At 28, He’s Running A $7 Million Company That Just Recommends New Apps
Ryan Hoover is 28 years old and heads Product Hunt, an app that raised over $7 million. What does it do? List new apps, describing them in a single line.
On the face of it, a little resentment would be natural, especially if you’re a technology journalist, a startup founder, or just someone stuck in a job that isn’t their passion. “This kid got $7 million to write a single line about new apps and geeky delights?”
But there’s a lot more to Product Hunt, and there is a lot more to Ryan Hoover.
A One-Man Community Hub
In the past few months, Product Hunt landed a big round of funding and set up a new office in downtown San Francisco. Heavyweights, including Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian and ex-Microsoft Windows head Steven Sinofsky, serve as advisors. Hoover was just named among Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list of influential people in consumer technology.
Amidst all this, Ryan’s new infatuation is talking about the selfie stick, almost championing its cause.
“Championing might be a strong descriptor,” Hoover laughs. “Selfie sticks are amusing and have recently exploded in popularity within the tech industry.”
That line tells a lot about Hoover. He is someone with his ear to the ground, someone keenly aware of trends, someone with his finger on the tech startup industry’s pulse. A natural at networking.
“Product Hunt is Ryan,” investor Nir Eyal tells Mashable. “It’s a good example of the product becoming a manifestation of the founder. He is a community hub. As long as I’ve known Ryan, he’s always been that.”
Sinofsky, now an investor in the company, has similar thoughts.
“For me, it was immediately clear Ryan represented the type of founder we’re excited to work with,” he says. “The idea for a Product Hunt community and the technical approach are organically connected to the experiences Ryan has had. Product Hunt is just a natural next step for him bringing together the experiences in gaming technology, in community, and in working in startups to name just a few.”
Community is the key word here. Once you scratch the surface of Product Hunt, you realise it’s a lot more than just a listing of new startups. Product Hunt’s real power is an extraordinary, active community of founders, tech enthusiasts, journalists and investors.
Hoover is the man who makes it happen.
He relentlessly seeks out founders and gets them to participate in conversations on the site, allowing for a feedback loop that is valuable to the product makers as well as those who take the time to check it out. After all: a user is more likely to give feedback in a place where they know the founder is actively reading their comment.
Hoover personally reached out to influential users when he saw them on his site. In a post about the making of Product Hunt, he shares how he sought out M.G. Siegler, a technology writer and investor at Google Ventures:
Understand Hoover And You Understand Product Hunt
Hoover’s easy-going charm makes him an instant draw. Founders feel comfortable with him because he knows what it’s like to work in a high-pressure environment. He recounts an experience from his former job as a product manager, which will seem like a page out of any entrepreneur’s autobiography.
It was 2 A.M., the night before an important demo with a large client. Without a QA team (or even a single QA person), I hammered on the product late into the night, uncovering and sometimes, fixing more bugs. It was incredibly unscientific but we didn’t have time for “process”. We just had to Get Shit Done. Eventually, the product was delivered in a usable state, and we landed our first big client. This was huge, and we celebrated our first major win.
The entrepreneurial spirit runs in his genes, but Ryan doesn’t like to call himself a serial entrepreneur.
“Perhaps ‘serial experimenter’ is more apt,” he smiles, arguing that Product Hunt is the first startup he has founded. Ryan’s father has been running his own companies since his 20’s, and has always encouraged his son to start new ventures. It’s the story of try-fail-retry that every ambitious and motivated individual goes through.
Unlike many blogs, Product Hunt is also a positive environment; it’s aimed at constructive criticism and encouraging founders. It uses the “upvote” mechanism of Reddit to rank the daily products list, but there is no “downvote” button – naysayers should look elsewhere. Still, there are measures in place to avoid gaming the rankings, and spam.
Investor Noah Lichtenstein attributes this to Hoover’s personality.
“If you look at Hacker News for example—another source of sharing new product discoveries—it is full of negativity and judgments,” he says. “This leads founders to be reluctant to share their baby with the world for fear of judgment and critique before their ideas are fully baked and carefully released to the world. However, Product Hunt is a pure reflection of Ryan’s passion for innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit.”
A new startup, Precursor blogged about how their submission on Y Combinator’s Hacker News fell flat. The dejected founders went to sleep, only to wake up to a slew of notifications because of a Product Hunt listing. Apart from gaining several new users, they appreciated what the community stood for:
By mid-day Precursor was being shared on several other sites, but Product Hunt was still responsible for the majority of our traffic. What we found most interesting about the Product Hunt traffic was not its volume, but its quality of feedback. Users understood that Precursor just got started… Rather than write us off because of missing features, they told us which features they’d like to see next. Many even shared their use-case; telling us how they’ll use it, how it helps now, and how it could help more in the future.
What Makes Product Hunt Special
Product Hunt’s appeal lies in its simplicity — as does its lack of appeal. Each listing is just the name with the link and a single line description. Click and you can see comments about it – participants need to sign in with Twitter to comment.
In a way, the website is a result of the modern, TL;DR web. The Internet offers too much information, and people just want the most relevant point.
“Blogs are typically motivated to keep people on the site, providing readers with their opinion, analysis, or interviews with creators. Crafting great content takes a lot of time,” explains Hoover. Unlike tech blogs, Product Hunt’s appeal is in its ‘get in and get out’ ideal.
“While you may enjoy reading varied opinions and Q&A’s with the makers on Product Hunt, at its core, people visit the site to discover new products and leave.”
That’s why he encourages descriptions in the “X for Y” vein, like the recent SocialRank listing which calls itself “Moneyball for brands.” Hoover says it’s a shortcut to a high-level understanding of a product, at a time when reader attention is lacking.
“All the product folks I know tuned into Product Hunt around the same time,” says Sinofsky. “The site (and later the app) became a pretty integral part of the product ‘seeker’ community. Because founders, those at startups, and investors are constantly in feedback loops and helping each other, the information about what is new and the dialog with makers is incredibly valuable to the information/feedback loop of technology products.”
The growing influence has telling effects.
“Product Hunt fans have come up to me (even at a bar on a few occasions) introducing themselves, and it’s flattering but it certainly makes me more self-conscious,” Hoover says. “I have to be a little more careful about what I say and do. I’m generally very transparent and honest – and this won’t change – but my voice and actions represent the company, team, and in some ways, our investors. I need to be thoughtful in how my words might be interpreted.”
It’s Not About The Products, It’s About The People
Not everyone is a fan of Product Hunt. Some wonder what the big deal is, like Tom Limongello in his article, The hunt for Product Hunt’s relevance.
If you look at Product Hunt for more than a day or so, it’s not long before you find the nihilist tolerance of product people. Products that are simpler than they are useful are immediately praised solely for finding simplicity herself. Whereas in any other culture the product would be out-ed as the Emperor’s New Clothes, in “product culture” you win praise for building Mobile Flow, an app that just tracks how long you’ve been in airplane mode on iPhone to show the world via Twitter… once you are back online that you were able to live, for a spell, without being connected.
Hoover is a staunch defender of such apps. Even if an app won’t be relevant next week, he appreciates novelty because it encourages new ideas.
Product Hunt is the perfect encapsulation of the Silicon Valley culture, and the entrepreneurial culture. It thrives on ideals like “Stay hungry, stay foolish” and “Fail fast, fail often.” Hoover’s favourite quote comes from his co-founder, Nathan Bashaw, and it sums up the platform of opportunity, risk and growth that Product Hunt Stands for:
“When you look back six months from today and don’t feel embarrassed by your naiveté, there’s a problem.”