Getting Hacker News’d Twice - Lessons Learned for Entrepreneurs

I’ve had Polar featured on Hacker News three times in the last six months.

It’s been interesting to say the least and I wanted to write up my thoughts here to share my lessons learned with other entrepreneurs and hackers who might be launching apps or having their site featured on the site.

You can read our original posts here:

Show HN: Polar – an offline web browser with annotations and tagging

Polar as a Personal Knowledge Repository - Hacker News Link

First, the upside. The traffic. If you get featured on the front page of HN you can expect a nice torrent of traffic for about 24 hours.

A good rule of thumb from my experience is that you can expect from 12-15k users.

Traffic from Oct 2018

Our first big HN splash. This provided a great deal of validation that Polar could really help with people to manage their reading and that other people were experiencing the same pain that I had when dealing with books and research.

Traffic from March 2019

In March you can see we’ve reduced our bounce rate and I think we’ve been improving the app across the board.

Initially we were just a basic MVP and now we have some really impressive features which help users decide to actually give us a chance.

Insanely Smart

The upside of the HN crowd is that they’re insanely smart. Seriously. Expect VCs, hackers, students, PhDs, entrepreneurs, etc.

They can provide awesome feedback for your app/project/startup!

We’ve had some really amazing suggestions that we wouldn’t have received otherwise.

The downside? They’re insanely smart - so they’re not the typical user base.

One trick you have to learn is when to discard their advice.

My grandfather once said the great thing about advice is that you don’t have to take it - and I think that applies here as well.

Their suggestions might work GREAT for their use case but it might not work out well for your project - especially if you want to build something more mainstream.

That said, I think that the vast majority of their advice is valuable and it’s great to get an initial user base using your product - even if they’re early adopters.

Mindset

If you’re working on a project and think HN could benefit make sure you approach them with the right mindset.

Don’t spam. It just won’t work. They have a spam force-field. It won’t get through.

Actually contribute and find a valuable way to give back.

With Polar we’re a bit lucky as they’re the target market. Polar is a tool for people to manage their reading. If you read a lot of research papers, books, web pages, etc and want to keep that material manageable forever then Polar might be the tool for you.

We’re a tool for alpha geeks and HN is definitely the right crowd.

However, if your app isn’t a typical HN tool you can find another way to benefit from their feedback.

Take whatever you’re working on and make it interesting. Find something that provides value and you’re in.

Make it easy for them to participate.

The more tools you have ahead of time to make it easy for them to give you feedback the better.

You want to harness the initial feedback and help them contribute to your community.

Try to setup chat or a discussion forum so they can easily jump on and get you their initial impression.

We have a ton of users submit github issues or jump on our Discord group every time we’ve been on HN.

Harness the feedback long term

Here’s the main area I messed up on in the past. We had no way to harness the HN feedback and crowd long term!

We had about 30k visitors and only about 1500 installed our app. The problem we had is that it’s a desktop app that you have to download and install it locally.

Unfortunately, I’m starting to learn that the conversion rate here is insanely low. Something like 5% - not very impressive.

I’ve since learned my lesson and Polar has relaunched as a webapp. We now have three ways to capture them long term after they hit the site:

First, when they sign up on the site we capture their email and (optionally) add them to our mailing list. If the app doesn’t work out for them initially it might in the future and this way we can blast out an email when we have an update.

Second, we now have an advanced Chrome extension that you can install which adds a preview feature for PDFs and allows you to easily install it via just clicking an ‘Add to Polar’ button.

If they don’t initially get that “AHA” moment from the webapp, they might in the future once they install the extension and they discover a PDF that they want to read. They might be in more of a mindset to read and this might help them understand the app a bit better.

Third, now that Polar is a webapp, they can try it much faster. They can be up and running in < 1 second. Just login and enter their credentials and they’re in.

The Meta Experiment

This post is actually a meta experiment.

My hope is that this is actually the 3rd time we’re going to make it on HN. :)

I took what I learned from the first two times and implemented the changes to Polar that I think will contribute to significant growth and make it easier for our users to get that “AHA” moment.

I think this actually applies across the board not just on HN.

Not having a webapp really hurt us and prevented people from just playing with it for a bit instead of downloading a complicated app.

At least that’s my working hypothesis.

We’ll see what happens this time. I’ve been putting a ton of time and effort into Polar to get it launched - working 24/7 basically and I think I’m very very close to being at the sweet spot in terms of usability.