Wed, 3 July 2019
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