Ryan Hoover’s passion for tech and startups grew from an email list into one of the main hubs of startup activity on the internet. Product Hunt’s daily dose of the newest productivity tools and online oddities is built around a passionate community that rivals most others online.
Elliott Adams: I’ve heard the first version of Product Hunt was an email list, how did it all start?
Ryan Hoover: It’s actually a little bit ironic that I'm at AngelList now, because they also effectively started off as an email list. Product Hunt began as email, and the inspiration was that I like discovering new apps, new products, new things. My friends and I were always sharing these things, but we were sharing them on social media and text messaging and group chats, and I didn't know of any place online where there were other people who were all sharing these new products together. There was no single list of “here's what's new and cool in tech.” The idea was pretty simple: how can we share these things on the internet with other people? The easiest path to do that in the very beginning was to build an email list.
I'm not an engineer, so even if I wanted to, I didn't have experience building Ruby on Rails apps or anything like that. So, I was sort of forced to be creative, forced to do something simple, and using email is kind of a great pathway to do that. But it’s also still to this day, as much as people say they hate email, it's a great engagement channel. It's a way to deliver content to someone on a daily or weekly basis within their existing workflow versus building a website. They have to remember to go back to a website. In the early days, when you stumbled across a website, you rarely remembered to go back, even if you liked the experience.
EA: If I'm sick of my Facebook, I just don't go to Facebook. But if I get sick of my email, it's because I have to be in my inbox all the time, right?
RH: Yeah, exactly.
EA: So, you were putting out a daily email with new products that people had submitted. Is that how it worked?
RH: Well, I was actually using a service called Linky Dink. Ridiculous name, awesome service. The way it worked was I would basically invite these collaborators and people that would get access to be able to share links. Every day, it would automatically aggregate those links and then send that out to all the subscribers. I didn't actually personally have to choose the things. I didn't have to assemble the email. It was all automated from the very beginning.
All I did was invite the people. They were a combination of venture capitalists (because they were people who were always looking at new things every day), founders, and other people in technology that were in the ecosystem, who were always exploring and curious to find new things.
EA: Obviously, it caught on quickly. How did it grow?
RH: In the beginning, it was actually all people I had as either friends or people I'd built relationships with in the prior months or years. So, in the very beginning, I wasn’t actively looking for people that were outside my own network. It was just people that I knew already. That's how it started. Fast-forward much later—the community grew and went well outside my network. That was very organic, but we did many things to facilitate that growth and build that community early on.
EA: When did you decide to make the jump toward having a website?
RH: It was maybe two or three weeks in. It was cool. People were using it and emailing me about how useful it was. After some weeks and multiple data points of “there's something here . . . people seem to like this thing,” it was at that point when we realized we could turn it into something more than just email lists.
Email is great, but you're very limited by that structure. You couldn't really engage in comments and discussions because the curation mechanisms weren't there. The talk form itself is very limited. We couldn't inject other types of content. At that point, I realized we could turn it into a website and build something that people are familiar with. We didn’t want to re-invent a new type of way to interact with people on the internet, but we wanted to look at what works in Reddit, in Hacker News, and on other platforms that people are familiar with, and model it after that, for the most part. It was also things like using the messaging mechanism and comments, and things like that were really pretty straightforward and technically a very easy thing to build, at least in the very beginning.
EA: You said you had some organic growth, but there was also some awareness building. I'm curious what some of that stuff was.
RH: We launched the site, and what I would actually do would be to look at who was signing up, and I would manually email a lot of people that were joining Product Hunt in the very beginning. When you sign up for a service, you get an automated email that says, “Hi, I'm the founder of the company. I'm so glad you're here . . . ” I mean, we see these all the time, and we all know that it's automated and it's fake. It's not that I think it's a bad thing to do that, but it's definitely fake authenticity.
I would email dozens of people a day, and in the intro, it would be very clear that I was a human, and I would mention something like, “Oh, you work at Techstars” or whatever, and something else that clearly couldn't be automated.
EA: That seems like a lot of work, but I assume it was worth it?
RH: What that did was build some rapport, or it at least made Product Hunt more memorable for people. It also made them feel a lot more welcome, more so than any other service that you sign up for, and that was the tactic in the very beginning. Then over time, I would reply as a follow up on those email threads or reach out to people who were using Product Hunt often. Frankly, it's a very non-scalable tactic.
What we would do is ask if anyone they knew would like to register in Product Hunt, anyone that's also in technology that you think would like this as well. Because if they were using it, they'd clearly value it a little bit. So, we'd just ask them if they want to introduce me or forward it along to two other friends of theirs. Again, these are things we’d do that are not scalable.
What it did was build the base of our community and started growing it in a way that was kind of like when you go to a house party and you see a bunch of people that you know. There's some familiarity there. It's a more welcoming experience if you know all the people there versus a random group of people you have no direct connection to. In many ways, it's best to build a community by enabling the community to invite and grow within itself organically.
EA: That's awesome. You guys put in a lot of sweat equity.
RH: Yeah, and it was, again, not scalable, but it's also the best way to grow an early community. Just certain elements of Kevin Kelly's article on a thousand true fans. In some ways, you just need to hit some sort of critical mass where it feels like there's enough activity, enough engagement, and a healthy discourse, and that's all you need to get to the next level. Very few communities get to that point, or if they do, they end up churning out users and they don't continue to grow. We also know that people are going to join that are never going to come back. No matter how great of a product you build, you can't have 100 percent engagement all the time, so you constantly need to grow the community as well.