Summarizing the Best of Hacker News – Michael Khalili of SkimThat.com
Today I’m excited to share an interview with Michael Khalili, who is the creator of an awesome brand-new service called Skim That which summarizes the top articles on Hacker News. He’s been iterating on the product with a private email list over the past month or so and now is releasing it to the public.
Readers of this site know that I’m really into HN – it’s an aggregation of links to important news, interesting ideas, valuable advice, personal stories and hard data, all with a tech/startup bent. It’s also a community of smart folks and a wonderful traffic source should you hit front page.
I’ve been getting the Skim That emails for a while and when Michael said he was launching the site to the public I thought it’d be cool to interview him and support his project. In this interview you’ll learn:
- How he’s intimately connected to the founder of Mixergy.
- What caused him to start reading Hacker News
- How Skim That differs from his earlier projects
- How he got 130 subscribers in 90 minutes
- When he knew it was time to launch
I hope you enjoy it!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m Michael Khalili, 32 living in LA. I’m a web entrepreneur and been a coder from the age of 16. I started my first business when I was 18 with my brother, Andrew Warner, during the first dot com boom. We built a large subscription email business (word of the day, joke of the day, trivia, gossip, etc) and several greeting card websites. After that, I took several years off to recharge my batteries. I returned to the community about 4 years ago and experimented with different website ideas.
What is Skim That?
My latest project is SkimThat.com where my team of writers create summaries of popular articles found on Hacker News. Eventually this will expand to Digg, Reddit and main stream news sources. It’s important to note that the summary isn’t a tease of the article, it’s the content brought down the main point. My goal is to give you the relevant information from the story in a dry and direct manner similar to a news crawl. If the reader is interested in the topic, they can click through for the full article.
Each summary includes a link to the source article, link to the HN comments and the size, in percent, the summary is relative to the source article. You can see from the example below, we were able to cut the information down to 7% of what the source article was and still make the same point. Here’s the source http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/18/technology/18talent.html.
How did you come up with the idea for Skim That?
The idea for Skim That came from reading verbose articles. Often times I would have to skip the first or second paragraph because they were reiterating and elaborating what the title already said. Other times there’d be too many examples when proving a point. Those things are great for a casual reader but I just want the TLDR version. At times it felt a game of “Where’s Waldo” as I skimmed through the writing. The tipping point came when I was interested in the HN comments but couldn’t enjoy them until I read the whole article.
When did you start reading Hacker News? What did you like about it?
I started reading HN early 2009 when Andrew insisted I check it out. I was reluctant at first because I thought it was just another news aggregator. The articles were of definite interest to me but what really surprised me was the community. It’s a perfect size, just large enough to get a good response for a topic but not too big that it’s flooded with noise. There are also a ton of industry people giving great feedback and quality information.
Tell us about how you iterated on earlier versions of Skim That before the release
My past projects were based around code I’d write using asp.net. I’d spend months building out the entire site, then release it. With Skim That, I went the MVP route and posted a Show HN article http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2407388 I was on the front page for about an hour and a half and got about 130 subscribers. The list grew to over 200 after my sister tweeted about it to fans of her comedy podcast. That gave me a good mix of industry and casual readers.
This time the development work didn’t come from the build out of the site – WordPress install, a nice design and some configuring. The real work was figuring out the style of the summaries. For 6 weeks I sent 15 emails with sample summaries to my subscribers and asked for feedback. Sometimes I’d ask specific questions like “How do you feel about the level of detail?” Other times it was just a request for general comments. The feedback helped me hone the writing style. Eventually the only feedback was praise and I knew it was time to launch.
Is there anything else you want our readers to know or do?
As a child, my writing and spelling was atrocious. Seriously, it was horrendous. I even had to take a remedial writing class when I was 17. It’s funny to think back to that time now that I’m an editor.