Ryan Hoover, Founder, Product Hunt
Hunting for the Next Big Thing:
How Ryan Hoover established an online home for tech geeks that changed the way makers get inspired, recruit, and launch their products.
When he wasn’t overseeing the gumball machines at his parents’ video game store as a kid or pushing carts at a home improvement store as a teen, Ryan Hoover was tinkering with tech.
As personal technology advanced, and new programs and applications exploded, Hoover and his friends were fairly obsessed with whatever was emerging from the Silicon Valley pipeline next. Over the years, however, he found that there was no single outlet that satisfied his cravings to learn about the very latest products and developments.
Sure, he avidly scrolled tech Twitter and Reddit threads. But what if, he wondered, there was some kind of a reliable destination where those in the tech field, or otherwise infatuated with its latest offerings, could show up regularly to talk shop—to share and learn about all the latest and greatest in tech?
“The initial inspiration was just the desire to explore new technology,” Hoover says.
So began a side project that, in just over five years, has become the wildly popular hub for the tech community, Product Hunt. In 2018, more than 1 million registered users and many more unregistered visitors stopped by Hoover’s creation, and over 20,000 products launched on the site. More than just a news site or message board, Product Hunt has evolved into the definitive place for makers to introduce their new projects and learn about what their peers are up to.
But this great, big community all began with a simple email list.
Building a Home for the Tech Community
Hoover had been working in a product management position at growing startup PlayHaven, where he was employee #10. He values his time spent at the company, especially lessons learned about management. But at the time, he had only been out of college a couple of years, and was eager to try hs hand at something new, so Hoover moved into a part-time role to explore new projects.
Going part-time gave him the space in his schedule that he needed to pursue something of his own. He’d been mulling over the idea of Product Hunt, and the time had finally come to make it a reality.
It began as a simple email newsletter between friends sharing the latest tech product releases and mind-blowing apps they stumbled across. But soon, friends of friends and friends twice removed were added to the list.
Before long, Hoover was managing an email list that included far more strangers than friends from all around the globe. He decided to bring his friend Nathan Bashaw on board to build a website, giving Product Hunt a home online, and the community continued to flourish.
“We sort of filled this hole I think, in the market that no one really observed or noticed,” he says. “We do have Twitter, and we have subreddits around technology, and we have blogs and publications talking about new tech, but there is really no home for the tech community to talk about the latest products.”
With a brand new website, Hoover planned to turn it into that home.
But in order to host meaningful conversation, he knew he had to engage users with something other social platforms weren’t offering. Hoover says he intentionally focused on positive community building from day one by sending personalized welcome emails to each new user who joined Product Hunt.
“As proud as I am of what we’ve built on the product and technical side, that’s not what’s going to make us successful or make us special and unique,” he says. “It’s really the people and the brand that we’ve built.”
But the site membership ballooned rapidly, not only exceeding his ability to email each new visitor, but also evolving into much more than just a side project or an email list.
Product Hunt grew to fill an important hole, helping entrepreneurs face a daunting task that so many in the tech space must take on at some point: product launch.
Reinventing Launch Day
Hoover noticed that traditional media outlets were the primary way that creators would get the word out about new products, but even tech publications weren’t particularly suited to support a launch. It’s also hard work to land coverage.
“Historically, to get your first users, to get the word out, a lot of people would go to the press to do so,” he says. “They would have to have a relationship in many ways or get lucky cold emailing reporters and hoping that they’d get somebody to write about their company.”
And when launch day is imminent, few creators even have the time to dedicate to those pitches.
On Product Hunt, tech creators can share their new products in detail, build a following before launch day, and advertise to groups of people who are most interested. Makers, founders, and startups soon flocked to the website, eager to share their newest releases, and the community responded with upvotes galore.
Even visitors to the site who had not yet built products of their own could find incredible value on Product Hunt, Hoover says. He points out that the site is full of inspiration for future makers, and is just a great way to pass an afternoon.
“I like to think that it’s like a productive procrastination,” he says. “Instead of looking at maybe cat photos or memes on the internet, at least you’re spending time exploring what people are building.”
And maybe gathering ideas for “the next big thing.”
Comparing it to an afternoon in a museum for an artist or a visit to a music venue for a songwriter, Hoover says that a scroll through Product Hunt can trigger fresh ideas and show up-and-comers new ways to approach tech.
“I think if you’re someone who’s excited to build a company in the future or if you’re a product manager, or whatever your role is, I think there’s a lot of value in searching for inspiration,” he says.
As traction grew, so did their reach, and before long, San Francisco-based Hoover noticed that over 50 percent of Product Hunt’s audience was international.
“It’s cool in that sense because it’s not just a reflection of Silicon Valley technology,” he says. “It’s a reflection of the world and the technology that’s being created all over the place.”
Hoover had a successful brand on his hands. All he had to do was figure out what’s next.
Planning for the Future
In 2016, three years after Product Hunt launched, Hoover and his team mulled over whether they should begin another round of funding or pursue acquisition. Unsure which way to go, they decide to take the first steps down both paths, and then go with the one that had a more natural fit.
Because community was such an important aspect of the business, both internally and externally, Hoover wanted to ensure that, if they did pursue acquisition, the companies would have complementary cultures.
“That’s where a lot of acquisitions can go sour,” he says. “There can be a wildly different culture or vision for the company, and if that’s not aligned then it’s probably not going to work out long term.”
During the company’s first two rounds of funding two years earlier, Naval Ravikant, the CEO and co-founder of AngelList, had invested in the company. He already understood what Product Hunt was all about and appreciated the work they were doing, so when he approached Hoover with an acquisition proposal, Hoover realized that this was the natural fit he had been waiting for.
While he acknowledges that the AngelList culture isn’t a clone of the culture that exists within Product Hunt, he feels that they weave together into a perfect fit.
“It’s sort of like when you hire a teammate,” he says. “You don’t want them to be just like you. Ideally, they have a similar belief and mission as yourself but also have different skills and different areas of focus. That’s kind of how I think of AngelList and Product Hunt.”
Both companies have similar passions for tech and supporting founders, while AngelList focuses on engineering and Product Hunt approaches those passions from the angle of community building, Hoover says.
Nearly three years have passed since the acquisition, and Hoover feels things are going well. Product Hunt continues to operate mostly independently, and has employees across 10 countries, all communicating via Slack. And the platform has continued to evolve.
Today, creators in the tech space can advertise jobs, promote events, and launch new products with ease. They can also promote an upcoming product launch through the tool Ship, a three-in-one toolkit where makers can create landing pages, build email lists, and send out surveys without bouncing between platforms.
As the world of tech continues to expand, Hoover sees a future of continued growth and ever-increasing user engagement for Product Hunt, particularly this year, as they direct their primary focus toward increasing users and community contributions.
No doubt, as technology continues to advance far beyond anything we can imagine, Product Hunt will be there, ever inviting users to discover their next favorite thing.
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Erica Comitalo
- How Hoover’s insatiable curiosity about new products planted the seed for Product Hunt
- The evolution of Product Hunt from small email list to flourishing online community
- Why Hoover focused on building its brand and community from day one
- How Product Hunt reinvented “launch day” for entrepreneurs
- What Hoover believes is the most important thing to look for during an acquisition
- What inspired the Product Hunt team to build tools for its community members
- The three KPIs Product Hunt is focused on in the near future
- Hoover’s most valuable advice to entrepreneurs who are thinking of building a product
Full Transcript of Podcast with Ryan Hoover
Nathan: The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Ryan: Yeah, so like a lot of people I’ve had a lot of different jobs. Everything from, as a kid, managing my parent’s gumball machine at their video game store to basically pushing carts at a home improvement store and kind of fast forward to where I am now, I started Product Hunt about just over five years ago now and I guess how I got my job is it started off as a side project and eventually that side project turned into something more serious, a business. And so now it’s today, fast forward five years since Product Hunt started, still leading the team and my day to day is still very much focused on growing the community and exploring new products and technology every day.
Nathan: Yeah, amazing. So I was following kind of the early stage Product Hunt journey when it was first launched and I remember in the early days you could, and still right now, you could get a lot of traction if you post your latest product or a new feature that you’ve added to your app or any new product and, yeah, you guys have a massive community but it was, still is, a very, very powerful place to really get press and really get awareness for whatever you’re launching. So I guess how did you come up with the idea in the early days?
Ryan: Yeah, well initially it was I’ve always kind of loved technology and been very curious I guess around technology. And playing with different apps and products over the years. And I sort of realised after playing with products and talking about them with my friends constantly, I realised why isn’t there just a simple list on the internet where it lists here are the new, cool products that launched today? And I very much built it, it’s almost a cliché, I built the project for myself initially. It was just me and my friends wanted a place to share these things and that kind of grew into a community from there. But the initial inspiration was just the desire to explore new technology. And fast forward, initially it was just to share things we discovered, but quickly it also became a launch pad for makers and founders and start ups and the kind of realisation is that historically, to get your first users, to get your word out, a lot of people would go to the press to do so. They would have to have a relationship in many ways or get lucky cold emailing reporters and hoping that they’d get someone to write about their company. And that was sort of the way that people launched. And it still is today to some extent.
But the reality is most people don’t have those connections, they don’t have those relationships. They oftentimes just don’t want to go through all the hassle of pitching their story to a bunch of different people. And the reality is the press and publications weren’t really built for launching. They’re not designed to support launching, they’re designed to tell stories and break news. And so there’s sort of misalignment of getting goals that Product Hunt sort of fills in many ways in terms of Product Hunt is the place to launch your product and a place that people go to discover new products and new start ups.
So anyway, my kind of interest in this space kind of started very early on in my childhood and eventually I kind of stumbled into what it now kind of became.
Nathan: Yeah. And you didn’t start Product Hunt as a start up per se, it was just a passion project, side project, that kind of took off, right?
Ryan: Yeah. Yeah, it was actually an email list too. So it wasn’t even, it was a side project but it wasn’t even a website or anything advanced in the beginning.
Nathan: Yeah. And what were you doing at the time before you launched it all or just working on it?
Ryan: Yeah, initially it was, so it was actually when I was in between jobs. So I’d been in a previous start up for about three years and I joined as employee number 10 and we had ups and downs and I eventually left as the company recruited 100 people. But I really wanted to challenge myself and explore some new career challenges. And so I ended up actually leaving the company and went to a part time role. And what was nice is during that time as I was sort of making a little bit of money as a part time employee, I was able to experiment with different ideas. And so that gave me the time to explore and it was during that time that Product Hunt started. So my previous history was in product management and in building products and working with teams. So a lot of that experience in product management really helped me in my path towards ultimately becoming a CEO and building a product myself.
Nathan: Yeah. Makes sense. So talk me through the early days of Product Hunt. What was it like? Because this is your first start up, home run, acquired by AngelList, yeah, this is a very large, well-known site. Talk me through that.
Ryan: Yeah. I think, well most founders, you know, you end up doing a lot of things for the first time when you’re starting a company. Everything from building the product to hiring to raising capital to firing. All the good and all the bad that comes with building a company. And so I think in the beginning a lot of it’s … first you really, just be excited about what you’re building. And I know that’s kind of an obvious thing to say, but you need to be so excited about what you’re building because it’s going to be really hard at some points and if you’re not motivated and excited to pursue your mission or build the product that you want to see in the world it’s going to be just hard to push through some of those challenges. So in the early days it was initially an email list and then my buddy Nathan came on board to help build out the website and this was before we incorporated the company, it wasn’t, it was still a side project and then to sort of fast forward we ended up eventually figuring out, okay, well what are we going to do with this thing?
It was growing very quickly, there were some clear signs of opportunity there and what I realised is we needed to figure out what is the next steps, what is this side project going to become? And I ended up applying to YCombinator, getting in and kind of building the initial founding team from there. And a lot of the last years or so are really very much a blur in some ways. Both great things, both hard things and challenges, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Nathan: Yeah. Amazing. And talk to me around the early stages. How did you, you said in the early days of Product Hunt you seeded the community, it was just your friends and you wanted to share cool products, how did you further on foster that community? Because I think that’s been a really integral part of why Product Hunt is an amazing place to go and learn about new products, but then also as a launchpad because it has such a cultivated, incredible community of people and, yeah.
Ryan: You know in the beginning we knew that community was really the core and it still is today, of Product Hunt. The technical side is …of kind of what we built on the product and technical side, but that’s not what’s going to make us successful or make us special and unique. It’s really the people and the brand that we built. And so in the very beginning that was a very clear focus. And while Product Hunt started with just me and my friend, quickly it grew beyond that. Very, very quickly. And it became friends of friends and it became, you know, people around the world that I have several degrees of separation from. But to build that kind of initial base, a lot of it was tactical things like seeing who was signing up in the very early days and emailing people who signed up personally with my Gmail address to welcome them and just really create an impression. My goal was to create an impression and hopefully remain memorable and get them curious and excited to contribute and be a part of the community. So there are things like that that were really important.
There’s also really subtle details too about the brand that we built. We have, our mascot is a cat wearing Google Glass which is kind of silly and ridiculous and increasingly nostalgic, perhaps, as Google Glass certainly isn’t the most innovative tech product in the world. It’s very much intentional that it’s a cat too. It’s supposed to be playful, it’s supposed to inspire some curiosity and it’s supposed to make people ask questions and set a tone of friendliness. And so things like that in the product, in the brand, have been really important in kind of establishing the tone and the vibe and making it a place that people want to hang out and explore and be a part of.
Nathan: That’s interesting. So in the early days, how many people do you reckon you reached out to personally from your personal Gmail and, yeah, just that whole doing things that don’t scale. How long were you doing that? Because, yeah, Product Hunt grew very, very fast.
Ryan: Yeah. I should look back in my email logs because it’s there. I don’t know how many people I emailed, definitely hundreds over the course of the early weeks or so. And I might have emailed 20 or 30 people personally every single day. And I think that, well I know that that helps. In fact I’ve even had people years later remind me about the emails they received from me, because they remember it years later. It was kind of unusual. You don’t really get, you never get emails that are truly personalised, that are truly from the founder or the creator of a product when you sign up. You might get those automated emails that are pretending to be personal and we all know they’re not, but you don’t get real, personal emails where … I made it very clear that it was personal because it mentioned their name and their company and something about them that it not something that can be automated. And yeah, it was certainly not scalable and I don’t do it anymore. I don’t look and see who’s signing up and email them personally. Maybe I should to some extent, but it’s just not scalable and at our numbers now we’re just trying to do things that can attract another million people to visit the site this month, not another couple of thousand.
Nathan: So talk to me around the traction and where you guys are at now, just so our audience can get … with Product Hunt, how far have you taken this company?
Ryan: Yeah, so we, in the beginning it was … what we quickly realised and frankly day zero I couldn’t have foreseen is that we sort of filled this hole, I think, in the market that no-one really observed or noticed, perhaps. And that we do have Twitter and we have subreddits around technology and we have blogs and publications talking about new tech, but there is really no home for the tech community to talk about the latest products and the newest technology and sort of a community to sort of geek out about that stuff. And one of the reason why we saw the quick traction at the beginning is because it very much filled a hole in the market, to some extent, that people just didn’t see. And that led to just a swarm of people contributing and being a part of the community early on.
And as we kind of fast forward, we now grow in different ways. So in the beginning a lot of it was through word of mouth and to some extent and also press in the beginning was helpful to get our first few thousand kind of users engaged. But now we focus on other things and other more scalable, I guess, growth levers and things like SEO and search traffic are one of them where we’re improving the product and the site and exploring new ways to attract and solve for answers that people are searching for in Google for example. And things like that are kind of areas that we’re looking into now. Now today we have a global community, it really has been global from day one, which some people underestimate, I think, how global it really is.
People assume that because it’s technology focused and because I’m based in San Francisco and because a lot of the early people are in San Francisco, like investors and founders, they sort of assume it’s a lot of Silicon Valley people and actually a very, very small percentage of people are from Silicon Valley. I think maybe, I think it’s less than 1% are even in the Bay Area. , actually it’s certainly less than 1%. And more than 50% of our audience are outside the US as well. So we really have kind of, I think, created a global brand to some extent where I’ll even go to, I’ve been to Tokyo, I’ve been to Berlin, I’ve been to France, I’ve been all around the world where we’ve hosted meet ups and gatherings and stuff with other Product Hunt community members. So anyway it’s kind of cool. It’s cool in that sense because it’s not just a reflection of Silicon Valley technology, it’s a reflection of the world and the technology that’s been created all over the place.
Nathan: Yeah, amazing. And are you able to share how many monthly visitors you get? How many products have been mentioned on the site? How many users do you guys have? I just, yeah, just, I guess, yeah, to really understand the scale.
Ryan: Yeah, so we actually have intentionally kept private the numbers like monthly uniques, but to date … well, to give you sense of scale we’ve had, last year, 2018 we did a count of how many people launched, how many products were on Product Hunt, we had over 20,000 products launched and some of those are everything from little side projects from people building cool things to big companies like Facebook or Stripe or public companies launching on Product Hunt. And it’s also led to well over two million people, two million up votes last year we had. What else? I’m trying to pull some other numbers that we’ve shared. We have over a million people now, I should say over a million people registered, but we have well more than that visiting the site on a regular basis because most people actually don’t log in. It’s like a lot of other communities and sites where there’s a lot of lurkers, there’s a lot of lurkers that never register or never up vote, but they’re visiting and they’re exploring and they’re clicking through and downloading and purchasing products and so, yeah, there’s just kind of a wealth of lurkers out there that contribute in their own way.
Nathan: Yeah. I’m probably guilty of that. Yeah, look, the thing that I find to be honest, Ryan, is if I go on Product Hunt, I know I’m going to lose just a truck tonne of time because you just find so many cool products. Like everybody loves geeking out on the latest app, the latest tech and, you know, at Foundr we pay for over 100 different SaaS tools so it’s just scary for me sometimes because I know I’m just going to get lost because the stuff that gets up voted is always the coolest cutting edge stuff, you know?
Ryan: Yeah. We kind of, I mean we’ve tried to design this rabbit hole to some extent, which some people might see as counterproductive. But I like to think, and of course I’m biassed, I like to think that it’s a productive procrastination. In that you, instead of, you know, looking at maybe cat photos or memes on the internet, at least you’re spending time exploring what people are building. And I think if you’re someone who’s excited to build a company in the future or if you’re a product manager or whatever your role is, I think there’s actually a lot of value in searching for inspiration. In kind of the same way that artists go and explore different … either travel or they go to museums or musicians will listen to other artists and other genres of music to get inspiration for their own ideas, I think the same is true for people that are building products.
You might discover a product that maybe you’re not only a user of, but they approach their landing and marketing positioning in a unique way that is inspiring. Or you download an app and they have a really unique onboarding flow that might inspire your own onboarding flow or approach in the future. So I don’t know, I think, I actually know that there are some colleges that prescribe and sort of require their students to go on Product Hunt and visit every single day because they know that there’s value in staying plugged into what people are building and finding inspiration in that way.
Nathan: Yeah. I agree. I know that … I don’t know if it’s still the case, I assume it is, they used to say that a lot of VCs, that’s where they spend their time now, looking for the next thing that might be a unicorn. And I know you guys have, you know, because you’ve been around for so, for a decent amount of time, there are some companies that have, they first got their home run on Product Hunt and then they’ve gone on to be a unicorn or whatever. So yeah, no, I think it’s always a great way as well to just see trends in the market. Sometimes I go on there just to look, and you can run searches, right? Where, if I know that there’s an app, so let’s just say you talked about legendary onboarding, like superhuman, like incredible onboarding, legendary. And if you wanted to go and find an app that helps you manage your email better, then you can run a search and you can find all the different apps. So sometimes when I’m thinking, okay, what is the new latest and greatest webinar software out there I’ll go on Product Hunt, see what the latest cool stuff is because it might be a tool that’s not on my radar that has just recently come out and that’s on the cutting edge or it’s something different. So yeah, there’s a lot of different uses for your product.
Ryan: Yeah. What we’ve built over time, which may not be obvious to a lot of people, is for years we’ve been also making associations of products. Meaning when a new product launches, let’s say some new webinar product to kind of use your example, we’ll often associate both manually and programmatically related products to that. So you’ll be able to kind of discover and ultimately map out these relationships. Okay, here’s this new product, but here are also the other ones that launched previously that are related to that product. And we’re over time kind of mapping out in some ways this product graph of all the products out there that are related in some way. And some of them are alternatives to a particular product, some of them are complimentary products, things that are useful to also use in addition to that product and so that’s kind of where a lot of our efforts around SEO have also been effective. Building out destinations for people to discover alternatives or complementary products to ones that they might already use.
Nathan: That’s interesting. So you’re trying to make the app, or the website, as sticky as possible?
Ryan: Yeah. And build almost more value over time. Because as more products get added we create more relationships to create more density around the data that we collect. And it really becomes kind of the unique and proprietary graph of sorts of kind of a … and then also in some ways our archaeology of what’s launched in the past. Now that we’re five plus years old we’ll see products that … some die and don’t work out, some of them get acquired, some of them go on and become a unicorn. You can go back and look at the Foundr responses and answers to questions, you know, multiple years ago. Which as someone who really geeks out on that kind of stuff, I sort of enjoy reflecting and reviewing people’s thoughts at that time. Not knowing what the product would become in the future.
Nathan: Yeah. So that is very interesting. So do you check the site every day? Are you still kind of part of that auditing team and looking at the latest products? Do you still check it every day?
Ryan: Yeah, yeah. That’s my … the first thing I do is open up Product Hunt in the morning. And it’s a combination of going through Slack and catching up with my team and then seeing what’s on Product Hunt. And, you know, some people think or assume that, oh, you must know what’s on the site and every morning you kind of already know what’s coming, but I actually don’t. Just like everyone else I wake up and I’m just like everyone else, discovering what’s launching and what’s happening. And in most cases I don’t know what’s coming, every now and then I know what’s being scheduled and what’s kind of coming in the pipeline, but a lot of times I’m coming up to discover new products for the first time. And I still enjoy it. I’m still just like a consumer. If I wasn’t incented, I guess, to be involved in Product Hunt, I’d still be a good user I think.
Nathan: Yeah. Awesome. I’d love to talk about the acquisition with AngelList. How did that come about?
Ryan: Yeah. So going back to our first round of funding, so we did two rounds of funding, one was a seed round and we got some great people on board there. One of those investors was Naval from AngelList and then we went through YCombinator and then we also raised a round with Andreessen Horowitz and that was all back in 2014. And fast forward to 2016 time frame, we were exploring kind of the next stages of the company and transparently it was a combination of do we raise a series B and grow the team and pursue some of the vision that we have for the company, or do we pursue acquisitions? And we were transparently pursuing both at once. And I think this is something that’s important for founders to really internalise, optionality is so important meaning you don’t want just one option for anything. Ideally you have multiple and that gives you flexibility and control over your destiny, ultimately. And so we pursued both of those directions and the most natural fit was with AngelList and that relationship started off in the beginning days, back in 2014 when Naval invested. So having that conversation around, what would this look like if we worked together and were acquired by AngelList and how could we ultimately support the tech community and makers and founders even better together?
And so now it’s been over two years since the acquisition and we still remain as very much independent business units inside of AngelList and that’s similar to how the entire organisation operates. There’s also the venture business and the talent business which are also separate business units, effectively. But the commonality is that we’re all building for the tech community, trying to support makers and founders and just doing it in very different ways.
Nathan: Interesting. So when that occurred, AngelList are based in San Francisco as well, did you guys even move into the same office and get the [embeddedment 00:26:26] of the AngelList culture? Or are you guys still fairly isolated in your own office?
Ryan: Kind of a combination of both actually. So Product Hunt’s unique in that we’re a distributed team and have been from the beginning, so we currently, we used to have more people in San Francisco, but the way the team has kind of evolved is we have just myself and Jac, Jacqueline who joined almost around four years ago now. Just her and I are in San Francisco now and the rest are spread across the world. We’re across 10 different countries, I think is the latest count. And so we’ve remained distributed, so we’re … well, I work in the office every now and then, we can also kind of work from anywhere so that’s remained separate. We have our own Slack team and we have our own kind of processes and ways of building. And then the ways that we kind of connect with the company are I sync up with Kevin, the CEO of AngelList, once a week, do our one-on-ones. I also sync across the team once a week, so we’re sort of in touch but thankfully we don’t have a lot of politics or overhead or meetings, I guess, for the sake of meetings just because we’re in a bigger organisation. So there’s a lot of flexibility given.
And I think the truth is regarding culture, that was actually a really serious, that was an important consideration in the acquisition. Because that’s where a lot of acquisitions can go sour, there could be a wildly different culture or vision for the company and if that’s not aligned then it’s probably not going to work out long term. So for us the AngelList culture is not the same to be honest and yet we have a lot of parallels and a lot of similarities. And I think that’s actually a good thing. It’s sort of like when you hire a teammate, you don’t want them to be just like you. Ideally they have a similar belief and mission as yourself, but also have different skills and different areas of focus and that’s kind of how I think about AngelList and Product Hunt. AngelList is very much a product engineering driven culture and I would describe Product Hunt as very much a product and community driven culture. And yet we both have similar passions around technology and supporting founders. The way that we kind of approach that mission is just different and I think that’s a good thing.
Nathan: Yeah, wow, that’s really interesting. So I’d like to switch gears as well and talk about a tool that you guys have launched. It sounds or seems like you guys are going to continue to produce tools to support your community. So Ship, I saw that and I thought it was quite interesting. Was that inspired by, post the acquisition, that you guys should build tools or how did that all come about?
Ryan: Yeah, so this was, like a lot of products and things we’ve built, it was initially inspired by the community and the way that people were using Product Hunt. So what we observed is there were a number of people that use a variety of tools to essentially get feedback and get email sign ups for their products while they’re building it, so they’ll piece together maybe like Squarespace or Wix or some landing page or they’ll spend days designing and coding their own landing page, so that’s one. Two, they would oftentimes sign up for something like Mailchimp or some email service to deliver emails and updates to this audience. And then sort of a third tool that they would use oftentimes is something like Typeform or some survey tool. And we realised we saw this happening quite often and our vision for Ship was, okay, well we have a bunch of people who are on product hunt that are going to launch something. We also have this belief that a lot of people launch without gathering feedback, without building an audience, without building community. And we feel that, one, more people should probably talk to their users really early and, in fact, we’ve kind of tried to embrace building public culture where we are actively sharing things that we’re working on and sharing even mock ups sometimes before we build it with our community to gather feedback.
So the inspiration for Ship was based around all these observations and beliefs and the goal with Ship is to create a simple tool that kind of aggregates all three of those tools in one. So it’s an easy way to create a landing page for your product, easy way to collect emails for those interested in trying out your product and it also has it’s own email delivery tool so you can send updates to those people, ask them questions and then lastly there’s a survey tool, so if you want to better understand your users or get their feedback through a survey, you can do that all through Ship. And what’s nice about that is it’s centralised, it’s all in one tool, versus having something like Squarespace and Mailchimp and Typeform, which all aren’t connected and in sync. It can make it really challenging to operate all three of those tools at once.
So yeah, we launched Ship a while back and it’s sort of to Product Hunt as most people know it, but very complementary because it’s serving a very similar goal for our audience.
Nathan: I agree there is way too many tools and there will have to be a point of consolidation, even if it is not happening right now. There are just way too many tools. Like I said before, we pay for at least over 100 different SaaS products.
Nathan: I’m curious though, with a tool like Ship, why would people use it after they’ve launched or after a certain period of time once they’re working on the product? Is there a reason for people to stick around? That’s the one thing I was curious … because it’s really launch focused, right?
Ryan: Yeah. Yeah, that’s actually a positioning challenge that we have. People think of it as a launch tool, so a tool to collect emails leading up to the launch, but the reality is people are always launching. You’re always building some new feature or iterating on the product and furthermore you should also probably be talking to your users after your launch, not just before. And so we see Ship is really being a tool that could be used throughout the entire development process and yet transparently a lot of people don’t see it as a tool post launch and I think that’s a challenge we have in maybe educating and informing people how the tool could be used post launch.
Nathan: How do you plan to tackle that?
Ryan: It’s a tough one because right now we’re not active, we’re exploring some other products and Ship is sort of in the …, so we have a lot of people using it. We’ve seen, I forget the exact number, but several million emails collected through the service in 2018. All of those emails are potential beta testers and users of these products and right now we’ve been focusing on some other efforts. This year’s goal is to focus on user growth. Last year’s goal was revenue and as a result, and I haven’t really shared this publicly, but we’re profitable in our business unit. So we’re not burning, we’re making more money than we’re burning let’s say. So now it’s sort of this user growth initiative, we’re actually focusing more on some other projects that could lead to growing the community…So Ship is sort of on ice right now. It’s used by a lot of people, but it’s not our active focus at this time.
Nathan: Yeah, no, that makes sense. Thank you for being so transparent and honest with me, Ryan. I’m curious around, you said you had a focus of revenue last year and congratulations, you guys are profitable, I know that’s not an easy feat, so congratulations. And one thing I did pick up was the theme. So commonly how you typically run Product Hunt as the CEO is you have themed years where you focus on just one thing and that’s how you rally and align and get buy-in from your team around focus?
Ryan: Yeah. We’ve tried to remain focused on one particular kind of mission each year and we haven’t always done this. So we are certainly more, I think, buttoned up and structured than we’ve ever been. And so this year user growth is our number one goal. And actually the way that we structured our KPIs, we have three of them. We used to have four, four is too many in my opinion. It seems somewhat like a small deal, three versus four, but four feels like too much, it’s hard to manage four main KPIs. So we have three, one of them, number one goal is user growth and that’s measured just in the form of unique visitors, actually, visiting our platform. And that could be Product Hunt, it could be our mobile apps, it could be our Chrome extension, newsletter. Basically across our entire platform. And the second goal is community contributions which is measured by unique people who are up voting, commenting and engaging in some way. And the reason why that’s important is it’s essentially kind of the health of the community. If, for example, we had nobody up voting, nobody commenting, obviously we’d have nothing and nothing would happen, there’d be no use for anyone. And so growing that and making sure that’s healthy is important.
And then the third and last priority is revenue. So revenue is something that we have specific targets on and end goals to reach at the end of the year. And it’s important, but it’s not as important as user growth because our goal isn’t actually to make … it’d be great if we made 10 million dollars this year, but that’s not necessarily our focus right now. I think what’s more important for us is to build an awesome brand, community and grow it, make it bigger. And by doing that it’ll make it easier for us to make more money in the future. And so we’re thinking about sequencing events like this. Last year I mentioned revenue was important, but part of that which is sort of implied is it was actually more about building the business model and figuring out a way to make money that was healthy and sustainable. And not so much about the money itself, but actually the way of making money was what we were prioritising.
Nathan: Yeah, interesting. That makes sense. So what I’m envisioning or seeing is you guys have built up this incredible community of makers and founders and as you continue to grow that user base, you can kind of bolt on other products or services where you can further facilitate the maker’s or founder’s growth of their companies or growth as founders. Is that kind of the plan? Is there any cross-pollination because you guys were acquired by AngelList? There’s obviously power there. Does much cross-selling or cross-promotion go on? Or is it still quite isolated?
Ryan: Yeah, we have a little bit but we’ve not explored that as much. And it’s not because there aren’t opportunities, we have a lot of ideas around that, it’s just because it hasn’t been top priority for us or other business units. So we don’t have a lot of kind of integrations or forced cross-promotion. But we do have some plans around … the reality is we have an audience of many talented people who may be looking for the next job, for example. We also have a lot of people who are looking to hire amazing people and so there’s some pretty clear and obvious ways that we can work with the talent side of the business which has in many ways perfected the process of hiring and recruiting in tech. And so we have some plans around that, but we, like other acquisitions, you sometimes see people forcing some of those things maybe prematurely or in ways that don’t feel organic or authentic. And so it hasn’t been the kind of top priority for us this time.
Nathan: Yeah, interesting. Yeah, because if you think of AngelList, when I think of AngelList I know that’s a great way to hire tech talent and we put job ads on there all the time. So yeah, there could be incredible cross-pollination if user growth is a focus for you guys, but yeah, interesting.
Ryan: Yeah. It does lead to longer term opportunities, for lack of a better phrase, one plus one equals three, so by coming together and leveraging the talent and the technology that the talent team has built, we’re able to do some things that wouldn’t be possible independently.
Nathan: Yeah, interesting. I’m surprised as well there’s no update in branding. Sometimes when there’s acquisitions you see, you know, by the company. So Product Hunt by AngelList or how Atlassian have acquired all these companies and as time goes on it’s like, you know, Trello eventually by Atlassian. Is that coming do you think?
Ryan: No. Well it didn’t seem to make sense. The brands are intentionally separate and some people actually, a lot of people don’t even know that Product Hunt was acquired and if you look at the Product Hunt website I don’t know, maybe probably somewhere in our ToS you’ll find AngelList mentioned, but you won’t find it explicitly on the site because it doesn’t add value in putting the AngelList brand beside Product Hunt. I think it’s important, especially for communities, to feel authentic and feel like their own thing and I think this is also, you see this in other forms too, even at bigger scale, like when you look at Facebook and Facebook launches a new product, very rarely will you see Facebook’s branding anywhere. You might see it in the ToS or the footer somewhere, but Instagram, a lot of people use Instagram and don’t even know that Facebook owns it. I wouldn’t doubt if 50% of it’s users don’t know that Facebook is the owner of Instagram. Same with WhatsApp. I bet you 90+ percent of people don’t know that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook as well. So things like that I think can create a network of properties and brands and keeping those independent I think is important, at least for us.
Nathan: Yeah I agree. That makes 100% sense. Well look, Ryan, we have to work towards wrapping up. Really enjoyed the conversation. You shared a lot of incredible insights and experiences that I’m sure our community will learn from. My final question is, well two more questions, one, where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and your work? And then the second one is just, yeah, any parting wisdom that you’d like to share to finish off on.
Ryan: Yeah, so I think I’m kind of on all the social networks. I’m on Twitter quite a bit, I also write on Medium a bit every now and then. I’m hoping to do a little bit more writing, I used to write a lot more pre Product Hunt. And let’s see, what else? What was the other question you asked me? I lost track.
Nathan: Just any final parting words of advice or something you wish you would have liked me to ask you or just like to share. Just wanted to leave the space open.
Ryan: Yeah, no, I think the thing I keep seeing, sort of a common theme among a lot of makers or founders, a lot of them, it’s easier than ever to build a product for a lot of things and as a result we’re seeing more people build products. And that’s great, it’s great to see and it’s also one of the reasons why I believe Product Hunt’s increasingly important in the future, but the challenge with that is how do you break out? How do you get the attention? How do you get users? And I think a lot of people build really cool products and if their goal is to build something that’s used by people, they oftentimes skip over the most important step which is, okay, how am I going to get people to use this thing? And it seems like a sort of basic question, but some people get wrapped up in designing the product and thinking through how the product will work without thinking about building growth into the product or how it’s going to be marketed or what channels they’ll reach into.
So I think that’s one of the biggest just themes I’ve noticed among a lot of different founders or makers. Figure out how to get users first before even designing the product. Or rather design the product with growth in mind so that the product grows itself as more people use the product, for example. So I think that’s just an area that more people should be considering when they’re building something from scratch.
Nathan: Amazing. Well look, thank you so much for your time, Ryan, really appreciate it, really enjoyed our conversation and congratulations on all your success and, yeah, thank you so much, mate.
Ryan: Yeah, thanks Nathan. Appreciate it.