What it's like hitting the front page - twice

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Yesterday was a crazy day: I hit the front page of Hacker News and Reddit yesterday. It was for a one-hour hack that I built two days before: Bento. It was meant to be a simple reference site for me to direct my friends to when they ask (pretty frequently) the question, "How do I learn to code?"

So this is what happened.

Building It

It was a one-hour hack. The site was really simple, just a bunch of links to sites that I used to learn how to code. I'm pretty much self-taught in development - I only ever took one CS class in college. The list only included things that I thought I knew decently well: HTML, CSS, JS, Python, so on. I also added a way for people to see what they should learn next. It's been done countless times, and I didn't think my iteration would be very different. I even used a boilerplate from another one of my projects (hence the seemingly overbearing technology on the front with angular, bootstrap, etc. for a static site).

I expected it to be like any of my other hacks: build it, share it, maybe it'll get a few hundred views, but then it will die out. I was planning on having a busy day later anyways - I'm writing this post from my room in Anne Arbor because I'm helping out with MHacks so I could learn what to do for the one I'm organizing. So I texted some friends about it, posted it on Facebook and Twitter, and went to bed.

The Next Morning  

I woke up and checked the site. I saw that it got a fairly decent number of likes on Facebook and a few shares on Twitter - a lot more than I usually got, but nothing phenomenal. Just a little over 150 shares combined. I read the comments on one friend's Facebook post, and there were some interesting comments: 

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This was the kind of response I was getting in a lot of the channels that it was being shared on. It was great that people were finding it useful. My day at work was crazy, and I was traveling, so I didn't try to make many changes. The biggest shift was moving the project from a free Python dyno on Heroku over to GitHub as a static site. That way, people could make some changes here and there, and I knew there were definitely things I was missing. I pushed it, went to dinner, and went to bed. I had about 250 total shares at this point. Still no big deal - but I was thinking that this could be useful for a lot of people.

The Big Day 

I was gearing up to volunteer at a hackathon this weekend, but I wasn't needed until later that evening. I knew it was going to be a busy day, so I even tried to work more hours earlier that week so I could free up space for Friday. I woke up extra early, did some work, and went to lunch at a BBQ joint I had heard about. I sat at the bar and I declined the beer menu. "It's still pretty early," I had said.

I posted on Hacker News and told some of my friends about it. I ordered my food and kept an eye on the comments. In two minutes I had two points. In five minutes, I had 12. In ten minutes, I was at the bottom of the front page. And in 30 minutes:

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Oh wow. All the sudden I was getting a ton of tweets off the share button on the site. I was trying to keep up with thanking people for sharing, replying to comments on HN, texting people that I had made the front page. All this from my phone. The bartender kept looking at me, probably perplexed as to why I was so frantically typing on my phone. At one point, I just set it down - an hour and a half had passed. I looked up at the bartender and asked for the check - there were about five or six pull requests on GitHub I needed a laptop for. But then I thought for a moment and told the bartender:

"You know what, I will take that beer." I had something to celebrate. Front page on HN for the very first time, why not? Today was already a very good day. By the time I left the restaurant, I had 900 total shares. But my day was far from over.

Then Reddit Happened

I went to a close by Starbucks and finally had access to my laptop to handle the pull requests and make some merges. I remember seeing similar links go from HN to Reddit on /r/technology, so I put it there as well. Very quickly, something similar happened:

 

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Then a few hours later, I even hit the home page

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 More and more of the same. Tweets, more shares, and even some attention from big players

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At the Hackathon

I still had to go volunteer for the hackathon in the early evening. I knew I was going to be even more busy, since it's the biggest of its kind in the country. Literally thousands of student hackers were there coming from all over the world. I was there to learn how to run a hackathon smoothly, since I'm planning one in November. But I kept getting distracted. Apparently, if you get onto the front page twice, people will suddenly recognize who you are at a huge hackathon (go figure). I was still trying to make more merges, responding to tweets, but like at many hackathons - I was running out of power for my devices. By midnight, I had gone completely dark - the day was pretty much over. 

Take-away

Throughout the day, there were some key things I learned. I made a lot of big mistakes along the way and found out what really helped, and I want to share with you what it is that I got out of it. Here they are:

  • Make your site easy to share. Put your social buttons at the top of your page. Just do it.
  • For your tweet link, include your handle. I can't tell you how useful it was to get people's feedback in realtime as things were unfolding. When there are bugs after a merge, or if the site goes down (it did for a while for me), you'll know.
  • If you're posting on reddit, be careful about using your personal account. Some people advise using a throwaway account for something like this, but I felt I had nothing to hide on my personal account. I'm the moderator of a small API LGBT subreddit (this is not a secret, I've been out since I was 14) and you can imagine there were some hurtful things being said.
  • Don't ask for upvotes. Your content's value should speak for itself. I made the stupid, stupid mistake of asking for upvotes in a rather public way at one point. I got into trouble from the moderators at /r/technology for a few minutes until they understood I wasn't trying to be malicious and fixed it. It's exciting to see something get attention, but don't lose your cool and get carried away. Don't be an idiot like I was.
  • Don't fight back. You are almost guaranteed to get negative feedback and personal attacks. People are going to be mean (regardless of your intentions), and some will even go out of their way to hurt you. Resist the temptation to get into a fight - it's never worth it, especially when they attack you as a person. When it comes to negative feedback, solicit suggestions for improvement, those moments sometimes even turn into opportunities.
  • Thank people for sharing. I spent all day doing this. The most gratifying thing is to see that people enjoy something you've built, and the very least you can do is express your gratitude.

Final Thought 

This morning, after all the madness, I got an interesting question in a comment on Facebook post reflecting on the day: 

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That's about it. I didn't know that this was going happen. There isn't a "secret." If anything, the one thing I think worked was building something people actually liked. There's this idea that if you build something, people will come. Before yesterday, I thought that was mostly a myth - I've talked to too many people in startups and technology to believe that. But after yesterday, I know that it's a little more than just a cliche. Other than that, when it actually starts blowing up, keep a cool head. Just roll with the punches and don't let your head get too big. And thank everyone. If it weren't for their help, I wouldn't have gotten any attention. Thank everyone for sharing. I checked Hacker News again this morning, and remarkably, amazingly - I'm still there on the front page:

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Thanks everyone. 

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