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How to get your startup on Hacker News

In networking events, I get asked surprisingly often about how to get a startup to be discussed, somehow, on Hacker News.

Why get on Hacker News?

Getting your startup on HN is useful:

  • HN is a thriving community of entrepreneurs - probably the biggest on the web - and their feedback is valuable. It's often thorough, honest, qualified, and sometimes unpleasant. It can help you significantly improve your early startup: better define your offering, tune your landing page, etc.
  • There are many early tech adopters on HN, so if the app is useful to them, you can get some early users.
  • Because most of HN is made of entrepreneurs, they're not allergic to commercial offerings like many other popular forums on the web. They won't get offended that you're trying to make money from your hard work. In fact, they'll probably suggest better business models for extracting money from your users.
  • Finally, coverage on Hacker News can sometimes lead to being picked up by other tech websites. I know a few editors of major tech news sites who browse HN regularly.

So on the whole, I think getting your early stage startup reviewed by the HN community is a no-brainer. You can only gain from it.

How should you go about it?

The best thing to do is surprisingly simple: post an "Ask HN: Review my startup, xyz.com" post.

To do this, submit a post with no URL and following the pattern above. Then, log on to the #startups channel on the Freenode IRC network and ask people for their opinion about it. If your request for feedback seems legitimate, you will probably get some comments and some upvotes, and that will lead, eventually, to more attention from the wider HN community.

Some tips about this process:

  • Do this when you're genuinely looking for feedback. Posting an "Ask HN: Review my startup" when your company has been going for 5 years and has 20 employees would be disingenuous (and probably useless, since by then you probably know more about how to run your business than we do).
  • The number of actual comments can vary greatly, depending on the time of day, the day of the week, the other stories in the community, the startup that you present, etc. The number of responses will easily vary from a handful to over a hundred. Don't take it personally.
  • Be open and responsive. When people post feedback, don't get defensive, or they won't provide any more feedback. Accept it, and try to respond constructively, maybe asking a few clarification questions. Never tell the person providing feedback that they're wrong.
  • Ask for specific feedback on areas where you have concerns (e.g. "I'm particularly looking for feedback about the UI").
  • Include the link in the body of your post. It won't be hotlinked, but don't worry about that. Do not include it as the "URL" part of your post, some people consider that bad form.
  • Don't ask HN to review your startup several times in a short span of time. It's ok to ask for more feedback a few months later, but refer back to your earlier post and mention how you addressed the earlier feedback.
  • If you don't get any upvotes within the first half hour or so, it may well happen that no one sees your post, particularly if you made it in a very active period (e.g. mid-day US-time). Make sure you get some people, such as the IRC channel, to have a look within the first half hour.

You don't strictly have to follow these rules. In fact, the top "Ask HN: Review ..." posts on SearchYC have no post body and have a URL, but those tend to be exceptions. If you want to maximise your chances of getting feedback even if your startup is not yet great, try to do something like these examples.

What if you're not looking for feedback?

Some startups are past the initial feedback stage. That's fine. They can still get on HN, but the approach is different. If you want to get some HNers' attention at a later stage in your startup, the best way, in my experience, is to share something valuable with the community. For example:

  • A post detailing how you addressed a certain technological challenge, with plenty of meaty details. For example: "How we scaled our video encoding from 10 daily users to 10'000 without buying more hardware".
  • A post with an original viewpoint about some aspect of starting and running a startup. Unoriginal points tend not to get upvoted, so try to find a unique slant. For example: "Why we chose to have no permanent employees".
  • A post that "opens the kimono", talking about how your sales have gone, what worked, what didn't, and so on, in a way that readers can learn from. For example: "Our sales for the first 12 months".
  • A post that tells a very personal story about some aspect of your startup, of the kind that people normally don't hear about. For example: "How we dealt with a cofounder dropping out in the first 6 months of the startup".

There are many other types of posts that work. If you read HN with some regularity, you'll start to recognise them.

Update: Paul Graham noted here that "Review my startup" posts by brand new users will often be deleted as spam. If you want to post this kind of post, it's a good idea to create a user some time before then, and be reasonably active for at least a few weeks before posting about your startup.

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