How 5 years of reading Hacker News enabled me to build the website for my business

Update: Read the discussion on HN here

5 years ago, I was 20 years old and talking with Sam Altman and his brother Max in my parents’ basement in St. Louis.  Sam was two years out from participating in the first YCombinator batch and was leading Loopt.  Sam’s brother Max and I were eager to build our own startup and we were working on a college dating website.  We were seeking advice from Sam, and he recommended we apply to YCombinator and he told us that we should contribute to a website called Hacker News because it would improve our chances of getting accepted into the program.

I wasn’t a programmer, I had never taken a CS class, and I had never written a single line of code.  I was naively building the prototype for our website using Dreamweaver.  Suffice it to say, I wasn’t quite the ideal candidate for a community like HN.

Eager to get accepted to YC, drop out of school, and be cool like Sam, I visited HN many times a day to attempt to find a post to which I could contribute.  Each time I went to the homepage I became more discouraged.  I could barely understand the titles of the posts, let alone the content.  How was I supposed to contribute anything of value to this community of genius hackers?

I got accepted to attend Startup School in 2008 and Sam was nice enough to show me around and introduce me to some folks.  I loved every minute of it, but I quickly realized that I wasn’t Sam, that YC wasn’t yet right for me, and that I should complete this business degree my parents were paying lots of money for.  So I withdrew my YC application and went back to doing college-kid stuff.

Even though I decided I didn’t quite have what it takes to build a successful startup, there was still something special about HN that kept me coming back.  I was hooked and I never let go.  I knew HN was teaching me about cool things, but I didn’t know that it would ultimately enable me to build

I started College Pick-Up Storage with my friend Brandon to help Chicago students by allowing them to store their stuff without having to leave home.  We knew we needed a website, and I bravely told Brandon that I’d build it myself!  Hell, I had read enough Hacker News to teach me everything I needed to know, right?

Well, about 11 weeks and 120 total hours later, was ready for its first visitors.  Each primary tool, resource, service, and technique that I utilized to make the website were the result of something I had read on HN.  The journey to this point has been full of ups and downs.  But I didn’t give up when progress was slow, and it was all worth it when I was filled with that amazing sense of accomplishment and joy you get when you slowly watch those lines of HTML and CSS you’ve written in your text editor come to life perfectly in your web browser.

I’d like to share a bit about how HN enabled me to build in the hopes that it will help someone else launch a side project or business.  My approach wasn’t the most efficient, but I was able to make it work due to the great community on HN and their awesome contributions to the site.

(Disclaimer: We’re bootstrapping College Pick-Up Storage; some links below are affiliate.  I hope you don’t mind.)

Getting Started – WordPress and WP Engine

I’ve known of WordPress as a blogging platform for many years.  However, it wasn’t until I saw Patrick McKennie’s comment on creating a simple WordPress site for his Appointment Reminder tool that I began to consider WordPress as a tool for creating a business website.  After some initial research into the features of WordPress and the available plugins, I decided that I’d give it a try.

Now I needed a host.  WP Engine immediately came to mind.  I’ve found value in Jason Cohen’s blog posts in the past and I’d seen WP Engine mentioned many times on HN.  So I went to their website and was impressed with their features and was comfortable with their price, so I signed up.

I just have a blog – and it’s ugly

After a few hours of experimenting with the WP Engine settings, breaking my DNS multiple times, and exchanging a few emails with the WP Engine support team, I was up and running with my very own website accessible through my own URL.  That felt pretty good – I was making progress!  But man, the site looked like shit and didn’t have any of the functionality I needed.

But wait, Patrick mentioned that he used a “theme” for his Appointment Reminder website.  And I also remembered reading about WooThemes, which I was fairly certain had templates for making websites.  I initially settled on the Canvas theme, but after many hours customizing it I wasn’t getting anywhere.  So I decided I needed a more styled theme, and I went with Whitelight.  If you compare my site to the Whitelight theme, you’ll see there’s almost nothing in common.  I added my own HTML and CSS to construct the site, but Whitelight was a necessary base.

Chrome Developer Tools: Will you marry me?

So now I had a Whitelight themed WordPress site up and running.  I was able to make some progress towards what I ultimately envisioned the site to look like with the provided tools.

But there was still a problem.  I had a very exact vision of what I wanted my site to look like, and the Whitelight theme was not getting me there.  Visitors to my site needed to be able to tell exactly what our service was about from the moment they landed on our homepage.  I needed our potential customers to realize how easy our storage solution is while gaining a sense of trust and respect for our company.   But I couldn’t do this using the theme administration tools, there just wasn’t enough flexibility.

However, in the WordPress admin menu I found a link titled “editor”.  In here the file “style.css” opened.  I immediately noticed this warning:

WARNING! DO NOT EDIT THIS FILE! To make it easy to update your theme, you should not edit the styles in this file. Instead use the custom.css file to add your styles. You can copy a style from this file and paste it in custom.css and it will override the style in this file. You have been warned!

Aha!  This must be what I need.  But how do I know what to change?  Well this style sheet has some comments in it, maybe I can figure it out through trial and error.  As you can imagine, using the built-in WP editor, copying styles into the custom.css file, and randomly changing values and refreshing my website to learn what each line of CSS did was an excruciating process.  There had to be a better way.

After speaking with my friend Ryan about my frustrations, he reminded me about the Chrome Developer tools.   The developer tools were a huge game changer.  I could now easily tell what CSS elements were affecting a certain part of the page and test changes in real-time.  I was in love.

So I was able to make changes to the CSS to get the desired look that I wanted, but using the editor within WordPress was turning out to be a real pain.  Each time I saved a change it would take me back to the top of the page, there are no line numbers, no global search, no find and replace.  It became perfectly clear that I needed to find a better way to edit this CSS file.

Sublime Text 2 – Starting to feel like a hacker

I set out to find a text editor that I could install to edit my stylesheets locally.  I wasn’t sure how I’d get the files from the server or upload them back up, but I knew there had to be a way.

I searched for “text editor” on Hacker News and found a poll asking HN what text editor they used.  Perfect.  The number one editor was Vim, so I installed it.  But it just opened up a blank, black box.  I had no idea how to use Vim, and with no desire or time to learn it, I thought I’d give the number two most-used editor a try.  Sublime Text 2.  Way better.  Tabbed files, cool color coding, a file-tree and a minimap.  This thing is starting to make me feel like a real hacker!

Git Push-to-Deploy – Really feeling like a hacker 

When I signed up for WP Engine, I received an email from the co-founder, Ben Metcalfe, announcing their Git-Push-To-Deploy feature.  At the time, I had no idea what that meant or if I’d need it.  But now that I had Sublime on my machine and the need to edit my CSS locally, I remembered this email and decided to see if it could solve my problem.  At first glance, it looked promising.  So I followed their instructions to download a copy of the site locally.  I opened up my custom.css file in Sublime Text 2 and it was glorious: color-coded, numbered lines, find and replace, auto-complete, this was going to be awesome.

But now I had to install Git and figure this whole push-to-deploy thing out.  I downloaded Git and opened Git Bash.  Great, a command prompt.  Git took a bit of reading and experimenting for me to get the hang of.  Eventually, I was able to figure out how to create a repository, track my changes, add them, commit them, and then push them to my site with WP Engine.

The Tipping Point

After at least 60 hours of painfully slow development on my website, I finally had a system configured that allowed me to actually focus on creating content and styling my website.  I could use the Developer Tools to inspect the CSS of parts of sites that I thought were nicely designed (mainly Stripe – John and Patrick, I hope you don’t mind I borrowed some of your homepage design!), use that as a template to style my own CSS, experiment with it in real-time on my site, then write it easily using Sublime, and upload it quickly through Git.

This flow allowed me to feel productive and gain tons of satisfaction and enjoyment from my work.  I would focus on an area of a page that I didn’t like, think about the best way to design it to get my message across, get inspiration from other sites, hand-draw a new design complete with CSS class and id names, write it locally with Sublime, push it to my site with Git, and then just continually tweak it using the developer tools.

It’s an amazing feeling to sit down with an idea in your head about how a certain part of your website should like, design and implement an initial version, and then tweak it until finally that idea you had shows up perfectly on a web page that is viewable by anyone in the world with access to the internet.  I was hooked and loving it.

Stripe – I knew I had to use it

Brandon and I wanted our customers to be able to sign up online and pay us a deposit.  Therefore, we needed a way to process credit cards.  As an avid HN reader, it should come to no one’s surprise that Stripe (a YC alum) is the only payment processor I considered.

But I needed more than just a payment processor, I needed an easy way to create a sign-up form and collect information from my customers.  I needed a web form.  I had heard about WuFoo on HN before (another YC alum), but they didn’t have integration with Stripe.  Well, I just had to use Stripe.  So with one Google search I learned about FormStack and their integration with Stripe.  Done deal.  I made my form with FormStack and found that it had everything I had hoped for and even more.

The remaining pieces of the puzzle

Images are important, and hard to get right.  Luckily, I had some friends  to help.  My awesome friend and amazing designer Rachael designed our sweet logo and my equally talented friend Courtney designed the three main illustrations depicting how our storage solution works.  The rest of the images are a combination of things Courtney created or that I found on,, or  I also learned Gimp and used it to get the media on the site to look the way I wanted.

For accounting, we’re using FreshBooks, mainly because it’s easily integrated with FormStack.

For our mobile version of the site we use duda mobile.  While the Whitelight theme was originally responsive, all the custom CSS and HTML I added broke it.  I didn’t have the time or skill required to make a mobile version of our site, so I gave duda mobile a try and was impressed.

I love Spotify, and I can’t write about building this website without mentioning my favorite playlist of electronic music that helped me power through and enjoy those intense coding sessions.  Feel free to subscribe: Zotos’s Big Hits

This website is not cheap

While I was able to create a website that I think is pretty solid given my experience level, it’s not cheap.  Here are our monthly costs:

  • $99 – Hosting.  In order to get SLL on my sign up page, I needed the professional plan from WP Engine
  • $14 – FormStack
  • $9 – Duda Mobile

So that’s $122 in monthly costs to keep this site running – more than we’d like to be paying.

And our startup costs were:

  • $42 – WooThemes (on sale)
  • $200 – Custom Illustrations
  • ~$40 – Stock Illustrations

What’s next?

The website is up, but unsurprisingly, people have not come (well, except for a few hundred of our Facebook friends).  Our business is cyclical, and our first major boom could come in the spring when students move out for the summer.  So we have a few months to make ourselves known to the students in Chicago and communicate to them that our service is helpful and worth their money.

Once we get some customers, then we’ll do everything we can to exceed their expectations and provide them with an amazing experience.  We want to make these students’ lives easier and ensure that they’re happy they worked with us; that’s what it’s all about.

Thank you, Hacker News.

To conclude, I would just like to say thanks to everyone who has contributed their time and effort to shaping Hacker News into the great community and resource that it is.  Without Hacker News, I would have never had the confidence or the resources required to create  And I had so much fun along the way that I know this is just the beginning of my hacking career.  I already have so many new ideas for cool things that I’d like to build and I can’t wait to build them.  Ultimately, Hacker News has helped shape my career and personal life in many ways, and for the most part I believe I’m a more curious, happier person because of it.


Thanks to Jack Altman, Max Altman, Ryan Hoch, Anne Strong and Bud Strong for reading drafts of this post.

Comments { 0 }

Thoughts from a trip halfway around the world

Chris Strong in IndiaIt was mid-August and we were in the middle of the blueprint phase of our new implementation.  After a call with my boss and our colleague in India discussing the  work required for our next release, my boss turned to me and sighed.  This project was turning out to be more complex than he expected.  He said that he could use some help and asked if I had any plans for a two-week period in September.  I hesitantly told him I was free, not knowing what to expect.  Then he asked, “How would you like to come to Bangalore with me for our next workshop?”  “Sure, I could do that,” I said as I attempted to not look like I had just won the lottery.

As an SAP consultant for the largest consultancy in the world, and having been staffed on a project for the past two years that consists of hundreds of client and Deloitte resources, it’s no surprise that many of my team members either reside in India or are of Indian descent.  But before joining Deloitte, I didn’t know much about India or Indian people.  I didn’t know that there were 28 states in India, most with their own local language, culture, prominent religion, and customs.  I had never met anyone who had an arranged marriage.  I honestly didn’t know much about the country which is home to four times more people than the United States but just one-third the size.  Now, after two years, many great relationships, a few best friends, and a strong attachment to Indian culture, I was actually going to get the opportunity to experience India firsthand.

On Sunday night we departed Chicago for an 8-hour, overnight flight to London.  A few hours after arriving in London on Monday afternoon we were departing on our second overnight flight, this one for 10 hours.  So about 24 hours and two back-to-back overnight flights later, we touched down in Bangalore.  Judging by the first few kilometers of our cab ride towards the hotel from the airport, I knew that I was going to experience something completely new in India.  The roads were crowded and unpredictable, traffic signals were rare and ignored anyway, lanes shifted frequently and were often unmarked.  Drivers made way for livestock crossing the highway.  Tractors and trucks with barely any lights barreled down the roads.  And everyone was honking all the time.  The ride to Whitefield took almost an hour and I enjoyed every minute of it.

TajWhitefieldThe Taj hotel in Whitefield was like an oasis.  Outside the guarded gates were loud, crowded streets lined with rudimentary buildings, some of which were residences and some businesses.  But inside it was quiet, lavish, and luxurious.  The service was wonderful and having developed a healthy taste for Indian food, I found the food delicious.

After a day of relaxing at the hotel, we made our way to the office for the first day of our workshop.  I was excited to meet some of the people I had worked together with in the past.  We had spent hours on the phone together, tackling and troubleshooting complex developments, and now we could finally meet in person.

It was amazing to meet all the different people that I worked with during the first few days in the office.  They all seemed genuinely happy to see me and excited for me to visit their home country.  They were eager to hear how my experience was in India so far, if I was enjoying the food, and if I had been out to see any of the amazing sites that India has to offer.  I felt like a bit of a celebrity.  Everyone I met, both inside and outside of the office, was very nice and welcoming.

Allow me to digress for a moment and tell you about Elsa.  Elsa is Indian, was born in India, and raised in Saudi Arabia.  When she was 18, she came to the U.S. to study engineering at the University of Illinois.  Upon graduating in 2009, Elsa joined Deloitte and was assigned to a large SAP project.  One year later, I joined Deloitte and was assigned to the same project.  Elsa and I became great friends through our work on the project.  She told us lots of stories about Saudi Arabia and India, and specifically about her home state in India, Kerala.  She described Kerala as a lush, green state on the Southwest coast of India that was known for its beautiful countryside, forests, and natural bodies of water and waterfalls.  It sounded like one of the most amazing places I could imagine.

So when I found out I was going to India for two weeks, my mind jumped to two thoughts.  First, I must tell Elsa!  Second, what am I going to do over the weekend?  As it turns out, the first thought led to the answer to the second.  Elsa was naturally excited for me to visit India and stated that I MUST visit Kerala during my free weekend and stay with her Mom and cousin Vinil.  I immediately accepted and was soon picked up by Elsa’s Mom and Vinil from the Cochin airport.

I had one of the most amazing weekends of my life.  My best friend Hari, whom I worked with in the U.S. on the project but had recently rolled-off, traveled from Hyderabad to meet me in Kerala for the weekend.  Elsa’s Mom was a lovely host and Vinil was the best tour guide one could ever hope for.  Vinil took us to meet his Cricket team for food and drinks in the basement bar of a nice hotel in town.

Hari on the motorbike

Vinil and a friend took us on the back of their motorbikes through Kerala to the beach for a swim.  We rode through winding roads surrounded by lush trees and shrubs.  We passed homes, temples, churches, and schools.  We crossed canals, sped through straightaways, swerved around families, and stopped to see elephants.  As we rode, I couldn’t help but look over to Hari riding next to me and give him a big smile with a look on my face that expressed, “what in the world are we doing here?!”

athirapally waterfalls

The next day, Vinil took us to the forest and to the Athirapally waterfall, the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to.  Vinil took us to see his parents and his extended family.  They each welcomed Hari and me into their homes and insisted we drink tea and eat local foods they had to offer.  They didn’t speak much English, and we would just exchange warm smiles and gestures, but it didn’t matter.  I was half way around the world being welcomed into the homes of families that had no idea who I was, only that I was a friend of their relatives.  Even though they didn’t know me, they were happy to see me, happy for me to see their home, visit their city, and experience their country.

I can’t count the number of times during my trip to India that I stopped to reflect on how amazing it was that I was in India experiencing all of these wonderful things.  India is a beautiful country with strong traditions that still shape its culture today.  My short trip to India was the first glimpse I had to life in the developing world, and it was humbling.  The people I met cared deeply about their culture, religion, and customs, but they were not defensive of them, they were eager to share them with others.  They cared about their communities, their families, their friends, and their careers.  They were hard working, grateful, and appreciative.  Meeting these people and getting to know them helped me refocus on what is important to me in my life and the type of person that I’d like to be.

Ultimately, my trip to India taught me that there is a lot that can be learned by immersing yourself and truly experiencing another culture and the people that shape it.  I honestly can’t wait for my next opportunity to travel out of the country and really get a sense of what life is like for people living in other non-Western nations.  Hopefully that opportunity comes sooner than later!

Comments { 0 }

Winning the trip of a lifetime

This summer I got lucky, really lucky.  I won a 4-day trip to London to experience the Olympic Games firsthand as an ambassador of Deloitte’s Olympic sponsorship.

The entire trip exceeded my expectations on every level.  I have an unlimited amount of gratitude and appreciation for Brett and the rest of the Deloitte Olympic Sponsorship Team that contributed countless hours of effort to ensure that we had the experience of a lifetime – and boy did we.  From a surprise, intimate dinner with Apolo Anton Ohno at the USA House, to third row seats to the USA vs. Lithuania men’s basketball match, every minute of the trip took my breath away and left me wondering – “Why me?”

Below is an essay that I wrote upon my return to the U.S. reflecting on the entire experience.  The essay was the featured article on the internal Deloitte global website.

You can also read about how a Somali refugee named Amina resulted in my winning the trip to the Olympics here.

Our final day - Reflections at 443 feet above London

Within moments of my alarm going off I was out of bed and steadying myself with the wall as I made my way to the door.  When I got there, I looked down with disappointment; there was no envelope on the ground with my name on it.  During the previous two days I had the unbelievable fortune of attending four Olympic events in London: beach volleyball, diving, athletics, and basketball.

Each morning, to get the other 11 finalists and myself in the Olympic spirit, we were greeted with a card under our door.  On day one, David Boudia of the USA 2008 men’s diving team congratulated me on being in London and thanked me for supporting Team USA.  On day two, Abby Wambach, the USA women’s soccer co-captain, hoped that I had fun the day before and affirmed that today would be even more exciting.  Waking up to these notes was an invigorating experience.  Initially groggy from jetlag and days and evenings packed full of events, these notes wiped away any lethargy and had me pumped up and ready to go.  But today I found that there was no envelope.  I would not be attending any Olympic events today; our trip had ended and it was time to go home.

However, there was one final activity that the group would complete before we departed for the airport.  We would head to the center of London and have brunch on the London Eye – the largest Ferris wheel in Europe.  As our capsule slowly ascended to the top, our amazing leader Brett Gregorka gave a final champagne toast.  She thanked us for being great ambassadors to Deloitte and wished that we remember and share our experience with many others for the rest of our lives.

While she spoke, my gaze was drawn west.  Below me resided the Horse Guards Parade beach volleyball venue where we had an amazing time cheering on Germany, Switzerland, and Poland just two days prior.  I shifted my gaze north towards the horizon, and sure enough I could see the outline of Olympic Stadium, where we had seen athletics the day before.  I let my focus slip, both on Brett’s toast and on my gaze, and thought of how fortunate I was to be a part of such an amazing experience – I got the chills as I was filled with gratitude.

To me, on the surface, the Olympic Games are about sport, competition, national pride, and the relentless dedication and drive to be the absolute best that you can be.  But after this trip and experiencing the Games first hand, I realized the Olympics represent something deeper and more fundamental.

As we topped out at 443 feet above London, I looked around at my group of new friends that I became so close with and I came to the conclusion that the Olympics are not only about striving to achieve your personal best but, more importantly, about encouraging others as they do the same.  During each Olympic event I witnessed, I countlessly saw players and the crowd encouraging every Olympic athlete—regardless of nationality—during victory and defeat.  Even after a lifetime of training and dedication for what is often just seconds of competition, the athletes were not selfish and greedy; they were sympathetic, kind, and comforting.

As our loop around the Eye completed a full circle, so did my experience participating in the London 12 in 2012 adventure.  I stepped out of the capsule onto the loading zone accompanied by a new set of experiences and a fresh perspective on what it means to play the game of life at an Olympic caliber.  While it’s important to do your best to live up to your potential, I believe it’s more important to encourage and help those around you to do the same.  When we all strive to make each other better we can accomplish more than we ever could have alone.


If you’re interested in learning more about my experience at the London Olympics with the other ambassadors, you should read my friend and fellow ambassador’s amazing blog post about the trip here.

Comments { 0 }

How helping Amina sent me to the London Olympics

In April, Deloitte posted a new headline story to their internal website.  This is nothing special as the homepage gets updated daily, but this specific story made me do a double-take; Deloitte was holding a contest where 12 winners would be sent to the London Olympics in August!  Deloitte was looking for ambassadors for their sponsorship of the Unites States Olympic Committee and Team USA, and they wanted these ambassadors to experience the games firsthand.

Naturally, I was eager to enter the competition and hopeful I’d win.  Contestants were asked to write a 300 word blog post answering the question, “What does ‘Leadership in Action’ mean to you?”  I wrote my blog about Amina, a refugee I had met during a day of volunteering at the Heartland Alliance I organized for my colleagues during Deloitte’s Impact Day.  Ultimately, based on peer ratings and a few rounds of formal judging, my blog was one of 12 that won out of more than 600 submissions!  The trip was phenomenal, and you can read my reflections on the experience here.  But before you do that, you should read my winning blog post.

8,000 miles to a new beginning

Amina and her daughter are a long way from home – the distance between Somalia and Illinois is over 8,000 miles.  Amina and her daughter are refugees.  They lived in a failed state that had been plagued by civil war for two decades. Amina’s motivation to flee to the U.S. stemmed from the lack of a central government, the persistent violence and the fear of everlasting poverty in Somalia.  Amina longed for her daughter to have the opportunity to go to school, to get a job and to live in an environment where there wasn’t a constant fear of death.  With her tireless dedication to her daughter, Amina summoned the courage to leave everything behind and travel to the United States in hopes of fostering a new beginning for her daughter.

I had the opportunity to meet Amina during Deloitte’s Impact Day 2011.  Impact Day is an incredible one-day event where Deloitte employees across the country volunteer to enact change in their local communities.  I organized the Heartland Alliance project, where thirty employees and I shared our knowledge and experiences with the refugees in hopes of easing their transition and enhancing their lives.

The impact Amina made on me that day was unforgettable.  I realized leadership in action doesn’t require you to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the founder of a world-wide non-profit. I realized leadership in action takes sacrifice, dedication, hard work, and an unshakeable conviction to improve the lives of the people around you.  I realized leadership in action lives in people like Amina.


The Heartland Alliance is an amazing organization that helps thousands of individuals and families become leaders and establish healthy, productive lives.  If you’re in Chicago, I encourage you to learn more about the organization and volunteer.



Comments { 0 }