Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I am the founder-the very proud founder-of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart.
I’m proud because today we’ve got a long-time Mixergy fan on, a guy I’ve been talking to since 2009 at least. Today’s guest is going to be talking about how he built a community, a community I’m proud to be a part of and so many other people in the startup world are part of. I invited him here to talk about how he did it.
What he did more specifically was he created a site that features a list of new products that are voted on by the startup and tech community. Three million referrals-that’s how many they’ve sent out per month from the site. That means people like me are going to their site, finding new products and not just looking at them and gawking and criticizing, but clicking over to see those products. That’s how active that community is.
His name is Ryan Hoover. He is the founder of Product Hunt, which surfaces the best new products every day.
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Ryan: Hey. Glad to be on. It’s funny to hear you now live in person say that intro because I’ve heard it a million times listening to your show.
Andrew: I know. Actually, if you noticed, I was pausing for a second as you did it because I said, “Boy, this guy knows it.”
Ryan: I can probably repeat it word-for-word.
Andrew: But you actually were listening before I had that intro.
Ryan: Yeah. I know. It’s been a long-time. I’ve been a big podcast listener in general and of course a Mixergy fan for, I don’t know how many years, but a long time.
Andrew: Well, thanks for listening. Then you’ll forgive me for doing this. One of the questions that you hate being asked, one of the things that you hate to have even brought up is the first question that I’m going to ask you. Ryan, Product Hunt, this is a business? It’s just a list of links to products that people like.
Ryan: Yeah. That’s exactly how I describe it, actually. It’s funny. When we had our kind of coming out party, when we announced YC and when we were on Hacker News, we had a lot of comments on Twitter and on Hacker News and other sites about that exact thing. They look at it like, “YC let this company in? It’s just like an RSS feed. It’s just a list of products.”
And on its surface, it looks very simple and that’s exactly by design. We want to make it simple. It doesn’t look like much, but there’s a lot under the hood and a lot about the community itself that makes it valuable and useful.
Andrew: So, that’s what I want to find out because you’re right, the community is so active, so good. It’s people who I respect who are in there talking. But let’s go back to that first question. What is the business model here? Where is the money going to come from? I know today you have-do you still have the job board?
Ryan: We do.
Andrew: What’s the big picture? Where is the big revenue going to come from for this business?
Ryan: Yeah. This is the stereotypical Silicon Valley answer, I think. But for us, it makes a lot of sense. We’re not focusing on monetization right now. We are making a little bit of money promoting job opportunities. That’s more opportunistic. But for us to become a big business and really successful, we need to first focus on growing are user base and becoming bigger than we are today.
Longer term, once we reach scale, then there are many opportunities for making money and turning this into a revenue-generating business, in part because people are coming there to find products. So, first off, there was an explicit attempt to possibly purchase or download or buy different products. If we can’t monetize that, then it shouldn’t be too difficult once we reach scale.
Andrew: I see. If I’m coming over to look for products, it shouldn’t be too hard to get a product in front of me that makes use of money and also makes me happy.
Andrew: Talk through like one example of how that can happen in the future and then we’ll get to how you build the community. You must have had some brainstorming sessions or maybe just on a walk discovered a couple of ideas or in the shower. Give me one possible way that you guys are going to generate revenue.
Ryan: Yeah. There are kind of a couple of different examples I can speak to. There’s the obvious advertising or promotion of products. We’re in an interesting position in which we have a history of things you’ve uploaded, things you’ve clicked on, things you are engaging around. So, over time, we can start to understand what types of products you might like. We can use that for future promotion or really be smart about it in showing products you might actually want to buy that are promoted or advertised. So, that’s the more obvious answer and obvious opportunity.
There are also some interesting things that are less obvious and more experimental, less proven around helping people just purchase things that they see on the site or download or sign up for things that they see. So, if you as a consumer find something on Product Hunt, your current flow is that you click on the product, you go to the site, you enter your credit card, your signup, everything. That’s a lot of friction. What if we could make it easier for you to just purchase that immediately on the site?
So, those are the types of things that we’re thinking about in terms of how can we ultimately make money and become a revenue generating business, but how can we also improve the user experience at the same time? That’s what I’m more excited about.
Andrew: Okay. You know my focus here in these interviews isn’t, “Where do you get off doing this stuff?” or even future-looking questions. But I had to address the elephant in the room. Now let’s come back to the real reason that I have you on here, which is to understand how you built this community and, more importantly, learn from your story so that others in my audience can do it themselves. The community-how many people are in it right now?
Ryan: Yeah. Right now we have well over 100,000 people registered. But like most sites, we have many more lurkers. So, each month we have hundreds of thousands of uniques visiting the site each month or using the mobile app. As you mentioned earlier, we’re driving significant traffic to products featured on the site. Our design, unlike a tech publication, which is really designed to keep you on the site and have you rea a lot of pages, stay on site for a long time, our goal was really to jump you to relevant, interesting products as soon as possible.
Andrew: Who are some of the-sorry to interrupt. I want to spend a whole hour diving into this stuff. I just want to give people a taste of why I care so much about this community. Who are some of the better known, more impressive people on the site who are active?
Ryan: Yeah. It varies. So, it’s very startup-focused. So, you’ll see a lot of startup celebrities, per se, on the site.
Andrew: That’s what I was getting out.
Ryan: Yeah. You’ll see people like Hiten Shah, Josh Elman, Kevin Rose, Hunter Walk, some of these names that you’d recognize if you’re in the startup world. We’ve also had more celebrity curators curating products like Nas at one point, Carmelo Anthony. We’re also experimenting in exploring like how do we bring other people from other industries into this tech world who want to be involved and want to contribute to this ecosystem.
Andrew: Yeah. And as I said, it’s not just the way that they post links or the fact that they’re up-voting. They’re engaged in conversation. I saw the founder of Geek Squad this morning in there adding his two cents to a conversation that was interesting.
Andrew: Let’s go back to see how you did this. In fact, I want to go back a little bit further than the business. Your dad was an entrepreneur. What kind of business did he have?
Ryan: He’s been starting businesses since in his 20s. His first was around the barter industry back in-it was the 80s, I think, the 80s or 70s. He’s done a lot of the different businesses, from barter to video games. He used to sell Super Nintendo-maybe it was NES at the time-games out of the back of his car. This was before Walmart.
Andrew: Really, where did he sell it?
Ryan: Grocery stores. He’d just open up the back of his car and sell games. It wasn’t really easy to buy videos back then and there was high demand for it. So, he took that idea and he ended up opening up video game stores in Eugene, Oregon. This was back in the late 90s. Now he’s actually moved on from video games and now is in the waste recovery industry, which is totally different.
Andrew: Interesting. So, did you, growing up, have this sense of both the infinite possibilities of entrepreneurship and the infinite dangers of it, like you could, at any moment, also go bankrupt.
Ryan: Yeah. My family has been, overall, we were pretty middle class for the most part, but we’ve gone through some struggles, like back when he sold the video game business, he didn’t know exactly what he was going to do. So, there were some scary times there. It was actually shortly after they bought a new house. They had a hefty mortgage to pay as well. So, there’s definitely dangers of it. I was, frankly, shielded from a lot of that.
Andrew: What was the scariest part for you? Do you remember any of it? Do you remember one time that was especially scary?
Ryan: At the time I didn’t realize or understand the risk, honestly, because, again, my parents kind of shielded me from that. But I was aware that my dad doesn’t know what he’s going to do and he’s the one supporting the family financially. So, there was that risk. I knew that we were in a new house. But as a kid, I didn’t really recognize or think about it that much.
Andrew: In my family, we always talked about it, both the upside-we didn’t full acknowledge the downside, but it was there.
Andrew: That made me hungrier. That made me into the kind of guy who, when I started my first company, had to be up at night because I knew this whole thing could fall apart. For everyone else, it was like, “Come on, you’ve got this, Andrew. Of course it’s going to work out because things work out for you.” No. It’s not. It could go away. I’ve seen it go away for people who seemed untouchable. Frankly, if it’s going well for me, it’s because I’m working like this, like a dog.
Ryan: Yeah. My dad has a saying. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with it all the time. But he has this thirst and this hunger and this optimism that he’s going to figure it out.
Ryan: When things don’t work out, he’s sort of like, “I’ll figure it out. We’ll make more money. I’ll figure it out.” And he has. Unlike my personality, he’s actually very quick-I need to learn this more from him actually-he’s very quick to take action, instead of just talking about and strategizing around things, he’ll just jump to like, “Okay, I’m going to pick up the phone. I’m going to make a phone call.” That’s something that I can probably do more of.
Andrew: Freshman in high school, you saw a friend of your start a business. How well did your friend do?
Ryan: Yeah. So, this was, 14 or 15 years old. He made over $100,000 building a website, a simple website.
Andrew: What was the website?
Ryan: It was kind of a joke site. It was just an accumulation, aggregation of different jokes and funny pictures and that kind of thing. He made money off of advertising and selling email addresses.
Andrew: Interesting. Selling email addresses in spam?
Ryan: I don’t know exactly. He was going through some third-party service. It was, I think, legal. Maybe it was a grey area. But yeah, he made a lot of money as a kid. I saw that and I was like, “I could do that. I could probably figure out how to build a website.”
Andrew: Did you?
Ryan: Technically yes. I did build a website, a really terrible, ugly HTML/CSS static website. It took me, I don’t know, maybe a month or two just after a school. I’d always go back and open up my book and learn HTML and put this together. Eventually I came out with something. I made a total of $70 in the end. It cost me-I think the domain plus hosting was around $60. So, it was profitable. But I, of course, did not make $100,000 like I had hoped.
Andrew: Why not? Why was your friend able to do it and you weren’t? I’m always curious about that. A lot of people in the audience, me too, you see someone doing really well. You say, “I could do the same thing. I can work as hard,” and then it doesn’t go as far. Why, in your case, do you think you didn’t get the $100,000 like your friend did?
Ryan: I can’t say for certain. I think part of it was SEO. I believe he had more traffic to SEO. At the time I didn’t think much about that or recognize the importance of it. Frankly I wasn’t thinking about, “How am I going to get people to my website?”
And that’s, of course, a fault that a lot of entrepreneurs do. They build something really cool, something that they want. But then they don’t pause and say, “How am I going to get people to this site to actually check it out?” That’s the big error that I made, “How do I get people here?” So, I didn’t have enough traffic to make anything significant.
Andrew: I see. Alright. And you closed down that business. Years later, you were on a GroupMe chat with some other entrepreneurs, right? What was that like? That’s what eventually led to Product Hunt or to the epiphany that created Product Hunt. What was that chat like?
Ryan: Yeah. So, it wasn’t GroupMe. It was MessageMe at the time.
Ryan: Now the team, I know the team that built it, they moved on to Yahoo recently. So, MessageMe was one signal of many that kind of led to Product Hunt, honestly. It’s a group of a lot of founders, entrepreneurs, investors. The group is still going on, actually. It’s been a couple of years. But at the time, maybe it was 20 or 30 people.
It was just regular conversation, normal things, just conversation about anything related to our personal or startup life. Often times we would share products and we would say, “Hey, have you guys seen this new mobile app? Check it out. Here’s a link.” That was just another forum for us to share cool stuff that we found. So, there’s kind of that piece. There’s, of course, Twitter, an ongoing conversation where people are always sharing new things and new products. Those were some things that led me to realize, “Maybe there should be a place just for this.”
Andrew: Was it the reaction the product conversations that showed you that people were excited to hear about new products? What was it?
Ryan: You know, again, there were a lot of different signals. Part of it was, I think, frankly the face-to-face conversation more than anything else. So, I see tech and products in the startup world becoming more of a part of our culture and our conversation, just like sports and movies and all these other pieces of media that we often talk about. People say, “Have you seen ‘Game of Thrones?'” They also say, “Have you seen this new mobile app?” or “What’s on your home screen?”
So, those conversations happen all the time, whether it’s like over lunch or coffee. But where do you have those conversations on line? It’s kind of fragmented. So, for me, who’s really interested in startups and technology and playing with new things, I wanted to find a way to build something like this online and create sort of a community around the products themselves.
Andrew: Why didn’t you broaden it out and say, “I’m going to create a messaging platform for people to talk about their favorite products and maybe even their favorite TV shows and expand beyond that?” Why did it lead to product focus?
Ryan: Part of it is just my own personal interest. I am also interested in a lot of other things. My personal interest and my experience, my connections in the startup world, but then also as an entrepreneur and as a product person, it’s important to focus on one specific thing because if you try and capture the attention of everyone, it’s really hard to capture anyone’s attention.
Andrew: I see.
Ryan: So, yeah, we started off and we still are really focused on the tech industry. Over time we’ll broaden out. But it’s a lot easier to build a strong community when it’s more focused than if it’s too broad.
Andrew: Alright. So, you said, “This is what it’s going to be. It will be links.” You decided instead of coding up the first version yourself, you were going to use someone else’s platform.
Ryan: Yeah. It was actually a team in London. They built a lot of prototypes and really early products. They built something called Linkydink, fun name. It’s just a collaborative email list. The way it works is you invite collaborators, people that can submit links to this email list and then every day around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., it would email out to the entire group, everyone that subscribed, a list of these links.
So, it was very simple. It took me 20-30 minutes to setup and I invited a few people that I knew had good product sense. Some of them were the same people on the MessageMe group and said, “If you find cool stuff, submit them here and we’ll get a digest every day.” So, it was very easy MVP. At the time, I was not trying to build a business. It was just a fun experiment. Then it started to catch on from there.
Andrew: And the idea there was a certain group of people could post links and then anyone else could subscribe to it.
Ryan: That’s right.
Andrew: And eventually that’s what the first version of Product Hunt did, right? Only a certain number of people could link and actually up-vote and everyone else could watch?
Ryan: When we first released it, that’s correct except everyone could up-vote on day one.
Andrew: I see.
Ryan: So, we still limited it to who could comment and who could post. But anyone could contribute by up-voting what they think is cool.
Andrew: So, when you did it, you weren’t thinking this was going to be a big product. That makes sense. A lot of people have interesting ideas and they say, “I don’t have a developer.” And if you were to say to them, “Look, check out Linkydink. That’s what Ryan Hoover did. Check out WordPress because that’s what Andrew Mason did when he wanted to create Groupon.” They’ll brush it off and say, “No. That’s too simplistic. I need something that’s better-suited to what I want. I need to develop from the bottom up.” What do you say to people like that?
Ryan: I think part of it is also just identifying, okay, what do you think should exist and then what’s your biggest assumption regarding that? And then you can either validate or invalidate that assumption through very basic tests. Maybe it’s building something like Linkydink, an email list. Maybe it’s using WordPress to create a very simple site or e-commerce transactional platform or maybe it’s serving customers or talking to people and that kind of thing.
So, I think startups in many ways, you’re constantly trying to de-risk things. In the very beginning, you have so many risks. So, try to find the biggest risk and then learn from that and go from there and that could be involved in something like this MVP. The other thing is sometimes it has to be something really big. Maybe it’s a consumer product that’s really emotionally based. It’s really hard to evaluate those types of things without building the full on product too.
Andrew: Did you do anything to encourage people to post every day?
Ryan: I: post every day?
ing to encourage peopel ings without building the full on product too.rom that and go from there and that coun the beginning with the email list we didn’t. It was only a couple weeks, maybe two or three weeks that we had that email list going before we built the site itself. At that time, I didn’t have to manually say, “Hey, can you post something?” People thought it was cool. It was novel. I think we had 20-30 contributors. For it to be valuable, we only needed maybe three to five decent posts a day. So, it wasn’t like we needed a floor of content to get it going.
Andrew: The first day was November 6th, 2013, right?
Andrew: A handful of people posted including you. You posted twice-Context, a simple fun photo texting iOS app and you posted Mindie, everyday music videos, which is like Vine plus music. The second day, people posted. The third day, people posted. Fourth day? You’re the only one who posted.
Ryan: Was I?
Andrew: Yeah. And then people came back in and posted again.
Ryan: Was it a weekend? I bet it was a weekend.
Andrew: It was a weekend. Saturday no one posted, but Sunday people did post. At that point, did you bring Nathan in or was it still just you with this idea?
Ryan: Yeah. So, the email list started. I tweeted it out. We had a few hundred subscribers. And then it was over a two or three-week period that I realized this is kind of cool. Maybe we should turn this into something where we can have more of a conversation because you can’t really have a conversation through an email like this at all.
So, I actually emailed Nathan and I think a few others. But Nathan was my friend and I asked him, “Hey, what should I build this in?” I’m not an engineer, first off. So, I asked him, “What’s something simple that I can get something up and running pretty quickly without too much technical knowledge.” He said, “Hey, Thanksgiving is coming up. I’m going to be at my parents’ house. You want to work on this together?” I said, “Hell yeah, that would be awesome.”
So, he described it as hilarious, like a one-man hack-a-thon. He did all of the implementation. We collaborated a bunch on the design. We had late night phone calls on what this should look like. After that five-day period, we had something that was working. It was buggy. It was terrible. But it worked.
Andrew: Who designed it?
Ryan: It was kind of collaborative. So, it’s very simple on the outset. So, it was collaborative, but Nathan implemented the design.
Andrew: Who sketched it? The design is beautiful, just like the code is beautiful, both elegant, both get out of your way. But it seems easier to create than it must have been. Who put that together? Who put that design together?
Ryan: I sent him the first wireframe. Then he modified on top of that. So, it was kind of, frankly, a really collaborative approach. It was kind of modeled almost subconsciously off of Linkydink. Initially it was, “Okay, let’s have a daily feed just like Linkydink does. Let’s have a way to subscribe just like Linkydink does.”
So, we kind of modeled it off of what we working, to an extent, on Linkydink. The other thing is that we looked at Reddit. We looked at Hacker News and we looked at similar communities that use models like this and really took inspiration from models like this and really took inspiration from them which we knew worked and scaled and borrowed some of those mechanics, like the up-vote mechanism, things like that.
Andrew: I do see similarities. The design almost looks the same. I also see him, Nathan, as one of the first users. On the very first day, he added a link-Plug, a HypeMachine app for the Mac.
Andrew: What was your deal with him initially? If he was going to do the work, even if it’s just five days, what did he expect in return? A share of the business? Some money? Something else?
Ryan: So, this time it was sort of an experiment. So, the way Product Hunt graduated was from experiment, to side project to company. At that point, it was still an experiment. Nathan has done a lot of side projects like this. He’s kind of like myself. He’s very curious. He likes to try things and just build stuff.
At the time, we were just experimenting and playing around with it. For several months we were just working on it on the side. I was working part time transitioning from another startup. He was still working full-time at General Assembly. This was just a fun kind of passion project.
Andrew: So, there was no interest in who became the owner, who owned what share, what the payment was.
Ryan: Yeah. We didn’t do any of that stuff.
Andrew: I have seen you referred to as the founder. You’ve referred to yourself as a single founder who wasn’t sure you could get into Y Combinator because of your single founder startup. How did Nathan not become a founder in the business?
Ryan: Yeah. So, Nathan worked on it for about the first three or four months. Then he moved to New York early 2014. We had a lot of conversations. This was when it was graduating from experiment, side project to company. We were figuring out, “Okay, what do we want to do here?” I was debating, “Do I want to work in this full time?” So, we had a lot of conversations, like, “Nathan, should we do this together? Should we work on this full time?”
So, we had a lot of conversations. Ultimately, he wanted to stay at General Assembly. He loves working there. He was put into a really good position and opportunity there to move to New York. He’s now building products there. So, ultimately he didn’t want to pursue Product Hunt long-term. He wanted to just work on it in the beginning. So, that’s how we ended.
Andrew: And he’s still at General Assembly and working on Product Hunt, right?
Ryan: No. He’s not working on Product Hunt any longer.
Andrew: I see. On his Twitter profile, I think he says Product Hunt and General Assembly. But I guess he means he helped create it.
Ryan: Yeah. That’s right.
Andrew: Wow. Okay. Did you feel, “Well, if this product is a good idea, then why is Nathan going to work at General Assembly instead of sticking with this?”
Ryan: Yeah. He’s been in startups before. I’m forgetting the name all of a sudden. He worked on an early-stage startup. So, he’s totally aware of what it’s like working on a startup. Going back to our previous conversation about how risky it is and what the lifestyle is of a startup, it’s a big decision to make just because it changes your day-to-day.
Ultimately, he just wanted to continue pursuing General Assembly even though he believes in Product Hunt and loves it. That was the right decision for him at the time. For me, I’ve always wanted to start my own startup. I never wanted to force myself into it. But when the right opportunity arrived, which, again, it has, then I would jump on it.
Andrew: So, we’re talking about the community before you even launched it on your own site, which was ProductHunt.co at the time, right?
Ryan: That’s right.
Andrew: At that point you had to recruit people to follow along and see what you guys were posting on Linkydink. How did you get the initial people who were going to follow?
Ryan: Yeah. So, prior to Product Hunt over maybe the course of a year and a half, I had done more blogging and writing and meeting a lot of really interesting people here in San Francisco. That had built me somewhat of a network and I was connected to a lot of more influential people in the industry. That helped us kind of seed the community.
When Product Hunt started and when it was an email list, I now had these relationships with people and I said, “Hey, we’re working this cool side project. We’d love you to be involved.” And they would listen because they were my friends or they knew me pretty well. So, that built those relationships. It also built not a huge audience by any means, but a big enough audience that when I tweeted it out, when I put it on Quibb, which is a community of people which I think you’re a part of, people would listen.
So, it was just enough to kick start Product Hunt, to have enough people interested in that kind of content to get engaged. That was really important to getting any kind of community started. You need that seed.
Andrew: Yeah. You’re really good about reaching out to people-short emails, constantly engaged and you have that photo that you must have used for years that I just now recognize as you. It’s like your icon. It is.
Ryan: Yeah. Ironically I changed my profile just for a couple of days this weekend because I turned 28 and I’m like, “I’m going to change my profile today to a baby picture.” But yeah, I’ve used the same photo for several years. I think it’s a five or six year old photo now.
This might sound really egotistical, but if you look at any brand, they have a mark. Like Pepsi is not going to drastically change their logo. They might modify it, but they’re not going to drastically change it because they’ve built this icon. People will recognize it. For me, the avatar is a similar thing. When you see that on Twitter, you immediately recognize it and draw association with that person or that memory of that person.
Ryan: That’s why I don’t change my profile.
Andrew: That makes sense. I should do that to. The problem with me is that I grew the beard. So, now I have some places with beard photos, some places without. It’s a bit of a pain.
Ryan: Yeah. You should create a profile that slowly grows the beard over time so people like slowly fade into the bearded Andrew Warner and nobody would even notice.
Andrew: Right. That’s the way Pepsi would do it, slowly change the brand over time. Alright. So, you reach out to those people. They started following along. You also had written for Pando and Fast Company and you stayed in touch with them. When you launched, you reached out to them and you asked if you could-actually, Pando wrote an article about you. Fast Company, I think you wrote an article about your start. So, let’s start with Pando.
Andrew: How did you get that article written and what was it about and how did it impact your growth?
Ryan: Yeah. So, Pando, I had written maybe four or five articles over the course of a year on their site, just contributing for free and for fun. So, I built a relationship with some of the people there. After the week beta, the private beta when we launched the site, we were like, “Alright, let’s do a public launch.” Nathan and I were like, “Maybe we can get some press for this. Maybe we can start driving some more traffic to the site. Maybe we can show people this is a thing. It exists.”
So, I emailed some people and Pando. They connected with Carmel, who’s now a good friend of mine. She, at the time, was a reporter at Pando. She was super quick to respond. She was like, “Hey, you want to meet up tonight at,” I forgot the bar’s name, but some bar, “and we can chat.” So, I met her and she just interviewed me about Product Hunt. I did that interview. That was great.
The next day she was like, “Alright. We’re going to publish it today.” We were like, “Whoa. You’re going to publish it now?” I didn’t really realize how fast reporters could be sometimes. I expected maybe like a week to pass or something. But she’s like, no, she’s going to publish it now. So, I didn’t think we were ready yet. But the next day she published and that’s when we had sort of a coming out party.
Andrew: That’s what got the initial burst of traffic to ProductHunt.co.
Ryan: That’s right.
Andrew: And how many users did you get from that? Do you know?
Ryan: It wasn’t massive. For the time it was massive because we had very few people on the site. I can’t remember the exact numbers. But maybe we had 1,000 new subscribers or users in the course of 24 hours.
Andrew: I’ve got a number of 800 signups. Does that sound accurate?
Ryan: That sounds about right.
Andrew: Here’s what she said in the post. She said, “At the moment, though, Hoover is not worried about user acquisition, focusing instead on user engagement. He’s paying attention to whether people are actually returning to site multiple times a day.” That was your focus. Why did you make that the focus?
Ryan: Well, we had to first prove and make sure that people wanted this thing and that they were coming back to it. If we were focused too much on acquisition, we may have a leaky bucket. We may just throw a bunch of people at this product and they don’t stick around. That would be a waste of our time. So, for us, we needed to make sure people liked this thing, that they stuck with it and that it wasn’t just up that liked to discover products like this.
Andrew: How did you measure that, that people were returning, how often they were returning, what time of day they were coming?
Ryan: I’m not going to lie. We didn’t have really great metrics. We’re still needing to transition to a more data-driven approach right now as we’re scaling. Part of it is since it’s such a small community and since I was using it I don’t know how many hours every day, you could just get a feel for, “Okay, is this person coming back? Do I see the same people coming back?”
We used Google Analytics, of course, too and we could see unique traffic and we can also see uniques, DAU over weekly active users and that kind of metric to see how many people were returning and that kind of thing. So, we didn’t need anything super sophisticated or complicated to measure that initial traction.
Andrew: I get getting a sense of whether the same people are coming in or if you’re getting more people engaged in the conversation, but you weren’t allowing anyone into the conversation unless you explicitly gave them permission. So, would that have been a good enough proxy for retention?
Ryan: Yeah. There’s one big asterisk maybe as a caution to others building communities. The initial seed users who, in my case, a lot of these people were following me or friends of mine, you do need to be careful that you don’t rely too much on their engagement because they’re always going to be more engaged than the typical person. Anyway, I’m putting that asterisk out there.
So, we seeded the community with people like that, but then we also grew the community by one, identifying who was signing up. So, if we frankly saw you sign up, I would email you. I think I did at one point.
Andrew: You heard me mention Product Hunt in a Mixergy interview. I don’t remember why I did, but I did. And then I got an email back from you. That’s how engaged you were.
Ryan: Is that what it was? Yeah. So, I would look and see who was signing up. In the very beginning, we’d see some recognizable investors or reporters signing up. I would get their email and I would email them personally. It wouldn’t be a template. It wouldn’t be a copy and paste, but it would be like a personal welcome. I would say, “Hey, if you want to contribute, here you go, you’ve been given access.” That’s how we started in the beginning.
Then from there we reached out to the most engaged people on the site and said, “Hey, do you know anyone that loves products like this, that would be a good contributor? If you do, let us know. We’ll give them access to comment and to post.” That was before we had an invite system.
So, what happened is they’d say, “Of course. I have a few friends that would love to contribute.” And they’d give me their names or they’d email introduce me and I would then manually say, “Hey, welcome. I give you access. If you want to contribute, go ahead. We’d love to have you.” There was a lot of that.
Andrew: Why? Why didn’t you build that into the system? Why was it important to you to reach out to people and ask them for referrals individually and add them individually?
Ryan: Yeah. Well, part of it was Nathan very part-time working on the development side and myself. So, we didn’t have the resources to build out invite systems and things like that. Also, it was more engaging. It was more personal. It was more of a welcome when you have someone emailing you giving you access to this kind of baby nascent product.
Actually, we should probably do more of that. It’s just really hard to scale as we’re growing. But I think having that personal touch is still really important for communities, especially early on.
Andrew: Yeah. I felt it myself. So, let’s highlight that. If somebody was active that you were impressed by and thought would be a good member of the community, you would email them personally and ask them to be a part of the site. If somebody else was active already as a member of the site, you would ask them for referrals and then you’d personally invite those referrals to be active on the site by giving them an account.
Andrew: Let’s go back a couple of steps. Why did you decide to create this by invitation only sharing and commenting system?
Ryan: Yeah. Part of it-kind of a similar answer as before-was the fact that it was just me and Nathan part-time working on this. So, we didn’t have a team of moderators or people to control spam. So, the worry is that if it was completely open, we’d have random people either spamming and adding maybe their own products in the comments all the time and we just wouldn’t be able to handle that. So, that was sort of like a reality that we had to face. So, one solution is just limit who can actually comment.
The other piece is that I’d much rather have a more engaged, smaller audience than a wider group of people that are less engaged or less enthusiastic. My belief is that by curating who can contribute in the very beginning, we can create more of that town hall feel, that kind of close community feel than if it was completely open to the world. Of course, that’s something that we’re going to continue with over time, but also change and figure out ways to scale that.
Andrew: Let’s wait for the connection to come back. It looks like I lost you there, Ryan. Can you hear me? There we go. It created this atmosphere where the links were quality links. They weren’t the questionable things that other sites would allow on. It created a sense of prestige if you were invited into this community. It also gave you a personal connection with the early users. I see the value of that.
Let’s go back a step further. You invited people who were in your network. It’s really hard to keep people in our networks because yeah, we’re connecting to them on Twitter, but it means we’re not adding new people to our address book. It means we’re rarely making sure to follow up with people and having them remember us. It means that there really isn’t much structure to most of our connections. They just happen to be in our inbox somewhere. What did you do to be more methodical about the people you stayed in touch with so that you could come back to them when you had a business?
Andrew: Yeah, kind of a number of things. Part of it, as you mentioned, is Twitter is the most scalable way to connect with people that I’ve found, just because you can broadcast things out there. You can @reply to people, you can follow people and within 140 characters you can make a small touch. It’s not the most deepest touch, but it’s a small touch.
Blogging and writing has been very useful to me because I wrote about various things, whether it’s my own personal observations or something related to startups. People kind of feel like they start to know me even though they haven’t met me because of the way I write. So, that’s been helpful.
But also prior to this I worked on another side project called Startup Edition, which I also started with Nathan maybe a year before that. That was just an email newsletter. So very similar to Product Hunt, it began as an email list with some bloggers and people in the startup industry. People who are founders, investors, they would blog and write something about a particular topic each week.
So, it never became anything huge, but it became this platform for these people to share their learnings as entrepreneurs. That started building up and audience around myself. These people also were appreciative of me taking the effort and the initiative to create this list and a platform for them to get their word out.
Andrew: Why didn’t Startup Edition became bigger, considering the people who you had on board? You had the founder of Zapier, founder of Buffer. You had Hiten Shah. You had lots of well-known people. Why didn’t that take off?
Ryan: It was interesting. I think there’s something there. However, thinking more about it and really like being honest with myself, I didn’t see how it could actually turn into a scalable business, per se. It was a cool side project. But then over time, after I don’t know how many editions we did, but several dozen, we started running out of content. Like what types of categories or topics have we not already covered? I didn’t want it to be redundant.
The other thing was I just started losing interest in it a little bit. Kind of the day-to-day like manually creating this list just wasn’t as enthusiastic for me personally. So, I just eventually kind of put it to the wayside. We might revive it in the future.
Andrew: You know what was missing for me?
Ryan: What’s that?
Andrew: There is no sense of community there. It’s just a list of links. I don’t feel why each of these links is important except that you selected them, selected the people. There wasn’t a conversation about it the way there is on Hacker News, for example.
Ryan: Yeah. I was thinking about what would this look like if it was almost a curated Quora of some sort with more of a blog and writing vibe or feel to it? I think there’s a way to productize and create something out of Startup Edition. I just couldn’t find in my head what that would be to make it significant and a big business.
Andrew: And so it would be something like-I’m looking at older episodes here-“Where do you get your advice?” is a question and then I see David Spinks, CEO of Feast writing about his answer to that question on his site, you writing your answer to that question on your site and Sherman Lee on his site, etc. That was the feel.
Andrew: So, for me, it feels like it just didn’t have that sense of community. If there was actually the same group of people commenting on these, then I think I’d feel closer to it. Does that seem right to you based on your experience?
Ryan: Yeah. I believe that’s right. I did do some experimentation around how do I get the readers engaged and contributing in some way? My MVP for that was to ask them questions in that newsletter every week. I didn’t get much feedback and engagement. So, my sense-and that was the test, like how much would people engage around this?-was that there really wouldn’t be anything significant. It might be a small minority of people that would really want to organize and engage and create a community around this content.
Andrew: Again, you used off-the-shelf tools to create that first version. What’s the email program you used? Was it Constant Contact or iContact.
Ryan: That was MailChimp, actually.
Andrew: MailChimp. Okay. Here’s the other thing that the Pando article said about you. Here’s a quote. “Without the prestige of a Paul Graham,” founder of Y Combinator and Hacker News. “Without the prestige of a Paul Graham figure backing him, Hoover has to fight an uphill battle to capture people’s attention.” You’re smiling. Do you remember that?
Ryan: Yes. I do, just because of the irony when we announced that we were in Y Combinator. I just thought it was kind of funny the connection Carmel made months before I even though about joining YC. I remember that exact sentence.
Andrew: Was it that that got you to join Y Combinator, so that you could get the prestige of Y Combinator behind you?
Ryan: I think it’s valuable, certainly. But that was not the only reason to join YC. YC was an interesting journey. That was actually around the same time I was debating what is Product Hunt? It was an experiment. And then it was a side project. Now it was like, “Do I want to turn it into a VC-backed company or do I want to work on it on the side? Do I want to turn it into a bootstrap business?” Those are the questions I had.
I think this is around the April time period leading up to the next YC batch applications. Long story short is I met a lot of YC partners beforehand. They actually had been using Product Hunt. A lot of YC partners and YC alumni were on Product Hunt. So, they were very familiar with it. They reached out to me and said, “Hey, you want to chat? We’re Y Combinator,” which of course I had a lot of respect for and knew. But I just got to know them better. After talking with them, I realized this is a great opportunity to pursue.
Andrew: How did you then overcome “the lack of prestige of a Paul Graham?” So, I’m looking at GrowthHackers. They have-why am I blanking on his name?
Ryan: Oh, Sean Ellis?
Andrew: Right. Sean Ellis is constantly beating the drum for it and he’s the guy in the growth hacking community. So, of course he can build a link list that’s up-voted daily and active of other people who are growth hackers. You didn’t have that. So, what did you do to overcome that?
Ryan: Well, part of it is-I’m certainly no Paul Graham by any means-but I had at least a small enough audience to kick start it, like I mentioned before. So, I at least had that. If I didn’t have that initial seed audience or relationships with people, I don’t know if Product Hunt would exist today. So, it was really a lot of work before Product Hunt was even a thought that went into success so far.
The other piece, though, is kind of as we mentioned before. There are a lot of tech celebs or whatever you want to call them, people that you would recognize and have respect for in the industry. Those are people that are engaged and using Product Hunt. So, it’s, in a sense, leveraging their influence and their words and their thoughts as being members of the community that made Product Hunt have this prestige that a site that Paul Graham would launch would have as well.
Andrew: I see. You didn’t even partner with them. They weren’t advisors, were they? But they did have those lists of things they up-voted and those profile pages on your site that were automatically created whenever they clicked the login or register with Twitter. That’s what gave it prestige and that’s what allowed you to have not exactly the Paul Graham prestige, but some of that magic.
Ryan: Right. Exactly.
Andrew: That’s interesting to know.
Ryan: At least have enough of a reputation or a trust that people would care about this. If it’s random people-that’s the other reason why we use identities. We do not allow companies to comment or to post. It has to be a person. We use Twitter authentication for everything so that it’s tied to a real person. That’s really important for us to make sure it’s tied to identities.
Andrew: You then did a post on Fast Company about how you got your first 2,000 users. We have a sense of how you did it, that first article in Pando-the reach out to people personally before the site launched and afterwards. It’s an interesting article worth reading.
But here’s a quote that I saw in there. It’s from Ash, who you describe as an entrepreneur in action at Sequoia Capital. You sent him an email saying, “Hey, could you check this out?” He responded back by saying, “Fun experiment. We’ve been wondering why something like this hasn’t existed on a larger scale. It’s probably the PM growth dude’s,” meaning product manager or growth dude’s, “Best replacement for Dribble for collecting inspiration.”
I’ve been looking for a need that Product Hunt solves. For me, it’s just fun. It’s just plain old I wake up in the morning, I check Techmeme, I check Product Hunt. I’m not looking for it to solve a need for me. I just need something fun to read so that I can wake up and some inspiration and then I’m up and I can do my own thing.
Andrew: But Ash-do you pronounce his name Bhoopathy?
Ryan: Yeah, Bhoopathy.
Andrew: So, is Ash onto something, that beyond the fun there is a use here that project managers, that growth people want to see what’s out there and that’s the use case?
Ryan: Yeah. It’s used by various people in different ways. So, part of it is the entertainment aspect. You want to find cool, interesting things like the Send Your Enemies yesterday got a lot of attention, which is a silly, weird product, but it’s kind of funny and something people want to share. So, there’s that piece.
There’s also the inspiration piece. You see a lot of new nascent products. Some of them might just be side products, but they have interesting interactions or ways of using maybe the new iOS keyboard or unique onboarding experiences, that kind of thing. For anyone that is building a product, they visit Product Hunt and they see these unique things that you wouldn’t find elsewhere, perhaps, that can inspire new ideas if they might want to take inspiration from or borrow. It’s just something for them to know. So, it’s that piece.
It’s competitive intelligence, to an extent, as well because let’s say you’re building a mobile messaging app. You should be aware of what’s coming out and what’s being made as soon as it’s out just so that you can be aware of who’s out there but also, “What does their experience look like? How is it different than ours?”
Then there’s the investor side, like investors using it to source deals and things like that. So, I think there are definitely a lot of different use cases for Product Hunt. We’re seeing now that it’s more of like a lean back experience where you go there and you browse and you find new stuff.
But we’re seeing also the more specific intent use case emerging. What I mean by that is when you find or want to find a product for a specific use or the best product for X, we’re seeing a lot of people visit Product Hunt to search for those products. So, we’re starting to encapsulate more use cases and providing more value to consumers.
Andrew: Am I little intense? I just was thinking about it. Ryan Holiday introduced me to a friend of his to interview. I interviewed the guy and then Ryan emails me back afterwards and says, “I honestly can’t tell. Did you like him and were you happy for the introduction or are you pissed and that’s why you asked such aggressive questions?” He said, “I’m not upset. I just want to know. Am I introducing you to the right people?”
He made me think, “Am I being too aggressive?” So, now, as a guy who’s known me and has had me ask him sharp questions, be open with me. Does this feel a little too aggressive, a little too intense? What do you think?
Ryan: Does which part feel too aggressive and intense?
Andrew: My questioning and the intensity of the direction that I take this interview in.
Ryan: Oh, not at all. I’ve been asked harder questions.
Ryan: What I like to hear is honest truth. People sometimes skirt around the elephant in the room. In the very beginning, you asked about the business model and monetization. So, yeah, good questions.
Andrew: Alright. I feel like I have a clear direction with these conversations. If you notice, even when you started getting into how you got into Y Combinator, I thought that was a fascinating story. But screw that. That’s already online and it’s not part of my mission here of figuring out how you built up this community, so I quickly allowed to say it and then I shifted the conversation back to what I cared about.
I want to know. I want honest feedback from you and honest feedback from the people who are listening to us, does that come across as too sharp? Does it come across as too painful? Frankly, I’m not going to change what I say, but maybe I can soften it up a little bit.
Ryan: No. I’m used to it. I’ve talked to a lot of reporters over the past six months. I also see in their eyes sometimes that maybe I can do a better job of quickly wrapping up my answers sometimes.
Andrew: No. You’re doing great. I would tell you if you weren’t.
Ryan: I see in their eyes though when they’re like, “Alright, I want to move on because I can tell this is not interesting.”
Andrew: No. You know why you’re doing great? There’s no backstory. There’s a clear focus on my question and you don’t feel stumped by some of this stuff. And you don’t feel hurt by it. But I do sometimes wonder about my delivery because it’s part of the way that I can do my job.
Andrew: Alright. Back to how you grew this community-you were in almost every single comment. I was checking today to see, “Did Ryan add to this comment thread? Did Ryan add to that comment thread?” I found one that you missed, but everything else, including the Ship Glitter to Your Friend post that you were commenting on, that’s part of your strategy.
Ryan: Well, yeah. In the beginning, of course we had a lot less people. So, you’d see my face show up a lot more often, maybe on every single post if not most of them. I was also reading every single comment because there were so few. Now I should probably spend more time just like quickly reading all the comments, but I haven’t been able to keep up with all of it just because of all the activity.
My feeling is that I should always, for the rest of my life, as long as I’m working on Product Hunt, I’m going to be on Product Hunt using it every single day, partly just because I love it. But the other part is that I can’t lose touch with what’s going on and how people are conversing. It’s also really important that my face has shown up. It doesn’t have to everywhere. In fact, it shouldn’t be everywhere. But it needs to show up. It needs to have that personal touch.
As we’re growing, I actually hold back engaging in all the conversations because I actually don’t want my face to show up in every single post. No matter how much you like someone, you don’t want to see their opinion on everything. So, I think there’s now a healthy balance where I’m still engaged, but we have diversity in the comments and we’re still focusing on making it more diverse over time.
Andrew: Here are two other things that I noticed. One is that you refer to people, you @ them, which I think is flattering to come from the founder. But the other thing that I found is-I just forgot my other thing. Shoot. Oh, I know what it is.
Andrew: You give people some sharp feedback. They are posting what they made on your site. They get the maker mark on it, which is the little M in the circle. They click over and they see your feedback and it’s sometimes, “How is this different from this other product that was featured two days ago? How is this different from Yo 4? I see too many Yo 4 products here.” How does that impact the way that your community reacts to you if you’re not being a cheerleader all the time for them.
Ryan: Yeah. So, I know that we have a really positive culture. I’m really proud of that on product hunt. But we also don’t want it to be-forgive me for using this word-but like a circle jerk. We don’t want everyone saying, “This is awesome. This is great. This is the best thing ever,” because frankly that’s not valuable to either the makers or the community. It’s not interesting discussion.
So, what I want Product Hunt to be is a place where they can be good conversation, honest conversation and also useful critique and feedback. So, for me, the way I approach the comments on Product Hunt for some products and some makers is the same way I talk to my team and I talk to other people asking me for any kind of product advice.
Often times it’s around, “I really like what you’re doing here. This is really good. But what do you think about this. I’m going to challenge you on this piece here,” because that’s useful. The way you deliver it is what matters. You don’t want to just be off and say, “This is stupid. I’ve already seen a product like this.” That’s not really encouraging to people.
Andrew: Hacker News quietly used to hell ban people who were being too aggressive in the comments. Do you do any of that, delete people’s comments if they come across as too aggressive or trolly, hell ban people?
Ryan: We haven’t. We haven’t yet. Fortunately, because we have this curated community, we don’t have to deal with trolls very often, if at all. Over time, we will have ways for the community to flag things that maybe are inappropriate. But so far, it hasn’t been an issue for us.
Andrew: But anyone at this point can submit a link, anyone can comment and so on, right?
Ryan: No. Actually, still, right now-
Andrew: Oh, it’s still that?
Andrew: Oh, I had no idea.
Ryan: About one to two percent of monthly visitors can actually comment. So, it’s a very small number. We’re slowly opening that up with now an invite system, which is not me emailing them. But it’s an actual invite system where people in the community can invite others just by giving them, kind of like Dribble does if you’ve used their invite system before.
Andrew: On that very first post on Quibb that you announced the launch of the Linkydink list, Chris Corzine, product manager at Autodesk responded and said, “You’re a good guy Ryan. Not to flog a dead horse, but for the love of God, please invite some diversity into your contributor list. I’m happy to help with names and introductions.” And you said right from the start, “I hear you. I know it’s an issue and I’m working on it.”
I’m looking at this list of people and I assume that the reason it was all guys is because that just happened to be who posted today. But then, are you still struggling with finding females, with finding a diverse audience of submitters, a diverse user base of submitters?
Ryan: Yeah. So, that’s something that we’re constantly focused on, in part because I think it’s important for us to have more diversity because there will just be more interesting things to show up on the site. But also we want it to be welcoming to people of different areas, different races, different genders and so on.
So, it’s something we’ve been focusing on. We currently represent a very similar demographic to the startup world, frankly, which is more heavily male-dominant than females. So, that’s why you see a lot more men contributing on Product Hunt than there are women. It’s very similar to that. So, it’s kind of like Pinterest in some respects. I don’t know what their exact numbers are, but they’re also more female-focused than they are men. So, it’s just the nature of the content, the nature of the initial community.
But we’re working on that by getting more women involved in the comments. However, we’re not by any means going to say you should, as a woman, post. If you don’t want to engage in Product Hunt and you’re a woman, then that’s totally fine. Maybe it’s just not for you. But over time, I’m going to see it and we’re going to be focused on making it more diverse in different ways.
Andrew: It is a problem, not with the site, no criticism of you. But frankly, if we can’t get a more diverse collection of people submitting links to new products, then how are we going to solve the harder issues of getting more diversity in the startup founder base, in the developer base and so on. That was surprising.
Ryan: I was just going to mention there are a few specific things that we’re doing also in that area. We are making sure that we-we have these collections that people curate. So, we’re reaching out to women, more prominent women sometimes, and say, “Hey, do you want to create a collection that we can feature?” We are a doing a partner with Jason at the launch conference. We have quite a diverse selection of people from different backgrounds and also women on the panel. So, we’re making sure that that’s going to be diverse there.
Andrew: See, what Jason does-sorry, go on.
Ryan: No, go ahead.
Andrew: No, no, it’s more important that you talk. People can hear me talk any day.
Ryan: Yeah. So, in short, there are things that we can do to make sure that we’re highlighting women and other things like that. We’re also wanting to partner with different events around women who code and things like that. So, we’ve had conversations with other types of organizations in that regard.
Andrew: And frankly, I’ve had an issue with that too on Mixergy. We go out of our way to get female entrepreneurs on. When I used to do posts saying, “I’m looking for female entrepreneurs,” it didn’t work out because I would get some, but before the interview started, they said, “I don’t want to be part of the series that you’re doing with female entrepreneurs or I don’t want to be identified as a female entrepreneur because you don’t identify the men as male entrepreneurs. So, I just want to be an entrepreneur and I’m glad to be here.” So, that became an issue.
I’m looking on here. Today, actually, Ryan Block happens to be one, which is one more impressive person that you’ve got on. He’s been on there several times. He’s the founder of Engadget. You also have Nathan, your first partner. He is in there. Nathan Bradshaw is post. So, really, a good, solid active group of people who are continuing to be in there.
One of the things that this active group of people found was Yo in the early days, before it became this app that people talked about, both were shocked and excited about. The interesting thing for me is not so much that Yo was on, but the way that you used the fact that Yo was on before everyone else was talking about it as a way of showing the world, “This validates the purpose of our site.” Right?
Ryan: Yeah. You know, actually, Yo at the time, it’s definitely the first big breakout product that was on there early before everything else. It was actually on quite a long time before it blew up in the press. In hindsight, we should have reached out to some reporters and people we knew and said, “Hey, here’s a silly product. You should check it out.” We actually didn’t. So, Yo was actually, quite organically it blew up. It was on a couple of weeks before it started making the waves in the tech industry.
Andrew: This is the takeaway for me. It’s not just yes, it proves or it validates your model when Yo is discovered on your site before it is on TechCrunch or Techmeme. But other people would have had, other community leaders might have had these breakout hits and not used it to show others, “This is what our community is about and what our community could do.”
So, for example, I could have said-we had someone else on the comments of Mixergy, Ryan, on the comments of Mixergy before he ever became this big entrepreneur. That validates that Mixergy draws in big entrepreneurs. I missed that opportunity. Other community leaders miss that opportunity.
I think one of the lessons we can take from you is to use it, to trumpet it, to talk about it. I’ve heard you say this three or four times, including in the pre-interview notes here that you told Jeremy Weisz when he put the notes together, that was one of the reasons that you knew this was a success. I thought hat was smart. What do you think as I say that?
Ryan: So, Yo was a learning experience for us. In hindsight, when it blew up in the press, I realized, “Why didn’t I not reach out to TechCrunch and some people I knew there or Business Insider and just let them know this exists?” because they want to get good stories. They want to learn about this stuff. Since then I’ve done this several times. Ethen is a good example. Do you know Ethan, the app?
Andrew: Yes. I remember seeing it on your site for the first time. I’ve got to say what it is because I’m such a fan of the site. Ethan was this app that was on the site and all you could do was message Ethan, this guy Ethan. It was just a chat app that you could message him on.
For some reason, it just captured my imagination and so many other people. It blew up on the site. And then somebody else created an app that was like create your own Ethan and then Ethan did the same thing. Anyway, really interesting product and for some reason I just got drawn to it. So, what happened when you saw all of us talk about it and vote up Ethan the app?
Ryan: So, when I saw it early in the morning and saw Ethan post this, I was like, “What is this product? This is weird.” I tried it and was like, “It works. This is kind of novel.” It’s an app just to message this guy named Ethan. So, I’m like, “This is really novel. It’s interesting.” I forwarded it to Alyson Shontell at Business Insider because learning from Yo, I’m like I should forward things that are interesting that I think certain people would like this products. So, I messaged it to her. Business Insider covered it. Then some other publications covered it from there. It became more of a snowball effect.
Again, it all started on Product Hunt. They linked back to Product Hunt. It reinforced our brand and really made it more well known that Product Hunt is a place where you’re going to find new stuff before everything else. I’ve done this now with many other products like the glitter product. I also forwarded it along to another publication yesterday and that got picked up. Their site was down a few times because of all the traffic from us and Reddit and other sites.
But that’s just another way for us to market ourselves. It provides value and usefulness to reporters that we know. They appreciate products that are relevant to them to be forwarded to them.
Andrew: I see. So, I missed a big part of what you did there and what you learned from it. For me, the learning was if there’s someone who’s well known who’s in the community or a hit, make sure that people know that this validates the business. You say no, “I’m also using this in the future.” And I like the way that you did that. What else am I missing as I think about your community or getting wrong, as I try to learn from you how to build a community?
Ryan: You know, going back to the very early days of the community, I think one reason why Product Hunt worked and why it didn’t just wither away is the fact that we spent so much time doing these emails and these tweets and manual approaches to making people feel welcome. We started with a seed audience, but we know that we had to keep it growing.
Naturally, no matter how good your product is, people will leave. You need to make sure you fill those people, replace those people with now people and then have more people join because you want it to also look like it’s thriving and have some excitement around it. Otherwise, new communities also will fail or die because it looks novel, it looks fun at first, but it doesn’t grow and people get bored with it.
So, for us in the beginning, it was sort of like this tipping point. I don’t know what the magic number is or anything. But there’s a tipping point where you have just enough people where now you have enough content every single day to make it a thriving community. We knew that we had to hit that tipping point, whatever it was, early on, otherwise it would just fail.
Andrew: One of the challenges with creating such an active community of product creators is they start asking for things and then you feel like you have to give it to them because they’re active. They’re contributing and you want to build based on people’s feedback. You listened to them and some of the issues that you had were you created a couple of buttons to send something to your phone or send it to your email and you thought for sure this was going to be used. What happened?
Ryan: Yeah. In general, we try to build very small features and then measure impact and measure how people actually use them. This was a relatively small feature but it was, again, a learning experience and a reminder that as confident as you are about a product or a feature, you can’t necessarily know if it’s going to be used or if people will care.
So, we created a “send to email” and “send to phone” button so that when you’re on Product Hunt and you see a cool mobile app, my thought was, oh, you would want to send this to your phone so you can easily download it because you’re on your desktop and you don’t want to have to search the app store. It’s going to be a pain in the ass.
We launched this and I don’t know, we get maybe two people a day using it. No one really uses it for whatever reason. We just realized, “Okay, as confident as Ryan was, it just didn’t work out.” Thankfully it wasn’t like a big project or anything, but it’s another reminder just to be aware that you’re not always right.
Andrew: Isn’t that what the Y Combinator partners asked you when they interviewed you for a position at Y Combinator, how do you know what to build?
Ryan: Yeah. I’m trying to remember. The interview is ten minutes long. It’s super-fast. I think they asked 20 questions.
Andrew: How would you answer that today? Knowing what you know, how would a community organizer know what to build when there are so many different voices asking for so many different things?
Ryan: Yeah. So, honestly, my primary role now-actually, my prior background is in product management-one of my primary roles is to say no or not right now. There are going to be a lot of ideas thrown out there, some of them really good ideas, but you also have to focus. You have to place your bets wisely. So, for me, I look at what are people doing right now? What behavior is already emerging? Are they hacking around the system?
Take for example collections. We launched collections maybe two or three months ago. This is a way for people to create a collection of products, whether it’s like my favorite design tools or silly fun apps like Yo and Ethan, whatever they want. Before we built that, we realized people were, for one, asking for it, but more importantly, people were building Trello boards or they were building Wunderlist lists that they would then move to these other programs of products they find on Product Hunt. They were already building these lists themselves.
So, that was a really good signal that people wanted to do this. Why not make it easier for them to, one, create them, but also share them on Product Hunt itself?
Andrew: I see. That makes a lot of sense. Why do you even have the job board up if revenue isn’t important? If you do, why isn’t it up higher?
Ryan: Yeah. It pulls in well. We haven’t been focusing on it more recently, just because in my mind if it takes more than five percent of my focus each month, then it’s not worth our time right now. That said, we are building a team and have more people on board. So, I’m hoping that one of the new-Tiffany, who just joined recently, she’ll be able to own that and really focus on building up a job board. Make that a really small focus on her, but just enough to bring in $5,000-$10,000 a month.
For us, it’s more opportunistic in that people email us and say, “We would love to put our job position here. Where do I PayPal you?” It’s not that it’s a lot of work, but it is focused.
Andrew: What do you charge for it? It looks like there is no price list. It’s just a link to someone’s email address.
Ryan: Exactly. That’s one of the things we should probably make easier for ourselves and for people that want to pay us. We’re actually changing the pricing. But we’ve historically done about $100 a month for a listing there. Then if we promote it in the email list, which is where you get most attention, that is around maybe $600-what is it now? I’m trying to remember-around $300-$500 per email.
Andrew: Alright. I know we’ve gone over time, but I have just a couple of more questions. Do you have a couple more minutes?
Andrew: One of the people in my audience is a guy who runs Bootstrappers.io, Jean-Nicholas Hould. You know him. You know his site. He’s trying to create a Hacker News for bootstrappers. I actually discovered it on Hacker News. I’m wondering, what does a guy like that need to do? If you were going to run a Hacker News for bootstrappers, what would you do to build that community up?
Ryan: Interesting. So, not knowing the site exactly and the content, but just based on your description, my first question would be how is this significantly different than Hacker News? The people that want to visit this bootstrapper community are probably the same people that want to visit Hacker News. Those people then, maybe they’re already invested in Hacker News. Maybe that’s already part of their daily habit.
So, how are you going to make this significantly more important and valuable to them to build a big enough audience? That’s like my initial gut feeling first when it comes to what you’re building.
But then in terms of if you wanted to make that a success, I’d go back to okay, how can you build really good conversation and really good people in a community around this content? How can you help bootstrappers who have specific challenges and empathies with one each other, how can you help them help each other perhaps?
Andrew: So, what do you do to figure out how to make this community so much more valuable than the other communities that are out there? Where do you find the answer to that question?
Ryan: It could start with-again, riffing here-it could start with one-I’m assuming he’s a bootstrapper himself, so, fortunately he’s pretty close to the problem or the community of people that he’s trying to build a product around, which is great-so, I would recognize, “Okay, what do I as a bootstrapper need help with and what solutions don’t exist out there right now.” Whether it’s Hacker News or whatever other sites are out there, what’s missing in those areas?
Maybe it’s a way for bootstrappers to give each other advice. Maybe that’s the nugget. Maybe that’s the core of the product. Maybe it’s ways for other bootstrappers to share each other’s services and barter services with one another. I don’t know if that’s it or not. But to learn that, you can have these hypotheses and you can start talking to other boostrappers and understanding what needs they have. That could be one approach, or at least identifying what are they doing right now that could be more efficient, perhaps.
Andrew: Alright. The final thing I wanted to ask about it is “Hooked.” You co-wrote the book “Hooked” with Nir Eyal about how products hook users in and become habit-forming. What have you used from “Hooked” on Product Hunt?
Ryan: Yeah. So, I always want to like preface this with saying that I have to write it as a contributing author, but Nir deserves all the credit. He’s a fantastic guy. He’s been very helpful in a number of ways. His writing-I actually read his writing a year and a half before I met him and well before we started working on the book. So, I love the guy.
Andrew: What happened? You saw that he was blogging. You liked his ideas. How did that lead to the book?
Ryan: Yeah. It’s actually funny. I read his work for a long time. I wrote this post. It was the end of 2012. It was “13 People I Want to Meet in 2013.” And he was one of those people. At one point, we met up and we grabbed dinner down in Palo Alto. We just got to chatting. We just really clicked. Both of our personalities were very similar in a lot of ways.
At the very end he was like, “I wasn’t planning this, but do you want to help me write this book?” This was when I was at PlayHaven and I was still very much involved, but I was like mentally transitioning to thinking about other things to do, other side projects. So, I was like, “Sure, that would be fun.” I was hesitant at first, but I was like, “Alright. Let’s do this.” So, really something like that. It was just a meeting.
But yeah, going back to “Hooked,” for Product Hunt, we knew that it needed to be a habit forming product and it needed to be a site that people would come back to all the time without having to pay for users. It’s not like we can pay every single engagement or every single visit. So, there are a number of different things. Part of it is the email itself. Email is a big part of Product Hunt today, not just because it started as an email list, but it’s a big part of-
Andrew: I hope we didn’t lose the connection just now.
Ryan: So, how do we bring people back? What’s the trigger? Can you hear me okay?
Andrew: Yeah. There we go. It’s back.
Ryan: Okay. Good. The book is the trigger. What is going to bring people back to Product Hunt? So, we can just take a quick peak into that area right now. It’s like first off there’s the email, which is an external trigger to bring them back to Product Hunt every day. Over 100,000 people that are subscribed, they get an email. It says, here are the top products from yesterday. Here are some new products. That brings them back to the service. It reminds them that Product Hunt exists.
The internal triggers, there are multiple. But part of it is just in the startup world or the tech industry, you have this internal trigger or desire to find new products and find new things. That’s the ultimate trigger that we want to embed within the minds of the community, that Product Hunt is the place to find cool new interesting products. Over time, that kind of moves to other types of triggers, like the search use case. When I want to find a product for X, I got to product Hunt. Those are the things that we’re slowly embedding over time as people start using the product more and more.
Andrew: I’ve got that list here in front of me, by the way, from 2013. I was at the top of the list, which was really cool. Now we finally get to talk on Skype. I hope I get to see you in person. But look at the other people who are on the list. Kevin Rose-you’ve gotten to know Kevin Rose over the years, right?
Andrew: Jason Calacanis-you’re going to speak at his event. Chris Dixon-his firm and Andreessen Horowitz recently funded you guys. Nir Eyal-we talked about that. Paul Graham-his firm got you guys started, Y Combinator. What a list. What a way to hit it all.
Ryan: Yeah. It took me longer than a year. But I think I met most of the people on there, all but a few.
Andrew: Yeah. It seems like it, really great list of people too and impressive what you’ve been able to do in such a short period of time. Boy, congratulations. I’m probably going to see you tomorrow morning, not in person but on Product Hunt. It’s one of my first reads for the day. I can’t help it. Sometimes I say I should just start by reading a book in the morning or start by writing something. My mind is in too much of a fog. I grab my cup of coffee. I try to shake off the sleep. I look at Product Hunt and see what people are up to. It’s worth it. It’s a great site. Congratulations on the success with the site.
Ryan: Yeah Thanks. Thanks for having me on too. This is an honor to be on a show that I’ve been listening to for so long. You’ve done an awesome job. How many years has it been?
Andrew: Maybe five or six years? About six years.
Ryan: Wow. That’s awesome.
Andrew: You know what, Ryan? I’m actually experimenting with closing the interview with closing credits and usually what I say is, “This interview is referred by…” but in this case, it’s me. I’m the one who said, “Hey guys, let’s get Ryan Hoover on here.” And I’m so proud that we did. I’ll also give credit to a couple of other people who were on who help put this together.
This interview is produced by Jeremy Weisz who did the pre-interview and I’ve been using his notes to go over this. Reserarch by Andrea Schumann-she was the one who put together a list of links from your past that allowed me to really put it all in order. It will eventually be posted up on the site by Ari, who you guys used to know as Ari Saint in the comments. But she got married. Now her last name is Arie Desormo. I’m trying to pronounce it in the French way. But that’s as close as I can get.
Alright, Ryan. Congratulations. Someone out there I know is listening to us and building a company and I hope at some point that person will be here to do an interview on Mixergy the way Ryan did. Congratulations.
Ryan: Yeah. Thanks, Andrew.
Andrew: Thanks for being on here.