Product Hunt’s Ryan Hoover on growing a vibrant community

Main illustration: Corri Spencer

What started out as a weekend project has become one of the most popular places on the internet for companies to launch products. Product Hunt makes it easy for makers to bring their message directly with the users.

The success of Product Hunt in being a launchpad for startups wasn’t something Ryan Hoover foresaw when he founded the company in 2013. He joined me on our podcast to chat about how he set out to build a community, keep it constantly engaged and what companies can do to tap into Product Hunt when it’s time to introduce new products or services.

If you enjoyed the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Short on time? Here are five key takeaways:

  1. Product managers may be similar to being the CEO since they have to lead and guide the process, but don’t have full managerial control.
  2. Tactics you used to build a community may not work all the time. You have to constantly iterate on your processes and tactics.
  3. A vibrant community needs to have activity and engagement. Don’t make it feel like a ghost town.
  4. It’s important to recognize there are different types of people using your product, each with their own motivations.
  5. The secret to successfully launching on Product Hunt is to be real, excited about your product and do it in a human way.

Adam Risman: Ryan, welcome to the show.

Ryan Hoover: Hi, Adam. Glad to be here.

Adam: Can you give us some background into what you were doing before you became founder and what your role at Product Hunt constitutes today.

Product managers are the closest role to a CEO.

Ryan: I grew up in Oregon and ended moved to Portland right after college, where I stumbled into a startup in a product management role. I was there for about a year and a half before I moved to San Francisco to join another company, also as a product manager. That experience led me to learn a ton of things.

I think product manager in many ways is the closest role to a CEO in many cases, at least in the earliest stages, because it involves talking to everyone in the company, from sales to engineering to design and external customers. And also, in many ways, shaping the product, which is what most CEOs are responsible for in the early days, at least until you hit maybe 20 people. Usually the CEO is often the product manager to some extent.

So I ended up working at that startup for about three and a half years before eventually leaving and then starting Product Hunt, initially as a side project.

Adam: From your perspective, what was the hardest thing to learn as you moved into that role? Where did you find yourself being the most challenged?

Product managers have to effectively guide the development process and team.

Ryan: I think the hardest part of that role in many ways is leading and guiding the process and the team without having any direct managerial control. What I mean by that is, most product managers don’t have any direct reports when you’re an individual contributor. You don’t have anyone that’s reporting to you and is responsible to do whatever you say. As a result, you fit in the middle of the organization, in between design, in between engineering, sales, etc. Almost as a mediator and a person that needs to take everyone’s input — including external customers — and help shape, with the team, what you want to build.

And you have to do that without having the authority to say “Hey Bob, Jill, Jack, this is what you need to build.” But you need to inspire people to want to build these things, and also take their ideas and make it part of the process as a whole. So I think that’s the hardest part of product management – finding that balance. It requires really good communication skills and a lot of empathy — empathy to understand how others on the team might think about a particular product or feature and empathy with the customer: what do they actually want? What are they implicitly telling you that they want?

A lot of those challenges also come with the CEO role too. You can’t just tell everyone “Hey, build this thing.” That’s not going to result in one, the best product, because your idea’s not always the best; and two, people won’t be as motivated if they’re just simply told to run through a task list.

Adam: You’ve got to find a way to be able to sell the value of whatever you’re creating too. But I think that has a lot of common tie-ins with product management too.

Ryan: Absolutely.

Growing an audience

Adam: How did you get your first X number of customers? Be it 100, 200, whatever the number might be. With Product Hunt, you had to be very selective about who those early users would be. You needed them to be influencers and be able to cultivate the early bits and pieces of this community. Talk to me a little bit about your early recruiting efforts. What worked for you and what didn’t?

Ryan: Before Product Hunt, I was actively writing and blogging about different things. A lot of it was around product design and playing with different products, from Snapchat to Tinder, curious about “Why are these products so compelling?” or “Why do they do this?”, and trying to almost deconstruct those ideas. So I was doing a lot of writing, and really enjoyed it.

I started in 2013 and wrote 150 blog posts, which by the end of the year I counted up and I was like “Wow, I really wrote a lot.” So that gave me a tiny bit of credibility and an audience, well before Product Hunt. That allowed me to then spread the news when Product Hunt initially started, to say “Hey, here’s this thing that I’m working on, it’s just an experiment. I love discovering products, I know you do too. Do you want to check this out and be a part of the community?”

Because I built that small audience in the beginning, it allowed me to then get it off the ground, or at least get some critical mass of people using it. After all, Product Hunt is a community-curated and generated product. And that’s what allowed the first, let’s say 100, 200, 300 people to come onboard and engage.

Once we had that base, then the next step was how do we continue to spread the word and get more people to use Product Hunt. Some of the things that we did was the product itself naturally led to people sharing it. So it’s a combination of people who are enthusiastic to share new things, new products, new apps – they just naturally would share because they also want other people to discover these things – but we also had the makers of these products as well, who were actively sharing their product on Product Hunt.

In some ways, the product and the design of Product Hunt lent itself to sharing, which led to growth and acquisition. Then we also did more tactical things, like following what worked before Product Hunt. I also did more writing about the things that we were building, and involved the community during that process. That led to guest articles in Fast Company and things like that.

In the earliest days, another 100, 200 people joining the site because of that article was super meaningful. It was a number of things like that, combined with welcoming people, emailing them personally saying “Hey, glad you’re here.” Trying to make it a memorable experience to keep people engaged was very important in the beginning.

Constantly reinvent your processes and tactics to grow your community.

Adam: It’s interesting you mention the personal emails, but it doesn’t exactly scale, of course. How does that same philosophy, that personal approach, manifest itself in what you guys do today?

Ryan: I can’t email everyone that signs up today, unfortunately. There are things that work in the beginning and then there are things that don’t work because you hit a certain scale. In some ways, you constantly have to reinvent your processes and tactics to grow your community or achieve whatever goal you’re trying to hit.

It can’t be me, Ryan, emailing people anymore. But instead we want others in the community to connect with each other. It’s not me connecting, it’s other people connecting with others, and facilitating that type of connection makes the Product Hunt community feel vibrant, but also personable and a place where others can connect and build real relationships.So I think there’s a lot more we have to do to facilitate that. Those are some of the ways that we think about making Product Hunt still have that personal feel, and making it a fun, memorable experience when people join the site.

Building a sustainable and supportive community

Adam: What are the pillars that define a healthy community and did you know what those were when you set out to build this thing or did they come about naturally?

Ryan: You’d think I would, but I haven’t defined that in a more specific way to be honest. But what I will say is a healthy community, in the very beginning, going back to some of the tactics that we used to grow the community in the beginning, what we knew is that we couldn’t just get a couple hundred people on board and then have them engage and then just hope that people stick around. We knew that we had to grow the number of people, because inevitably there will be churn, no matter how great your product is. Some people will leave, and the last thing you want is three or four weeks after you’ve launched for there to feel like there’s less activity and less engagement.

The day that we launched publicly, we had this treadmill that we had to keep running on. And that treadmill required us to continue to grow that audience, to get more people visiting the site, to make it feel like Product Hunt was growing and a cool place to be and a fun place to engage, versus the opposite, which would be “oh wow, this community used to be so vibrant like a month ago, now it feels like there’s less comments and less up votes”.

I think a healthy community feels like there’s activity and engagement. The last thing is you don’t want people to go to a website or a page where it feels like it’s a ghost town. You want it to feel almost like a town hall or a community where people are coming together. I mean, look at Reddit as a great example. Reddit is massive now — I think the number of monthly visitors reaches close to the population of the U.S. right now. And if you go to the homepage, you’ll see thousands and thousands of people up-voting and so many comments, and then you’ll dive into even these most niche subreddits, and you’ll see this whole community of people engaging around every single topic you can imagine. What they’ve figured out is you just need these places to feel alive, ultimately.

A healthy community feels like a place where people come together.

Adam: We talk all the time about building an internal culture within your startup, but Product Hunt has its own culture within the product. Was that set by those early community members themselves, or did you do anything to try to influence that?

Ryan: Yeah, that was also a key thing that we paid attention to – how do we create a culture and a community that we are proud of and we know people would want to participate in? There’s a few things that we did, some of them are product-related. One thing that we wanted to do and ensure is that people use their real identity, and even to this date we don’t allow companies to sign up under their brand name and engage on Product Hunt because immediately it starts to feel less personable, it feels more market-y.

And the reality is, people want to talk to the person that made the thing. They want to talk to the founder, to the designer, to the marketer, the person that built that product. Product Hunt is a unique place to do that. You don’t see that anywhere else, maybe outside of Twitter, but that’s a very different type of platform and dynamic.

Some of it was in the product design itself. And then a lot of it was also just trying to demonstrate the ways that we want other people to use Product Hunt. What I mean by that is, in the earliest days a lot of the comments were from me and the other people on the team, just because it’s early, there are not a lot of people using it.

We were like “Okay, we need to get people to talk to each other and get people active and engaged and make this a place where it doesn’t feel like a ghost town,” and that was one motivation. But the other part was also to demonstrate the culture that we wanted to facilitate. In a lot of things we would ask the maker of the product more of the backstory, like “Why did you come up with this?”, or asking questions that elicited a response. Makers were motivated and excited to share their story.

The last thing you want is someone shitting on your product and saying how awful it is.

And also then avoiding other things, like criticizing in a very negative way. I think part of the process of launching a product is really scary, exciting, all of those things. And the last thing you want is someone shitting on your product and saying how awful it is. Now, we do want useful feedback and critiques, but it can be delivered in a very respectful way. By doing that ourselves, we in the very early days created a culture of respect and engagement.

Adam: I think it shows that people respected what you were doing, too, and you were able to use a certain tone there that people latched on to.

Ryan: I think it’s really important. In an alternative reality or if we messed that up, you can imagine Product Hunt being a negative, toxic place. And if it was, makers and people wouldn’t want to launch on it. They wouldn’t want people making fun or criticizing what they built, ultimately, because it’s very demoralizing. And instead what we want is people to be excited to launch on Product Hunt, be excited to get feedback, and be a welcoming community for those people.

Keeping up with the growth

Adam: Today, things have changed. The community is a lot bigger than it used to be, having driven more than 100 million clicks to different product websites. How have you managed to balance volume and quality as the community has scaled?

Ryan: In some ways as it scales we get higher quality, in the sense that we have more people participating and up-voting and effectively curating that homepage. But you’re right, it’s very different in the early days where we had a few dozen people contributing products. Part of what we’ve done are the obvious things, like improving our algorithm, which we don’t share specifics about, but we’re pretty transparent on the dynamics. It’s basically the number of up-votes and then some time decay effects, so products posted later in the day have a chance to rise to the top.

We’ve also introduced some experiments around surfacing things that people may have missed that are popular. For example, unfortunately not everyone visits Product Hunt every single morning. A bunch of people do, but not everyone. If you’re a user that maybe visits once every week, we show you the products and the cool things that you may have missed that week. And this applies not just to logged in people but even logged out users. You can see maybe a product that got 2,000 up-votes that was interesting to the community, you’ll see that ahead of maybe today’s top posts.

There’s ways that we’re trying to introduce high-quality content and cool products to the world, through things like that. And in Q4 and next year, we’re exploring other ways to help people ultimately find the products that they want, or the best products for a particular use case. Parts of what we’ll build off of are reviews that we introduced recently. Reviews are new for us and it allows us to get a lot of input from the community on what they really like and what they also don’t like as much, so that we can create and curate products in a smarter manner.

Adam: Going back a bit, you were a contributor on one of the premier books on driving engagement, Hooked by Nir Eyal. A big part of engagement is stickiness. What onboarding methods are you guys using at Product Hunt to make sure that users are able to find success quickly? And are there things you’ve tried that haven’t worked as well?

Recognize that there are different people with different motivations.

Ryan: There are different types of people that use Product Hunt differently, and I think that’s an obvious but an important thing to recognize with any product is there are different people with different motivations. In the simplest form there are makers, or people that are building products, that use Product Hunt, and then there are people who are more consumers who are just discovering, exploring products. And of course, there’s people that overlap and are effectively both. But those two different roles have different use cases and different ways of using Product Hunt.

In the case of makers, a lot of their motivation is a combination of “I want to launch this thing and get feedback and get users for my product” and in some cases also do competitor or industry analysis or monitoring. If you’re building, let’s say something in the crypto-currency space, there’s a high incentive and a reason for you as a maker to follow that topic and to discover what other people are building in that space, for example.

On the consumer side, there are different motivations there, but primarily it’s “I want to stay up to date in what’s cool and new in technology” or “I want to find a particular product,” like what’s the best GIF-making app for my Mac, for example. We’ve created various experiences for both of those audiences. We have a lot of experiments that we’re still actively running.

One thing that I’ll mention though, is that Product Hunt, unlike other social communities, is one where the majority of people don’t log in. And a majority of people visit the site even every single day without ever logging in and engaging. A lot of our focus has been, how do we facilitate and build a good experience for that audience? How do we ensure that they have a good experience without having to log in, because for whatever reason they just don’t want to engage, they don’t have a reason to? And that’s completely fine, consuming 100% is also just fine as well.

Showing popular posts that they may have missed, those are things that we built not just for logged in people but for logged out users as well, to make sure that that their experience was also enjoyable. When you’re visiting Product Hunt for the first time, we also show what was popular that month. That’s intended to curate that feed so that it shows the best content possible.

In terms of things that haven’t worked, there’s a lot of things that we’ve done that just haven’t moved the numbers when it comes to onboarding or first-time user experience, to be honest. Maybe they improve numbers by 5% or 10%, but at the end of the day you need them to double. It’s hard for me to think of those specific examples, outside of maybe minor design improvements we’ve explored.

Adam: I don’t think there’s a single marketing plan in software these days that doesn’t have a line item that says something along the lines of “post on Product Hunt”. Did you always see that as a use case for this, or has your relationship with the marketing aspect of the product been contentious at all?

I didn’t have the foresight to see Product Hunt being a launchpad for startups.

Ryan: In the beginning, honestly, I didn’t have the foresight in how Product Hunt would become almost like a launchpad for startups and makers. It was more about me and some friends sharing cool stuff that we found. But quickly we realized that in the beginning people would post a product, and then that maker or founder would see in their Google Analytics, they’d see “Where is this traffic coming from? It’s from this website, Product Hunt.” They would discover Product Hunt through their analytics itself, and as a result they would come to Product Hunt and start answering questions and engaging.

That would then lead to additional users visiting the site, more conversation, ultimately a win-win for everyone. When we found that out we were like, “Oh wow, this is what Product Hunt is becoming. It’s becoming a place where makers and consumers can connect with one another.” When something is posted at Product Hunt, let’s make sure we get the makers of every product involved.

Before, it was basically just me as the only community manager. I would spend my mornings finding the Twitter handles of these makers and invite them, saying “Hey, these people just posted your product over here, they’re asking questions. Do you want to join?” I would do that for the first hour or so of every morning. It led to a lot of our early growth. And it also started to solidify what Product Hunt was about in many ways, and to date about 80% of the products on the homepage have the makers involved, answering questions and sharing and engaging.

To answer your question, it’s actually a great thing. It’s creating a unique place on the Internet where these two audiences can come together. It’s the only place where you can ask the maker or the founder of a product a very particular question and get it answered. It’s very different than other platforms, and certainly different than traditional press, blog publications or announcements. Ultimately, I think it’s a great thing.

Now, it does result in people trying to game the system and we knew that would happen. It happens on Reddit and it happens on Hacker News. It happens in any community or UGC site. And we just continue to implement things to protect against that and try to create a feed that’s representative of what the community likes and thinks is cool.

How to market on Product Hunt

Adam: What are some things that makers can do using your platform to set themselves up for success? The first thing that comes to mind is avoiding marketing-speak jargon and getting down to speaking on a more personable, one-to-one level. What else have you seen?

Be excited to show off your new product, but do it in a more human way.

Ryan: I think you hit the nail on the head with one of them. A personal pet peeve is people that sound like robots, that sound like it was written from a PR agency. And you know, the community sees right through that. They appreciate people who are real and authentic. And it doesn’t mean you can’t be promotional and talk about why you’re excited to show off your new product, but doing it in a more human way I think is important.

There are some basic staples too that apply not just to Product Hunt but to any launch in general. Creating copy that’s compelling – your tagline should probably not be “Awesome, beautiful app. You’re going to love it.” That’s not very communicative. It doesn’t say much about what you built. Instead, you should create a tagline and messaging that communicates what the thing does and maybe who it’s for, to some extent, so when your target audience reads that they’re like “Oh my gosh, I need that. I want that.” The same thing is true for the thumbnail or the images itself. Thumbnails, images and videos can communicate so much in a few seconds. And making sure that those are compelling and communicative is also important.

And then, the other component that we announced recently is something called Ship, which is something that’s been an evolution of many things that we’ve been experimenting with at Product Hunt. Essentially it’s a toolkit for makers and startups to announce upcoming product launches and start gathering emails and feedback and communicating with their audience before they’ve launched or finished the product. It’s something we’ve been beta testing with a number of people. Some people use it for beta testing their audience or getting feedback from an audience, or just collecting emails before they’re ready to launch publicly.

Product Hunt’s Ship toolkit provides startups with what they need before they launch.

It’s kind of ironic that we’re launching this, because much of what we’ve done at Product Hunt over the past nearly four years, has been things like this: creating email lists, communicating with our users, sharing early mock-ups and getting feedback. We’ve seen the importance of involving your audience and your community during the development process, both pre-launch, at launch and after launch. Our hope is that Ship will help makers and startups build better products, and build an audience before launch day. Hopefully that’s something that will be a core staple in the community in the months to come.

Adam: I remember an AMA with you where you said “when we reach scale, we’ll explore tools for product promotion.” I guess here you are.

Ryan: In the earliest days, we weren’t sure exactly which direction Product Hunt would go, and as it’s grown and we’ve seen all these different ways people have used it. It has been more and more clear what the community wants and how it will evolve. Ship is the first time we’ve directly charged for a service or a product or a feature, outside of some early examples in the pre-funding days with job postings. It’s the first time we’ve collected money. Just between us and the audience, it’s pretty awesome to see in the Slack channel these notifications when someone gives you money.

It’s incredibly rewarding to see someone give you money for something that you built. The way that we’re thinking about Ship is, ultimately, it’s a toolset that helps them accomplish their goals. Whether it’s user acquisition, feedback with their community, building a beta audience, all of these things that startups and founders and makers are challenged with, we’re hoping that this toolset will help them ultimately build better products.

Adam: That’s got to be a rewarding feeling, especially after all of the legwork and drama that goes into figuring out how exactly to price a new product to begin with.

Put something out there early, get feedback, tweak and test along the way.

Ryan: Oh yeah. You at Intercom have a lot more experience in this, having charged for your services for a long time. And we’re super excited to explore. We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from some friends, like Hiten Shah is very experienced in this area, and he’s been helpful in giving us feedback on messaging and pricing. But at the end of the day, we’re putting a price out there, and it’s probably not the right price. A lot of it is putting something out there early and getting feedback, and then tweaking and testing different ideas along the way.

Adam: That was our philosophy. Jason Fried told us, “Just charge for it and you’ll learn from there.” This all started as a side project for you. What’s your advice on how to juggle those priorities, and when is there a tipping point when you’re like “I need to go all-in on this”?

Ryan: I don’t think there’s a blanket answer for anyone because everyone has different responsibilities or situations. For example, if you’re someone like myself who at the time of Product Hunt is living in San Francisco, single guy, didn’t have a family or kids to look after, my situation is a lot different than someone who maybe has a family, who can’t necessarily leave their job and hope that they can either raise money or start making money on their startup. I’m empathetic to those different situations.

One thing that I will say, though, is I think a lot of people do have the opportunity or can find the time to hack and work on ideas over the weekend, and they don’t necessarily need to make that leap of quitting their job and starting a startup from ground, from day one. Instead, generally what I would recommend is trying to build something and validate some assumptions and hopefully create an MVP that shows some promise.

Try to build something and validate your assumptions. Create an MVP that shows some promise.

For example, Product Hunt was an email list, which took 20 minutes to set up in the very beginning, and those few weeks was enough time to realize “oh wow, there’s something here, let’s take it to the next step.” Those who can afford the time on the weekends to hack on different ideas are in a good position to evaluate whether they take the leap and go full forward. But it’s hard for me to give a blanket statement for anyone’s particular situation.

Product Hunt’s next chapter

Adam: One thing we haven’t mentioned yet was last year’s big news, your AngelList acquisition. What drove you to go that route rather than raising another round of funding? Was it just getting what you needed to release products, like Ship that came out in September?

Ryan: It’s funny. Before we made the acquisition announcement I was looking at writing a blog post to announce it. I was going back on my Twitter feed back to 2011. I used to browse AngelList for fun and explore what people were building. And there was a tweet back in 2011 basically saying that. And it was some ways like foreshadowing to what Product Hunt eventually became, in some sense.

AngelList is a company I’ve admired and been following since the very beginning. Historically what they’ve been focusing on is building for startups. Their belief is, if we can allow and support more and more startups to thrive and succeed, that’s great for the world, ultimately.

And to date, what AngelList has focused on primarily is one, fundraising, of course, helping companies raise money; and two, helping companies recruit and hire great talent. Those are two pillars, two staples of every company, that effectively most companies struggle with and are challenged with. The thing they’ve never really focused on is user acquisition.

Example of a startup using Product Hunt’s Upcoming launch feature.

That’s something that we’ve done from day one: we’re all about product discovery. How do we help companies find users? When we came together, speaking with Naval [Ravikant, the CEO and a co-founder of AngelList] and his team about what this would look like, it made a lot of sense and there was a lot of synergy. We’re focused on the same audience but we’re solving different problems that are very poignant for the startup community. How do we help companies raise money? How do we help companies hire great talent? And how do we help companies get users, ultimately?

It’s been a great fit. We’re loving the environment and the culture here at AngelList. It’s been, honestly, a pretty easy transition for us and the team and a good fit for us.

Adam: It’s been a big year for you guys, you’ve had major launches recently like Ship and Ask Product Hunt, which we haven’t had a chance to talk about but which is an interesting project in itself. What’s next for Product Hunt and what’s next for you?

Ryan: A lot of what we’re focusing on is how do we help people find the best products or products that solve their particular need? It’s going to be building upon some of the things that Ask Product Hunt has achieved, and the reviews that I mentioned earlier. Those are things that give us a lot more signal and ability to curate great products through the community, through what they’ve recommended and reviewed. Historically Product Hunt has been a lot about what’s new and cool in tech, and that’s certainly what we’ll continue to focus on. But how do we also help people find the best products? That’s an area that we’re exploring more of.

The other area is building on Ship itself. Adding more features and getting feedback, and ultimately trying to build a great toolset and platform for makers and startups to reach an audience, connect with their audience, get feedback and so on. From day one we focused on product discovery, and that’s still our primary goal. But Product Hunt also is becoming, in many ways, a place for the startup and tech community to build better products. That’s our ultimate goal. Those are the two broad areas that we’re focusing on over the next quarter or two.

Adam: So transitioning from build mode into iterate mode with Ship. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ryan: Thanks Adam. Thanks for having me.