Like many startups that begin as side projects and eventually turn into full-fledged companies and fulltime jobs, Product Hunt went from Ryan Hoover’s email experiment to a veritable community he’s now building as part of the current Y Combinator (YC) batch.
Product Hunt, in simple terms, is a “Hacker News for products,” a community-generated leaderboard of new, hot or little-known products, tools, and services. The community, which Hoover and his tiny team vet, is made up almost entirely of players from within the startup community: developers, product managers, designers, investors, tech product enthusiasts.
Hoover says he spends every waking hour figuring out how to build the community he, an avid tech and product geek, has always dreamed of.
From email list to YC company
Funnily enough, I’ve long been a “Product Hunter,” first hearing about Product Hunt the day it launched because, by some circumstances only possible in the Valley, a friend reported the site’s launch, and I was working for the same company as Nathan Bashaw, the original web developer behind Product Hunt. I’m proud to say that I’m user #76.
After Bashaw and Hoover met through Quibb, another vertical community, Hoover got in touch with Bashaw about Product Hunt’s very first form: an email list using Linkydink, which lets groups of folks submit links, which are then emailed to group members on a regular basis. The conversation eventually turned toward building a website so that users could also have discussions, and Bashaw volunteered to spend his Thanksgiving break coding up version 1.
When the site first opened its digital doors, it was largely Hoover’s and Bashaw’s friends, friends of friends, well-respected folks Hoover sought out, and whoever requested an invite and was deemed interesting enough. Before it amassed the fame it has now, it really felt like a small, underground community of enthusiastic makers, and I say “makers” because soon enough, community members started to post the projects they or their tiny startups had built themselves.
This actually prompted Hoover and Bashaw to start adding a little “check” badge next to submissions from a product’s maker.
Hoover eventually left his fulltime job, took up a part-time gig at “traction bootcamp” Tradecraft, and began to focus more and more on building this Reddit-meets-Hacker-News-meets-products. Not surprisingly, Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, clearly someone Hoover looks up to, is lending a hand to Hoover during his YC time.
Bashaw on the other hand, made the decision to step away from Product Hunt. He had a great job at General Assembly that he didn’t want to leave and knew that Product Hunt deserved more than a half-distracted co-founder.
“I decided to step back mostly because it became clear that Product Hunt needed to become a company, and it was never my plan to start this as a company. At the time I had only been at my job at [General Assembly] less than a year, and I still have a lot of great work to do here,” Bashaw told VentureBeat via email.
“That’s not to say it was an easy decision. Who wouldn’t want to be the co-founder of a startup as exciting as Product Hunt, with someone as talented and genuinely awesome as Ryan?” he said.
So how did Hoover and Product Hunt eventually end up at YC?
Product Hunt’s search field is powered by Algolia, a French startup that has built a powerful API for database search. The company stumbled upon Product Hunt a while back, and offered to power its search feature. Algolia eventually participated in Y Combinator, and co-founder and chief executive Nicolas Dessaigne encouraged Hoover to apply.
“They reached out and were like ‘Hey, have you thought about Y Combinator, have you thought about applying?’” said Hoover.
Hoover eventually met with YC partner Garry Tan per Algolia’s recommendation, as well as with Wufu co-founder and YC partner Kevin Hale, and Ohanian. A few more application steps later, Hoover was in.
In a fun, side twist of events, Algolia’s YC batch-mates had been using Product Hunt as an additional channel to promote their products, which is how Tan heard about the site in the first place. In case you hadn’t noticed, this industry is quite interconnected.
These days, Hoover’s challenges are pretty much the same every other community has faced: growth, engagement, vetting who is allowed in, monitoring content quality, experimenting with value-add extras, and figuring out where this whole idea is going in general.
Product Hunt recently came under fire for its community’s demographics and Hoover’s member approval process in a thread on Hacker News.
And of course, this is no surprise given the tech community’s ongoing inclusiveness issues. Groups of all kinds are challenged with looking less like a bunch of nerdy white dudes and more like a place where smarts and talent come in all different shapes.
But the issue here also comes from the tension between the draw of being part of an exclusive, well-vetted community, and the possibility of not being let into that community. Quibb is another case of a community that values vetting its members and as a consequence has to keep many applicants out.
“It’s always tough. You want it to be accommodating, but on the other hand you still want signal,” Tan, who’s been working closely with Hoover, told VentureBeat.
Hoover says he’s been experimenting with different ways to leverage referrals and to get the membership selection to be less reliant on his personal curation. As of today, there’s a way for members to give non-members the ability to make comments, as well as the opportunity for anyone to submit an item for posting to be evaluated by a small group of members.
Hoover and his YC advisors are almost solely concerned right now with finetuning Product Hunt’s site and ensuring its community will grow; monetization is not on anyone’s radar right now.
To be fair, Product Hunt is already bringing in a bit of revenue. Its job listings page, which companies pay to advertise on, yields a few thousand dollars every month. But neither Hoover nor Tan had any monetization plans they could think of and share when I spoke with them.
“The reality of it is that YC tries to get out of the way on this,” said Tan, regarding the YC startups’ monetization decisions. “At the end of the day, it’s kind of up to Ryan as to when he wants to monetize.”
Another important reason Hoover is not losing any sleep right now over monetizing is he doesn’t necessarily need to dazzle investors into giving him money during the accelerator’s demo day, sinc he’s already raised some funding, though he declined to share any specifics.
“If I had $5 million, I don’t know what I would do with it. The real questions is ‘will I raise at demo day or not?’” said Hoover.
When then-PandoDaily writer Carmel DeAmicis wrote about Product Hunt’s launch, the question was whether “the democratic power of a platform like Hacker News [could] be applied to products.” But now that Product Hunt has answered that affirmatively, what does that mean?
“Can this hunt mechanism be how you find out about products, about music?” asked Tan.