hackNY Summer Series: Jonah Peretti

In this post 2012 hackNY Fellow Samuel Stern describes the hackNY Summer Series lecture by Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed.

Last week the HackNY fellows got to hear from Johan Peretti, founding member of The Huffington Post and current CEO of BuzzFeed.  I thought this was an awesome talk, so I decided I’d write this week’s HackNY blog post and talk about what I took away from the experience.

First of all, the most interesting part about Jonah was that he is not a hacker in the traditional sense.  He never (to my knowledge) built any world-changing software or took down a famous website.  Instead, he is a social hacker with an incredible understanding of how to properly utilize technology.   Jonah led off with a story about how a snarky email exchange he had with a Nike representative went viral, and how this lead to his fascination with internet epidemics and the power of social media.   He proved that these events are not random, but rather predictable given the right set of conditions.  After his accidental Nike fame he successfully experimented in engineering viral stories and was even able to teach others (graduate students) how to do the same.

This is how Jonah became a vital part of the Huffington Post.  He understood how to prioritize the articles and photos that would have the largest impact on the web, and how to do so with empirical testing rather than the guess-and-check methods employed by most media websites at the time.   While everyone and their sister wants to make a social experience now, Jonah understood the potential of social over a decade ago (that’s a long time in tech years).

After from his incredible ability to bend the web to his will, the second most interesting thing discussed at the talk was his advice about raising capital.   I have no experience raising money for a startup, but I always thought that it’s all about getting meetings with the right people and making a convincing pitch.  Jonah posited that an even more important factor in meeting with investors is concurrency.  Investors will be more likely to buy into your idea if they know that you are simultaneously in talks with their peers due to the competitive nature of the industry.  He said that as an entrepreneur looking to raise money the goal is not only to get many investor meetings but also to get them all at once.

Overall this was a great tech talk, and it got me thinking about my future in startups.  Jonah’s advice for an idea was to find something that can be done right now that couldn’t be done without modern technology (social or otherwise) and take it to the next level.  That’s definitely something I’ll be thinking about going forward.

Where Are They Now? Clem Huyghebaert Abuzz with Startup Goodness

Note: This is the second in a “Where Are They Now” series profiling the continued awesomeness of our 2010 hackNY Summer Fellows.

Clément Huyghebaert worked with BuzzFeed during his fellowship and was hired on full-time even before his internship was over. Here, he tells us more about what kinds of projects he’s working on and startup life in general.

How did you get your gig?

There wasn’t really a transition from internship to job, but a slow and constant evolution.

When I got here I didn’t know a lot about web development. I did a bunch of PHP stuff before, but it was still pretty small scale. What was cool was that the first project I did here had a lot to do with what I’d been working on on college. They wanted me to work on our grabber, so that whenever one of articles on a partner network was getting a lot of traffic and going viral, it would be put on the front page of BuzzFeed. The grabber is in charge of grabbing an image from that page, along with a small description and title.

I had to use a lot of NLP techniques to determine which is the best description in the article itself. Try to find techniques to determine which is the best picture in the page. It’s hard. You can’t really look at the picture or know where it’s positioned on the page. I had to match it with the title of the article and a bunch of other techniques to come up with better answers.

That got me to know learn about the BuzzFeed environment, which is totally home-brewed and not built on top of any platform.

Over the course of the summer, I learned BuzzFeed was happy with the work I was doing, and probably two weeks before the end of the internship, told me they’d like to hire me. I was really happy with what I was doing, too. There was no real transition, and that’s what was cool about it. At the end of the summer I went back to Belgium for two weeks, and then I was ready to start. Only my status changed. And I got a new computer.

We were a lot smaller when I started last May. We were right below 20 people, and  now we’ve crossed the 30 people mark. The tech team is probably twice as big.

What are you up to these days?

Since Ky [ed. note: Ky Harlin is a Columbia applied math major, ’08]  joined the company as our data scientist, I’ve been focused on making sense of all the data that we have. He’s the brain behind it and I implement the ideas he comes up with. One of them was a the viral search we just launched a month ago.

Before, you could only search BuzzFeed.com’s content, so what I included on top of that is all the articles that are in our partners’ network, including MTV, TMZ, Huffington Post, etc.

Where Ky comes in is we found a new way to rank results, based on time and relevancy. BuzzFeed tracks the number of viral views, and something we call Viral Lift.

The way it works is every partner on our network has tracking code on their site, and we get impressions information, categorize it either as viral view, or seed view. An example of seed view is if you’re on AOL news and you click a link to an article, you sort of got there on our own, so that’s a seed view. Viral view is when you click that link on Twitter, Facebook, in an email or via search. We make a distinction between the two views. For each article, we can tell the ratio between seed and viral views. That’s what we call the viral lift. Something people share a lot would have pretty big viral lift.

We use this type of data to tweak our ranking algorithm for our search engine for example.

The project I’ve been working on last month was the BuzzFeed’s hot topic list. It’s hard to do because everyone knows what’s hot right now by looking at the number of clicks. What we’re trying to do is to be predictive about it.  We want to come up with a list of ‘breaking’ topics that have the potential to become tomorrow’s top stories. We’re using a lot of the metrics, like looking at acceleration of the viral lift, using it to select articles among our partner networks. I run a clustering algorithm that groups articles together, and end up of with a list of articles for each trending topic. The ranking system is based on a magic number we compute along the way.

We’re currently working on a beta version of the new front page and this list will be in the middle of it. Before the list gets published though, we let the editors tweak and polish the results. Hopefully in the future, one of the projects I’ll be working on is trying to learn from the editorial changes themselves by keeping track of which topics get re-ranked and trying to understand why. Maybe I’ll apply some machine learning to it. It’s really cool.

What did you think of the hackNY Summer Fellowship Program?

From a startup point of view, if I had an interview with BuzzFeed for a job, I don’t think they would’ve hired me because I didn’t know Perl and had no web dev experience. hackNY game them and me an opportunity to meet and learn slowly, and then become a pretty good candidate for hire. It didn’t cost them a lot, and it was super enriching for me. It’s a really win/win situation to begin with for both parties.

As a hackNY Fellow, it was awesome to be in the city during the summer, because I usually just go home. It was a smooth introduction to the startup world, with a lot of explanation of how it works. A lot of people say that with startups you don’t know if the next day you’ll have work. The program answered a lot of these concerns with real answers from people in the startup world.

The range of all of the lectures we had was well thought out, and included speakers from the business side, the tech side, the social side with and the VC side. It gave us a brief introduction to all those sides, but a very complete one.

It definitely helps to know how the VC world works, or have someone talk about it. It’s not something that a university is going to teach you. It’s something that should be taught earlier rather than just fighting with it the first time you need funding. Now I feel like I’m more prepared if one day I want to start my own thing. At least I know what to ask and who to ask.

What do you do when you’re not at BuzzFeed?

I worked on a website for Columbia last semester, a sort of Craigslist for Columbia. It let students sell their furniture, textbooks, etc and works well at the beginning and end of the semester.

I do a lot of sports. I used to be a rower, but that’s hard to do downtown, so I play basketball which is super hard. Sports with balls are like a different world for me. I’m trying to stay in shape, it’s important. It’s a different rhythm than college life, too.

The schedule is pretty sweet here, 10 to 6 every day. I work more when I have to, but on normal or late days, I can wake up in the morning, go to the gym before work, and have the whole evening to myself.

hackNY 2010 Fellows: still rocking, looking forward to meeting class of 2011

We had a little reunion with many of the 2010 hackNY Fellows Tuesday night over hamburgers and shakes.

Ian, Clement and Tal

The grub was delicious and the company was even better — our Fellows continue to impress us! Here are some highlights of what they’re up to now:

  • At the 2010 hackNY Fall Hackathon Tal and Max launched Foursqwhere, which captures Foursquare checkins by university students to determine who is the mayor of each school.
  • Max recently launched Don’t Eat At, which alerts you via text when you check into a restaurant that’s in danger of being closed for health code violations. He’ll be presenting it during February’s New York Tech Meetup.
  • Tal is working as a HackStar helping the talented team of startups selected for the New York TechStars accelerator program.
  • Clement continues to work at Buzzfeed. He was hired on after his hackNY internship ended and continues to enjoy his work and team.
  • Stuart was accepted into grad school at Columbia and is excited to dive into his new coursework.
  • Nolan had a great time in London
  • Ian is building out the Twilio alarm clock tool he created during the Fall Hackathon.
  • Tengchao continues to work with Buzzd
Ian, Tal and Evan

It was great to catch up with the alumni, and this won’t be the last time we’ll be seeing them — they’re excited to stay involved to mentor this year’s class of hackNY Fellows and share their advice, expertise and insider’s perspectives. 2011 hackNY Fellows will be lucky to have last year’s alumni showing them the ropes of the NYC startup scene!

Chris, Andres and Clement
Tengchao, pointing to his awesome brain.
HackStar Tal

Thanks to Alex Qin for the photos!