Six Degrees, Hot or Not, Friendster, MySpace: You may not remember the names, but these are the social platforms that shaped the early aughts. By 2005, The Facebook had converted to Facebook and had registered its millionth user. Twitter followed suit within one year.
With more and more people creating accounts on multiple platforms, it became increasingly frustrating for users to know who to follow on social media. Friends Gregory Galant and Lee Semel decided to do something about the problem.
“We embarked on a series of simple, experimental websites aimed at indexing various social media groups, including journalists, venture capitalists, programmers and even pet lovers,” Semel, Muck Rack’s CTO and co-founder explained.
They called their new platform Muck Rack, with Semel building its first bare-bones, four-page version within a few days. The site indexed journalists on social media by tracking tweets. Galant, who is CEO and co-founder, and Semel launched the platform without the intention of turning Muck Rack into a business — but in less than a year they had requests from more than 10,000 journalists asking to be part of the platform.
TheNextWeb called Muck Rack “one of the most useful tools ever invented for media professionals.” Built In recently chatted with Semel to hear more about how his team brought Muck Rack to life.
WHAT MUCK RACK DOES
Muck Rack enables organizations to build relationships with the media, manage crisis risk and demonstrate PR’s impact on business outcomes. Built from the ground up, the platform unites a Media Database, Monitoring, Pitching and Reporting tools and is a free tool for journalists to showcase their portfolios, analyze news about any topic and measure the impact of their stories
What made you formalize Muck Rack and how has it changed since those early days?
In 2011, we decided to turn it into a business, rebuilding Muck Rack as a software-as-a-service platform helping public relations professionals find and connect with the right journalists for their stories. Since neither of us had a background in PR, there was plenty to learn. We saw demand for an easy-to-use tool, especially as users were frustrated with legacy competitors.
I was the only developer for the first few years and built most of Muck Rack’s core functionality. After a year or two, I started to grow our team, bringing in our first full-time remote developers. Since then, Muck Rack has evolved into the industry-leading software it is today and is supported by an organization of 250 fully-remote employees.
What tools or technologies did your team use?
Muck Rack is built with Python, Django, Celery, MySQL and Elasticsearch, which are all established open-source tools. While we’re currently running a massive infrastructure on AWS — and soon on Kubernetes — it started on a handful of simple VPS instances so I could focus more on the product.
I wanted to use straightforward technologies to make it easy to build and maintain. The technology industry is very trend-driven, and many startups waste valuable time chasing the latest tools instead of building what their users need. We’ve since expanded beyond the initial set of technologies and are always focusing on the right tool for the job.
We also prioritize scalability and maintainability while avoiding technical debt and unnecessary complexity. What started out as a monolith has expanded into a service-oriented architecture. We’re doing this strategically — separating out the components that make the most sense to stand on their own from a technical and scalability perspective.
Although I’m a co-founder, I still get involved in the code, prototype new features and guide the engineering teams. It’s something I really enjoy.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
We bootstrapped the company without external investments for many years. In fact, we only took our first Series A in 2022. Being self-funded required us to be highly efficient, careful with our resources and practical in every decision we made.
We’ve been remote-first since our founding, but, at that time, common tools we use today like Slack and Zoom hadn’t yet been released. We quickly realized that hybrid work structures can create inequities and awkward situations.
How have you managed these challenges?
As a remote engineering team, we invest extensively in documentation and code clarity. We hold everyone to high standards for documenting their work. We emphasize simplicity and understandability when doing code reviews.
As one of our newly onboarded engineers commented, “Literally everything I've needed is documented in one of our numerous documentation stations. In those rare cases where I needed further explanations, there's always a colleague or manager available and willing to help.”
Technically, our product started out as a few simple features but grew over time — managing complexity is a constant challenge. We emphasize refactoring, eliminating unnecessary code and prioritizing simplicity and maintainability. Deleting code is just as important as adding it, and the most bug-free code is code that doesn’t exist. This approach allows us to navigate the challenges of a complex product while keeping our codebase manageable and scalable.
Muck Rack processes a ton of data. How do you ensure your team does it well?
Muck Rack pulls in millions of articles, tweets, broadcast clips and podcast episodes daily. We also do a lot of processing on the data to extract meaningful information from messy HTML. We’ve leveraged advanced parsing techniques, including natural language processing and machine learning, to extract valuable insights from the data.
Recently, we have explored the application of large language models to enhance our processing capabilities further. We make all this data searchable and running a large Elasticsearch search engine presents its own set of challenges. We have developed robust infrastructure and algorithms to index data quickly and deliver fast and accurate search results.
Finally, to keep our team motivated and aligned throughout the product development process, we’ve emphasized fostering a positive and empowering work environment. Muck Rack is recognized over and over as a top remote company to work for.
What sets Muck Rack apart?
We take an integrated approach and develop a single, unified product. We’re repeatedly recognized as the easiest-to-use product in our industry.
We also place a lot of trust in our employees. With ownership being one of our core values, we believe that if you let people handle their own priorities and timeline, they’ll not only produce better work, but they’ll be happier. I think this is reflected in the productivity of the team and the quality of the work.
“We believe that if you let people handle their own priorities and timeline, they’ll not only produce better work, but they’ll be happier.”
Additionally, what sets Muck Rack apart is our unwavering commitment to journalists. While other tools view journalists as just the product they’re selling, we consider them as an essential part of the accuracy and reliability of our data and user base. By understanding and catering to their needs, we have fostered strong relationships and created a community that values and appreciates our platform.
The innovation at Muck Rack is never over. We’re dedicated to providing the best value for our customers, which means that we are constantly listening to and implementing
customer feedback and experimenting with new technology like generative AI to continue to deliver an industry-leading product.