Why Product Hunt’s Sophomore Effort Could Be Its Greatest Triumph

In an insightful post yesterday, David Berkowitz postulated that Product Hunt might be suffering from startup fatigue as 2015 draws to a close. His presented graphs and statistics are all on point, and the analysis of said metrics is fairly fleshed out, and I’d say quite accurate.

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However, though I agree with Berkowitz on a number of points, I stand apart in questioning whether Product Hunt has fallen victim to ennui and achieved the “Mad Men” effect. While the metrics point to a decrease in overall activity (which you can see in Berkowitz’s original post), I’m not so sure that the postulation of trouble for Product Hunt is exactly right. Let me tell you why.

The Debut Album

Product Hunt debuted halfway through 2014, and I came to it late in that summer, somewhere between July and August. I had just enough time to familiarize myself with the site (and app) before the windfall from the 6+ million a16z-led A round really enabled them to start expanding rapidly on their product and offerings. This summer alone PH has released 3 betas (that I’m aware of), Games, Books, and Podcasts, along with its LIVE feature (which I quite enjoy). I’ve heard murmurs that some people think PH is throwing anything at a wall and seeing what sticks, rather than focusing on one specific vision. Not only is this a fairly correct observation, but it’s exactly the right thing for Product Hunt to do.

As I discussed in this twitter thread, I think that from ~June 2014 till now (~October 2015), we’ve seen Product Hunt’s first act; its debut album as it were. That’s the album that is either overlooked except by the core fans (Nirvana’s 1989 album, Bleach) or gets all the attention (Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut, Ten).

The data implies that Product Hunt is of the latter, and that the coming months will most likely continue to be somewhat challenging for the company. The fact that PH might well be a necessary utility for some (as Berkowitz now identified it as for himself) as opposed to a quirky, fun new thing is arguably irrelevant. The fanaticism that Product Hunt enjoyed over the last year may not last in its current form, but it does signal something greater, I think.

The Sophomore Effort

Continuing the music analogy, Product Hunt now finds itself in the studio after its debut success. The tour’s been completed, and as such, self-avowed PH fans wait for the next release, many hoping to see a redo of the initial popular effort. But PH has outgrown its debut skin, and is looking for something to keep its creative juices fresh. What the metrics really tell us is that PH is going through growing pains, trying to figure out just how many new instruments and styles it wants to try on its new album. Product Hunt’s sophomore effort will do two things: 1) it will likely alienate a demographic of general users who “like the old stuff, but not the new vibe,” and 2) solidify those of us who want to see PH keep growing and cultivating its community.

I discussed Product Hunt’s winning in community earlier this summer, and since then have only furthered my beliefs in such. This signifies one of the main distinctions that I think will come to play out over Product Hunt’s ecosystem: certain users will use it mainly as a necessary utility, while others aren’t exactly sure what to use it as, but are drawn to the intriguing dynamic nonetheless. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being either kind of user; different strokes for different folks. But to be equally as clear, Product Hunt continues to succeed brilliantly because it attracts people like me; people who were not (are not) self-avowed die-hard tech product enthusiasts, but find it enticing anyway. I was never as much into new tech products and beta testing until I started using Product Hunt, and that’s exactly why it wins: it turns outsiders into insiders.

Some have begun to criticize PH for its commenting invites, and the exclusivity factor which they arguably perpetuate. But I think the minor exclusivity factor actually distracts from a much bigger inclusive factor. Product Hunt has succeeded in building the backbone of a community that is magnetic; it’s engaged, positive, and exciting for people who are open to new things.

Points of Discussion

In all this, Berkowitz makes a number of statements which I agree with, but analyze differently.

  1. Upvotes may not be the best measure of activity: This may in fact be true, but I’m not sure it matters as much as one might think. I see Product Hunt’s upvotes as proof of concept; people did want to see new products and share their impressions of them. But the upvote (and downvote, additionally) is a fairly one-dimensional interaction, and one I can see becoming less important to Product Hunt in the grand scheme. I don’t necessarily think they’ll get rid of it, but now that the PH team has planted the seeds of a truly interested and engaging community, those seeds are now germinating, and thus simple upvote metrics might not even be enough to truly capture the meaning behind those interactions.
  2. There could be a long tail effect: The prospect that lesser known products are doing better is possibly the best thing that could happen to PH in my opinion. What we could be seeing is the beginning of a democratization in the PH community, one where you don’t necessarily have to know someone influential to get your product some real traction. If I were part of the PH team, I would try to capitalize on this and figure out how to focus this dynamic; keep pushing the democratization without losing the high standard of quality.
  3. Perhaps Product Hunt is too slow in letting new people participate: I can see the validity of this point, and can see how it plays right into the “Product Hunt is about exclusivity” argument. There’s no quick and easy fix here, and I don’t think there should be. PH needs to retain its values and vision, even if that means it remains partially closed to prospective new users for a time.

    Notice, however, that I said partially closed; my best thought would be to let new users trickle in by giving them some access, a little at a time. Give them perhaps 5 comments every month until they gain full access. This could hopefully encourage them to use their comments wisely, and thus dissuade them from posting drivel or offensive material, while simultaneously allowing PH team members the necessary control to guide these new users.   
  4. Product Hunt is expanding into new categories such as games, books, and podcasts: This I don’t think is a problem at all; I think it’s an opportunity. Not every sub-category will be gold, but that doesn’t make it lead either. I quite like Books, and use it way more than Games (I’m not much a gamer). And though I’ve never been huge into podcasts, the new channel is making me rethink that. People will get different things from different channels, and there will be no way to see what’s really a success until a few more months pass.

    I do, however, think that PH has enough new things to keep its hands full (especially with the addition of the LIVE channel as well), and think it should focus on the irons it already has in the fire rather than continuing to add new ones.        

Berkowitz’s focus on the overall trends present in the graphs, though, is just one part of the story I think. Metrics are necessary things, but they can sometimes distract from possibilities on the horizon otherwise overshadowed by more dour trends. I think that’s the case here, where PH’s recent trends forecast a much more problematic stance than is actually there.

Cultivate the Community, Ignore the Noise

In the coming months, I can see Product Hunt becoming one of the popular contemporary examples of a company that arguably lost its “special sauce” after a great first year and successful Series A round. I anticipate articles to follow on TechCrunch, Re/Code, and to pop up all over Medium, as PH gets picked apart over its somewhat plateauing (if not declining) metrics. However, I caution against counting out PH too soon, and not focusing thoroughly on where they have situated themselves over the past year. Observers would do well to remember that PH is much more than metrics and trends; in fact, it’s mostly more than that. It’s community.

Keep throwing things at the wall, and experimenting with new instruments on the next album, and see what works. PH has already succeeded because their core fanbase is coalescing. Now they just need to nurture that base. Cultivate the community that any band or startup would kill for; that’s where the real power rests. When you leverage the power of your fanbase, the trends can go any way you want them to. All the rest is just noise. 

As for the Product Hunt team, my best advice to them were I to be asked would be to keep their heads down and just work. Acknowledge that this is the sophomore effort, and thus may irritate some of its debut supporters. However, this is the nature of the sophomore album, and could signal Product Hunt’s move towards the release of something even bigger than before. Whereas 2014-15 was Bleach, 2016 could be Nevermind. 

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