Editor’s note: Dan Kaplan helps startups tell their stories. He’s done marketing for Twilio, Asana and Salesforce and blogs about marketing, growth, and storytelling at Threadling.
When Ashwinn Krishnaswamy and two of his buddies were living with their parents and working out of a basement in the suburbs of Philadelphia, they had only their development skills, a solid sense of product design, and a simple idea in their heads.
The way friends and peers discuss articles and web pages, they figured, is broken. Despite the rise of Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest, email and instant messaging are still the de facto tools we use when we want to share a link and talk about it privately. And let’s be real — those are some old-ass technologies.
Along with this insight, Ashwinn and team had a problem: They had no connections in the Valley or among the technical community in New York. In fact, they were total unknowns. But they had a solid idea for a simple app, they thought.
Out came Point, an elegant Chrome extension that makes it easy and fast to share an article or webpage with one or more of your contacts and then have a discussion about it on the page itself.
But remember the problem: Ashwinn and his teammates are outsiders. They believe they’ve built something cool, useful, and well-designed, but they don’t know anyone at TechCrunch or on Sand Hill Road. The 1,200 beta testers Point had at NYU weren’t about to change that.
But the three co-founders had a card up their sleeves. This card was a buzzy new site called Product Hunt.
The Product Hunt Effect
At the end of July, a friend of Ashwinn’s went to Product Hunt and posted a link to Point with a simple one-line description: “Awesome link sharing/commenting with friends.”
“There was an immediate, visceral reaction,” Ashwinn recalls. “Responding to emails and tweets became a 24/7 role.”
With no other press coverage, and no other efforts at distribution, Point added 8,000 new users, more than quadrupling its user base. While 8,000 new users is a pittance on the consumer web, these new users weren’t just some fly-by randos. They were technology insiders: product people, developers and investors. And lots of them had a thing for Point.
Developers from all over the world started reaching out, saying that they’d love to help bring the concept to Android and iOS. A handful of interested investors got in touch. By the end of the day, Point had become the most up-voted product the Product Hunt community had seen to date.
“When we launched,” Ashwinn says, “inbound interest from potential hires, investors, and users was our main goal. Product Hunt nailed all three.”
The Rise of a Hot New Community
Today’s era of app mega-proliferation has created a catch-22 for new startups. Without relationships with press and investors, it is remarkably hard to get noticed. But if you aren’t already getting noticed, it is remarkably hard to score coverage and cash.
This catch-22 was not the problem Ryan Hoover was hoping to solve when he started curating his favorite new tech products and sending them out every day to an email list, but it is one of the problems that Product Hunt is beginning to address.
Product Hunt, in case you’ve missed it, is what you’d get if Hacker News, Reddit and a product geek had a baby.
Like Hacker News and Reddit, Product Hunt’s core mechanic involves sharing links and upvoting the ones that impress you. But unlike those two sites, where links generally point to articles and images, the links you share on Product Hunt can only point directly to the websites or app store locations of newly-launched products.
Most importantly, Product Hunt treats contributing and commenting as a privilege: You only get to voice your opinion on the site if you’ve been hand-selected and approved — usually by Ryan, himself.
In part due to Hoover’s product and marketing savvy, and in part due to his thoughtful curation of contributors, Product Hunt struck an instant chord.
When Ryan moved Product Hunt beyond its email newsletter roots and onto the web, he had an email list of only few hundred subscribers. Now, he has over 80,000. 30-50 new products are submitted by approved contributors each day, and hundreds of thousands of unique visitors come to the site each day.
Meanwhile, founders of startups regularly go to Product Hunt to participate in discussions about the new products they’ve launched. Mike Krieger of Instagram was there to promote Hyperlapse. Dave Morin was all over the thread for Path Talk. Even the venerable Ray Ozzie got down — writing long, thoughtful responses to questions about Talko, his new voice collaboration app.
This is not crazy: For a certain class of products, launching on Product Hunt is now a reasonable tactic, and a couple of startups have written blog posts about the results and insights they got from doing exactly that.
Only about a year since it appeared, Product Hunt has become a daily destination for the early adopter, product-minded, and investor crowds. Hoover was the youngest founder to ever be interviewed at TechCrunch Disrupt. And Andreessen Horowitz has led Product Hunt’s $6.1 million Series A.
Of course, this is where things start to get really hard.
Question: What happens when a hot community goes cold?
In a lot of key ways, Product Hunt right now feels like the early days of Quora.
When Quora launched in June 2009, it began as an invite-only community, seeded with the networks of co-founders and early Facebookers Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever. For members of the startup world, the content was outstanding.
Asking questions and getting long, in-depth answers from people like Mark Andreessen, Peter Thiel and Dustin Moskovitz in response was a regular experience. Before he became Reddit’s CEO, Yishan Wong dominated the scene, writing thoughtful content on an impressively wide range of subjects.
The quality and authenticity of the dialogue was also remarkable. For the most part, when someone like Andreessen answered a question, it didn’t feel like a PR move. It just felt like he had something to say, and was using Quora to say it.
I was heavily active in the early days of Quora — when the early community was passionately engaged — and it was unlike anything else on the web at the time. And man, it was buzzy.
In 2010, Quora was the toast of the town. The parties it threw in Palo Alto and New York City were packed, and the team won best new startup at The Crunchies. Facebook even made a clumsy attempt at a clone.
But then, something changed.
Though it’s never completely accurate to attribute a decline to any one factor, my guess is that Quora felt pressure to accelerate growth and opened up contributions too broadly, too soon.
When the floodgates opened on this buzzy, hot site, a seething mass of fly-by randos poured in, looking to be a part of the next new thing. Over the next 6-12 months, the attrition of the early adopters took hold. The intense concentration of exceptionally strong content followed them, and while Quora still produces gems (see: Jason Lemkin’s SaaStr), the magic and buzz of the early days has never returned.
I have no visibility into what was going on inside Quora during that frothy, tumultuous time, but I have to think they could have avoided this reaction with a more thoughtful, slow-paced, and empathic approach to the insanely tough challenges of community-building at scale.
But it’s easy to say that from my armchair.
Ryan Hoover is actually living it, and he hopes to sidestep the same mistakes.
The Lessons of Reddit and Digg
Like Quora, Digg was once a hot property, with an active, passionate community built around posting links and upvoting the ones you liked. At a certain point, landing your site on Digg’s homepage meant a huge, sudden rush of traffic — enough to crash your servers sometimes.
At the height of its arc, Digg was valued at something like $200 million, and Kevin Rose was on the cover of BusinessWeek. But then, something changed. Hoover thinks that Digg made a few major blunders.
“They hired really fast, and for what they were building, they probably didn’t need that many people. But most importantly, they built the wrong culture in the community. They started empowering heavy users and giving them more and more influence,” says Hoover. “At first, it kind of makes sense, because these are the people curating the best stuff. But then the heavy users started creating voting rings, where the influential people would have everything on the homepage. If you’re a new person coming to the community, you had no say.”
Though Digg had lost a fair amount of steam by the time it launched Digg 4.0 in August of 2010, that launch seems to have been the death knell.
As Hoover says, “With Digg 4.0, they introduced this giant change without making the community a part of the decision, and there was just a huge backlash.”
11 months after Digg 4.0, the company was sold to Betaworks for a rumored $500K. It was a long fall from $200 million, and it ended with a splat. Could Digg’s implosion have been avoided?
By comparison, Hoover looks to Reddit’s slow-and-steady approach to scaling its community as one of his models.
“The biggest distinction between Digg and Reddit is reflected in the subreddit. With subreddits, Reddit built autonomous, independent communities around specific topics. People can talk to each other and they can post things and it doesn’t impact any other sub-communities. It took longer to grow, but it made each unique community stronger, and also allowed Reddit to expand to different categories of people,” says Hoover.
Hoover has big plans for Product Hunt, and they include expanding the company far beyond its roots in the early adopter/Silicon-Valley-echo-chamber community. Possibly into video games. Maybe someday into fashion.
Along the journey out of the echo chamber of tech, he intends to walk in Reddit’s footprints.
“Our current thinking involves going the Reddit approach and having autonomous communities that are independent. As we go into video games, for example, the experience will be a little bit different than Product Hunt today,” Hoover says. “Longer term, fashion will be significantly different. We want to enable those people to have their own space.”
This is where things get really, really hard.
The Challenges of Scale
As John Borthwick, the founder of Betaworks and a seed investor in Product Hunt, told me in an interview, “The voice of the founder of a community is really important to the success of that community.”
If you are going to build and maintain a community-driven startup that scales into a meaningful return for you and your investors, you have to navigate a thin, perilous line, somehow balancing between attracting new users and not alienating the OGs.
Take the wrong path or make a big enough misstep and you will fall down, bleed out slowly, and die.
As Quora’s dimmed star and Digg’s demise demonstrate, avoiding these pitfalls is a challenge that even remarkably bright people can easily fail to overcome.
Anyone who has observed the rise of Product Hunt would agree that Hoover’s voice has been all over it—in everything from the tenor of conversation on the site to the straightforward-but-thoughtful UI design.
Every day, Hoover is a fixture on Twitter, encouraging founders, developers, and designers to participate in the discussion happening around the products they’ve built.
When drama starts to break out, as it threatened to when someone observed that Product Hunt was dominated by the voices of white males and accused the community of being “zero-sum,” Ryan handles it with empathy and caution, instead of reactionary defensiveness.
He also takes a first-hand role in moderation: When I submitted an app that had already been posted the day before, Ryan was there within minutes, pointing out the redundancy, but doing so gently, with a smile.
But this kind of involvement from the CEO becomes incredibly difficult—if not impossible—at scale—especially if and when Product Hunt makes moves into areas that aren’t within Ryan’s wheelhouse…like fashion.
Though the word “authenticity” gets thrown around a lot, it is an important concept here: authenticity is critical to making a community interesting, different, and worth paying attention to.
“Product Hunt is bringing the authenticity back to the discussion of startups…and to a degree that you don’t see in the media,” says Borthwick. “It reminds me of the early day of the tech blogs: you were getting right into the veins and spirit of the entrepreneurs.”
The biggest challenge facing Product Hunt is that this sort of authenticity is remarkably difficult to maintain as you grow. And without growth in Silicon Valley, what do you have?
But Hoover has spent a lot of energy studying the Internet communities that made wrong turns during their ascents and fell off a cliff. While knowing the mistakes others have made in the past does not guarantee that you will avoid mistakes of your own in the future, it’s better than flying completely blind.
Or Arbel is the CTO type. Though he considers himself a hustler who will do any job it takes to win, he also knows that his product design, visual design, and marketing experience are approximately nil.
Last March, Or was in Israel, working with a team of 10 on a stock trading startup he co-founded. One weekend, he decided to throw together a really stupid iPhone app.
But the thing about this really stupid, haphazardly-designed app is that it did one, unbelievably basic thing really well: it nudged. The way it nudged was simple: it said “Yo.”
In April, Robert Scoble was visiting startups in Israel when Or’s friend Moshe showed him this app. After playing with it for half a day, Scoble proclaimed on Facebook that Yo was the “stupidest, most addicting app ever.” Soon after Scoble’s proclamation, someone posted Yo on Product Hunt. Shortly after that, notable people from the startup community started tweeting it out.
The initial buzz convinced Or to quickly put together an API. That got posted on Product Hunt, too. Dave Morin reached out and told Or that Yo’s API was brilliant.
“We had no idea that we were going to do Yo full time,” Or says. “But after visiting San Francisco and meeting product people and seeing people talking about Yo and using Yo, we said to ourselves ‘We are not the only crazy ones.'”
Or ditched his stock-trading startup, raised $1.2 million from Betaworks, packed up his life in Israel, and moved to the Bay. “Product Hunt,” he says “was the big first step.”
Why Product Hunt Matters (for now?)
For years, the popular story among eager entrepreneurs has said that the best way to score early adopters and investors for your startup is to land your launch on TechCrunch. This notion has simultaneously helped TechCrunch remain the most influential producer of technology news on the internet and made life for its writers an inbox nightmare from which they are never allowed to wake up.
The result of this inbox hell, unfortunately, is that unless you have a good relationship with someone on the inside or a blatantly incredible story, it has become quite challenging to get the media attention you think you need to launch your startup.
And without that media attention…
In some ways, the modern tech entrepreneur’s catch-22 appears to give the lie to the Valley’s notion of meritocracy: if you are smart and built something but don’t have access, why can’t you get any?
But in reality, the catch-22 actually proves that the meritocracy exists: if you’ve built a product that the market wants AND have the hustle to get it in front of the right people, you WILL find a way. And once you find that way, the rewards of media attention, traction, and investment follow.
Product Hunt struck a chord in part because it accelerates the path to those things for the products that resonate. Sure, you could argue that the attention and investment bestowed on Yo and other apps that rise on Product Hunt indicate that we’re in an echo-chamber of a bubble, and that the reign of lightweight apps will continue until it pops.
But you’d be missing the point.
Product Hunt matters right now because merit, quality, and authenticity are, in fact, important, and they—not access to the right people—should be the delimiters of the attention a new product gets.
The notion that TechCrunch is the primary launchpad to startup glory has always been wrong. Interesting products (the ones that actually have a shot at meaningful traction) have an intrinsic spark, and if they solve a real problem, meet a deep need, or get us hooked on our own dopamine, they can catch fire and spread.
As Greylock’s Josh Elman told me, “the atomic unit of growth is two people talking to each other about a product.”
If you don’t have that (or, at least, a product that could produce the effect), it’s time to iterate, pivot, or go back to the drawing board.
But if you do have that, Ryan Hoover’s got a site for you. It won’t send your user growth to the stars. It won’t necessarily get you the flashy glamor of your name in TechCrunch lights. But if your product is good and your story is tight, it will get you the attention of some pretty interesting people, and who knows where things go from there.
As Or of Yo said:
“Product Hunt is a great launchpad. If your product is interesting, it will get noticed by some of the most important people in the industry. If your startup has potential, this is the place to be.”