Startup Blogging

Here are the last six posts I've written for the CodeCombat blog over the past few months. Look at the view counts:

The oldest one didn't do very well, probably because it was not very interesting. But all the other posts got 10K+ views, with the open source one nearing 70K. That's huge for CodeCombat, since each blog posts spreads us all across the world and brings new players and contributors. These six posts are the only posts on the blog since we moved it from tumblr to SETT.

Why did we switch? Because we posted pretty much the most exciting thing we could think of to our tumblr: a recap and video of us getting into Y Combinator on stage at Startup School, an epic moment which has never happened before.

Nothing happened. For some reason I reposted it to this blog, which was new and doesn't exactly have a large following, and went to sleep. I woke up to see an avalanche of views:

Original post: CodeCombat in Y Combinator

And it wasn't a fluke, either. The next post I put effort into gave the same result:

Original post: The 120-Hour Workweek - Epic Coding Time-lapse

After those two posts on this blog, we decided to switch the CodeCombat blog over from tumblr to SETT because of SETT's focus on engagement. Although SETT is young and not perfect, everything about it is designed to drive engagement. All five decent posts since then have been hits. Five in a row! We get more far more views, readers, comments, shares, and likes than with tumblr, and it's been much easier to set up, manage, and get looking decent.

SETT automatically shows you (and all your readers) the stats for each post all the time, so you can optimize without going to a separate dashboard. This is important if you're trying to figure out how to optimize your blogging. I often have conversations with other startups that go exactly like yesterday's chat with Danny at Beeminder:

oops, we seem to have failed to ever turn on google analytics for the blog. we do know that the blog is the biggest source of traffic for beeminder itself

This from a startup which runs two blogs and has paid hundreds of dollars to readers on the rare occasions they have failed to blog three times a month. If they don't blog on time and you notice it, you get $810! All this just to keep them blogging!

Danny mentioned that the blog traffic just seemed too random to optimize for. I used to agree before the last seven hit blog posts. Now, I'm no blogging expert with tips on what to write about and millions of readers, but I've found something that's working for CodeCombat. We were buried in extremely valuable skilled developers from the Gridmancer post and shot up to 50 GitHub contributors in the first month after the open source post. Guess how we're going to get people to try out our competitive multiplayer programming arena level when it's ready? Chicken, meet ten thousand eggs. [Update: Yup.]

How To Do It

As a startup, you should set up a blog, and if the blog is not on SETT, it should at least have the important analytics in a place where you will see them. My cofounder George did a survey of 72 YC companies from W13 and S13 to see what blogs they were using:

  • No blog: 39
  • Wordpress: 14
  • Custom: 7
  • tumblr: 4
  • Posthaven: 2
  • Blogger: 2
  • Squarespace: 1

George, Scott, and I have all used Wordpress and none of us like it (nor tumblr or Blogger). There are reasons to choose Wordpress, but "our startup needs a blog" is not a good one.

When you do blog, write great blog posts, because merely good posts aren't going to get shared everywhere (although they may eventually build a following or be good for SEO). You know how you would spend many hours writing a paper for school, and only the professor would read it? Now you can write something that ten thousand people will read. Spend those hours making it interesting.

When you have a great blog post, hit it with the social media. George has written a practical guide to social media for startups, which is helpful here, especially if, like us, you stodgily avoided social media out of a misguided furor at its inanity. But after facetweeting it, go post it to the relevant places. For us, that's usually Hacker News and some of the /r/programming, /r/learnprogramming, and /r/gamedev subreddits. Almost all of our blog traffic comes from getting picked up on these aggregators and then spread to other blogs, forums, and sites (often non-English-language).

Don't try to game the aggregators by asking for upvotes, because the semi-secret voting ring detectors will extinguish your post. Don't post things in places where they aren't relevant: you want to enchant those communities, not annoy them. Don't get hung up on finding the optimal time to post.

Spend all your hack-the-system energies on figuring out the title of your post (before writing it), because most people will judge your post on its title. Some communities are more resistant to linkbait headlines than others, so don't cross the line, but come as close to it as you can. (This post doesn't have an intriguing title because I didn't write it for the aggregators, just to send to other YC companies in our batch who are thinking about blogging.)

Your Thoughts?

I'm pretty new to blogging and was surprised when my simple posting strategy started taking off after the SETT switch. What do you think I should do differently? Will this work for other startups who want to bring blog readers, or is CodeCombat just an easy blog target? What could I possibly blog about on this personal blog that would be as interesting? Why might one not want to switch to SETT? Will the sixth CodeCombat blog post continue the streak?


Hacking on CodeCombat, a multiplayer programming game for learning to code. Mastermind behind Skritter, the most powerful Chinese character learning app.

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