Community, Features, Maker Resources

Digital communities: an interview with Product Hunt’s Ryan Hoover

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It’s the community, Ryan Hoover emphasizes, that makes Product Hunt special—a community of makers, fans of their products, and everyone in between. On Product Hunt, users can submit and upvote products from all types of makers from around the world. Hoover himself sees 100+ products submitted everyday, and the community is only getting bigger. In this interview and in-depth look at Product Hunt, Hoover reveals some insights on creating the platform and growing the Product Hunt community.

Creating a Platform

Product Hunt came from Hoover’s personal need for an online outlet on all tech releases, after he realised that there was none. He would go to websites like Reddit and Hacker News but there was no one single platform where he could see all tech product launches and talk about them.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – The Product Hunt Newsletter

He springboarded his idea through an email newsletter, which contained all the new tech releases he scoured across different places. Setting up an email newsletter was also fast and cheap—no coding required.

To harness the benefits of emailing and gather enough interesting content for people to subscribe, Hoover enlisted the help of other product lovers. “I wasn’t the only one sharing products—a few dozen friends in tech were doing the same” he explains. He announced the launch of his sideproject on Quibb (more on this social networking platform later) and used Linkydink to share links on product launches with fellow contributers and subscribers.

Turns out, Hoover articulated something that others also wanted. Subscriptions for the Product Hunt newsletter soared in size in a short amount of time. Hoover realised that there was something special to what he offered.

People loved Product Hunt because it created:

  1. A single online platform for makers to ship their tech products;
  2. A way to find new products;
  3. An online community that allows users to upvote and discuss these new tech releases between users and makers.

Without one or the other, Product Hunt would not exist in its current form. While the product launches provide an incentive for people to join the website, its regular users engage with the community and keep it alive. It forms a virtuous circle that many makers have tried to emulate since then on their own platforms.

The origin story of Product Hunt perfectly shows how makers do not need a lot of capital to make products. Sometimes, makers don’t even need to code to breathe life into their ideas.

Product Hunt’s Social Networking Platform

In creating the website, Hoover says,  “We didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, which is why Product Hunt follows many familiar dynamics as sites like Reddit.”

The latest iteration of the Product Hunt website contains one main column for listings in a slick white background that allows each product to be clearly displayed.

The upvoting system, like in Reddit, encourages users to engage with the products. By upvoting, users are not only expressing their stamp of approval for the product to the maker, but also to fellow users. Meanwhile, the infinity scroll simplifies browsing experience. Users never have to pause for a moment to go between pages, enabling them to browse through the website without any interruptions. This also allows them to explore various products unhindered—Product Hunt’s key aspect.

The mobile app version follows a similar design approach. As soon as you open the app, you can immediately see the list of new products, and the voting symbols turn red to indicate the own user’s upvotes. This amazingly simple approach goes a long way in ensuring an optimal user experience with the platforms.

Nir Eyal’s Hook Model And Variable Rewards

Product Hunt’s interface effectively adopts some design elements from the “Hook Model”.  Conceptualised in Hooked (2014), a book written by Nir Eyal with Hoover, the “Hook Model” is a design framework that encourages user habit formation and long-term engagement.

In Chapter 4 – Variable Reward, the authors present that at the very core of the Hook Model are three types of variable reward that reinforce habit not only within one user, but within the community that they are part of. The more users actively engage, the more powerful these rewards permeate across their networks. This is the basis of the network effect, which had enabled the meteoric rise of Facebook.

As Nir Eyal explains in his blog:

At the heart of the Hook Model is a powerful cognitive quirk described by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s, called a variable schedule of rewards. Skinner observed that lab mice responded most voraciously to random rewards. The mice would press a lever and sometimes they’d get a small treat, other times a large treat, and other times nothing at all. Unlike the mice that received the same treat every time, the mice that received variable rewards seemed to press the lever compulsively.

Humans, like the mice in Skinner’s box, crave predictability and struggle to find patterns, even when none exist. Variability is the brain’s cognitive nemesis and our minds make deduction of cause and effect a priority over other functions like self-control and moderation.

Users not only seek rewards, but more importantly they seek rewards for their efforts. This is also the same impulse that causes users to get bored with the old, stale and repeated content. New things stir users into movement. Equally, as social creatures, users also crave social validation from fellow peers for the rewards they receive through effort and hard work.

Source: Nirandfar

In the search for rewards, Eyal distinguishes three types of variable rewards: on the Tribe, the Hunt, and the Self. Rewards of the Tribe involves anything related to clout. This could range from becoming a social media influencer or amassing a large Twitter following. At the same time, people flock towards these social networks to follow these important people – somehow indicated by being verified.

Rewards of the Self involves rewards in the form of perceived self-improvement, such as gaining new knowledge, learning how to code, or any kind of sensory stimuli.

In the pursuit of survival, rewards of the Hunt have enabled humans to survive (food is best when hungry). Where money is the currency to get our wants and needs, users find pleasure from finding great discounts and promotions, or from anything that allows them to get a leg up from the rest of the community.

In a way, Eyal’s ideas percolate through Product Hunt’s user experience – perhaps even in a way that’s tongue-in-cheek.

These variable rewards happen at different stages of a Product Hunt user’s lifecycle journey – beginning from being a lurker and a newly-registered user to their various interactions with the website – and at different milestones (e.g launching a product, gaining 1000 followers, etc.).

In Product Hunt, registered users can be classified as: Contributor, Hunter, or Maker. While Contributors can do most of what Hunters can do, Hunters are early adopters and/or influential community members in Product Hunt. The Hunter status is akin being verified on Twitter, for example. In each user type, Product Hunt has some types of variable reward, including:

  1. The Self reward
    1. Finding new products that help you optimise your various tasks,
    2. as a Maker – getting your products upvoted into the top 5,
    3. as a Hunter – hunting successful products, and
    4. interacting directly with product makers to learn more about their products.
  2. The Hunter reward
    1. Going through the listings and mindlessly upvoting interesting products, and
    2. as a Product Hunter – hunting great tech products
  3. The Tribe reward
    1. Gaining clout through successful product releases and follower count (among others), and
    2. participating in various community discussions and meetups.

These examples are non-exhaustive, and there are a lot more instances in which Product Hunt is designed to satiate these reward types.

The Product Hunt system has received its fair bit of criticism on its curation process. There also comes the question of whether the Hook Model is a disingenuous way to attract users. But it’s also hard to answer. Indeed, companies that have positively affected the world have used iterations of the Hook Model. The best example is in the rise of the alternative education industry. It is hard to deny the long-lasting impact of Khan Academy and Codeacademy, which utilise the Hook Model, when it comes to making education and coding more accessible for everyone.

Instead, in the last chapter of Hooked, Eyal proposes to reframe the question of “Can I hook my users” to “Should I attempt to?”, echoing the complexity of this enquiry as going beyond yes/no answers. Indeed, it would be simplistic and dismissive to consider the Hooked Model as something that is inherently immoral, when it has been part of ventures that led to measurable social progress.

Eyal proposes the Manipulation Matrix to consider whether businesses should adopt this model for their products based on their motives of making them.

Source: Nirandfar

Eyal bases the left and right sides – Facilitator and Entertainer – on a simple premise: will the maker also use their own products? If not, then there is a danger of makers making products for users they do not understand, especially in terms of needs and wants. Either they make products that they superficially think people will use (Peddlers), but in reality don’t, or make products purely to profit from (Dealers). Facilitators, meanwhile, not only use their own products, but also believe that their products will materially improve people’s lives. Entertainers also use their own products, but don’t overtly claim that they’re improving users’ lives.

Now, which category does Product Hunt fit in? That’s up for you to decide :).

Building the Product Hunt community

Hoover uses Product Hunt daily. In the beginning, he would personally email new users, and look for makers on Twitter. But as more users registered, the more cumbersome the whole process became, often taking hours away, everyday. It wasn’t scalable.

So he streamlined this practice, like in any good startup. He started to recruit great people to manage the community with him. He made Twitter accounts to automate the various ways Product Hunt engages with its community outside of the platform. On the Product Hunt website, live support immediately greets you, reflecting the type of company culture they strive for. This sends the message that they are there for you.

That said, Hoover still likes to stay active in the community, occasionally popping up in the discussions of new Product Hunt releases and even upvotes some. On Twitter, he still actively interacts with users and techies, and even proudly claims ownership of his own likes. This extends to the Product Hunt Makers community, showing that he feels truly invested in the success of all community members.

Of course, “Like many others, I enjoy helping others,” Hoover says. “It’s fun to chat with makers, explore what they’re building, and support where I can.” And this statement explains Product Hunt’s success in building a sustainable community. Having a founder who prioritizes engagement and helpfulness creates a community modelled after this. Being helpful is cool; being a jerk is not.

Hoover elaborates upon his ethics of engagement that has come to shape the way he is expanding the Product Hunt community: “It was very important that I set the tone from the beginning, illustrating the behaviour and culture I hope to see within the community. Good and bad, my actions go noticed by the community and my teammates so it’s something I’m very aware of, even on hard days.”

One company that influenced him greatly in terms of community engagement is Quibb:

A community that I actively participated in was Quibb, founded by Sandi MacPherson, a Canadian entrepreneur now living in the Bay Area. I learned so much about community building through her. She built a strong community of founders, investors, and notable people largely by doing things that don’t scale. She welcomed every person that signed up for the service, hosted in-person meetups, and inspired conversation on the site every day.

now-defunct social networking website for professionals to share the news with each other, Quibb had an exclusive membership model that claimed to only accept 40% of its members. It adopted a risky monthly subscription model that offered “nothing in return” as MacPherson put it. In its time, Quibb boasted a very active and high-quality user base, in large part through MacPherson’s efforts in keeping an active community. But these tactics were not scalable in the long run, and the membership model deterred rapid growth.

But Hoover sees the value in a high-quality user-base. Building an online community is hard. Think of Friendster’s unsustainable global growth. When users realised that Myspace had features very similar to Friendster but offered a better online community experience, they flocked over to the former. Think of 4chan’s well-documented descent into chaos due to its flat community structure that enabled toxic ideologies to go on without hindrance. On the flipside, Facebook has been facing scrutiny lately for compromising its user data and not allowing more robust tools to moderate the way companies use this platform. And this has greatly compromised its position as a social media giant.

Toxic communities are not only unwelcoming, they’re bad for business. And they discourage potential users from joining. Hoover is well-aware of this and actively prevents this from happening through active community engagement.

Digital Communities – The Value of Product Hunt and Makers Community

Product Hunt has successfully integrated itself within the ecosystem of coders and makers across the world. Most techies know about Product Hunt. It has become the go-to site for releasing tech products. Of course, Product Hunt has also been instrumental to the growth of the maker community, which comprise of techies, startups, indie makers, creatives, non-coders and everyone else. Product Hunt has overseen the creation of Slack channels for makers from around the world.

There’s also the question of the chance encounters that allowed Product Hunt to happen in the first place. It is through serendipities, Hoover admits, that resulted in long-lasting partnerships, which led to Product Hunt. If he never moved to San Francisco, Hoover claims that Product Hunt would not exist.

One of the defining features of communities is allowing these chance encounters to happen. Silicon Valley is arguably the closest place in the world to a technocracy, where everyone talks about new tech releases, and which are still in works or are proprietary. This is where people passionate about tech meet up to create products that are wildly disruptive.

And in a way, serendipity is one of the greatest values of the Product Hunt community. Product Hunt has enabled discussions that previously mostly happened within tech hubs to become more global, and it also has mixed online engagement with meetups. Now, makers, digital nomads and creatives only need an internet connection to engage in tech discussions. Geography is no longer destiny, and makers from around the world collaborate to create great products. After all, innovation happens in partnerships – not in silos.

When makers discover that there is a maker community for them, they thrive. In a sense, it is invigorating – that we have passions that also exist in others. In another sense, it’s a type of manifest destiny. It helps makers realise that there is a possibility to live off their passions, and that they just need grit (and some networking) to make these dreams happen.

As Product Hunt grows, the company wants to facilitate real-life meetups. As Hoover elaborates:

As much as I love online communities, nothing replaces the energy and fidelity of getting to know someone in person. Meetups have been a part of Product Hunt from the beginning and quickly the community self-organized, hosting gatherings across the world.

To date we’ve seen more than 500 Product Hunt meetups from across more than 50 countries, mirroring the global nature of our team and audience. We support each meetup with swag, promotion, and best practices, although we really encourage hosts to get creative and do something fun that’s authentic to their local community.

The community has gone beyond being online and into the real-space. This allows makers to mobilize and expand within their specific localities.

Empathy, Diversity And The Future of Product Hunt

In a 2015 Product Hunt team meeting, Product Hunt team summarised their company culture into these 5 words (emojis included):

  1. ? Bold ?
  2. ⚡️ Curious ⚡️
  3. ? Kittenish ?
  4. ? Authentic ?
  5. ? Empathetic ?

Hoover says, “Empathy is an especially important reminder when frustration arises from support issues or designing an experience for all types of makers. We’ve made inclusion a priority and in particular, my teammate, Aba, has done a great job of building a welcome place on the internet with our new initiative, Makers.”

The future of Product Hunt and the makers’ ecosystem lies in its diversity. This diversity allows products that cater to different kinds of users, whether to minorities or even niche audiences. At the same time, diverse makers across different professions, industries and sectors develop close connections in order to find ways to collaborate on or integrate their products together to reach more potential users.

By fostering an inclusive space that breeds empathy, new users from tech releases and other channels are more likely to stick around and engage, because they find the community friendly and helpful. Through interactions and discussions, inclusivity also keeps negative social biases from forming.

With a great team that focuses on engaging with its community in new and playful ways, the future looks bright for Product Hunt. As Product Hunt shifts its gears towards profitability gained from advertising and paid subscription revenue from Ship, their toolkit for shipping products, Product Hunt plans to build more things for the community.

Hoover and his team are preparing their grand masterplans for 2019. When asked about what exciting plans makers should be on the lookout for, Hoover cheekily responds, “We’ll share more afterward ;).”

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