Not long ago, after meeting yet another entrepreneur pushing a messaging application, I used his app to send a note to my colleague Josh. Josh responded immediately with a giant blinking GIF sent over iMessage. "OH MY GOD THAT’S DUMB," the GIF declared, flashing its judgment one word at a time in a blur of neon colors. "AND NOT AS COOL AS THIS ONE." The GIF concluded with a selfie of Josh making a beaver face. It’s pretty much my favorite message of 2014, and I asked Josh how he made it. It turned out he’d used an app called UltraText, which he found on a site called Product Hunt.
A must-read site in Silicon Valley
Inspired by earlier sites Reddit and Hacker News, in 10 months Product Hunt has gone from a small email discussion list to a fast-growing community with a popular website and iPhone app. (The daily email is popular, too.) Each day, users submit new apps, software services, and other tech products. People vote up their favorites, and entrepreneurs often join in on discussions to explain their design decisions and answer users’ questions. Only 1 to 2 percent of users have been invited to comment, and it’s an elite group — venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and journalists are heavily represented. As a result it’s the rare comments section that’s worth reading, and it’s one reason that Product Hunt has become a must-read site in Silicon Valley.
Today the company has some money to go with the buzz: founder Ryan Hoover announced that the company has raised $6.1 million from investors including Andreessen Horowitz and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. Hoover says he’ll use the money to grow his team, build an Android app, and expand to let people recommend products beyond the world of tech. In the meantime, Product Hunt is also adding the ability for users to follow other users to receive more tailored recommendations.
In a relatively short time, Product Hunt has become a kind of early-warning system for apps that are about to break out. TapTalk, a fast-growing picture messaging app, got a seed investment from the venture capital firm SV Angel after a partner discovered it there. Traffic to Product Hunt has grown 50 percent every month since January, and each month it drives 2 million visits to the products featured on its leaderboard. "Prior to Product Hunt, Ultratext had almost no downloads," Andrew Farmer, one of UltraText's founders, told me in an email. "Through Product Hunt we got noticed by you guys and also got a TechCrunch article. Product Hunt directly or indirectly led to tens of thousands of downloads for us."
Still, Product Hunt’s initial audience comprises people whose livelihood depends on getting in early on the next big thing. Can a service for tech nerds go mainstream?
The app discovery problem
That we’re even asking the question is a testament to Hoover, who has an unlikely hit on his hands. At first blush, a service devoted to surfacing apps and other tech ephemera looks gratuitous. Platform owners like Apple and Google offer leaderboards of their own, in the form of their top download charts, and they regularly feature new apps across their respective app stores. Meanwhile, a host of mainstream and niche publications pay obsessive attention to the tech world, highlighting new products on an hourly basis.
But as it turns out, each of those channels is flawed in its own way. Most-downloaded charts tend to reward only a handful of top performers, and are difficult to crack without an expensive marketing campaign. Getting featured in an app store is often a matter of who a developer knows at Apple or Google. And product coverage in the press is often driven by public relations, which is available only to the already rich and well connected.
A way of appealing to early adopters
Little wonder, then that developers have seized on Product Hunt as a way of appealing to a group of early-adopting enthusiasts. The leaderboard resets itself every day at midnight Pacific time, giving entrepreneurs a perpetual clean slate to try to get users’ attention. The leaderboard rankings take into account user votes and also when in the day something was posted — if it’s later, the product may get boosted above something that has more votes depending on how quickly it accumulated them. It’s the perfect place to discover an app like UltraText, which was built as a side project by two friends with no interest in turning it into a venture-backed startup. "Today more and more people are building products," Hoover says. "They may not be traditional startups, but they’re still making interesting, useful products that people want to discover."
The endless hamster wheel
On the other hand — Product Hunt can be exhausting. There are few things I enjoy more than finding a cool new thing to do with my phone, and yet I still open the morning email from Product Hunt with a sense of fatigue. Every day, the email offers five more things to look at — the site’s leaderboard shows 20 — and the more things you look at, the more disposable they all seem. Hoover sees the apps on Product Hunt less as lifelong companions than media you consume in the same way you might a television show — for a few weeks, say, until you finish with it.
The average person downloads zero apps per month
But even that might be wishful thinking — the average person, after all, downloads zero apps per month. Hoover, whose iPhone contains 14 pages of apps, is an outlier, and so is the community he’s built. His plan to expand the community is to create versions of Product Hunt for other categories, starting next year (most likely) with video games. Hoover imagines a world where whatever you’re interested in, there will be a Product Hunt for it, and it will help you find cool things that would otherwise stay hidden. And it will make money through ads, or affiliate links, or something more creative.
Of course, if the tech world’s current boom times turn to bust, there may be less fodder for Product Hunt’s endless hamster wheel of phone-based distractions. (It’s one reason why the company would be smart to get those other verticals going in a hurry.) But for now, at least, it’s the best coolhunt on the internet — relentlessly positive, easy to use, and adept at finding gems. "I hate using the word ‘democratizing,’ but I’m just going to use it anyway," Hoover says. "Product Hunt is allowing anything from a VC-backed company to a weekend hack project to get (attention)." Bring on the upvotes.