Ryan Hoover was no stranger to San Francisco's startup scene. He had spent a few years working for a couple of startups and chronicling his Silicon Valley observations as a prolific blogger. By 2013, though, he was feeling restless: It was time to start something of his own. But what?
He tried out a few ideas, but the elusive "product-market fit" proved, well, very elusive. That's until Hoover started sending out an email newsletter with crowdsourced links to new startups, apps, and product launches. It was the kind of stuff he and his friends who worked for startups always ended up chatting about over dinner or drinks--the kind of stuff that was constantly pinging around in his head. The little email newsletter, dubbed Product Hunt, took off modestly within weeks, and Hoover started getting emails from fans saying they read it daily.
Hoover knew he was onto something; it just took him a while to realize how big it could really be.
Today, Product Hunt is no longer just an email. It's a website for community-vote-based rankings of new things. Any maker or CEO can create a post about his company, new software product or app, or even a more creative work, like a podcast. But whether any given post will show up on the Product Hunt homepage, going viral and creating a ton of buzz for a new product, has to do with how many upvotes it gets, and how quickly. For makers, it's a site with the marketing power of Kickstarter, the virality potential of Reddit, and an audience of early adopters and investors akin to that of AngelList.
There was clearly a hankering for this sort of thing. Investors, for instance, used to scroll through TechCrunch, TechMeme, HackerNews, and countless other sites to scope out product and app launches, and to learn about the latest productivity app, email bot, or even some chewable coffee (yes, that's a real product!). Now they can just look at Product Hunt.
By early 2014, Hoover had a successful little company on his hands--one supported by online advertising that was bringing in about $4,000 a month. With a bit more work, it could be a sustainable lifestyle business, he thought. Then the prestigious San Francisco startup bootcamp and investor Y Combinator came calling.
"At the time he wasn't thinking of doing it as a startup, just a lifestyle business," says Garry Tan, the former Y Combinator partner who first reached out to Hoover. Tan says he noticed that a few companies were getting more downloads or website hits after being featured on Product Hunt than when a story about them appeared on TechCrunch. "I said [to Hoover], 'Dude, this is lightning in a bottle!'"
Hoover wasn't immediately convinced. "It's a big decision to start a company; it's an even bigger decision to take other people's money," Hoover said.
Tan set in motion the full wooing committee, including Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit, which provided much inspiration to Product Hunt, and two other Y Combinator partners. Finally, Hoover caved, and sent in his application. He hired some employees, and together they went through the summer 2014 class of Y Combinator.
Hoover says the limited time frame of YC's summer session meant he'd spend every day really prioritizing the most important tasks--and the incubator's network of advisers was helpful in helping him do so. "They really make sure you're working on the right things," he said. "Like, is polishing this button on the website the right thing? Or is it talking to your users?"
Today, Product Hunt has $7.1 million in venture capital investment, and has grown to 18 employees--seven of whom are based in San Francisco, and work out of a small office in the SoMa neighborhood. The other 11 employees are virtual, based in locations such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Cincinnati, Denver, and London. They all gather virtually for a Monday meeting, and everyone shares their workload and goals for the week. "We're the right size where everyone knows what everyone's working on for the most part--but enough people that we can actually do things," Hoover says. "We can move pretty fast."
The team has most recently been working on building out the formal capability to promote products and ideas outside of simple tech launches--so an artist could post a new song, or an author a link to her new book. Today, there's a "tech" category, but there's also one for "books." And, within the categories, more than 300 topic pages for products--including "augmented reality," "lifehacking," "gifs," "A/B Testing," and even "adult coloring books"--exist.
Product Hunt is still figuring out the balance it needs to strike between discovery engine and social network. Currently, uses have profiles and connect to others based on their existing social connections or shared interests. Those connections become influencers. Asked the extent to which Product Hunt is a social network, Hoover said: "The social layer is important, because we know that people care what other people think. But it's about striking the balance between social influence and something more importance-driven, like the front page of the New York Times."
One thing's clear, though: Product Hunt is a darling of Silicon Valley's tech scene. Early adopters have spoken, and the website is working its way to the mainstream. Ohanian, who is now an investor in Product Hunt, says the sheer existence of the site has eased his job in advising startups how to promote their launches.
"For nearly every founder I'm advising, Product Hunt is the top place that drives conversions," Ohanian says. "It's more valuable than any blog that I can dream of--and all you need to do is figure out your headline and a photo."