On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Product Hunt founder and CEO Ryan Hoover talks with Recode’s Kurt Wagner about running a popular online community for startup founders and other tech enthusiasts. Hoover explains how Product Hunt, now owned by AngelList, is expanding beyond its social media roots into tech news curation and features to help entrepreneurs ship their products to the world. Plus: How computer-generated celebrities such as Lil Miquela are changing how we think about fame in the social media era.
Kurt Wagner: Ryan, welcome to Recode Media.
Ryan Hoover: Thanks for having me. I’ve been a listener of the podcast for many months, so it’s always kinda fun to be on it.
Yeah, you said that when I reached out. Do you have ... I’m gonna put you on the spot. Do you have favorite folks that you remember hearing on here or a favorite …? You’re in the red chair, so I feel like, you know ... Like there’s been a lot of people in that red chair.
A lot of famous butts in this chair, I imagine. Yeah. Tech-famous butts. Oh man, I should’ve came prepared. I don’t know.
I know, I put you on the spot.
There’ve been a lot of amazing guests.
That’s on me, that’s on me. I put you on the spot there. Well, we’re really happy to have your butt in this red chair, so thank you for being here. I think the last time you and I spoke formally was when Product Hunt got acquired by AngelList. That was almost what, a year and a half ago?
Yeah, about 19 months ago.
Nineteen months ago. How has life changed for you since then?
Yeah, so it’s ... I’ve gotten this question a lot in the past year and a half.
And you know, in some ways, not a lot has changed. In some ways, we ... Part of the vision and the reason why we moved and kinda went under the AngelList umbrella is that we wanted to keep some cohesiveness around the community and the team, and not break what’s working. And so we still are 20 people, roughly the same size that we were before, still mostly the same team, and we’re really focused still on building community and helping makers get users, get feedback, connect with other people, get inspired, that kind of thing.
And I want to talk about what Product Hunt is and what it’s become, because I think if you’re in Silicon Valley, you’ve heard of it and you’re aware of it. For a lot of people who aren’t in Silicon Valley, perhaps this would be a good introduction to the product.
But I have to ask one more question about the acquisition because ... I mean, did you have a great celebration story or something? Like I imagine if I sold my business for $20 million dollars, I would be , you know, doing somersaults off the rooftop or something like that.
You know, I was so exhausted by the end of it. It’s the first acquisition I’ve gone through and it’s incredibly exhausting because it’s exciting but stressful, and you’re managing a bunch of different parties: Both your investors, your team, your own, like, sanity. And so the celebration ... Honestly, I went down to LA, my girlfriend Suzy lives there, and I think we just grabbed dinner and fell asleep at like 10 pm.
Wild and crazy.
I think I had one glass of champagne.
I was gonna say, did you at least splurge on dinner, get something really nice?
It was like a two-star Yelp price range.
So it wasn’t ... I mean, we can celebrate later.
Yeah, all right.
I was just so tired at the time. That’s all I wanted to do.
Fair enough. Right, well, let’s talk about Product Hunt and what you guys are because ... How about this: I’m gonna give a 10-second description, but then I want you to kinda swoop in and correct me. Product Hunt, I think of it as kind of a Reddit rating system but for products, for services. So if I’m an entrepreneur, I might throw my new app up there and introduce it to the world, and people, if they like it, they will upvote it. And each day I can go to the website and see what’s kinda the cool stuff that people are talking about today. At least, that is how it has been historically; there’s obviously a bunch of other features you have now. But how did I do? Is that the gist?
That’s good, yeah. People that know Reddit immediately ... People like “X for Ys,” and the simplest way, while it might be a little bit slightly demeaning or minimalistic in terms of what we’re building, “Reddit for products” is largely what the base was built off of.
So yeah, you go there ... Every day I wake up, I go to Product Hunt, and I see what people are launching and what people are sharing. And instead of most other platforms for product discovery ... It’s a lot about search. You go to Amazon to search for a very specific thing, you go to Wirecutter to search for the best of X, whatever you’re purchasing. But on Product Hunt, you go there to find things that you didn’t know existed, that didn’t exist yesterday because they just launched.
So instead of finding the best-of, it’s really about what the newest and coolest and most interesting products are. And it’s become a community of people around the world. About half of our audience is outside the U.S., so we have a lot of people across a lot of the tech hubs, like whether it’s Berlin or Paris or Toronto, launching products and sharing them. And so it’s kind of grown into this global community of just celebrating entrepreneurship and makers, in general.
Is that something that you were personally interested ... I imagine you were a maker yourself, of some kind, but how do you go from doing this yourself to saying, “Hey, we need a place for other people to put their ideas?”
Yeah, it started ... Well, I’ll go back to 2011. Yeah, I think it was around 2011. I actually dug this up from a tweet when I was doing some kind of internet archeology for myself. And I used to browse AngelList at the time, and I tweeted back in 2011 something about browsing AngelList — just for fun as a consumer, I’m not an investor at the time, I wasn’t looking for a job — but I was just exploring products and companies, and I used AngelList as a source to find cool stuff. But AngelList actually wasn’t built for product discovery, it’s not what it’s intended for, and that was in part some of the inspiration.
And just over the years, I’ve always loved products. I would download and explore what’s hot in Japan right now on the App Store, what’s No. 1 and why is it cool, why is it interesting, why are people excited about this product that’s different than things that are popular in the U.S.? So I’m kind of a geek in that sense; I love playing with products, playing with apps, and the inspiration was largely just how do we build a community and build a place where you could find the coolest things each day? And largely celebrate these people that are, you know, trying to build new things. It’s really hard to build a product.
Yeah, and what’s your ... I mean, the way you talk about it, I think I would instantly assume oh, you must’ve gone to Stanford and been in the Silicon Valley world your whole life, but I know that’s not actually the case. You’re from Oregon, right?
I think you went to the University of Oregon. Not that people outside of Silicon Valley can’t be pumped about apps, but you know, how did you get into that whole scene?
Yeah, so I actually ... My path towards tech ... You know, when I was a kid, I used to play with technology and I’d hack my Xbox, and broke an Xbox, which at the time was super expensive, just playing around with it. And I used to buy and sell things on eBay. So I’ve always been entrepreneurial in playing with technology, but it wasn’t until college when I got my chance to break into technology and actually pursue a career as an intern.
And it was actually at a video game company in Eugene, Oregon, and that’s what kind of ... That was the first time I realized what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college or before that. It’s one of those big questions as a student; you’re like, “What do I want to do with my life?”
Sure. I think you’re the only person who’s ever thought that question.
Yeah, the only ever.
All of us all have it figured it out. I can’t believe you didn’t know.
I know, I know. It’s pathetic. But I got lucky. I got an internship that turned into a product management role, and then I moved to San Francisco in 2010 to join a small company of about 10 people at the time.
Yeah. And you started Product Hunt ... You were young, right? Like what, 25?
I would say 26 when it started, I believe. Now I’m 31.
And so what made you say, you know, at the age of 26, “Oh, I’m comfortable going out and doing my own thing”?
Yeah, it was ... I don’t want to be cliché, but everyone I think feels some level of imposter syndrome; I think it’s natural and normal to have that feeling. And before Product Hunt started, actually, I’d never managed anybody; I was a product manager who sort of manages indirectly, but you never have any direct reports as an individual contributor PM. And so when Product Hunt started, I was like, “Oh shit, how do I build a team? How do I keep people motivated? How do I do all these things?” And there’s something about just being thrown into the fire that I think is ... Like humans adapt pretty quickly, at least certain types of people, and you just have to learn as you go.
So for me, I never had the ambition of ... Well rather, I always wanted to started a company, but I never wanted to force myself to start a company and it had to be the right fit, the right thing. And prior to raising capital, a lot of the questions I asked myself was like, “Do I want to work on this thing for 10 years?” And that was sort of my benchmark, is this something I’m excited to work on every single day for 10 years? And yeah, I’m still pumped to be working on it.
What is ... I’m sure you’ve learned a lot since 2011. When you look back, what’s a big mistake that you think that you made?
Yeah, there’s a bunch of them. Some of them I think people empathize with, I hope. One of them is redesigns. I think redesigns are a big ... As someone who loves well-polished products and beautiful products, it’s easy to fall into a trap of just redesigning things or iterating on very small design details and UX changes, and there’s certainly times when we wasted time. We ended up spending time redesigning our feed, and fundamentally none of those design changes actually changed our metrics or changed how people use Product Hunt. Yet we would spend weeks or months iterating, in different phases, these different design iterations.
It just seemed important to you, basically?
Well, there’s one side where you never really know what the impact can be sometimes, but you can have a pretty good educated guess the more experienced you get. And the more experienced I get, the more I realize that redesigns are a trap in many cases, and if you have something that’s working, you maybe shouldn’t spend so much time redesigning it necessarily. You should probably expand upon it or find a behavior and build upon it in new, different ways.
I’m wary of going down a rabbit hole here, but I’m just going to because you said redesigns. What do you think of the Snapchat redesign? Just because that’s-
I thought you might say that.
That’s the biggest one, right? And we’ve talked about it so much publicly. I need to know your thoughts now.
Yeah. Well, so I’ll caveat it with I don’t know the data, I don’t know the inner workings of the company, so it’s hard to have a full picture of their decision process there. My assumption based on what I’ve read on Recode and other publications about their changes, and I think Evan’s interview with Kara a month ago or so-
Yeah, at Code Conference.
Yeah, yeah. That was a great interview. And from my assumptions and what I’ve gathered, it seemed like they had a lot of good evidence and justification for changing some of these things. Now, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Maybe you have a really good idea and you have to just try it with your users first. Since then, I think they’ve reverted most of those changes.
Yeah, they have. They’ve taken some of them back, yeah.
Yeah, yeah. And we’ve done the same, actually. There was one version of our homepage that we A-B tested where, instead of this very condensed feed that was very scannable and quick to look at, we actually explored a full, big version where there were images and videos within the feed itself. So each page view above the fold was only about two or three products, but you got to see more about the product. And we thought that that might actually make the product more engaging and fun to browse because it was more visual, but people hated it and the metrics actually showed that people were discovering less products. And so we reverted it and killed that product entirely.
Is that an ego kill to, you know, think you are onto something and then have to basically swallow your pride and reverse it?
Yeah, it’s tough because you have to keep yourself honest. And ideally ... I’ll admit, we don’t always do this as maybe we should, but sometimes you just need to set metrics and a particular goal up front so that when you launch and after a month passes, you can say, is this a success or not? Because it’s really easy to convince yourself that “Oh, this is successful” or “Oh, it’s just not there yet, let’s keep working on it.” And that’s a hard thing to answer sometimes.
Yeah, I imagine given the platform you run and the types of people who use it, you probably have no shortage of people weighing in on what you should be doing from ... You know all the entrepreneurs, right? And so like do you get a lot of unsolicited advice for how to make Product Hunt better?
Yeah. Yeah, we do, and it’s one of the I guess advantages we have, is that we have people who are excited to share their opinion. And with any kind of opinion, you need to take some of it with a grain of salt because those opinions ... They don’t necessarily know your full vision or other product features that impact maybe this particular thing. And so you have to hopefully listen and understand and internalize the feedback, but certainly, I wouldn’t blindly accept every single feature request by people.
But one thing that we have done historically is, we call it sort of like “building in public,” and what that means for us is we’ll share mock-ups and early versions and beta previews of things that we’re building, and we’ll do it very early, sometimes before we’ve written a line of code. And we use things like InVision to get people to annotate feedback on the mock-up itself. And that’s been helpful for one, getting early feedback before we’ve even written any code at all, but also people get more bought-in and more excited when they feel like they’re part of the design process, and they really are. So that’s been sort of a theme in our product development cycle.
Crowdsourcing, just a little bit.
Little bit, yeah. And again, we don’t take every piece of feedback, you know? But it helps.
Okay, so I want to talk more about what you guys are doing now. So, we talked at the very beginning about what you do, people kinda put their ideas on your site, people upvote them, it’s a great way for other entrepreneurs or even investors to discover stuff’s out there that they didn’t know. I was looking around, spent the last couple days kinda touring around the site, and like it’s more of a media site than I would’ve thought. You do have a, kind of a breaking news section, or maybe not breaking, but you have a news section, you talk about community forums, you just mentioned to me before we got on here you’re gonna get your podcast up and going. Do you think of yourselves as a media company?
Yeah, it’s been a question that’s come up since the beginning of Product Hunt. I think everyone likes to think they’re a special snowflake, but in some ways, Product Hunt is sort of a Frankenstein of many different things; it’s certainly part media, it’s definitely community, that’s the foundation of Product Hunt in general, and in some ways it’s also a platform. So there’s a lot of dynamics that are at play. The core of it though, I describe it as a community because that actually gives us opportunities to expand and build upon other things, like the breaking news and news content that we’re experimenting with right now. We’re actually launching something in a couple days, probably by the time this podcast is out, that incorporates more community aspects into it. The first version was more, let’s create the content. Second version is, let’s enable the community to participate more in this type of content.
Yeah, let’s talk about that a little bit because that’s what we do, right? We write stories and produce podcasts and things, and it’s not always easy. If you go to Product Hunt ... I’ll describe it to those folks who haven’t maybe seen it. Along the right-hand rail, there’s kinda like news headlines for the tech industry. Who is writing those, how do you decide ... Like are you now ... Do you consider yourself an editor of some kind? Do you have an editor on staff? Like where does that come from?
Yeah, yeah. So this was an experiment that started earlier in the year, we call it Sip, and it’s intended to be a separate brand and it started off as a mobile app. It’s actually similar to, let’s say, Twitter moments or Snapchat stories in form. And so you tap and you’d see different snippets of summaries, basically, of the tech news, and tweets, and quotes from whether it’s Recode or other publications.
And so we’re not necessarily ... We are writing to some extent, some of that content, and we’re certainly curating what content is appearing, but it’s all about curation and servicing opinions and sometimes gifs and funny things. We want it to really be in line with our brand, which is intended to be kittenish, like playful. And so a lot of what we’re doing is certainly some editorial aspects, but it’s more about curation. And as we start incorporating more community features, we’ll start seeing more user comments and we’re introducing polls and things like that so people can share an opinion about a particular story. And again, this is more of an experiment around, how do we help people stay up to date and in a fun, interesting way that’s community driven?
Yeah, what’s ... I was gonna ask what the motivation was, because I imagine, it’s not like you’re publishing 20 things a day, there’s just a few per day. And I don’t even think you’re advertising against them. You’re shaking your head “no.”
So it’s not necessarily a moneymaker for you. It’s not like this is ... I guess, what’s the motivation? Do people ... Does it keep people on the site longer? Are people discovering Product Hunt because of this? What made you think this was the way to go?
Yeah, yeah. So there’s a couple pieces there. One is, we observed and realized that the most engaging things that drew the most just engagement in terms of comments or upvotes or activity or sharing, were things that were sort of breaking news. Big news items in technology. And product launches are a part of that, but there are certainly a lot of other big, breaking news items that aren’t necessarily product launches.
And so there was a realization that, “Our Product Hunt community loves this content and they like to share and engage around it. Let’s experiment with creating a separate sort of vertical area of the site where we can surface that content.” So that was sort of one fundamental realization.
And then, two, the other piece is thinking more about, how do we create more ways for people to stay up to date in technology? We did a poll with our users and said, “Why do you use Product Hunt?” And some of it is certainly to get users, to get feedback, to connect with other people in technology. But a large portion also said, “Just to stay up to date.” And Product Hunt, the homepage, is kind of a feed of inspiration, a feed of future products, people that are building the future of technology. And tech news is also kind of a part of that sliver.
So we’re experimenting a lot with that now, it’s still honestly tbd on the outcome of Sip in the news kind of direction, but there’s a lot of really interesting kind of learnings over the past few months, now.
I saw when you ... I think you recently launched private messaging, too.
And I saw that. I was reading your blog post about it, and I think you referred to Product Hunt as a “social network” in the blog post.
So you have this community element, you have news, you now have messaging. It does feel like, you said earlier, Frankenstein of a company.
You’re kinda doin’ a little bit of everything. Where’s the messaging fit in for you?
Yeah, so this is kinda part of the theme, actually, this year, is to experiment with a lot of things. But going back to your social network piece, it’s — one realization is, Product Hunt started out very, very simple in that it’s a list of really cool products and things on the internet each day. And that’s still a big part of Product Hunt, but what we’ve realized is, it’s become more of a network and a community of people in technology, whether they’re some 16-year-old kid in Bulgaria learning to code, or a CEO of a company in San Francisco. There’s a lot of people who are excited to share and talk about technology, and so messaging is one of those features that we built that were just frankly inspired by the obvious things. People in the comments were saying, “Hey, Bob, maker of this product, can you email me about this thing?” Or people were wanting to engage in private conversation.
And so we’re largely taking a lot of these community and social interaction kind of behaviors, and then building upon that.
I know that ... I think it was even a Recode headline a few years ago. I believe we called you the kingmaker for startups.
The thinking being that if I posted my new app on Product Hunt, I’m not only gonna get discovered by maybe journalists who will write about it, but investors who want to give me money, ‘cause they’re always lookin’ for the new, hot thing.
Is that ... Do you still see yourself in that role?
Well, I kind of like to avoid that title. ‘Cause it starts to put a target on my back, and I don’t feel ... Product Hunt is a community of people and it’s not just me. I’m certainly a face of it, but it’s really driven by a lot of people and not only the community, but the team itself. So I kind of try to avoid that. It’s hard for us to truly know the impact of Product Hunt. Same thing with Recode, I think. You write about ... You influence the tech industry, and you write about stories and startups and things that are happening. That no doubt influences things that are totally outside your visibility. There’s, I’m sure, fundraising events that are inspired by something, whether consciously or subconsciously, something that Recode did. That’s the same thing with Product Hunt, something that appeared on Product Hunt.
And going back to the messaging piece, I think I used in the blog post and example of Matt Hartman, someone I’ve known. He’s one example of someone who used Product Hunt frequently. And he’s an early stage, seed-stage investor. He uses it to stay up to date on what’s cool and new, but he also, every now and then will find cool things and say, “Hey Ryan, can you introduce me to the maker, Stacey, of this product?” And now, he doesn’t have to message me, he can just message Stacey directly on the site.
Yeah. Do you mind being that connective tissue for people?
I enjoy making those connections, personally. I think ... Yeah, I like helping people. I think introductions is this weird thing, and it’s like social dynamic within professional context, where people like to make introductions-
— if they feel like it’s a valuable, good introduction to make, so I love it.
What is the ... How has your kinda personal life been impacted by the success of Product Hunt? I know, to that point, there’s a lot of investors who probably know you as someone who maybe can make connections for them.
There’s a lot of entrepreneurs again, who think of you ... And when I say ... I’m asking about you personally, but again, the company-
There’re entrepreneurs who think of Product Hunt as a way to really break through. So I’m curious how that has changed personally. I’m sure your rolodex is much bigger, but how else has that changed your life?
Yeah, it’s ... I guess I’ve acclimated to this lifestyle. It sounds like I’m a celebrity or something, but I’m not.
Silicon Valley ... You’re a Silicon Valley celeb.
Yeah, I was joking the other day, it’s like I’m a D-list tech celebrity, which is I don’t know, an F-list in real celebrity.
Early on in Product Hunt, when it started to become popular, especially within technology, I remember one time I was at a club here in San Francisco with some friends, and somebody said, “Hey, you’re the Product Hunt guy.” And that was the first time where I was like, “Whoa.” I was drinking, of course — I was sober enough and everything, but it started make me realize, there are people that might know me that I don’t know, and I started to be more self-conscious in general. And I think now I’m used to that, and when I’m in certain cities, even when I was in Berlin recently, someone at SoundCloud recognized me, and I was like, “Oh, this is ... “ It’s encouraging, it’s awesome to see that we have community members across the world. But it makes me a little bit more self-conscious, I think, in general, in public.
Do you have ... I know dating site companies, when they create a match, maybe they’ll put a photo up on the wall, like “Oh, these two people got married,” ‘cause they met on their service. When a company gets funding from some fundraiser or whatever, do you have a bunch of success stories, like “match” stories that guys are responsible for?
Yeah, I wish I could have full visibility into the influence of Product Hunt. It’s hard to know what matches were made. So yeah, we don’t have one of those walls, but we need one of those. The other wall I would love is co-founder and side project buddy matches
’Cause part of the inspiration for messaging is, we have these people who are all designers, engineers, marketers, community builders. They all are excited to build stuff. And we’ve done hackathons and things like that. But organically, we want people on the platform to be able to connect to each other and hopefully build a company, or at least build products together. We think that’s a good thing.
What has the growth been like for you guys, just in general, but maybe specifically since the acquisition, in the last 19 months? Do you feel ... At the beginning of the conversation, I kinda described you as a Silicon Valley company. Obviously there are makers and entrepreneurs all over the world.
But are you finding that you’re still really growing, or is it kinda like, “Hey the audience isn’t much bigger, but it’s the people who we really wanna reach?”
Yeah. Yeah, so we’re really focused on a niche. A really big niche in terms of the tech audience. And it’s also a group of founders and creators that are shaping the future. So, while it may not be 100 million MAU [monthly active users], it’s still a very influential group of people. And this year’s been ... Our focus’s been a lot on revenue, actually. We’re still focusing on growth in overall user engagement, but a new thing for us this year has been revenue, and that’s something that we’ve forgone and intentionally pushed off until more recently. But yeah, we’ll be profitable this year as a team, as a business unit. And that’s sort of a milestone I’m proud to hopefully eventually, well certainly this year, check off as a founder, but also as a team. And once we achieve that, then the focus will be actually more towards user growth from there.
How much of the revenue focus is direction from your new bosses at AngelList?
Yeah, it was a mutual decision. It’s actually a company-wide decision, in that AngelList has been around now, I think roughly eight years, and this year, I don’t know what I can say publicly about the company as a whole, but this year, all of the teams are working towards profitability. And the realization that the truth is, look, we can’t always be raising money. No company can. And once you reach profitability, or at least get to the point where you’re not burning cash, it actually opens up a lot of gateways for you to experiment, to hire faster. On the Product Hunt side, we’re going to hire our first salesperson, too, which they’re gonna pay for themselves now that we’ve proven out that people are willing to pay for this thing. They’ll pay for themselves, and more, very quickly, which can also help accelerate growth. So that’s one of the reasons why we’re sequencing our focus on revenue this year, and then back to user growth next year.
How are you doing that? What’s the money strategy?
Yeah, so in the first six months of attempting to make money, we covered half our burn on the team. So we got off to a good start, and we’re focusing largely on giving people what they’ve been asking to pay for. It’s kind of a funny notion. For years, people have been saying, “Hey, we’d love to promote our product on Product Hunt. We launched last month, we got a bunch of feedback and users. How do we get featured on the site again?” And so instead of ... This is something that you have to be very careful with, with the community, is how you monetize, especially if it’s something new. And so instead of allowing anyone to promote anything on the front page, we actually reached back out to makers that posted in the past, that were featured in the past and had some number of upvotes, which illustrated that there was some popularity for the product, and allowed them to refeature their product. And so it’s been a nice way to natively kind of resurface really cool products, and also make money, in turn. And we’ve also had our own job board and a couple other things that are advertising-based to diversify different revenue streams.
Yeah, is it mostly advertising, though? ‘Cause both, paying to promote a job, or paying to promote my business, either way, that’s an ad.
Yeah, it’s actually the two ... There’s kind of a two-pronged strategy. One is advertising-based, which is promoted products and promoted jobs. And then we also have a platform called Ship, which is basically a SaaS-based tool to help makers launch and communicate with their users as they’re building their product.
So is that an API of some kind that people plug into, or what?
Yeah, it’s the realization after seeing, I don’t know, 100,000-plus products launch on Product Hunt and ourselves, seeing how we use different tools. Basically, what we’re building is a simple landing page creator to collect emails from your users, and then email message those people. And today, a lot of people are doing that already by building their own landing page, signing up for MailChimp, using TypeForm to send surveys to their audience to better understand them. Then they have to integrate, merge a bunch of CSVs and use all these different tools. Instead, we’re building a tool that includes all those things in one, so it’s all connected and easier to communicate with your users and keep them up to date.
The more I’m hearin’, setting the ... You said Ship, right?
Not to be confused with Sip, which is your news thing.
Yeah, I know.
The more I’m hearin’ about it, the advertising, the news breakouts, the podcasts, the newsletter. You really do sound like a media company. I am curious what you think about subscriptions, ‘cause you seem like a prime ... That seems like a prime business opportunity for you.
Would be to say, “Hey investor, you wanna get the first look at what the hot app is?” Or, “Sign up for our premium account,” or something like that. Have you considered that?
Yeah, we ... So Ship is subscription-based, but it’s designed for startups or people doing side projects, so not necessarily what you’re describing. When we thought about “Product Hunt Pro” type of membership, and the realization is if you do the math, it just doesn’t come out to a big business. You really need a large portion of your audience to pay for that. And we feel that we can make money in other ways more effectively.
So that doesn’t mean we won’t experiment with some of that in the future, but to collect $5.00 a month from ... You’d need a lot of people paying $5.00 a month to make much money.
Right. I wanna talk a little bit about the life after the AngelList thing. And this is from, I was reading a TechCrunch story from earlier this year about you, and there were some ... I’m paraphrasing now, but it was something about how Product Hunt, since the acquisition, has kind of “lost some of it’s cool.” I don’t know if you remember that.
Yeah, I know what article you’re talking about.
You know what I’m talking about?
I think that there is some element of that in the sense that, I have now known you for a couple years, and while you guys were independent, I did feel like I heard Product Hunt mentioned a lot.
I don’t feel like I hear about you guys quite as much as I did.
You’re nodding your head “yeah,” so I imagine at the very least, that maybe I’m not the first one who has said this. What do you think about that? Is that ... Are you aware of that? Is that fine? Does that bother you? Where do you feel like you guys stand?
Yeah, I think it’s every company and product in the beginning has this ... It’s almost like this competitive advantage where, because you’re new and shiny, there’s always this feeling of exclusivity, or it’s the new hot thing. It’s kind of like when a new bar opens up down the street. No one else knows about it for the first couple years. People feel like it’s cooler then. And that might be true for a certain subset of people, especially those who are early on in the platform. It might feel like, “Oh, it’s less cool than it used to be.” But in reality, the community is much bigger than when we started. Dramatically bigger.
And it’s also global and touches a lot of people outside of just Silicon Valley, which is probably two percent of our audience, or something very, very small. And so, while I’ve heard that feedback from other people, I think it’s just a natural evolution of every company. If you even look at Foursquare maybe as one example, a lot of people say, “Who uses Foursquare? It’s so lame.” Right? But actually, a lot of people use Foursquare. My girlfriend has checked in 10,000 times.
And every day she’s checking in.
She the mayor of every city in LA? Or every restaurant an in LA?
Yeah, yeah. And I apparently am also checking in everywhere, ‘cause she tags me. Yet I don’t use Swarm or anything. But Foursquare is still super valuable. From a business perspective, been never better today, even though they’ve been around forever. That’s my perception. Certainly when you’re building a brand in the community, you want to make sure it’s fun and lively and there are new things. That’s why we’re expanding upon the network of Product Hunt and turning it — “social network” might be too strong of a word, but building more social tools to help people connect to each other.
Is there a benefit to maybe not being in the limelight in that same way?
Yeah. I think a lot of people, a lot of entrepreneurs, chase the limelight and they do it for the wrong reasons. For us, we’re a little bit unique in that we are building for the tech audience. So being in the limelight within the tech press is actually one of our strongest growth opportunities in the early days.
Today, it doesn’t make a difference because the people that read Recode or TechCrunch, a lot of them already know about Product Hunt, so it’s not necessarily a growth strategy, but for us, it’s been important to have a brand that people recognize and be a place that’s exciting and fun. Whereas for other things, other companies, it’s kind of a trap when you chase press or chase it for the wrong reasons, chase it for the likes on your Instagram or Facebook.
Sure. At this point in your cycle, I imagine you’ve seen every type of product under the sun come through. You are now investing yourself, which is relatively new, correct?
You have a small fund that you have raised?
Yeah, I raised it just over a year ago now.
Okay, a year ago. What’s the deal with that? It’s what, $3 million fund, and you are ... Are you picking companies that come through Product Hunt? Are you allowed to do that? How’s that work?
Yeah. I honestly haven’t used Product Hunt all that much for sourcing. I think a large reason why is-
That’s kind of funny. I’m smiling because it’s like, I would’ve thought that’d be the prime source for you.
Yeah, it’s actually a lot of other investors, seed-stage investors and more traditional channels, so a lot of referrals and occasionally people on my network that I’ve known for a while who might know somebody who’s building a company. Not much of it has been through Product Hunt directly, and that’s largely because I don’t know if they’re raising, and I don’t know a lot about the business.
I might be able to play with the product and I might think it’s interesting, and I’ve certainly reached out to some companies that I see on there, just like Matt Hartman, who I mentioned earlier as an example, but most of it’s been through other investors and people in the scene.
What have you learned so far? Is this your first foray into investing or were you doing this before?
It’s the first, yeah. Pre-Product Hunt, I was considering what I wanted to do career-wise. I was considering venture just because I love products, and love talking to founders, but didn’t pursue it then. Yeah, this is the first time investing. I’ve invested in 17 companies. I think what I have learned is one, it takes a long time to learn if you’re really good. It’s one of the longest feedback loops from a career perspective, which can be a good thing and a bad thing.
I have learned more about fund economics and being more on the investor side, thinking more about how investors make decisions, whereas prior to this I was, of course, just a founder and I didn’t have that kind of lens to look and evaluate companies, but it’s been fun. I love investing. It’s been a joy to kind of challenge myself, and also learn what it’s like to invest.
If you made 17 investments, I imagine you’re making pretty small seed-stage stuff.
What, for entrepreneurs who might be listening to this because they know Product Hunt and they know you, what stands out at that level of business life cycle?
Yeah. I’m investing typically 50-100K checks in pre-product and seed-stage companies, primarily. A lot of it is ... I can say all the clichés like “the team” and “the market” and all of those things, but a lot of it is around the vision of the founder and the team and what they’re building, and also that they’re building something for the future.
One example of this, without giving too much away because they’re stealth right now, there’s a company in the audio space. I met with the founder, it’s pre-product. He has a deck and mock-ups of what he’s building. If you saw that alone, you wouldn’t probably be all that impressed, but if you met with him and understood his vision for the future of voice communication and how as we start to see more audio devices in the form of Google Home and Alexa and Air Pods, he has a really clear vision of what he wants to build. While it’s super early, pre-product, it’s at the terms and with a vision that’s bold and big enough to be something very meaningful.
Yeah. What’s the most exciting area for you? You probably see all different, you see products and apps in all different industries.
What are you most excited about, tech wise?
Audio and voice is something that I’m really interested in, just because it’s one of those platform shifts that we’re just starting to see come to light in terms of — and platform shifts are one of those things within consumer in particular where incumbents can be disrupted by these new players. You think about interaction and, in this particular case with someone I won’t name, he’s thinking about, what would Twitter be like if it was built today on audio and voice?
There’s a lot of really interesting dynamics at play within the voice space. Others that I’m fascinated by, one is digital celebrities or avatars or the future of entertainment, in that form. I think Brud and what Lil Miquela kind of is representing, along with many others, is really fascinating trend towards how people interact with something that’s not real that feels just like a celebrity and has a relationship. There’s a lot of interesting things, weird things there.
Yeah, you actually lost me. I thought I was thinking what we would’ve referred to as “Vine stars” a few years ago, but you’re talking more like a fake … cartoon that’s a personality?
Yeah. If you think about, it seems weird, but did you ever see the movie, “S1m0ne?”
No. I know, sorry.
It’s, I think, from the ‘90s. It’s an old film. It’s actually about this digital made-up AI celebrity that is a singer, and tours, but she’s not real, and people don’t know it. Lil Miquela is actually born out of a company called Brud. She is one example of this digital celebrity. She’s on Instagram with 1.2 million followers, I think, right now.
She has brand deals with Outdoor Voices and all these different companies. You’ll see her on billboards in LA, and she’s a CG, completely fake woman, but she has a story and this world around her that she’s expressing through Instagram. If you look at Lil Miquela versus a real celebrity, let’s just take ... I don’t know. Who’s a celebrity you love?
I was gonna say Kim.
As soon as you said “celebrity” I started to say Kim Kardashian. Then you were like, celebrity you love, and I like kinda hesitated, but let’s go with Kim Kardashian. She’s great.
Yeah, let’s go with Kim. If you look at Kim and celebrities in general, they do craft a brand and a narrative. They post on social, and they’re really not that much different from Lil Miquela. The big difference, though, is Kim Kardashian is a real person who has real-person needs. She also can’t be everywhere at once, whereas Lil Miquela can be changed and her world can be adapted however the creators want.
She can also be everywhere. She doesn’t have to just be in LA, but she could be in Berlin tonight and SF tonight. There’s a lot of really interesting dynamics within the world of entertainment, whether it’s music or film and social, all of those things. I think it’s really fascinating.
What is the difference, and I say this as someone who hasn’t seen Lil Miquela, what’s the difference between her and a cartoon character, or is it roughly the same, just one is more technologically advanced?
Yeah. It’s not that it’s, I would say technologically advanced, because it’s ultimately an image that looks somewhat almost real, but you can tell it’s not real, not that there’s AI. I think that’s actually a misunderstanding. A lot of people look at these and say, “Oh, we need to build an AI that can speak for itself,” but I think it’s actually, what’s important for this type of world is to be a good storyteller and really understand the concept of the story and telling stories, not building an AI.
Back to your question, what’s interesting is they start to blend the real world and the cartoon fake world together. That’s why seeing Lil Miquela in your Instagram feed next to your friend and other real people is a really fascinating trend that you don’t see in traditional media or entertainment.
So you think there’s a lot of opportunity there? Like this isn’t gonna only continue to improve and grow, not that Lil Miquela’s the only person you’re ever gonna hear from?
Yeah. They’re not the only ones. You could say Gorillaz, to some extent, is kind of a form of that as well, and others in the past. Asia has a lot more of this activity happening, but I think it’s an interesting trend. I think also avatars in general is a fascinating trend as well. There’s a company called Facemoji that invested in, and they’re building avatars for esports streamers. What they’re solving is, one, it’s really difficult to have good lighting when you’re streaming on your camcorder, or maybe you have bad equipment. A lot of times for women, they don’t want to stream their face on Twitch. They immediately start to get harassed, there’s a lot of privacy issues. So they’re building a way to create almost Animoji-like avatars for esports streamers to solve some of those issues but also, create a fun kind of experience, like a different way of engaging with people on the internet.
What is ... I have been racking my brain for the last 30 seconds. What is the movie that just came out that was a great book where everyone lives as an avatar?
Ready Player One?
Thank you very much.
Is this what you, I mean is this the future that you are envisioning for all of us here?
I think the internet becomes more representative of our actual real expressions and emotions. If you look back, we kind of hacked it with emoticons, like the colon and parenthesis for smiley face. Then we have emojis, of course. Then we have gifs and other ways of expressing emotion. Now Animojis by Apple, of course, is a good illustration of, “Wow, you can actually express and really show your expression with your actual face, but through a digital kind of cartoon. When you move your eyebrow, it even moves.”
In the future, I think the internet and the way that we communicate digitally will be a lot more expressive and, inevitably, we’ll live in something like Ready Player One. I know that’s scary to a lot of people, but I feel like if you fast forward N number of years, it’s inevitable that we start to create our own world and ultimately try to solve a lot of the issues that we have with just the limitations of the physical world.
You know, I imagine the benefits of Lil Miquela or something is like she’s not going to get in trouble for real-world ... As an advertiser who’s using her as an endorsement opportunity, you don’t have to worry about her getting a DUI or cursing or saying something on Twitter that she wants to take back, right? I imagine that’s a side benefit of all this?
Unless it’s part of the narrative.
Celebrities certainly do that intentionally. I don’t want to be a judge and I don’t actually know, but I’m sure there’s celebrities that have dated other celebrities in advance of their movie launch just so they can get more attention and press.
But yeah, you’re right. Humans are really complex, and if you’re building an entire company and brand off of a real human versus maybe a digital celebrity that you have full control over, it actually introduces a lot more risk.
Even the celebrities who are gonna be out of a job thanks to AI, it’s not just us journalists who are writing the stories, but-
Maybe it’s the journalists and the writers that start to eat some of the celebrities’ lunch in that sense.
Oh, there you go. Yeah. Someone’s gotta write the storyline, right?
Yeah, somebody’s got to craft the message. I don’t know if AI will be able to do that anytime soon.
Yeah. Well, Ryan, this has been awesome. Hopefully next time our avatars will perhaps have this conversation.
Thank you for joining us today. It was really great to chat.
Yeah. Thanks, Kurt.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.