On October 8th, the day before its 2014 Demo Day at Techstars, credit card startup Final made its public debut. However, instead of the more traditional strategy of pitching a launch story in one of the large tech publications, the company took a chance by listing its launch on the website Product Hunt, which seems to be a growing trend amongst startups.
Why? Because getting the media to write about your startup is a crapshoot. Not all startups launch with 'hard' news--eg., funding and/or partnerships, and those that don't tend to get ignored by the technology press, making the money they spent chasing those stories a fiscal waste.
"Like traditional press relations, our site can drive significant attention and new users," says Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover. "It can also help founders raise capital, as several hundred investors visit the site hunting for promising investments each day."
According to Hoover, his platform gives, "makers an opportunity to directly engage with an encouraging group of entrepreneurs, reporters, investors, and other product-loving individuals. This conversation can accelerate the feedback loop and help creators build a direct relationship with their early adopters."
Since I spent so much time with Final's co-founders at Techstars and respect their approach, I reached out to co-founder and Director of Marketing Ben Apel to ask him a few questions about their unique launch experience.
Bubba: So I know you guys because we shared an office space for three months, but give me a quick rundown on Final for those who don't know you.
Ben: Sure--so Final is a credit card built for consumers, one that addresses the insecurity of a static card number. Instead of relying on a single card number, Final generates a unique number for every merchant and allows the user to set limitations. It's our solution to a set of problems surrounding breaches, fraud, and canceled cards--pains we've experienced too many times.
Bubba: You have this mission to improve payments, but tell me how that ties in with launching on the Product Hunt website.
Ben: At our core we believe ourselves to be a consumer advocacy company. Because of that, it's crucial for us to listen to potential Final users as often as possible. And that's one of the main reasons we love Product Hunt--it gives companies an opportunity to deliver the message themselves, without distortion.
I think this is especially important with new tech that isn't all that easy to explain. With Product Hunt we could not only listen to the reactions, we could participate in the discussion.
Bubba: Historically, startups have opted to launch by obtaining the interest of a tech publication in exchange for an exclusive, and then made the announcement that way. Why not do that?
Ben: Well, I think there's understated value in a groundswell before taking the top-down approach, specifically how one before the other can help you to understand your audience and adjust your messaging before having a half million eyes on it.
By launching on Product Hunt, we were able to be honest (and somewhat vulnerable) to a community of entrepreneurs, investors, and first-adopters. It gave us a chance to really absorb what concerns were being voiced, what features people were most interested, and which were most confusing. Using that, we immediately adjusted some of our web copy and FAQs to address those, and even tested a few other title tags and headers to better describe the control features.
Had we gone with a launch in traditional press and tech blogs, even if they were top tier, the sentiment is completely different. It's a "here's a thing, you should use it," instead of a, "here's our thing, what do you think?" And while traffic from those sources can be significant, you really miss out on the opportunity to engage with the community of interested individuals and promoters. When was the last time you saw the CTO and CEO answer questions in the comment section of a Wall Street Journal article?
Bubba: I can't think of a single time. Those publications aren't known for that kind of engagement.
Ben: Exactly. And I think there's significant risk with that approach. What's the absolute best-case scenario to doing a launch announcement via traditional press?
Let's say you pitch to three top tier outlets, all three pick you up within a few hours of each other, and point several hundred thousand visitors to your website. Realistically, you haven't fully optimized. Why? Because this is your launch. And your website has two typos (like ours did during Product Hunt), a lackluster FAQ section, and a headline/ tagline that is non-descriptive...not a great first impression, and probably a lower conversion rate and a subsequently higher CAC. Well, unless you expect to get two bites out of the same apple with a fundraising article three weeks later in the same publication, you blew your opportunity before you were ready.
Bubba: And worst case, no one is interested.
Ben: Worst case, right, no one is interested. But what about a bottom-up approach to a launch? The best-case scenario is very different: You get a lot of people to weigh in, positive and negative comments, both are valuable. You get feedback from a group of people, some of which may even be in your target demographic.
Like a beta user, they help you adjust your offering by testing it out and giving you blunt feedback, and your executive team can immediately respond to questions. You can also see which questions trend, and then adjust your public-facing content to address those questions. You can show that there are real people behind your company, and immediately ingratiate yourself with potential brand ambassadors.
Bubba: So what's the worst-scenario look like? No one in the community likes your idea and you fade into bottom rankings for that day's feature products?
Ben: Well, worst-case is there's a majority of negative feedback. But you can still learn from that feedback, adjust your messaging, feature set, and possibly even the product itself to address those issues. And you did that with a group of startup-savvy people who understand that technology is in a constant state of flux, and that companies are people, and people make mistakes.
Bubba: Product Hunt is a relatively new thing. Is it worth people taking notice, or do you think it's going to be the next fad to be forgotten?
Ben: I think there's value in sites that focus on user-generated content and the ability to democratically rank that content. My guess is that Product Hunt is only going to get bigger. And as the number of eyes on that site grows, the bigger impact a great announcement on Product Hunt can have. We had an amazingly successful launch on Product Hunt--over a thousand votes, which puts us at #3 of all time (behind Product Hunt's own app and Gmail's Inbox). It's clear we struck a nerve with Final.
Bubba: Considering that success, do you have any words of wisdom for companies that might consider a similar approach?
Ben: Absolutely. First, I think being #1 on Product Hunt for the day shouldn't be your focus; the community will do that for you. Your focus should be on honest and receptive engagement.
Hacker News is also a great place to accomplish this kind of engagement, even if there is some audience overlap. We posted and saw an incredible amount of referred traffic. But, more importantly, we got involved in intelligent discourse on where tangentially related financial tech products have failed, and where Final can deliver a solution to a painfully acute set of problems. That was supremely valuable for us.