Interview with Brandon Diamond on Being a Hacker with a Startup

Hands on Matrix Screen

by Zak Niazi and Lauren Keyson

Brandon Diamond loves startups, community, and code. He is the Director & Co-Founder, HuffPost Labs, the Director & Founder of Hacker Union, and a Director for NY Tech Meetup. We caught up with him at the last NY Tech Meetup. He tells us what’s up with hackers and how he feels about having a startup.

Lauren Keyson: Tell me what you’re doing.

I guess after trying to do the startup thing, which is where we last left off, I went to 10Gen, which is now MongoDB.

LK: What happened with the startups?

Let’s just say that I was missing a skill in terms of each startup.

LK: Remind me of the names of some.

Oh, there were just so many. It started with a dating website called Dientaville. So I was missing 9 out of the 10 pieces for that one. And then I did another one which was Gossiply and it was a little bit like Whisper,, which is a mobile app where you provide anonymous comments on stuff. And that time I was missing 8 out of the 10 pieces. And eventually, I got to the point where I had 9 out of the 10, but I was also broke and needed a job. That’s the story of my life.

LK: So you joined Huffington Post.

So I did MongoDB because I was really into hardcore engineering stuff. But I kind of still had the startup bug and I wanted to do creative stuff. So I went to Huffington Post and I started this group called HuffPost Labs with another guy, Conor Sullivan, who also left a little bit afterward. And we play with stuff that we think is going to be relevant to the future of publishing and journalism.

LK: So your latest thing, what is it about?

We’re demoing something tonight.

LK: What’s the name of it?

It’s called BlogCasts and this is actually a very good format to tell you about it. It turns any article or blog post into talk radio. So have you ever seen a Reddit AMA, Ask Me Anything? It’s sort of an open Q+A where the community can ask questions of a personality. So it’s very similar except it’s done over the phone.

So you have someone like Bill Clinton write an article. And at the bottom of it, it says “Do you have a question for Bill Clinton?” You type it out and at some later point, Bill Clinton reads through the questions, decides which ones he’d like to answer and it connects your phone to Bill Clinton. It gets recorded and you get a BlogCast. It’s like a Townhall meeting. Alex Burke is going to show it off tonight as Hack of the Month.

LK: You’re not going to get up and talk?

I’m going to make a bad joke, say welcome Alex Burke, and get off.

LK: What about the Hacker Union. What’s going on with that?

Oh boy, so we’re trying to reboot it.

LK: What does that mean?

You know, it’s been really hard to figure out the formula that would work with a group like a bunch of hackers. So, the first time we did it, it was really great. We just gave everybody accounts on a server and said, do whatever you want. That was good. It didn’t work with thousands of people. It worked with dozens of people. So we tried something different again. Creating our own tool, we demoed it a while ago. And it worked alright but it was overcomplicating. It wasn’t a simple solution. It didn’t actually help solve the immediate problem of connecting people. It just added procedures.

So then we took a step back and couldn’t really figure out what the community needed. So we realized that we needed to reflect and talk to a ton of people. Talk to the people who were actually organizing meetups and all of that stuff. After a lot of reflection, a lot of conversations, it became obvious that the function that Hacker Union can really serve; there are always great meetups, great classes, great schools, but what it really needs is a directory.

So all we really need to be is a directory of all initiatives that the community is doing to promote engineering and hacking, a directory of all the great mentors in the community, a directory of all the great spaces in the city you can use to organize things. Just this great central resource. And the reason that that’s the value we can provide is that there are a lot of people that have great ideas to benefit the tech community but it’s really hard to get a large group of people involved. So what we are is a ready-made large group of people and we have a protocol and a regular meeting once a month.

LK: So you’re keeping the regular meetings?

We’re going to have two. An orientation, so in order to participate in the Hacker Union you go to the orientation and you participate in the directory works, how to contribute to it, and you get a membership card. That’s it. And maybe another every two weeks where you demo the things you’re building or you try to find collaborators. It’s just a social thing. That’s it.

LK: Now to wrap up, you’ve got the Hacker Union. You’ve got NY Tech Meetup, you’ve got Huffington Post with different projects all the time. What else are you involved in?

I don’t have a life. Do I do anything else? Not really. I guess that’s really it for now.

LK: What’s the fun part about working at Huffington Post?

It’s fun. They give us resources, mentorships, tools, very experienced people, and editors that know all of these niche things, and they say ‘Take all that and be creative and come up with something that you think is important.’ And what can be better than that?

LK: So what do you like better, having your own startup or being a part of a company? And what would you recommend to other people, like you, who are real go-getters?

Gosh, you know it’s hard to be as lucky as I’ve been. I feel really fortunate to have the chance to do this entrepreneurship thing, but also take a salary home. So the risk is less. You know, you’re not eating ramen every night. It’s not sustainable. I did that. I ate Ramen every night, and I burned out. And this lets me kind of do the same thing but at a slightly slower pace and a more sustainable pace. So at the same time, there’s not as much danger, so a lot of the thrill is gone. They’re both similar experiences and they’re both great for different reasons.

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