Ask HN: What is Hacker New’s business model?


My humble perspective, HN serves several purposes:

1) Top of the funnel lead gen for emerging companies (for YC to invest in).

2) Persistent advertising for the YC brand. You can’t use HN without associating it with Y Combinator and by being useful it brings in millions of views to the brand at relatively little cost

3) A proprietary way to learn more about the founders they invest in. I’ve read a users HN profile (what they like dislike, quality of comments) is an important source of unadulterated intel.

As for value, I wouldn’t know how to calculate it but given the size of their “classes” and speed of rise, it clearly serves as a very effective in bound funnel for investing in quality startups. Definitely in the millions, not sure if billions unless it directly contributed to their biggest and best investments.

EDIT: I’ve left out other ancillary benefits like a distribution platform for YC companies looking to hire and such.

Lastly, value is relative. The value of HN to YC (or to perhaps other VCs) is larger than the value to say me who couldn’t make as much use of the benefits enumerated above. There are a lot of intangibles here.

HN business model is to be marketing vehicle for Y Combinator. Y Combinator wouldn’t happen without HN since there would be no wide reach while it was still small.

Ingenuity of course is sprinkling marketing material on top of community-created content. Compare it to Joel’s approach: produce interesting content and then use your blog to promote your companies. Worked out for Joel, but it just doesn’t scale well.

Ironically it’s a bit neglected: it was unreadable on mobile devices for years, had no folding, etc. A bit of Reddit-like features would go a long way.

There’s also the posts that are marketing for ycombinator backed companies. Launches and stuff that are probably weighted a little higher so they stay on the front page longer. And of course selective screening for hiring from the group of people that are usually above average in the first place.

Interesting points. Do you think YC actively contacts inventors which just share their work/research with the world and suggests mentoring or drives toward business forming?

I don’t know of any privacy policy on it but HN doesn’t really overlap with YC applications. pg used to say that he’d sometimes recognize a username as being a smart commenter on HN, and maybe that would be more likely to get them an interview (I suspect as much because he wanted to meet the commenter as because he thought they might be worth funding). But I don’t think it was ever a big deal, and I doubt happens at all anymore. “An important source of unadulterated intel” is definitely not true.

Sometimes I notice someone doing interesting work on HN and get in touch with them and try to convince them to apply to YC. I’d like to do more of that.

Years ago I recall listing your hacker news user name was part of the YC application process (I have not applied in some time). Hard to believe that it wasn’t used as a screening mechanism at some point in the application process. Humbly defer to you of course.

YC and HN use the same account system, so you still apply with your HN username. But it’s not used as a screening mechanism and, as far as I know, no one involved in YC applications is in the habit of looking at HN posts. Certainly not systematically.

The biggest benefit is market manipulation and collusion.

What better than to run a “news site”, know what your users (who many are C levels, or VC projects by YC) are watching and how and when they are commenting. By running that, they can glean an impressive amount of proprietary information.

YC can also control the narrative. “Voting ring detectors”, shadowbans, blacklist names on articles all have a real and a hidden reason. And with no transparency, how do we know what they’re doing and why?

And did you know there’s a Secret YC-founder only feature. founders funded under YC can see each other as orange usernames. The rest of us.. Well. They can collaborate publicly as a bloc but the rest of us are none-the-wiser.

Sorry to ruin a good spy story but no one at YC is “gleaning” such information from HN, other than as casual readers looking at the same stuff everyone else sees.

Also sorry, but there are no hidden reasons. Here’s why: we don’t do things that aren’t defensible to the community in the first place. That way when questions come up, we can answer them publicly in good conscience. Maybe the answers won’t convince you (though we can dream!) but I believe that the bulk of the community does find them convincing, because if they didn’t we’d never hear the end of it. Occasionally we screw up and do something that the community strongly dislikes, but in that case the solution is clear: say sorry and stop doing it.

The voting ring detector prevents abuses like people upvoting their own or friends’ posts. Shadowbanning is mostly for new accounts that show signs of being spammers or trolls; if an account has an established history, we say that we’re banning it and explain why. I don’t know what “blacklist names on articles” means but anything like that would have an easily explainable reason too.

There’s plenty of transparency in the sense that there’s no question people can’t get an answer to if they simply ask. https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=true&que…We answer such questions every day, just like I’m doing here, though you didn’t ask.

Sinister terms like “market manipulation”, “collusion”, “control the narrative” are impossible to answer because they don’t mean anything specific. If you or anyone were to spell out exactly what you mean by them, it would be easy to clarify what we do and don’t do, and why.

YC founders don’t collaborate as a bloc on HN and the same anti-voting-ring and other anti-abuse measures apply to them as to all users. pg added the orange usernames in the early days of HN and YC, as a way to help the early YC community get to know each other. It’s a perk, for sure, but more a kind of flair than some sort of Secret power.

Have I missed anything?

>By running that, they can glean an impressive amount of proprietary information.

Anything that’s posted by a company’s founders in a public forum can hardly be considered “proprietary information”. Anyone in the world can read anything on HN as easily as Twitter, Reddit, etc.

>YC can also control the narrative

This. I’ve been noticing a lot of flagging lately.

Sure, HN is a curated site. Posts get removed from the front page all the time. This can be because of user flags, software action, and/or moderator action, in any permutation.

Edit: we don’t moderate HN based on who is being criticized or praised, be it Apple or anyone else. If you’re noticing stories criticizing Apple getting removed, you’re probably a critic of Apple. If you were a fan of Apple, you’d notice stories praising Apple getting removed. I call this the notice-dislike bias (crappy name, but I don’t know a better one):https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=true&que…. This bias dominates people’s perceptions of HN to such an extent that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single counterexample.

People have such feelings based on things that they’ve recently noticed, but it is almost always randomness, or perhaps seasonal fluctuations like the rise of a major ongoing story (the George Floyd-related topics like protests and policy brutality are the current one, covid before that and still ongoing, and so on). Those are random too in the sense that HN is bobbing in the waves of much larger trends. The way we operate the site itself hasn’t changed.

What exactly do you wonder?

Moderators sometimes turn flags off. Moderators also sometimes put [flagged] on comments, though that’s rare. But if you see [flagged] on a story, that’s because users flagged it.

>And did you know there’s a Secret YC-founder only feature. founders funded under YC can see each other as orange usernames. The rest of us.. Well. They can collaborate publicly as a bloc but the rest of us are none-the-wiser.

Can’t you do this on any forum by having your co-conspirators install some sort of a userscript/userstyle? I guess it’s more convenient to do it on the site yourself if you own it, but it’s not exactly that much of a competitive advantage.

>The biggest benefit is market manipulation and collusion.

Your claim would be more persuasive if you gave us a few specific examples.

My two cents: HN creates and maintains the impression of YCombinator being a cutting edge nexus for hacker and startup culture, the virtual water cooler you want to be seen next to saying something clever when important people walk by. It also provides advertising for YC startups via related threads and the who’s hiring pages.

It may not be consciously built towards this purpose, but HN serves primarily to spread the silicon valley, get-rich quick, startup business, and entrepreneur culture among software engineers and other technology experts.

YC and other VCs can’t continue to exist if people don’t continue to believe in the mythology of silicon valley. Who the hell will work ridiculous hours and gamble with their livelihood to make some worthless app? All in exchange for equity worth less than lottery tickets.

This is ironic, not only because you posted it to HN, but because it’s an absolutely typical HN comment. See the sibling reply to this one for another.

Somehow people post these things without realizing that cynicism about VC, Silicon Valley, and startups became the conventional position on HN many years ago, and that far from a contrarian view it’s a platitude.

Y-Combinator maintains this platform ( in my own opinion ) for two reasons

1) it’s a neat place for likeminded people to share and discuss interesting topics

2) this is a byproduct of 1. by gaining popularity from 1. they gain more exposure to a lot of smart people, which turns out great when they post job ads, or new companies reveals, as well as a lot of people apply to y-combinator, which in turn means they get to be very picky in who they invest.

But HN doesn’t have a business model per se. same with Reddit communities.

If it’s anything it’s content marketing for YC. I suspect it’s origin is that it was just something pg wanted.

That’s true actually. pg had been interested in social news sites for years (Slashdot because people would post his essays there, but especially Delicious). He gave the Reddit founders the idea for Reddit, and for a while was their number one user. But once Reddit started taking off it turned in a direction that he wasn’t as interested in and they stopped implementing his feature requests, so he built his own. That was one of the motivations for HN. The others, that I’m aware of, were helping to grow the nascent YC community, and writing a significant application in Arc.

Not mentioned yet, but occasionally you’ll see a job posting (no more than one or two) on the front page. They blend in well; it could be possible to miss them now and again.

I’m not sure there is a business model or a quantitative framework for measuring its value. I imagine it’s just a cool thing they built and put it out there ¯_(ツ)_/¯

I don’t think this was how it got started but you can think of HN as content marketing / recruiting channels for YC.

For some reason this post reminded me of a new rule by by Bill Maher:

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But, Bill, the profit motive is what sustains capitalism.” Yes, and our sex drive is what sustains the human species, but we don’t try to fuck everything.

Interestingly no one suggested YC could actively contacts inventors which just share their work/research with the world and suggest mentoring or drive toward business. It could be seen as a super early lead generator. How common/possible in this scenario?

We do that sometimes and I’d like to do more. I think there’s huge unrealized potential in this community.

Mostly to inflate the startup echo chamber so that y combinator can cherry pick companies to invest into, I guess.

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