Product Hunt’s pre-launch is a a study in brilliant execution:
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Product Hunt’s genesis story, here’s a quick timeline:
- March, 2013: Hoover writes an incisive, well-received blog post about “Email-first startups.” In this piece, Hoover explores the trajectories of a few savvy startups (like Sunrise and AngelList) that built lightweight products as email subscriptions before diving in and turning these products into full-fledged apps.
- Early November, 2013: Hoover uses Linkydink to start a collaboratively-curated email newsletter that features the “best new products, every day.” He begins by sending this newsletter to his personal network of investors and product managers and posting a link to the signup page on Quibb and Twitter. And people do sign up: over 170 in a matter of days. Better yet, a large majority of signups opens Hoover’s emails every day.
- Thanksgiving, 2013: Hoover decides to turn his rapidly-growing newsletter into a web app. He enlists the help of his friend, Nathan Bashaw, who has front-end design and development chops. In a matter of days, they’ve got the first version of Product Hunt live on the web. It looks like this:
You’ll notice that the first version of Product Hunt takes a lot of cues from community sites like Reddit, Hacker News, Digg, and Quora. This is not an accident. I’ll explore why gentle mimicry like this can be a smart strategy below. Let’s dig into why Product Hunt’s pre-launch execution was so smart:
Why Product Hunt’s pre-launch was brilliant.
Ryan Hoover did what almost every startup founder could benefit from doing: he built an audience and an initial market for his product before designing a single screen or writing a line of code. Let’s dive into what makes this approach so smart.
- Build a network and audience FIRST: Hoover, a startup product manager for a few years, is a natural product person. He also has a high degree of charm. Even better, he can write. Before he even knew that Product Hunt would become a thing, Hoover used these core assets to build a network of well-regarded product people and tech investors who respected his voice.
- Take your own best advice. After writing his essay about the potential of email first startups, Ryan decided to try his hand at one. If building an email community of passionate readers before building an app worked for other smart founders, it could work for him.
- Validate interest in the idea before writing code. When Hoover launched his “email first” startup with the Product Hunt newsletter, he started from a position of strength: the community of product people and tech investors he’d built. He knew that if his new newsletter caught on, he might be onto something. His only major initial expenses were energy and time. Since Hoover loved curating new products and was winding down his job at Playhaven, he had plenty of both.
- Gather feedback from passionate users early and often. As the initial Product Hunt newsletter started getting traction, Hoover didn’t rest on his laurels. He stayed curious and deeply engaged with the community he was building. He constantly reached out to his early subscribers for feedback and listened non-defensively when it came in.
- Move with speed and precision into the initial market. Once his newsletter had around 300 subscribers, Hoover had enough confidence that there was something to this Product Hunt thing. Over a single Thanksgiving holiday, he and his friend Nathan Bashaw designed and coded the first version of Product Hunt.
- Borrow interface concepts from other products that got it right. As you can see from the screenshot above, Product Hunt’s initial homepage takes major inspiration from other online community sites. Unlike the occasional startup founders who launch with radical, risky new interface concepts, Hoover and Bashaw analyzed what worked well for other successful internet community sites and built around what they learned.
Launch and initial growth: A hand-curated community that curates new products:
With Product Hunt v1, Ryan had built a new, engaging way for people to discover and discuss interesting new products. Since both investors and product people are inherently interested in such matters, the initial community he’d built BEFORE writing code naturally gravitated to his new app.
When he suspected the time was right, Hoover reached out to his friendly contacts at Pando, where he’d already established a relationship by writing a couple of well-received guest posts. (IMPORTANT NOTE: PR in tech is 20% nailing your story and 80% fostering relationships with the right writers!)
On the back on this initial coverage and the eagerness of his early users, Hoover started to grow Product Hunt’s community. But again, he didn’t do this haphazardly. Instead of opening the community gates to the hoi polloi (aka the rabble), Hoover hand-selected the people who could submit products and comment on them.
While on the surface, hand-curating a privileged class of contributors sounds elitist, in practice it proved critical to fostering Product Hunt’s healthy sense of community and maintaining it as it grew.
Thanks to the high quality of the contributors (maintained by Hoover’s high bar and willingness to drop the ban-hammer on miscreants), the discourse on Product Hunt was (and generally remains) excellent.
As early Product Hunt investor Jon Borthwick told me in the interview for a TechCrunch article I wrote about Product Hunt, the key is authenticity:
“Product Hunt is brining the authenticity back to the discussion of startups,” Borthwick told me, “and to a degree you don’t see in the media. It reminds me of the early days of tech blogs: you were getting right into the veins and spirit of the entrepreneurs.”
Prominent founders and less famous product creators (both known on Product Hunt as “Makers”) would get on the site to share and discuss their new products. In return, smart product people would give concrete, occasionally in-depth feedback on nearly everything. Sometimes, even investors and journalists would reach out.
The value of a successful launch on Product Hunt made the community a natural place to go for Makers, who continue to faithfully show up to announce and discuss their products. Meanwhile, the desire to stay on top of “The best new products, every day”–amplified by the natural FOMO of early adopters, investors, and product people–made Product Hunt sticky to its most avid consumers.
A virtuous community-building cycle had begun–a positive feedback loop of Product Hunting, if you will.
Mindful Expansion: Slow, steady, and smart community growth
Ok, so Product Hunt has now scored some meaningful traction. Savvy investors like John Borthwick and Andreessen-Horowitz have taken notice to the tune of a $6.1 million Series A round. But now comes the next really hard part: How do you take your initial traction and leverage it into MOAR TRACTION?
More specifically: how does Product Hunt grow its community and maintain it at the same time? Growing an online community without spilling the juice that keeps people coming back might sound simple, but it is actually remarkably hard to pull off. One false move, and you face the tidal wave of negativity, small-mindedness, and mob mentality that so often consumes discourse on the web.
Or worse: irrelevance.
There are just so many ways to do it wrong, and only a few to do it right.
Well, here are some of the brilliant things Hoover and his team have done to accomplish that goal:
- Open the gates, but only slightly. With the initial hand-picked community in place, Product Hunt opened up invitations. Most people got three invites. Some people got six. Either way, the small batch of invites per contributor has kept the bar to submitting products and commenting on them high. As a result, discourse on the site has remained generally smart and remarkably positive.
- Design and iterate in public. So far, every time Product Hunt has planned a redesign, the team has reached out to the community for feedback FIRST. Sometimes, this means offering previews of designs as they’re being built. Most recently, it has meant letting people apply for access to the new design in exchange for insights and feedback. Admittedly, designing in public (especially sharing early mockups) can be a risky move. But given the backlash that can result when you don’t gather and respond to the community’s feedback, it seems like the right one.
- Launch new products and features from positions of strength. Since its initial launch with new tech products, Product Hunt has expanded slowly but steadily into new verticals. Specifically, the company has launched communities around video games, books, and (most recently) podcasts. But Hoover and his team don’t just go about this haphazardly: they thoughtfully and methodically pick which vertical to move into next. As Hoover told me in the interview for this post: “Sure, we could have created a community around fashion. And someday, we still might. But fashion would have been a radical departure, and not a fit for the initial community we’d built. Games were a more natural extension.”
- Seed every community with the most passionate users. Publicly launching a new community without an existing well of activity and content is a death-trap, and Hoover and team have been careful to avoid it. The lead-up to the launch of Product Hunt’s podcast community is instructive here. Hoover told me that weeks before making the podcast section accessible to everyone, the Product Hunt team mined their core community for people who regularly posted, up-voted, and commented on podcasts. Then they invited these people to participate in the podcast section PRE-LAUNCH. This ensured that when the doors opened to the public, there was already something going on. While the execution of the new communities hasn’t been flawless (more on this below), leveraging the existing community to seed new ones is a brilliant play.OK, so that’s a lot of brilliant go-to-market execution for one company. You might now be wondering if I think Product Hunt has done all the things right. Well, almost, but not quite.
Two things Product Hunt maybe could have done better
While the overall pre-launch, launch, and expansion strategy has been exceptionally well done, here are two things that Product Hunt could potentially have done better when launching new communities:
- More deeply-considered interfaces for new sections. I love books, but I’m not sure I (or most people) need to know about “the best new books, every day.” In other words, a newsfeed of individual books is a lot less useful than well-curated collections around themes, genres, etc (like “The best books about launching a company”) While Product Hunt’s “Collections” feature sort of addresses this, it’s not yet naturally integrated with the books community. So what could the team have done differently at the outset? Exactly what Hoover did with the initial tech product community: they could have investigated the interfaces of successful book-oriented communities (like Goodreads) and gently mimicked the best parts of them. Same goes for games, and maybe podcasts as well. Fortunately, Hoover knows this, so expect changes in the future.
- More sophisticated, expansive PR for each new launch. Product Hunt has started to saturate the usual tech PR suspects (like TechCrunch, Re:Code, etc) and the value of an incremental article in those (while not zero) is starting to wane. To take the podcast community launch as an example: it might have been smart to publicize the news in more niche publications and communities that focus on podcast creators and consumers. Jon Lee Dumas’s Podcasters Paradise springs to mind. I’m sure there are others.
But in the scheme of things, those are relatively small details. Product Hunt’s team learns and iterates fast, and I’d expect that the interface quibbles will naturally work themselves out.
As for PR, Hoover and his team are already starting to make guest appearances on other people’s podcasts, which is a smart, organic way to promote their new section to its natural audience.
Conclusion: A smart product, marketed brilliantly
From the pre-launch, where Ryan built a community before building a product, to the launch, where he leveraged his PR connections to get early publicity, to the growth stages, where the team has mindfully maintained standards and quality discourse as the community grows, Product Hunt’s early go-to-market strategy is a case study in smart moves.
Every entrepreneur, founder, and marketer can learn from it. I know I have.