Ryan Hoover shares Product Hunt’s ‘scale or fail’ lessons ahead of AccelerateOTT

Ryan Hoover
Editor's Note

This article was updated to include a follow-up tweet from Ryan Hoover.

Before he makes the trip from Silicon Valley to Ottawa for the annual AccelerateOTT conference – this year tackling the theme “scale or fail” – Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover shared some of his own lessons from scaling up the popular product listing site.

Despite its status today as one of the web’s most active communities, Product Hunt began as Hoover’s side project back in 2013. Back then he wasn’t even setting out to build a company, let alone one that would eventually be backed by Y Combinator and acquired by AngelList for a reported $20 million in 2016.

“It wasn’t initially going to be a company. It was a project, more of an experiment,” he tells Techopia.

Hoover was looking to build a destination for tech heads to talk about the latest app or device in the same way sports junkies dig into last night’s game.

“There is this community of people ... that talk about technology the same way people talk about sports, with passion and interest and curiosity.”

Product Hunt met that need by posting a live list of new apps and products released that day. Products can be voted up or down to rank higher or lower, and comment sections can facilitate productive discussions between makers and consumers.

The concept has moved beyond the internet and into cities such as Ottawa where local meetup groups gather to pitch and provide feedback on startups’ products. Mindbridge AI and FarmLead are among the local firms that have spoken at Product Hunt Ottawa meetups.

Hands-on scaling

Once Hoover and his partners had a platform assembled, the first hurdle was building an engaged community.

The key for Product Hunt was to focus on the community of passionate techies Hoover had identified. In fact, in any community-building scenario, he says it’s best to single out a niche group to get initial traction before trying to scale up too quickly.

“Even Facebook started off with Harvard, schools, colleges in the beginning, and now it’s used by two billion people,” he says.

“We think about scaling in terms of productizing things and automating things, but in the beginning it’s often better to manually approach things.”

Once you’ve got that initial base, it’s time to scale. Nurturing a community isn’t a technical process, however; despite how we talk about scaling up solutions, Hoover believes the hands-on approach will register better with people.

Once a few listings were on the site, Hoover would reach out to makers to get them engaged in discussions on their products. Members who would join might get a personal email or tweet from Hoover welcoming them and thanking them for getting involved.

“If I did that now, it’s not going to make a difference … But in the beginning it was critical because it kickstarted the beginnings of the community but also set a tone of, I hope, authenticity,” he says.

“We think about scaling in terms of productizing things and automating things, but in the beginning it’s often better to manually approach things.”

Scale and fail

No matter what you’re creating, Hoover says it’s important to realize that not every idea you have is going to be a winner. Once you embrace that mindset, failing becomes not only OK, but encouraged, because it gets the bad ideas out of the way.

The faster you can do that, the more you learn what won’t work and the better your product will become with every iteration.

“I’ve seen a lot of people either overengineer or overthink a project … then they find out it doesn’t work weeks later,” he says.

“Speed is one of the most critical things in building a successful project and a successful company.”

After this original article was published, Hoover added some extra clarification on the role of failure via Twitter:

This attitude of creativity and experimentation is something Hoover will be speaking about at AccelerateOTT. Onstage with Shopify’s product lead Robleh Jama – whom Hoover notes was one of Product Hunt’s early adopters – the two will discuss the rise of “maker culture.”

Hoover compares today’s tech landscape to creativity in the music industry. Youth growing up today learning to code and programming apps in hopes of becoming the next Elon Musk are just like kids idolizing John Legend and learning how to sing and make music.

“There’s this culture of curiosity and wanting to experiment with tech.”

That’s driving entrepreneurship, Hoover says, as people are increasingly putting their projects and side hustles out into the world – just like he did five years ago.

To hear more of Hoover’s thoughts on maker culture and more insights from AccelerateOTT’s full lineup of Ottawa-based and international speakers, register and grab a ticket here.