When the email arrived, Jordan Walker wasn't ready for it. The message was from Ryan Hoover, founder and CEO of Product Hunt, a site that surfaces cool new projects. It was a heads-up about the next episode of his podcast. "I chatted briefly about Kindly," Hoover said in the email. "That might be a good day to post if you're ready. :)"
Walker and the tiny team behind his anonymous messaging app, Kindly, had planned on a few more weeks of development before releasing to the public. But when Hoover comes calling, you listen.
Founded just over a year ago, Product Hunt has become a force to be reckoned with in the startup world. For companies that land in the top slot of Product Hunt's Reddit-like homepage—as Kindly and many others have—the payoff is dramatic.
After being listed on the site, the secure credit card alternative Final jumped from 191 signups to nearly 10,000 overnight. Within 48 hours, they broke 20,000 signups.
But for Final, the traffic was nowhere near as valuable as the discussion it generated. "The traffic that you get is not even close to top benefit," says Ben Apel, Final's director of marketing. The real Product Hunt bump comes from the tech influencers who frequent the site, who in turn attract media coverage and in some cases lead to investments.
One minute, Kindly was an unknown app. The next, TechStars managing director Alex Iskold was commenting on it and Path cofounder Dave Morin was upvoting it. "Instead of testing with 20 of my friends," says Walker, "I got to do a public beta with thousands of people who know what they're talking about."
Then the press comes knocking. In Kindly's case—which is fairly typical—reporters from major news outlets wanted to know more about his startup and future plans. Walker talked to a Mashable reporter for 10 minutes, expecting a brief mention in a newsy write-up or perhaps a roundup of anonymous chat apps.
"Later that night I go to Mashable and I see my face staring at me on the homepage with a full-on article about me and my app," Walker says. "It had been shared 1,000 times." Before long, Kindly found its ways into headlines across a wide range of outlets, including the Washington Post.
Now the company is about to close a round of seed funding for a sum that Walker describes as "pretty significant."
In the case of both Final and Kindly, there was some personal connection that helped land them in the good graces of the Product Hunt community. Final and Product Hunt share a common investor, who recommended posting to the site. For Kindly, it was an in-person meetup with Ryan Hoover.
In mid-July, Walker showed up at at a Product Hunt Meetup in New York City, where startup founders and product geeks would get a rare opportunity to meet Hoover and his team in person.
"I got there and there were like 400 guys—It was mostly guys—in ill-fitting clothes," says Walker. "I was like, 'I'm in the right place.'"
After ploughing his way through a sea of nerds to get Hoover's much-coveted attention, Walker showed him a beta of Kindly, a chat app designed to connect people with "helpful strangers" with whom they can discuss whatever's on their mind—kind of like Whisper for amateur therapy.
The app made an impression on Hoover, who told Walker it seemed like it "could make a difference in people's lives." Later that night Walker invited Hoover to Kindly's beta on TestFlight, sent the obligatory nice-to-meet-you follow-up email and, along with cofounder and CTO Greg Kucsan, went back to work fine-tuning the app.
"I wasn't really planning on launching until October," Walker says. But then in mid-August, just a month after their encounter, Hoover's email arrived. Later that day, Kindly's listing on Product Hunt was live. By that night, it had been upvoted to the number one slot on the site.
You don't have to be buddies with Ryan Hoover or a VC to have your product go ballistic on the Product Hunt charts. You could, for instance, be a team of three 23-year-olds building a Chrome extension in a sublet apartment in Philadelphia. That's the story behind Point, a startup that landed on Product Hunt at the end of July.
Point is a simple concept: It's a browser extension that allows effortless sharing and discussion of links, kind of like the old sharing feature in Google Reader, but more universal.
Point's development began right around the same time that Product Hunt got started, and the Point team was well aware of the site's slow rise, even if they didn't quite realize the impact it could have for their startup.
Within hours of reaching the top slot, this unknown browser extension was getting Twitter praise from VCs Kevin Rose and Michael Arrington. On the Product Hunt site, Digg CTO Michael Young rattled off pointed questions about their plans for cross-platform and mobile support and even challenged the premise of building another content inbox in these email-weary times.
Ten months after kicking off development, the trio behind Point quickly found itself moving from obscurity in Pennsylvania to center stage in Silicon Valley. "Product Hunt really kind of propelled us into the tech community," says Point cofounder Ashwinn Krishnaswamy. "It was a phenomenal launching point for us. We suddenly had really prominent industry insiders talking about Point."
These insights helped Krishnaswamy and his team refine their product on the fly. It also had another advantage: Finding developers became much easier. A few days after Point's Product Hunt launch, they received an email from Tosin Afolabi, a U.K.-based iOS developer. After some online exchanges and an in-person meetup in New York, Afolabi was hired as Point's first Lead iOS Developer. It's a connection that would have been much harder for a company like Point to make without Product Hunt, and will be useful as the company extends beyond the desktop browser.
So how do you get to the top of the Product Hunt home page?
The early adopters who make up the Product Hunt community see dozens of new apps and services every week, so your product should stand out. It doesn't need to be perfect, necessarily; The crowd there is used to seeing betas and unfinished proofs of concept and is generally forgiving if the central idea is solid enough.
When a startup has decided its hard work is ready to withstand the scrutiny of the Product Hunt crowd, it's best to set aside the day and make an internal event out of it. At Final, which remains one of the most popular listings on Product Hunt to date, the founding team made it a point to block off their schedules the day of the big unveil so that they would be available to field questions and comments. This tactic also comes in handy when the press comes calling.
"Be thoughtful about why you're hoping to be at the top of the day's listing on Product Hunt," says Apel. "If it's to be number one so you can fulfill grandiose dreams of heavy referral traffic and signups, you're probably going to be disappointed. And you'll likely be distracted from the greatest value of that community, which is the engagement."
You'll have a better chance of winning over the Product Hunt crowd if it's not the first time anyone there has ever heard your name. "Insert yourself into the community months before you're going to ask the community to engage with your startup," says Walker. "You're going to want to start posting about startups that are interesting to you before you try to sell yourself."
Don't try to game the system; like Reddit or Hacker News, the Product Hunt community has built-in protections against your spammiest temptations. "It's pretty sophisticated at this point," says Walker. "I don't think you can just get all your friends to sign up for Product Hunt the day that you post and vote for you."
As polished as your product may seem, it won't be perfect. There will be something to criticize, and the smart, well-connected people on Product Hunt won't be shy about pointing those things out. "Don't be defensive in the Q&A," Walker says.
As potent as the Product Hunt bump can be, it's not going to single-handedly propel a company into superstardom. The gains it brings, while significant, are all short-term. The resulting spike in page views or signups is exactly that: a spike. It will go down, and it's up to the startup to make the most of the press, investor contacts, and potential talent that Product Hunt success ushers in.
It's also worth remembering that Product Hunt is brand new and still exploding. It's already attracted $7.1 million in investment funding. The network of influentials who give a boost to certain companies on the site may have their own agendas, which can be difficult to figure out. As the ranks of its community swell, there's no telling how the site—or the effect it can have for startups—will evolve.
"It's way more popular now," says Walker. "As everybody goes to it, will it lose that tastemaker thing? I don't know if this is sustainable or not."