

The format for the interview could be a phone call that is recorded and whose transcript is published as a blog post. Video interviews have the most overhead of production costs but also can make really compelling content.

Office Hours are all about directly helping a startup. We’d cover their goals, what they’ve tried so far, and what they might be able to try going forward. They’ll be recorded phone calls and maybe video calls. The format, like interviews, is better with video but that comes at higher costs.

An issue here is transparency, where maybe companies won’t want to reveal some information. It is most important to get to the truth in office hours, so we’ll allow companies to redact some questions

At the start, our pilot customers make great candidates for interviews. I routinely respond to requests to chat about growth, so the logistics of setting up office hours is really just recording what I’m already doing.

[ed: if you want help with growth and like the idea of office hours, email me]

Where To Start?

This outline might make a good blog post. Starting by writing more on our blog is the easiest. Then in parallel we can setup interviews and work through the format.

We should also setup to say the right information about our company, and other such details about capturing an audience.

I have an Asana project with blog post ideas. We should flesh out a few posts to help triage which might be the best to get out soonest. We can double the project to include tasks to setup the blog. I probably won’t go so far as to develop a content schedule besides a frequency baseline: 2 posts per week.

For interviews, I should reach out to a few friends working in growth. For office hours, I should start with companies I already know.





That is it for our internal strategy. Since writing I’ve discussed it with a few others and have refined the plan.

One new addition is a metric to track. Subscriptions to our mailing list is the easiest to track, so go signup here if you like the post:

If you have any feedback, let me know in the comments, or get in touch:


2 Tools To Make Social Media Management Less Daunting

A pillar of social media management is finding valuable content and sharing it via a variety of social platforms.  But with so much information online how do you find the right content?  How do you maintain a consistent flow of meaningful posts?  This process can be both overwhelming and time consuming.  Our solution at YesGraph is to use the online tools Inc and Buffer to collect information and create posting schedules.

Everyone on the YesGraph team finds great content online and we needed a place where we could share, store and collaborate on all of it.  Sure, we could copy a link and send it via email, but that information is easily lost in email threads or chat sessions.

Collecting Content With Inc

We use Inc to maintain an accessible library of interesting content over time. When a team member finds an article that they feel is valuable to our online community, they use the Inc Chrome extension and instantly upload the content to our Inc library with the comment #newsletter (the overarching hashtag for our social media posts).

I search #newsletter daily and see what articles have been shared and curate them for all of our social platforms. Team members can also leave comments and instruction. For example “please tweet @bobbrown with this article”. This allows the whole YesGraph team to be a resource for sharing valuable content.

We use this process for more than social media. Some links are great for #engineering, others help with #onboarding new employees. We use hashtags like this to help organize all this great content.

Posting Content With Buffer

With all of the content collected I turn to Buffer to help make posting easy and efficient.  I am able to take the information straight from our Inc library to Buffer where I can upload posts for all of our platforms at once. The custom scheduling allows me to tee up multiple posts in the future.

Inc + Buffer

With a full library of content and a schedule, I can layout my social media posts days in advance which takes away the stress of always updating in real time. Once I have shared an article I comment #shared on my Inc feed so that I can track what articles have already been used. I also use the Buffer analytics data to see how my posts have performed. Here is what that looks like, ample whitespace and all:

Overall, I spend around 30 minutes to curate the content that goes out through the week. Thanks to the awesome teams making Inc and Buffer!

Growing a Monetized Userbase

I was invited to give a talk at the 2013 Growth Hacker Conference. My understanding is that the conference organizers are going to share the full set of talks on Udemy, but I thought I’d share my talk early.

The way I practice presentations is to record myself talking over the slides. So making another version and recording it was really easy. Below is the full talk: Continue reading

How YesGraph Got Its First 1000 Users

Screenshot 2015-11-03 12.46.45


When you’re building a new kind of product, your focus should be on driving engagement, not scale. Do people understand your product? Are they actively using it? How often do they come back? Answering these questions is more important than user acquisition at the start because if your product isn’t engaging, that attention is wasted. Continue reading