If anyone knows products, it’s Ryan Hoover. As the CEO and Founder of Product Hunt, he’s seen thousands of products (mostly apps) launch on the platform since its inception in 2013. Now, he’s on the hunt for startups with seemingly crazy ideas to invest in with his venture fund. Having spent nearly five years seeing and supporting the launch of over 100,000 products, he's armed with an extra store of insight as an investor.
Before founding Product Hunt at age 25, Hoover started a blog where he authored over 150 posts about technology and products, building a community of followers in the process. From there, he launched Product Hunt as an email — just a list of his favorite new products — and it quickly took off, growing faster than he had expected. Within just 20 days of the inaugural email, he had rounded up 2,000 subscribers.
Today, Product Hunt is far more than a list of the best new products, though this is still what you’ll find on the homepage. The team recently launched Sip, an app that notifies you of breaking tech news in just a sentence or two, along with Ship, a platform that offers tools to builders to help them develop their products.
We talked to Hoover to learn more about his venture fund, the Product Hunt brand, and why he's been called the nice guy of Silicon Valley.
You recently launched a $3M venture fund called Weekend Fund. How has your experience as a product curator on Product Hunt informed your investment decisions?
Having seen a lot of products, I feel like it's given me a good understanding of not only the market, but also different opportunities. In many ways, Product Hunt is a window into the future when it comes to where technology is going and what people are excited about and building towards. Every morning I wake up and I see dozens of products launch, and I tend to notice trends and people exploring different opportunities. As a result, it's almost like there's a pulse on where the future is heading.
Every morning I wake up and I see dozens of products launch, and I tend to notice trends and people exploring different opportunities.
What's interesting is you'll see a lot of people gravitate towards a particular space. Right now, one of those spaces is crypto and blockchain products. It's been helpful to have an understanding of what people are building from an investment perspective. Having a good perspective of the history of technology and products, I think, is very important to building the future in that space.
Have you invested in any crypto or blockchain startups?
I've invested in two that are in that space. I can't talk about them publicly yet, but one is focused on the investment aspects of crypto — how to make investing in this space more accessible. The other is building hardware to support the infrastructure of the startup I just mentioned.
On Medium you wrote that you're looking for crazy startups. What do you mean by crazy?
I love the concept of asking for crazy ideas because it gives people an excuse to share things that might sound stupid. It almost lowers the barrier to share ideas. The alternative is to ask people to share their ideas, and people tend to hesitate because they think “Oh, this is a stupid idea.” It’s the same reason people don't raise their hand in class, they think “Oh, this is a stupid question.”
All of the cool and most interesting startups, especially early-stage ones, feel or seem a little bit crazy.
I want to encourage our team at Product Hunt, and also founders, to share these crazy ideas. All of the cool and most interesting startups, especially early-stage ones, feel or seem a little bit crazy.
It's almost cliché at this point, but if there's consensus around a particular idea, then there are either tons of players in the space or it’s too obvious. So I feel like almost all ideas need some level of craziness. Maybe crazy isn’t the perfect word to describe it, but it’s a word I like to use.
You also wrote on Medium that you invested in a startup that had no users and no product, but the founders did possess deep conviction. Can you elaborate on how this kind of conviction manifests in startup founders?
Sometimes I'll meet a founder, and they might be really talented and really smart and working in a space that's really interesting, but they don't have any clarity around what they're actually doing — they don't have a clear perspective of what they believe the future is. And it's harder for me to have conviction around people with that type of perspective because it doesn't sound like they're the person that's going to build the future. It sounds like they'll be more of a follower rather than someone who has a very strong conviction in what they believe.
This particular founder that I referenced in the article was in the super early stage of founding his startup. He had well-reasoned thoughts for all of my questions, but it wasn't that he was arrogant or pretended to know all the answers. I'm almost less interested in the actual answers and more interested in how that person answers those questions, what their thought process is. That's more important than the actual answer because when you’re building something new, especially new consumer products, it's impossible to have a 100% accurate prediction of the future.
How much of your investing is based on analysis and research, and how much is based on intuition and gut instinct?
Since I'm investing in early-stage, sometimes pre-launch, products, I don't have metrics when it comes to the users or retention or things like that. Even if I did, if a product’s launched, I rely less on that because, again, the product will change. And that also goes for negative numbers and positive numbers. So you might see a product that's doing really well, their retention and growth is great in the first few months, and that’s a good sign, but you can't really rely on that because there's this weird thing that happens when a lot of products initially launch — it's almost like almost artificial growth.
When it comes to market sizing, that’s also a hard one to estimate. It really varies case by case for me. There’s this one company that’s building tools for artists to sell their digital art on the blockchain. It’s operating within a market that you could say is massive — buying and selling art — but what they’re doing is totally different, and they’re betting on a future where there will be a market for this kind of thing. So those are tough because you have to have a conviction around the market growing and maturing to make room for something like that.
So tell us a bit about the Product Hunt story. What inspired you to start it?
Product Hunt actually started as a side project. I was working at a startup in San Francisco for about three and a half years, and I got to a point where I wanted to do something different. At the time, I was building tools for mobile game developers. It was really cool and everything, and I loved the team, but I was honestly really eager to build something for myself, something that I would be a consumer of. So, I ended up switching to a part-time role. It was during that time that Product Hunt started.
I love products — I love playing with new apps, and I'm a weirdo that would browse the Japanese app store to see what was most popular and download those apps out of curiosity. My friends and I would always share apps and products. So I thought, “What if there was a site on the internet or a way to see all the cool stuff every day that's launched?” That's how it started off. Initially, it was just an email list — there wasn't even a website. That's how Product Hunt got started.
I'm a weirdo that would browse the Japanese app store to see what was most popular and download those apps out of curiosity.
Product Hunt's rapid growth was powered by its community. How do you balance organic, community-driven growth with strategized growth initiatives?
At its core, Product Hunt is really a community — the product itself and the technical side of what we built isn't anything crazy. I'm really proud of what we built, and the engineering team is the best engineering team I've ever worked with, but anyone could rebuild Product Hunt. It wouldn't take that long, actually. But what can’t be rebuilt, what's really difficult, is the community that we've built to date. That's really what makes it special — we think a lot about how to observe what the community is doing and then build for those behaviors.
An early example of this is that a lot of people were sharing things they found on Product hunt by creating lists of products they found. For example, someone would add products they found on Product Hunt into Wunderlist or Trello, or other tools like that. Their intention was primarily to save them and categorize them. We observed that and thought "That’s an interesting behavior. Why don't we make it easier for people to do that on the site itself?" So we built a way for people to make product collections with a couple of clicks. They basically just add products to a list, and it’s not only a bookmark but also a way for the community to create something they can share.
Those are the types of things that we try to look at — what behaviors exist and how do we make it easier for people to do these things, or expand on the behaviors, to create more value and growth through engagement on the platform.
The Product Hunt brand is playful, friendly, and thoughtful. Is the brand mostly an extension of your personality, or is it something that you mapped out strategically?
It’s kind of both. In the beginning, it was in many ways, for better or worse, an extension of myself, in that a lot of the ideas were very representative of what I'm personally excited about.
The Product Hunt kitty, for example, came from a conversation with a community member who has a big buying firm and he reached out and offered to create free T-shirts or swag for us. So, he created a bunch of illustrations. He came up with the cat, and I was like, "That's ridiculous and silly, and I kind of love it." So we just went with it. It wasn't scientific — we didn't do any focus groups, but it just felt right.
He came up with the cat, and I was like, "That's ridiculous and silly, and I kind of love it."
A lot of how we formed Product Hunt at the beginning was very organic, just like the story behind the Product Hunt cat. It’s seemingly small, but it was actually very important because it started to create the tone that we wanted to set for a community and an identity of playfulness and curiosity.
As we kind of matured as a company, we came together as a team to identify what words we wanted to use to describe the brand, and we use them almost like a north star. So now, when we're drafting a newsletter or recruiting or creating new features, we try to think about how we represent these words within these experiences.
One of the words is "kittenish", which means playful. We want Product Hunt to be playful because hunting for products should be fun. It should be a place that people make a priority to visit, but not something that’s too serious. It would be super lame if everyone was just reporting their business model and using all sorts of sterile business terms.
You work in tech and are knee-deep in Silicon Valley, but you initially built a following through your writing. Was this your intention when you sat down to write, or was it something you did just for fun?
It was actually for fun, and the irony of that is that I hated writing in high school and college. I just didn't enjoy it. In hindsight, it's very clear why, and this is a whole separate rant I can go on. I think the way most teachers teach writing is just terrible. They give you homework assignments to write book reports about books you don't care about. They give you requirements of page lengths, like it must be ten pages or more, which is the opposite of how you should write, in my opinion. Keeping it clear, concise and, at many times, shorter, is better.
I used writing as a vehicle to learn, because when you write, you’re forced to understand something.
After college, I started writing more about the things I cared about, which was technology and products. I used writing as a vehicle to learn because when you write, you’re forced to understand something. If you write something and then you read it, and you're like “This doesn't make any sense,” or “Actually, I have no idea what I'm talking about,” then you're being honest with yourself. Writing was a way for me to put down my thoughts and sift through them more clearly than if I was just to think about them.
Do you think you'll ever write a book in the future?
I would like to. I've thought about it, and I have some experience helping Nir Eyal with his book, and that was incredibly time-consuming but also really rewarding. But it's one thing to write a blog post and publish it and have it out there on the internet forever. It's another thing to have a whole book published. Something about that seems very meaningful. So I would like to at some point, but not in the foreseeable future, unfortunately.
You've created SIP, which is just bite-size notifications on breaking tech news. The notifications only come a couple times a day. Was there any reason why you kept them short and sweet and unobtrusive?
SIP is kind of an experiment that we've done. We noticed that some of the most engagement was around big, breaking news announcements in technology. When we would send out tweets and notifications, people would gravitate towards that, multiple times more than the average product launch. An example might be Facebook launching some big new product.
We knew this was was something that our users liked, but we also didn't have a place to share it that was separate from the product launches. Whether it's big funding announcements or just news stories that we feel are important and interesting.
With SIP, we didn't just want to create like another publication or another giant newspaper. We wanted to give people an opportunity to feasibly discover and then be able to talk about the most important news of the day. News, and tech in general, is a social lubricant. We can talk about it with others, and people often want to talk about it intelligently.
So having a quick way to get up to speed on what happened today is valuable. Hopefully even the notification alone is valuable for people. We know that a lot of people are busy, they're in the middle of work, so they’re not necessarily going open up the app and read the whole story. They can look it up or talk about it with their friends later. We really focus on keeping it simple, and hopefully lightweight, because we want to be considerate.
You've been dubbed 'The resident nice guy of Silicon Valley,' and your writing displays a good measure of conscientiousness and empathy. Did you have any experiences that instilled you with these qualities?
I'm certainly far from perfect. I make a lot of mistakes. I get really frustrated. I try not to show it to everyone, but the truth is, there's a lot of ups and downs in life and startups. That's kind of one piece of that. I think the other side is the reality that — it's both a good thing and a bad thing — I want people to like me. I think most people have an aspect of that but at different levels. Some people don't care at all what people think about them. I do, maybe to a fault sometimes. So maybe that's why sometimes I try to portray more of a nice persona.
The other reality is that I think there's too much negativity in tech in general. Too many people are jaded. I won't be nice about every single little thing, but I think too many people are hating on founders and hating on products and hating on people that are trying to do really hard things.
If we have an industry that is full of people who are continually negative, it's not going to inspire people to create.
Going back to the crazy piece — there are people that are building crazy products, and, as a result, people are like “That's crazy. That's stupid. Why are you doing that?” I think that we, as an industry, should be more optimistic. That doesn’t mean we should be positive about everything by any means. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't keep people accountable for messing up and doing bad things in our industry. But if we have an industry that is full of people who are continually negative, it's not going to inspire people to create. It's not going to inspire people to share what they're working on.
For a lot of people, it's a very scary experience to share a product they've spent months or years working on. The last thing they want is for someone to hate on what they're building and judge them.
Your original blog tagline reads "Startups, products, and personal growth." What does personal growth mean for you?
I forgot I used that tagline, actually. It's been so long. In the beginning of my tech career, I was really focused on learning and investing in myself. That may have meant doing good work at the startup I was at or writing a bunch as a vehicle to learn. And it’s still so important — I don’t want to make it sound like I've learned everything.
If I didn't have that mindset, I don't think Product Hunt would exist. If I hadn't been writing a lot and I hadn't been serious exploring and investing in myself, I don’t know if I would be in the place where I am now.
Lastly, we just have to ask — what’s your favorite emoji?
I think one of my favorites is titled "praise hands". 🙌 Some people see it as praise — like hallelujah, but I see it more like a high five. It feels like a kind of thing that you do when you're excited about something with someone. Like if you and your teammate just launched a product and things are going well, and you're like "High five!" It feels like camaraderie.
I almost always include an emoji in a calendar invite, and oftentimes it's the praise hands. I do that because it immediately sets the tone of playfulness.