N.B This is the unedited transcript of the interview.
Can you introduce yourself?
Yeah, my name is Ryan Hoover. I am the founder of Product Hunt, and if people don't know Product Hunt, it is a site where people submit links to new products. It's a community of product enthusiasts. A lot of investors, entrepreneurs, founders, makers, talking about new.
And you recently launched Collections?
We launched Collections so now people can start curating collections or themes of products whether it's like their favorite design tools or favorite podcasts, like Dorm Room Tycoon's, or really anything. It's kind of fun to see what people are creating.
I can imagine there are millions of suggestions especially from the community, How do you track that?
For better or for worse, and it's actually a great thing that we have a community of people that love products, and actually a lot of them are building them themselves. We have more than enough feedback being given. It's not hard for us to get feedback, which is great.
Of course, my job really is to say no or at least not now for 95% of those pieces of feedback, but you start seeing patterns and you start seeing things re-emerge. For us we don't record explicitly feature requests, because it's just too much work and ultimately, if it's that important it will come back to you. We internalize it, we share it with the team, and we start trying to identify patterns of things that are continually coming up.
There's always like the actual feedback that they're giving us and telling us, but what's more useful is identifying actual behaviors of what they're doing. Even going to Collections that we're speaking about, people were building these collections before we released this feature. They were either writing blog posts of curated themes of categories of products that they found on Product Hunt. They were creating Trello boards of products and categories. They were bookmarking products using Pocket or other tools. That's a lot better signal than someone saying, "Oh, I want to create a collection." What they're really doing is all ready doing that using other services and other tools.
It's almost like what Twitter does, they see what everyone else is building on top of their platform and then they go and do it.
Yeah. I mean that's actually one of the benefits and also risks of having an open API is that you can let just a thousand flowers bloom and most of them will not flourish, most of them will die, but there will be a few things you'll learn that you might want to build into the product itself.
I remember we spoke a couples months back now, and it was about the Product Hunt API. Initially, you were quite reluctant to sort release that. What was sort of the hesitations and what are the benefits now of having that API?
Yeah, the API initially was something I was nervous about. I think it's kind of natural. My nervousness was because, one, when you have an API or when you give people the autonomy to build on top of your platform, you never know what will be created. There's the extreme irrational fear of someone will build a competitor and they will use your data and your community against you. I knew that was irrational to really have that fear or at least in our stage right now, and ultimately after thinking more about it, after seeing hundreds of people request access, many of them were actually scraping the site all ready so it's not like we were providing anything new that they couldn't get elsewhere, and actually speaking with Y Combinator, particularly Sam Altman, we realized that this is just a great opportunity. It's actually we're super fortunate to have people that want to build on top of this.
We released the API several months ago, and we've had dozens and dozens of products and apps created. They're building things that we would never built that are just really cool and experimental. One guy built a world map that highlights the locations of all the makers, all the people that have built products that have been on Product Hunt. He's showing a map of where they're located so you can kind of see this ecosystem that are kind of centered around tech hubs, whether it's SF or Paris or Berlin, London, it's really cool. There's stuff like that we're never going to build. It's not competing with us in any way. It's only given our community more cool things to explore.
How have you been able to create this thriving community?
Yeah, I mean I think there's a number of things from the tactical to the kind of more strategic. Product Hunt is centered first around products and before Product Hunt existed, which has been around for just over a year now, this discussion and discovery and sharing of new products and new tech gadgets has always existed. I mean for several years it's existed, and I think my first piece of advise is to think about what is the medium or what is the nucleus of what the community is about and what is going to bring them back. For us it's new product launches which people are sharing and discovering every single day, and they do that today on Twitter and in the Tech Press, and on other communities like Reddit and Hacker News and so on. For us, that's what we attach ourselves to and that's why people come back. It's kind of the vehicle for interaction. There's always that important piece.
I think building a community on top of something that doesn't exist or is less frequent than product launches or product discussion would be really hard. There are communities around traveling, let's say, but to build an actual daily kind of habit of participating in a traveling community is not going to be very common for a lot of people. That's kind of like at it's core, that's one reason why we are succeeding, because we're centered around products and launches and things like that.
So something that happens very often?
Yeah, and with communities it's also a lot of them start off in the beginning and they look really cool and they're new and people get excited, but if they don't kind of reach this escape velocity where you have enough people interacting, enough content being produced, then they can thrive. If you get to the point where it becomes stale or there's no new content for people or a substantial amount of content for people to come back every day, it's really hard to build that habit and that long term engagement up.
Do you think you would have been successful if you were outside Silicon Valley? How important were those relationships?
It was -- yeah, absolutely necessary. Before Product Hunt, I had been doing a lot of blogging and writing things like that. My audience wasn't massive by any means, but it was just big enough to see the community of Product Hunt, and these people were also very well connected in the startup scene especially in the US more so than internationally to begin with. That definitely helped.
Being in Silicon Valley certainly helped. There's a lot of serendipity and meeting people. In fact, I was walking across the street and I saw Jason Calacanis and it's funny, I was looking down at my phone and he's like, "Ah! I love Product Hunt!" Because he saw me and we started chatting for five minutes about his launch conference coming up. That's one example of the serendipity you see in San Francisco.
That said, it's easier and easier to build a startup and tap into this ecosystem of startups being outside of the Valley. You don't have to be here. I think it's helpful and it's definitely the place where I want to be, but my blog has traveled around the world like it's shared everywhere, and there's no geographic boundaries for that type of content or if you're doing a podcast like you are across the world right now. I'm looking at your site right now, I don't know how many interviews you've done, but a ridiculous number of interviews with some of the best name in the start up ecosystem.
How much have you raised?
We've raised a total of $7.1 million.
Wow. Why do you need so much money?
Yeah, good question. I'm realizing this is my first startup that I have founded. I've been in a few startups prior to this, but this is the first one I founded, and I'm learning a lot and one of them is that it takes a lot of people to do what we want to do long term. Now, when I say a lot of people, we're at 12 right now. I don't expect us to be much more than double that by the end of next year so not massive, but you need money to pay people especially if they're in San Francisco on competitive salary, and for us, at the stage that we're at, raising series A somewhere prematurely before we absolutely needed the money was strategically the best thing for us. Also, the partners that we had on board, Andreessen Horowitz lead the round, they've been tremendously helpful in guiding us. For me, I'm just excited to have raised this money so that we can not have to raise money in the short term and so that we can focus on the product and community and build an awesome team.
There is a sacrifice, you have to give equity in return for this cash. How can investors sort of take you to that next stage? Do you need them? Once you give away that equity -- how much equity have you given for example? Can you say?
We can't say exactly how much, but you can make some assumptions on what the typical ranges are. I think the first question really is, it's a very contextual question of course, and the one personal question that I would always challenge founders or people asking that question is to ask first off, is what I'm working on something I want to work for a decade like literally is this what I want to spend my life on, because in a company or startup, you can leave any time. It's really easy. I cannot leave Product Hunt nor do I want to, but I can't. I'm locked in, because I made this commitment.
How long are you locked in for?
I mean there's no specific time range or anything, but it's not like I can pick up and say, "Hey, guys, this has been fun. I think I'm going to move on." You better like what you're doing, because you're going to be doing it for a long time. There's that aspect of it.
Of course, there's also like should this be a VC funding company and I think there's too much pressure and too much sexiness around raising money. I don't think guilt's the right word, but I've always felt almost like when people congratulate us for raising money, that's great. I appreciate that, but at the same time, I'm like, "All right, now I have to prove that what we're doing is going to be meaningful." This fund raise is not success. This is just the start.
I think you need to understand is this a VC backed company, is this something that is going to make your investors happy? Is this going to be multimillion dollar company? Does it have that? What's it ceiling basically? Is it something you want to work on for a long time? Boot strapping, self-funding is completely appropriate for probably the majority -- definitely most companies. I think you need to answer that question honestly and then there's also the aspect of are the investors that you're choosing the right investors for a number of reasons, capital is one thing, but of course it's connections, it's relationships, it's ongoing support. There's a lot of decisions that going in there.
How has Andreessen Horowitz helped you guys?
Yeah, Andreessen Horowitz is unique in that they have a team of people from marketing to recruiting and other functions that are working in a supportive role. They are not employees. They're not like working like a marketing person would or a recruiter would in house by any means, but they do forward on and provide guidance.
Earlier today, I was having a conversation with someone who works on the recruiting side and getting some advice on compensation and that kind of thing. A few days ago, they forwarded on iOS candidate that we're looking at. They provide a lot of support. I email them and say this is what we're looking for, this is what we need help with, and they enthusiastically support in anyway they can. There's also Steven Sinofsky, he's been a great mentor to me personally and also helped with a lot of the company building and managerial side of building Product Hunt.
They've brought a lot of value. I mean there's also just of course the funding, there's the brand recognition, there's longer term -- it enables us to build connections and relationships with other industries and other ecosystems. They can make those introductions and they provide a lot of help in those ways.
Tell me about the transition from my side project, my sort of hack into building this company, and then just like what you said, this sort of managerial role, having to deal with compensation, hiring, recruiting, culture. Give me some tips. Give me some advice about how I can do that as well. When it comes to motivating the team, what happens if somebody is behind on their deadlines? What do you do? What's your style? What has worked for you in building a culture and building a team?
Yeah, I'll be honest I'm learning a lot of this business as I'm going, and I'm also realizing as I meet more people and as I'm building my first true company, I'm also realizing this is pretty typical, this is normal, I shouldn't be afraid. I think some of the advice that I have internalized is that, one, transparency is always better to err on transparency and you also need to earn people's respect. When everyone on the team respects everyone else for what they've done and accomplished and the contributions they have, it makes everything so much easier. It's when you don't have that respect that I think things can break down culturally and in other way.
We're still really early, but what's been great for us is that most of the people, I think every single team mate on the team right now, began as a user of Product Hunt to begin with. They were actually not looking to just join Product Hunt, they first were users of it, and it was through that we have this common bond and common interest in what we're doing and trying to achieve. That really helps ease out a lot of the more difficult kind of conversations or working together that are inevitable in any company.
I was listening to a talk, and the speaker was saying that it doesn't matter how successful you are, there's always going to be problems, it's just a different type of problem or the magnitude sort of changes.
What's the challenge that you're facing right now?
Yeah, there's a lot of little things. There's a million little things that come up when it comes to this. We finally found an office, but today, this morning, I'm going through the contract and that's on my to-do list is to read a 20 page contract, go back and forth with a lawyer. There's accounting which I've honestly been procrastinating a lot of the accounting side of things, that I also have to do as well, and we're bringing someone on to kind of take over a lot of this administrative operational things. What I'm really realizing is that there's a lot of stuff when it comes to building a company, and it's not when you start as a side project or experiment, it's entirely product and it's usually you and one or two other people, and you're not focused on this other stuff.
I have a lot more respect for people in other functions that I've worked with at other companies now having had to try to fill some of those roles.
Ryan, you've raised $7.1 or 7.2million?
So I imagine you're pitching investors, I'm sure you're noticing patterns, the same questions are being asked. Walk me through, so you're at the office, what kind of typical question will they ask? You've done your pitch, you've prepared your deck, and now it's question time.
Yeah, well, Product Hunt is not an interesting and unique kind of fundraising experience. When you said deck, I never prepared a deck in the seed stage. In fact, I had built relationships and a lot of the investors that did invest were first users of Product Hunt so we had an advantage, we had an advantage in that we were all ready in front of investors. They were all ready using the product, they all ready knew about it so I didn't have to go in cold like a lot of other people who maybe don't know these people that they're talking to and they're introducing their company to them pretty fresh.
For me, it was more a conversation about this is what we're planning and less about this is what we've done, because they all ready knew that. For us actually, it was around Y Combinator time period is when I spoke with SV Angel and they were kind of the first serious conversation I had. They quickly jumped in, and I knew Abe and Bryan and some others there. They wanted to have a conversation about fundraising, and I was still debating whether to raise or not. Long story short is they ended up committing, got into Y Combinator and then it was a couple weeks after that, kind of a flurry of other introductions and conversations with a bunch of other great people. Some of them again were people I'd built relationships with in the past so they knew me all ready.
For those conversations, it was literally emails and phone calls and some in person conversations just to quickly raise that round. It was pretty fortunate for us in that it wasn't like a big long pitch kind of process. It still took a lot of time even though it was relatively painless to some other situations.
Now, moving on to Andreessen Horowitz and the series A. That was also a little bit unique in that Mark approached me and emailed me during Y Combinator, sort of towards the end of it, and wanted to catch up and talk more seriously. Well, he didn't say anything about investing at the time in that email, but it was pretty obvious they were looking at us and they were interested. We had a few conversations and then at some point, he said, "Hey, you want to come in and speak with the rest of the partners?" I thought this was just going to be seven or eight of the general partners, but it really was a room of 25 people and he gave the context. He said have your pitch deck ready if you have one, if not show some numbers, and when I got that email, I'm like, “oh shit”, I don't have a deck. I never prepared one.
I spent a late night preparing something, but it wasn't the most amazing deck. The thing is at the end of the day, traction is what really matters. Pitch decks are important, but they're more important when you're speaking with people that don't know you or don't know your product very well. Yeah, it was an interesting experience, and I can go on and on about that, but I think our situation is a little bit unique.
Now, I guess to your other question about what types of questions come up. For me, again, they all ready knew about the product, so I didn't have to describe it much. What was important is they were looking to understand how do you think about Product Hunt and how Product Hunt fits in this ecosystem, in this world, and where are we taking it? The big question that they have is how do they turn this relatively small startup community into a big business? Those are the fun conversations. That's when you get to really spark their imagination and you get to sell your vision of where you're going.
When are you going to start making money?
I know this sounds stereotypical, but it's the one reason why we raised money, because for us to become a big business, we need to grow and become much bigger and so for us, we're really not focused on monetizing. I had people emailing me saying I would love to charge to promote my product on Product Hunt, I want to promote and advertise in your emails and that kind of thing. I intentionally will push that off, because it's not a focus right now. For us, sometime next year is when we'll probably start experimenting with some monetization and long term, it's a place where people are coming to visit to find products, I think we won't have a hard time monetizing. We just need to focus on growing our userbase, making sure people are still loving it.
If you can’t monetize, would that be a disaster, because the other approach is just to exit?
Yeah, I mean at the end of the day, what we should be doing is building a business and a business needs to make money. Now the business doesn't need to make money right now, it may not make significant money for several years . Look at many other companies, Twitter took a long time to invest in monetization. It really depends on where we are strategically and what makes the most sense, and I could be wrong next year, we may start monetizing. We may even push it off further, because we have this money that we can use as a runway to grow our user base, but I think it's foolish and wrong to think about acquisitions or at least plan for acquisitions, because that just puts you and the team in the wrong context and a state of mind. You should be really focused on building a great product and ultimately a business.
The Silicon Valley model is to sort of flip it at the end, that's sort of the repeatable pattern.
Yeah, and it's a very common, incredibly common, in part because very few companies actually stand long term. It's less risky to play the two decade old game than it is to sell it for a healthy sum of money.
What would you sell for?
I don't know. It's always a fun question. I mean if someone gave me a billion dollars of course I would say, yes, I think I'll my investors would be happy about that.
What about $100 million?
$100 million, not right now, no, not at all.
Is there a lot of pressure to grow quickly, now that everyone is watching you?
There's definitely pressure, especially when people are watching. It's almost more pressure than before, because you have expectations now, you have people to disappoint, you have people moving from Vienna, a couple guys on the team are going to be moving in early January to San Francisco, and they're trusting me, they're trusting everyone else on the team for their livelihood, and this is what they're dedicating their life too. It puts on a lot of pressure on not just me, but all of us. There's certainly that pressure.
At the same time, we have a runway. We also have investors that understand that this is a long game. That if traffic happens to slump next month or the month after, yes, that sucks. Yes, we should worry about that, but also, this is going to be multiple years that we're going to be working on this thing. I look at the metrics every single day, and I get stressed out irrationally. I know I'm irrational, but I'll look at today's numbers and oh, it will be down from last Wednesday and I'll get nervous about that, but I also realize if you pull back it's really the trend that's most important.
For us, we're absolutely focused on growth, but more importantly, we want to make sure we don't mess up what we have right now and we don't want to make foolish mistakes for the sake of growth that might damage our community or ruin what we have working today.
Typically, a founder thinks okay, I need to grow, time to get covered by Tech Crunch, Mashable, the Next Web, and that's where I'm going to get more users from. Does that help? Getting that press coverage from journalist or did you all ready have momentum and then journalist were writing about this whole Product Hunt, check it out?
Yeah, it really varies depending on who you're targeting in some ways. Today, my friend Shawn from Monkey Inferno, they just launched Bebo. Bebo is an app that's for messaging, it's targeted to a younger audience. There's value in getting coverage in Tech Crunch, even Product Hunt and other publications for them, but it's not that meaningful for them ultimately, because we're not their audience, Tech Crunch is not their audience. I think press for us has been very useful. Press provides, if it's the right audience, like with us these are people that go to tech publications to find new products so of course we're super applicable to them. It's been a good user acquisition channel. It also provides other value depending on what stage your company is, if you're trying to raise money and you have a spike in traffic and you have all these write ups in different publications, that also helps, it's on investors radar. That's also something to consider as well if you're trying to get press.
I think my advice is not don't focus too much on it, because press will help especially early on when you kind of need to kick start growth especially with the community. It's super helpful, but long term, the product itself should grow itself, and you can't rely on press to build a sustainable business.
How are you going to grow internally then? Sort of relying on your own platform, what kind of hacks will you do?
There's a number of things that we could be doing and there's almost like this big brain storm session that we could do in terms of growth hacks or whatever you want to call them, but at it's core, what we're trying to do is going back to Collections. It provides new ways of curating, new ways to explore Product Hunt. It gives us all sorts of data to use in the future, but more importantly, it gives people an opportunity to curate and build investment in the service and share these collections and so on. The Collections aspect is very early and we have a lot of plans to improve that, and that's one example of how do we enable people to become curators, to share things, to build investment in the service.
There's also other aspects of product hunt like longer term expansion to other verticals is really where the big growth will come from. It's not just going to be about tech products and mobile apps. You could imagine a community around fashion perhaps or books or movies or mobile games for example. There's bigger markets than what we're in right now that I believe we can expand to that also have the same kind of characteristics as Product Hunt community today.
What's your experience been with being a non-technical founder?
I mean when people ask me do you wish you were an engineer or do you wish you were technical? Of course, I would say yes, I wish I was a lot of things, and in my life I've just not invested in becoming technical. Now, I can do like front end development and basic stuff and I can speak with engineering which is important if you're doing any kind of product role. My background is in product management. That's important, but I'm not one that can build an app. I didn't touch really any of the code outside of maybe some copy changes and a few CSS changes.
It's always better to be more technical, but I also thing there's too much emphasis on technical skills and technical abilities. What I mean by that is there's a lot of ...
I think so too.
Yeah, there's a lot that goes into building a good product and a good business, and some of that's marketing, it's design, it's product, it's sales, it's all of these things. I think it's important to have a team of people that can fill those different holes. For me, we've assembled an awesome team and I trust them entirely. The engineering team to do what they do best and I don't question them when it comes to engineering things. I've been fortunate to have people on the team to cover the piece.
For us, in the early stages, and when I say early it means now and next year or so, we're not going to fail, because we can't technically build something. It's again, like you said, the community is what makes it valuable, and it's relatively simple technology. Now, that could change long term as we start getting into some more interesting data science related things, but at its core, it's not a technical challenge to achieve. That's why I'm able to found this company, because if it was a technical challenge it was something very complex technically than I should not be the running that company at all. I think it ultimately depends on what you're going to build whether you need to be technical or not as a CEO.
Shipping is now easy, but getting through that noise, cutting through the noise, and getting that traction is the hard part. What should be on your checklist for when you announce a product to the world?
It's kind of one of those contextual questions. I think I go back again to who are you building this product for and where do those people hang out ultimately? Are they in certain communities? Do they read the tech press? If not, then the tech press probably won't be a great user acquisition strategy. I think that's the first question you have to ask. Then, I think this is more applicable to most products if not all of them is, have a really clear value proposition and understand how to communicate it.
Coming from the context of the product launches and seeing so many products right now, a lot of them -- some of them do really well, some of them don't do so well in communicating what they do. You click on that link, you view their home page, and if I don't understand what you are, who your product's for in about five seconds, I'm going to bounce. It's really important just to keep it simple. I see a lot of founders get way to creative, because these are people that are living and breathing their product so they are almost too close to it. They start making up words and getting way to clever in their language and copy. Sometimes it's best to talk simply. That's kind of general advice I think that's applicable to probably any company launching.
Go where your users are, you find them and then what?
What's kind of fascinating, especially as we have more and more networks emerging, is this maybe not super specific to launching but it's more user acquisition strategy or thought is how do you embed yourself within existing thriving communities and how do you effectively siphon filters from those communities to your product? An example of that is on Pinterest, if you were let's say building a fashion related company, maybe Pinterest is a great place for you to look at. How do you build content within Pinterest and how do you pull Pinterest users who might love your product to your product or to your community?
Thinking about that, I'm actually seeing some interesting things with Snapchat now. Some people are kind of hacking around the API and building ways to create stories that are different or unique. Those are the types of things that I love seeing, because it's just creative ways of directing people's attention from existing networks into your own.
Coming to a close now, and I really like this emphasis on building a community, I think all products now need that, having users that love them, what did you do in the early days to get those core users and have that strong base?
Before Product Hunt, I did build somewhat of an audience. I at least had some people to talk too and to say, "Hey, I'm working on this email list called Product Hunt." That's how it started, so I at least had that. That was something I built over a couple years or so, just blogging and meeting people and building relationships. Then once Product Hunt got going, there were a lot of manual things that we did. A lot of unscalable things like [Paul Graham would describe them, some of them being looking at who was registering, who was signing up on Product Hunt.
I would email users personally to say, "Hey, welcome aboard." I'd include something specific to their product or their company so it wasn't clearly just a copy and paste, but this was Ryan spent some time to email me. A majority of those people would respond and in most cases, they would be delighted and be surprised, because how often do you get an email from the founder of a company when you sign up? You never do. These are not the cheesy kind of templates that pretend to be real these are like genuine emails.
Unfortunately, I don't have time to do that very much any more, but early on that was super important, because it made us more memorable. It built this connection, this bond with these people. In the beginning, you need to build really strong relationships. Things like that are really important.
As we started growing, we just had people in the community vouch and recruit other people. It sounds really simple, but honestly what we'd do before we had an invite system where it's somewhat automated where people can invite other people without our involvement, before I would just email the most engaged people and say, "Hey, thanks for helping out Product Hunt, being a part of it, do you know of a couple of people who would love to be involved too? Do you know some people who love products? If so, let me know, I'd love an introduction." Manual stuff like that helps a lot.
You need to have someone on the team when you're building community that's not afraid of emails, and I sent a ridiculous and I still do send a ridiculous number of emails, because having that personal touch is really important especially in the early days.
Anything else that you want to say for those that are sort of aspiring to launch successful products?
If you are launching a product, I kind of touched on this before. I think one of the biggest mistakes that I see often times is people try to change behavior too much or they try to introduce something that is too unusual for people whether it's how you market it, how you message it, or it's just the actual underlying behavior itself. What is the user trying to do? What are you trying to solve? Does your solution change that behavior too drastically? There's always room for huge behavioral shifts of course like there's always opportunity to really change that, but it's a lot more difficult to change existing behaviors.
For us, it's what behaviors exist out there? How can you improve upon those? How can you add more value to those? Those are the types of things that I personally would look for when I'm building a product for a company.
Just behaviors that have been since the beginning of time?
If it's rooted in psychology especially, it doesn't change as much. Now, interfaces will change, technology will change, but the underlying solution that you're providing or problem you're solving shouldn't.