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Product Hunt Is the Latest Darling of the Startup World, Despite Grumbles About Transparency


There is nothing quite as scary and exciting as introducing your product to the world. Back in 2013, when Carl Sednaoui launched MailCharts, a startup that specializes in tracking the impact of email-marketing campaigns for ecommerce businesses, he wanted to get a little feedback about his then side project. He heard about a site called Product Hunt, a hub for tech fans and early adopters to share cool new products with one another, and decided to push MailCharts out to the engaged community. It was a smart move for the young company.

Ryan Hunt, Founder, Product Hunt

Before being featured on Product Hunt, MailCharts had only approximately 15 to 20 paying customers, but afterwards, it saw quite the jump. "When you are an established business, 1,300 new users in a day is nothing, but when your product has never really gotten exposure, it feels like a lot," says Sednaoui, who continues to use Product Hunt today.

Breaking down the Product Hunt model

And so do plenty of other people. Founded by Ryan Hoover, the site's engaged and constructive community, curated offerings and voting system has made it a darling in the entrepreneur community.

The site's network is made up of users who upvote a product or service; makers, who contributed in some way to the product at hand, like the founder of an app or the author of a book; moderators, who verify makers and a group of "hunters," (also known as community members) who are handpicked and can post products, either theirs or someone else's.

The end result is a ranked list of up-and-coming products. And it is this list that can turn a major spotlight on a fledgling business. Investors peruse the site for potential investments, media folks combs it for stories and trailblazing consumers look for the latest and greatest products to get behind.

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On average, 200 to 300 items are posted to the site daily. Approximately 50 to 90 posts, chosen by the hunters, make it to the homepage -- the Holy Grail for startups, as this spot greatly increases the chances of getting noticed. If not selected for the homepage, either by receiving enough upvotes from the community or being chosen by a hunter, the products go to the Upcoming Feed, an on-deck queue, where products may get lost in the shuffle.

Using this model, Product Hunt has helped hundreds of products and services gain momentum, with some breakout stars including livestreaming app Meerkat and 2015 Best Nine, a tool that rounded up Instagram users' top nine photos of the year and included celeb fans Beyonce, Ellen DeGeneres and Taylor Swift.

This ecosystem is complex and will continue to grow, but it started with a simple idea.

Related: Meerkat Was Just a Side Project. Here's How it Became a Viral Sensation.

Simple beginnings.

In 2013, Hoover was living in San Francisco and in between jobs. He and his friends were constantly finding products and apps to send to each other, but he wished there could be one hub for everything new in technology. Eager to build something of his own, he started an email list and named it Product Hunt. After the list continued to grow and receive positive feedback, in November of that year, Hoover turned the list into a website that functioned as a simple chronological feed. With this progress, Hoover had his sights set on more.

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timeline (Infographic)

In 2014, he began speaking with people like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Garry Tan, then a partner at the prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator, to figure out the next steps. After receiving guidance from both (and others), he decided to apply to the Y Combinator program. "I could see it turning into something bigger than just a small email list or a small community," Hoover says.

And it has. In the time since graduating from the accelerator in the summer of 2014, the small passion project has grown considerably. The site, which now has a staff of 23 people in 10 different time zones, has expanded beyond its initial focus of tech to include games, podcasts and books, along with an even stronger community.

With this growth, the site has become a hotspot for entrepreneurs to test out their products, but the Product Hunt platform has also come under a bit of scrutiny regarding how users are given maker and hunter privileges, and what it takes for a company or product to land on the front page of Product Hunt.

Related: You May Have an Awesome Product, But It Won't Mean Much Without a Marketing Plan

Breaking through the noise.

Ben Wheeler is the CTO of a tech startup called Telepathy and is the maker of several apps including Dayo, a personalized weather app he hoped would gain some traction on Product Hunt. In April of 2015, Wheeler submitted Dayo, but it did not make it out of the site's Upcoming feed, where all tech submissions generally land first.

Wheeler says that after talking with Hoover and two community managers, he was still unsure of how the site dealt with submissions, which users were given maker and hunter access and why, and the best way to get on the prominent front page of the site. "The more that I read, the more that I asked questions of makers and heard their answers, the more I realized the way people were doing things and succeeding were very different from what frequently asked questions invites you to do," said Wheeler. He later learned the way to get noticed was to approach hunters to see if they would be interested in posting the product.

While his product didn't make it on the front page, Wheeler says he continues to consider Product Hunt to be an influential platform. That said, he thinks it would make sense for hunters who post products on the site to include information about how they learned about the company, or if they have a prior relationship with the makers.

Related: 12 Ways to Think Outside the Marketing Box and Reach More Customers Online

Many, just like Wheeler, take issue with the platform's curated group of people allowed to post products on the homepage.

"I've tried submitting a couple of sites that are legitimately kickass but they never see the light of day just because I'm a nobody who doesn't have a network of influential Product Hunters to upvote everything I post, says one Reddit user. "Instead the front page of PH is curated by all the same people upvoting each other's shit which most of the time entails pandering ebooks or how to make GIFs of cats."

Some of the hunters who have been given these homepage privileges include Silicon Valley heavyweights like Marc Andreessen (an investor in the company), along with celebrities including Snoop Dogg and B.J. Novak, the writer and actor from the TV series The Office.

Hoover has taken note of this and agrees that transparency is paramount.

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How to Use Social Media to Find Customers (Infographic)

"It's important that people disclose very directly a conflict of interest. If you post something and you invest in it you should disclose that," he says, noting that many social-media platforms deal with this issue and he's always looking for solutions. "In everything we do at Product Hunt, I'm open to suggestions on how we could potentially police or have ways of identifying that kind of thing, in a way that makes sense."

One area where the company has made progress is in the onboarding of engaged members. Hoover explained that when the company is looking at what community members to invite to comment or post, they use a tool called Intercom, which allows them to query a list of people based on factors like the number of times they have upvoted products and their last visit to the site. Once someone has an invite they have the ability to extend an invite to another user. Companies and brands aren't allowed to post or comment on Product Hunt, only individuals. "We want to make sure that we build a good experience for everyone that is contributing," he says.

Related: The 3 Steps to Building a Culture of Transparency

Making it work for you.

Ria Blagburn is an active community member and the co-founder of an event-planning app called Emble, which she submitted to Product Hunt in 2013. Blagburn says of the conversation around transparency at Product Hunt, "I know Ryan and the team are working hard to make things as clear as possible, and I don't envy them -- it's definitely going to be difficult to find a solution everyone's happy with that doesn't result in an unmanageable community."

That said, Blagburn sympathizes with the makers whose products get lost in the shuffle in the "Upcoming" feed, and urges people who are launching their products and services to make Product Hunt part of a larger strategy to get the word out, rather than putting all their eggs into one basket.

The best way to get a product hunted, according to Blagburn, is to engage "with one of the individuals who has a strong presence in the community as well as the power to post straight to the homepage." She says makers should be in constant contact with the influencers in their network, and ensure they are available on the day the post goes live to field any questions. "I'd also advise them that their product is likely to come under quite a lot of scrutiny, and they should embrace constructive feedback, even if it's not what they want to hear."

Related: 5 Tips for Gracefully Accepting Constructive Criticism

The other perks of Product Hunt

Serial entrepreneur and maker Eric Willis is both a moderator and currently the number-one-ranked hunter on the site, having posted more than 650 products. He described the Product Hunt audience as being made up of the early adopters, people who care deeply about technology and are willing to test out anything. Willis says that he has seen makers go from pre-launch to a launch in two weeks thanks to an investment from people who discovered their work on the site. He noted that through Product Hunt, it's not only possible to get funding or attract new customers, but to find like-minded co-founders or employees.

"It kind of personifies what I like about the community. There are a lot of great, open, friendly, supportive people. And they're all looking to help each other out."

That camaraderie and empathy is what Hoover views as the benchmarks of Product Hunt. "It's important to us that inside the community people have empathy. The last thing you want when you launch something is for someone to shit on it, frankly. You don't want people to say 'this is stupid' or 'why did you do this' when you spent months and even years thinking about it and building this thing," he says. "This doesn't mean that we should all be like, 'this is the best thing ever,' that's not useful to anyone. But if you have a critique, it should be delivered respectfully." This focus on fostering an engaged community is what keeps people coming back.

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timeline (Infographic)

What's next

Chris Messina has been a part of the Product Hunt community for about a year and a half. A developer experience lead at Uber, Messina is a moderator and has hunted more than 540 products, making him one of the top five hunters on the site. Messina, like Willis, was first cautious about the site, and wanted to see how it differentiated itself from other sites like Reddit, Digg, Delicious and Hacker News -- or whether it was just a fad.

"Once I started browsing around and seeing the way the community interacted, and specifically how Ryan Hoover engaged in the commentary and supported founders, my attitude shifted. I started to see the community as being a core feature of the site," he says. "For me, participating in Product Hunt is like riding the wave of the future."

Related: Community Is the Best Company Culture

And the future is what Hoover is thinking about. After raising $7.1 million from prominent investors, the company is broadening its services and looking for a sustainable business model. "Down the road, we have a great revenue opportunity as we have people visiting the site every day, seeking to try, download, and purchase new things," said Hoover.

This past year, Product Hunt unveiled the Product Hunt Live program, a series of popular daily chats with industry leaders like Anil Dash, Veronica Belmont and Ben Horowitz. The company also recently launched a more simplified and personalized homepage and is working on an updated iOS app. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as Hoover is looking to expand Product Hunt's offerings to include even more for various groups, including gamers, book worms and podcast fans.

"We see Product Hunt becoming a watercooler for serendipity and interaction amongst people in various industries and from different backgrounds."

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