Expensive Press vs. Valuable Feedback: My HackerNews Experience

Entrepreneurs spend an enormous amount of time trying to get publicity.  The perception here is that more media attention from popular blogs, websites, and print magazines will result in more eyes on your product, which will turn into more users, which will turn into more money.

One of the most popular ways to get covered these key outlets is to take part in a some kind of marquee startup contest.  For Candid, it was LAUNCH Festival.  For me, it was a a great experience that paid off in many ways beyond eyeballs on the product.  But for this post I want to highlight something I think was arguably even more beneficial and a whole lot less ‘expensive’ than any startup pitch competitions.  Not expensive in terms of cash (many of these events are free), but in terms of time it takes to prepare, to apply, to be coached, and the real opportunity cost of taking your eyes off the product.

That is getting real engaged, educated, and opinionated feedback on the product early.  I was able to do this via a thread on HackerNews.  

I decided to post Candid to HackerNews the day after LAUNCH was over.  I did it while sitting on my sofa.  I didn’t have to fill out an application, pitch to someone online, or go to any training sessions.  I simple sat with a glass a bourbon, typed in the words “My Side Project: Rank Your Tech Company Based On Culture” and clicked “Submit.”

I went about my evening.

But then, I noticed something remarkable.  I noticed 50-80 users on the site every minute for the next 3 hours.  But more importantly than traffic was the feedback. Users started leaving comments.  I replied. I got more comments.  Some comments hurt.  Some were nice.  But ALL of the comments helped shape the product.

This was free.  It was easy.  It actually made Candid better.

The team took the comments and went to work that weekend.  We added more information on privacy and we added a way to browse companies already on Candid. 

Here is how the HackerNews spike compared to LAUNCH festival.  Pretty incredible?  But again, it wasn’t just the traffic – it was the feedback loop.

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I think this is a great lesson for many startups who dump so much time and energy into getting blog posts and media attention as opposed to going out and asking for real feedback on the product….how would you rather spend your time?

Where Candid came from and LAUNCH 2014

The idea for Candid was really hatched out over a series of “beer meetings” with the newly unemployed Mavizon team in September of 2012.  At that time, none of us were ready emotionally or financially to start another startup – so we all took real jobs and set the plans on the shelf. I decided to build Candid after my move to the San Francisco Bay Area.

On stage.
On stage.

We had originally called the product “StaffSpoke” and it was to be a simple tool for current employees to give clear and concise feedback to employers, and have that feedback viewable to everyone.  We felt this needed to happen as Quora and HackerNews posts about company culture just weren’t very useful due to the sour grapes, and non-employee comments.

I took a little bit of cash (like a really, really, really tiny amount of cash) and engaged Jet A Studio who had helped us out at Mavizon.  From Sept 13 – January 14 we worked together (me wireframing, writing copy and requirements) and hacked together the very simple company scoring site.  We also landed on the name “Candid” as opposed to the not-so-romantic “StaffSpoke.”

I decided to treat the entire project like a massive experiment.  Not just in bootstrapping, but also in product design.  I used survey monkey to do a little discovery, I used HackerNews and Quora threads to do market validation, and I repeatedly sent out the janky, half working version of the web app to friends and family for testing.

Then I jumped off the cliff:  I applied to LAUNCH Festival 2014.   As these stories often go, I was floored when we got an interview and were ultimately accepted to launch Candid on one of the biggest startup stages.

To be honest, I had no idea what I had signed up for.  I knew LAUNCH had unbelievable alumni like DropBox, mint.com, and Yammer.  But I didn’t realize i’d have an audience of nearly 9,000 people over the course of 3 days, or that I would be rigorously coached on the presentation of Candid.

This was all free training for me, and I loved almost every minute of it.

I was first coached on how to make a 5 minute presentation really memorable by telling a story. Next, I had a four hour rehearsal at Sequioa Capital’s office in front of investors, and other presenting companies.  Then came dress rehearsal, and finally my big presentation:

I lucked out with my judging group on the day of.  They included Don Dodge (Google), Joyce Kim (Freestyle Capital), Jay Levy (Zelkova Ventures), Adeo Ressi (The Founders Institute) and Vivek Wadhwa (Singularity).  The judges had some critical feedback, but seeing as Candid is one massive experiement, it was definitely welcomed and appreciated.

Most importantly, I got a small boost in traffic to the site for launch day, and had a few angels show some real interest in the product – Now the real work begins!

SU Part 1 – An Introduction to Singularity

Singularity-University

“The future is here, it is just unevenly distributed”

 

I first learned about Singularity University while reading “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis earlier this year.  As I read, my brain felt like it was on fire.  The companies described in the book were not only super-fascinating, they were solving big problems.  Moreover, the ideas behind “Abundance” were positive ones.  They focused on what good could from technology and how despite what is typically covered in the media, the world we live in today is hundreds of times better than any previous generation by every account.  I knew I wanted to learn more and as it turns out, Diamandis along with Ray Kurzweil had created a program in Silicon Valley for this specific purpose.

My first involvement with the program was when I was invited to the SU campus at Moffett Field – a magical place that had the feel of NASA’s days gone by mixed with a  private college charm. Stepping into the repurposed Air Force buildings, I got an immediate glimpse into the future.  Drones being hacked on, 3d printers humming, young, obviously intelligent folks jumping on stage for a two minute pitch then sharing a beer with classmates in the warm Mountain View evenings. I had the pleasure of speaking to the Singularity GSP class several times over the summer, and found myself looking forward to every visit I got to make to the campus.  It wasn’t long before I knew I needed to attend.

SU Classroom

Luckily, I found out they offer a 7 day intensive “Executive Program” that brings business leaders and innovators from around the globe to be educated in subjects that relate to “affecting the rising billion.”  I immediately applied and was thrilled when I learned I was accepted.

The program started with Diamandis himself on stage in a hotel ballroom (unfortunately this October EP class was a transient program due to the government shutdown closing Moffett Field) sharing slide after slide of exponential charts and graphs, and explaining how the SU experience is about shifting the lens with which we view technology.  His enthusiasm was contagious, if not a little grandiose.

Courtesy of Singularity University.
Courtesy of Singularity University.

My biggest take away from day one?  The caliber of my classmates.  During introductions, dinner, and networking hour I was floored to learn about all of the interesting backgrounds.  CEOs, CTOs, and Founders of some of the worlds largest companies.  Real estate developers from Silicon Valley  and retired bankers looking to start their new projects.  Successful entrepreneurs who had recently sold companies and were ready to have another go at it… I couldn’t help but feel out of place…

This was a common thread among all of the presenters as well:  super-credible speakers, talking about scientific or industry facts, with an overlay of predictions and advice for the future.  A very nice mix of then, now, and future fed to the class in an actionable way.  I was hooked after the first two days, and figured I would finally check my cynicisms for the week to see just how enlightening the experience could be.

The first thing that had to be accepted was that we live in an “exponential universe” but that it is human nature to think in a linear way.  Science has proven the exponential part to be true.  Moore’s Law is the simplest form of this – the idea that computers will be capable of processing twice as much data at half the cost every two years.  Example after example is made of how this changes the world time and again.  The fact that companies are disrupted faster today than they were a hundred years ago is tangible proof that we are on an accelerating timeline for advancements in technology, and those not capable of realizing the exponential world will quickly be left behind.

A simple example of linear thinking vs. exponential thinking it illustrated here:  Notice a linear mindset means consistently overestimating only to be disappointed in the early days of a new technology, then underestimating once the technology actually takes off on the exponential trajectory.

Linear vs. Exponential

With my new exponential hat on – I was prepared for one incredible week of learning, thinking, and networking with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met….