How it feels to hit #1 on Hacker News
10,000 users and over 60,000 levels completed on Parsnip
So, this happened a couple weeks ago:
And this wasn’t a quick jaunt either; our thread now has over 500 upvotes and sat at the top for close to 8 hours. For our non-tech readers, Hacker News (HN) is particularly meaningful exposure for a startup—and some might even say it’s harder to hit #1 than raising a seed venture round! 😉
As a compulsive HN reader, I’ve always wondered how this felt from the startup’s side, but I can’t recall reading a good article on it. So for other founders who might be headed this way, here’s a peek behind the scenes…
The Hug of Death
Shortly after I made the post, we started getting upvotes at a rapid rate, and then appeared on the front page. I knew the tsunami was about to begin, and made a little joke about it on Slack because I wasn’t sure whether to be excited or afraid.
Although more measured and civil than Reddit, HN is still a very aggressive place. And we’ve learned that the topic of food tends to bring out emotions in people—even rationally-minded engineering and startup folks.
So, there were definitely quite a few “haters” in the comment thread. Here are some samples:
“I've done a few quizzes on the app now, and I don't get it.”
“… there's potential here but I don't think it's going to be a great learning tool in its current form.”
Regarding our suggestion that most people don’t own woks: “At best that's incredibly sheltered for a food writer, and at worst it's practically racist.”
Variants of this comment, which argues that for anything that a home cook might be interested, there is a video somewhere on YouTube that explains exactly how to do it.
But you don’t get to #1 without lots of lovers too. And they aren’t nearly as vocal as the haters, being more of a silent majority. Here’s some of what they said:
“I love this! Already completed the ‘Scrambled Eggs’ series. I really enjoy cooking and this is a fun way to enhance my skills, thank you!”
“Hey, there's a lot of highly-rated negative feedback here. For what it's worth, I love the idea, it's exactly what I want, I'd pay a bunch for it.”
“Sick! I've really been wanting something like this as an extreme newcomer to cooking.”
What the comments belie are that in the two days after this post, we had 4,500 installs of the appand 20,000 levels completed. In fact, we’re at almost 10,000 unique users since inception with $0 spent on paid marketing:
The strong reactions may look scary, but they’re actually a really good sign. The worst reaction one can have when launching a new product is indifference (we’ve been there) and the best is a slugfest of love and hate—because that’s a textbook reaction to an innovative or disruptive idea. As Niko Bonatsos from GC puts it, he looks for:
… very early-stage consumer products and services that most people might perceive as crazy, funny, or even controversial; those strong reactions tell me there is a founder creating something disruptive.
Although it’s tempting to feel defensive when everyone starts attacking this baby you’ve just shown to the world, even having people willing to attack the baby is a significant product milestone. Please join the fray!
The long tail of HN, and general consumer interest
What’s also interesting about HN is how influential it is. Popular HN posts get picked up by other notable sites, like Indie Hackers. This results in a continual drip of traffic even after falling off the front page.
We looked at a new metric temporarily, HAUs—”hourly active users” 😎 to get a sense of what the traffic spikelooked like. Note that even after dropping off the front page, many users kept arriving over the next few days:
Parsnip resonates most with beginner cooks and we’re currently focused on serving them, but one of our biggest takeaways is that we can launch to more general consumer audiences and still find beginners. The number of people trying to learn to cook is not a niche audience; it’s huge.
Because here’s what’s happened a few days later, when we saw a second spike almost as big as the one from HN:
At first we had no idea what happened, but after some sleuthing we discovered that someone had posted Parsnip on r/InternetIsBeautiful, also a very general audience. Maybe we don’t have to do as many Reddit launches when other people are doing them for us! 🚀
Notably, we also see a similar pattern of arguing between users about how Parsnip is either very useful, or totally useless. If we can throw our product at the Internet and foment instant controversy, that’s a pretty unfair distribution advantage.
Our product development process
Stepping back a bit, this burst of excitement is still a temporary one. Our long-term goal is to reach sustained growth generated by the product alone (some call this “product-led growth”). In particular, this means improving:
activation (getting users from “what’s going on here?” to “oh, this is cool!”)
retention (encouraging people to keep learning something every day)
referral (getting users to tell their friends)
Check out how our activation funnel improved from version 1.0 to 1.0.3, in this case from completion of onboarding to finishing 3 levels. In plain English,
1.0 had a confusing home screen, resulting in almost 25% attrition (!) off the bat
1.0.1 dropped users straight into the first level, so they could play immediately
1.0.3 further simplified the home screen and made it easier to navigate
By making these changes, we increased the 3-level activation rate from 45% to 55%. This user’s feedback epitomizes our activation transition and suggests a solution, too:
This is great and now I’m hooked. But when I first started, I was very confused why I’m supposed to do a quiz when I’m supposed to be learning how to make meatballs. If you had just a simple single screen that would explain a bit about your approach it would be awesome. For example: hey there, you want to make meatballs huh? Well we could just show you a recipe and you’d make alright meatballs. But where would be the fun? Instead, we’ll make you a master chef by giving you some puzzles, so you know all about searing and picking the best ingredients, etc
There’s a lot more nuance behind this that we’ll explore in a future post.
We’re also working on retention. Even for a product with clear excitement, our 1-day retention is about 11%—that’s not great and we have a lot of work to do. On the bright side, we’ve done very little so far in terms of push notifications or e-mail campaigns. We can’t wait to explore those, as well as some extra surprises up our sleeve!
What’s most exciting is that people want to tell others about Parsnip, in different ways. They want to share quizzes with their friends:
They also want to share the app itself. We saw this a lot on r/cookingforbeginners, and also saw this from HN users:
Yet, the best evidence we have of word-of-mouth sharing is that 44% of App Store downloads originate from organic search. Someone was looking for Parsnip, probably because someone else told them!
In other words, for every person who clicked on a link from HN, someone else heard about Parsnip through word of mouth. (Did someone say k-factor?)
This is going to be fun, because in a few versions we’ll equip Parsnip users with a powerful “share cannon” to blast content into the world at will. Ready to see us take a crack at exponential growth? Stay tuned!
Subscribe to see how Parsnip grows!
Nothing in this memo is gospel and we’re figuring things out along the way just like any other startup. If you have consumer growth experience, we’d love to have you poke some holes in what you’ve read!
This might be Parsnip’s equivalent of arguably the most legendary HN comment of all time.
In typical badass fashion, our engineering team launched a MacOS app while we were live on the front page, because someone mentioned the idea in a comment. This resulted in an additional 700 new installs over 2 days. For another example of badassery, read about how our Android app came to be.
If we were doing this twenty years ago during the dot-com boom, our single server in a garage would be steaming. Today it’s just a few extra bucks on Firebase…phew!
Sure, some experienced cooks may feel Parsnip is a toy at the moment. But we have a plan to solve their biggest pain point, too.
We showed 1.0 primarily to r/cookingforbeginners, while 1.0.3 was launched on HN. So the 45% to 55% funnel improvement also captures the change from a friendly, receptive audience to a highly critical audience, suggesting a bigger improvement if that was held equal.