A Writer's Guide to Hacker News
Thursday, November 9, 2023
The social network for startups and developers might be your best place to build an audience for your startup. It's also a tough, skeptical crowd where it can be hard to get attention. Here's what we've found to work—from a team that's hit the Hacker News homepage over a dozen times.
It’s a tough audience, the motley crew of hackers and builders, crazy ones and misfits, VCs and startup founders, that make up the readership of Hacker News. It’s the place where, infamously, someone replied that “you can already build such a system yourself quite trivially” when Dropbox was announced in 2007. Heir to the spirit of Slashdot where the original iPod was panned as “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.”
And yet, it just as easily can send your site 30,000 visitors, earn you backlinks from non-tech traditional media, find your first followers and fans from a reader base that thinks different. That gives it an outsized influence in the tech world.
The builders and creators go there to share what they’ve made. The geeks looking for the next new thing hang out on the Newest page, upvoting things that catch their interest—or commenting on those that struck them as needless or wrong. The vast tech-interested world—traditional media included—checks the homepage for what’s new and popular, sharing the best of Hacker News out to their newsletters and columns the same way GIFs and anecdotes on Reddit today will show up on local news next week.
It’s one of the last remaining vestiges of the internet of old, a classic forum with a design closer to Craigslist than a modern social network. It’s built to be “deeply interesting,” in Y Combinator’s words; it’s where you find “stuff that teaches you about the world.”
So how can you teach the world? Make something great, tell interesting stories, and create them in a way that hits a chord with one of the techiest audiences in the world.
What topics work on Hacker News?
Out of 59 essays published on the Capiche Blog—and 76 total Hacker news submissions—7 hit the front page and got a large number of comments.
Similarly, 65 posts on the Reproof blog, 26 shared on Hacker news, 4 posts on the front page of Hacker News (plus one that hit the home page twice).
1 out of 10 posts, or so, doing well on Hacker News is a good metric to shoot for.
Of those posts, what worked well?
Hot takes: Taking slightly contrarian views that some people deeply resonate with and others reject, like that notes apps are where ideas go to die, that enterprise software is dead, or that apps have moved beyond the App Store.
Other things that always seem to work well on Hacker News include:
Bugs, issues, or challenges discovered while building a product or company.
Projects that scratch a geeky itch even if they’re not terribly practical; eInk and Raspberry Pi-based projects are a recurring theme.
Drama, “get off my lawn” type things that resonate with a tech audience, such as issues with social media, why RSS should have survived better, or that products should be more user-repairable.
Above all, the Hacker News crowd responds to passion. Not always positively (see the Dropbox comments) but it’s the passion that gets the comments. One guy thinks syncing is going to change the world, another guy thinks it’s already been resolved, and Hacker News lives to inspire and annoy builders for another day.
Dig deep. Fall down a rabbit hole. Build something you love, share it and how you built it and what you learned in the process. Share contrarian opinions you’d love to sit around and debate with your friends. Nerd out on something you love. That’s what’ll click with Hacker News.
Show HN tips
Speaking of, if you’ve built a new product, don’t just link to it on Hacker News. Turn it into a Show HN post, which, complete with a separate page just for launches, give you a slightly better than 1/10 chance to get an audience.
Show HN posts are “for something you've made that other people can play with. HN users can try it out, give you feedback, and ask questions in the thread,” according to Y Combinator. Use it to share product launches that are ready for users to sign up and try—nothing else.
Major new versions with deep changes can be reshared in new Show HN posts, but for this most part, this is your one shot to launch something new.
How to title Hacker News posts
For most posts, share the exact title of the post along with its URL. Don’t editorialize, and absolutely never put a title that the URL doesn’t deliver on, or you’ll be downvoted into oblivion.
Do write your post title with an eye to what will catch the Hacker News audience’s interest, perhaps—and use that post title both on your blog and when you share it on HN.
Show HN titles
For Show HN posts specifically, start your title with the exact text “Show HN: “ followed by your product name, then typically a comma or dash, followed by a tagline. The most popular tend to specifically state the use-case such as “minimalist scoring tool for board games” or “easily create and share WireGuard networks”. Use active voice; avoid phrases like “app that offers” or other passive phrases. Follow that with a taglines, in 50 or fewer characters.
Then, most posts include a description of 1-200 words about the product in the text box. The most popular tend to:
Sound friendly, casual, and personal
Be written in the first person voice, e.g. “I’ve been working on,” “My side project,” and so on.
Describe clearly the reason you built this product, why you’re passionate about it, and why you think others will want to use it
Be geeky: Share brief details about your stack or how you built it.
Include caveats if it’s beta or not feature-complete
End with a “thanks”
You can include secondary links in the description if you want, perhaps to share a founding story or other details.
The best time to post on Hacker News
Middle of the week is the best time to post on Hacker News.
People are busy on Mondays. Everyone shares what they’ve created during the week on Friday. Mid-week, people are a bit bored at work and want some diversion.
Weekends have less competition so you might get more time on the home page if you land there, but also might get more casual readers.
The key goal is time on front page. I tend to post early morning Europe time (around 4PM Singapore / 8AM London / midnight Pacific), in hopes of it being read + upvoted during the Asian afternoon and European morning ... and if so, and it keeps momentum, then it’ll start the East Coast morning with votes and discussion.
My key way to identify if a time is good to post:
See if the last post on the page was posted an hour or more ago
If so, that means 1) it’s relatively quiet right now and 2) your post has a chance to stay on the first /newest around an hour which 3) gives you more time to get votes and then hit the homepage
Show HN posts have a key advantage: They show up on the Show HN page even if they fall off the New page. That gives posts there a chance to get comments, votes, and traffic even without hitting the front page—or to hit the front page hours after the initial submission.
Getting votes on Hacker News
“Voting ring detection has been one of HN's priorities for over 12 years,” said Hacker News moderator @dang in 2020. If the same people always upvote your content right after it’s published, there’s a chance of those votes disappearing and/or your post getting hidden.
Yet the only chance your post has of generating significant interest is to get enough upvotes to show up on the Hacker News homepage.
The best ways I’ve seen to get votes:
Post your article on Hacker News.
Watch the news.ycombinator.com/newest page, make sure it’s there, and wait a bit. Hopefully it’ll get at least an organic vote or two.
Tweet your article, share elsewhere ... but don’t tell people there to upvote on HN (Possible exception: Looks like some people do directly share their Show HN posts, but just in a way of “We’re excited to launch on Hacker news today!” and such). The hope is your following uses HN and might think to to submit it themselves, too, which adds an upvote.
Message a dozen or more people and ask them to go to /newest, find your post, and upvote it. Share in private communities, investors, or with your team. Do not share a direct link to your post and ask for upvotes; direct votes don’t count.
Repeat a bit later, if your post is still on /newest but not on the homepage yet.
The next time you submit something to Hacker News, ask different people to upvote so it’s not always the same voters. Better yet, build a following enough that when your name pops up on the Hacker News feed, people are bound to upvote it (as @patio11 has done, enough that it’s hard to imagine something he writes today not hitting the front page)
It can take as few as a handful of votes to get on the homepage; as I’m writing this, a post has 4 votes and is in position 30 on the homepage. Typically at least a dozen or so are needed to hit the homepage. The quicker the votes come in, the quicker you’ll hit the homepage; another post is at position 2 with only a dozen votes, but it’s about a Google Bard feature and got those dozen votes within 20 minutes.
Once you’re on the homepage, don’t try to solicit more upvotes. They should come on their own.
Resubmitting posts to Hacker News
If your post doesn’t catch fire, you can try again ... but not too soon.
With a Show HN, companies only seem to run new posts at launch and when launching a major new app, version, or partnership.
But with a blog post, you or another user can try re-submitting it a couple weeks later, perhaps at a different time. Sometimes posts can randomly do poorly once then take off the next time. And sometimes, the same post that did well once can get a second life on the homepage a year or more later.
Commenting on Hacker News
If someone else shares your article on HN, it’s great to jump in and comment something about being the author or founder, that you’re excited to see the post here, and so on.
Show HN posts have their own commentary at the top, so the founding team shouldn’t add any other top-level comments.
Reply to all comments with feedback as much as possible, even negative ones if you can take it nicely and ideally diffuse the negativity.
Have thick skin. HN is a tough crowd and may criticize or pick apart your post. They also thought Dropbox wasn’t a product worth building, so there’s that too.
If someone asks for more details (pricing, features, etc.) and you have a relevant article or page to share, it’s ok to include a link in a comment. Otherwise, links have a high chance of being seen as self-promotional and getting downvoted or flagged.
And join in other conversations—constructively—so you’re not only ever talking about what you’ve built. “Does your comment teach us anything?” asks Y Combinator. If so, post it. If not, maybe hold your keystrokes.
Get more out of the Hacker News homepage
The core value of being on the Hacker News homepage is around 5-10k clicks, followed hopefully by more traffic if your article is picked up by other sites. Most of those will be people who are merely somewhat interested—not necessarily leads primed to buy. Make sure your site has a newsletter signup, so you can stay in touch with those who do think your site is interesting but who are not ready to buy yet.
Along with that:
Check Twitter/X and other social networks for people sharing your app and blog post. Like their posts; they might follow back. Reply if they say anything interesting.
Check Google Analytics and Ahrefs to see if others linked to your site—and if so, see if there’s a potential way to partner, or to share future content with them
A one out of ten hit rate is pretty good. Sometimes the best strategy is to stay active, keep shipping and publishing, share thing you discover online and things you’ve published, and set yourself up for that article that finally takes off.
Try to get other people to share your posts. Change things up. Then on to the next post, and the next launch.
And the next one. And the next.
Hacker News isn’t everything; don’t take it too seriously when your posts don’t gain traction. What matters is that you keep trying—and that, eventually, with a bit of luck and a bit of hard work, you’ll write something that lands, and that makes it all worthwhile.