The hunt for Product Hunt's relevance

By Tom Limongello, Guest Contributor , written on January 28, 2014

From The News Desk

How much longer are we going to sift through and watch kickstarter videos for products that are months, if not years, away from becoming a reality? To me, the end of 2013 was when I watched "Her," a compelling two hour and six minute kickstarter video for an operating system that’s many years off before we hear Scarlett Johanssen’s raspy whisper.

Don’t get me wrong. See the movie. But if 2013 was about videos that preamble the promise of products that might change the world, 2014 is about the products that are already here and awaiting review. In fact, when I read this FastCo labs article that profiled Product Hunt as one of the many new tools that VCs can use to make sense of the “startup boom," I felt something was out of place.

Although Product Hunt had been lumped into one of the many VC tools, or seen as a harbinger of the bubble or yet another example on which to ponder the "to code or not to code" question, I was wondering if there wasn’t more to it. At the very least I was psyched to see a list of products every day that was so easy to digest.  So I called up Nathan Bashaw, co-creator of Product Hunt to get to the bottom of it.

Product Hunt is like a throwback to when tech blogs first started covering Web 2.0, and many of us had RSS feeds from TechCrunch, GigaOm, and VentureBeat plugged into our Google Readers. I asked Nathan what he thought Product Hunt is, and his reaction surprised me. He said that when he and Ryan Hoover were building Product Hunt, they felt the world had changed, and rather than a daily exercise it was a rare coincidence to actually find new products on Twitter. The "culture of product" needed a new daily mail.

Unable to fully grasp Product Hunts implications, groggy from a 2013 full of kickstarter dreams, I asked him about Product Hunt's future. Is this an OS agnostic app store in the making? I mean, aren’t you going to start embedding product videos or images into the detail pages of Product Hunt like Twitter has with its platform? Wouldn’t that fix what I would call the "tab cancer," the epidemic of the late aughts where your old Firefox browser choked on all those links to new products everyday? Is Product Hunt going to focus on being the great democratizer of products such that it would remove many of the benefits of living in Silicon Valley and make the best new products every day available to the whole world? Is Product Hunt going to start enabling VCs, Angels and generally cash-soggy people to invest?

Nathan’s answer to all of these scope blowouts was a simple "no." I guess it’s easy to say that, since he hasn’t taken on funding, that is, except what they raised from teespring, and because he’s happy coding for General Assembly as his full-time employment.

Nathan said platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be instantly international, but he couldn’t promise that Product Hunt would save all the budding entrepreneurs in Asia and Africa from obscurity. He said it was a media site. Listening confused, I asked him what was the difference between a media site and a platform.

“Media is when everyone sees the same homepage. So Hacker News is Hacker News; The NYTimes is NYTimes. Going viral on a platform is much different than being featured on a media platform.” This characterization was helpful, as it made me think that Product Hunt was a leaner approach to LifeHacker: Instead of article with a link somewhere in it, we have the reverse, a simple headline linking to the product and a clarifying boost of a subtitle from the curator. Moreover, any additional commentary is kept to a secondary page. Product Hunt may look and act like a platform, but since there’s a group of around 150 curators who Nathan and Ryan either know, or know of and think are credible to be contributing, they are not looking to scale the content creation like say Pinterest does.

But that…that doesn’t sound like it’s changing the world.

Nathan went on, saying that Product Hunt does not have to change the world. “It’s more of a user-centric focus. A mac app that you find on Product Hunt may not be world changing, but it might be really useful.” Yes, I guess that’s true.

For example, yesterday I found an amazing product listed on Product Hunt called Scribe, and it actually works better and faster than iMessage using iOS7’s BlueTooth Low Energy pairing standard for sharing links between devices. Product Hunt is trying to cater to product culture, and product culture requires a lot of iteration, every day. “Product culture is about finding the latest and greatest, but it doesn’t matter what the product is. Better sleeping bag? I don’t care I just want to see the future. I want to live in the future.”

If you look at Product Hunt for more than a day or so, it's not long before you find the nihilist tolerance of product people. Products that are simpler than they are useful are immediately praised solely for finding simplicity herself. Whereas in any other culture the product would be out-ed as the Emperor’s New Clothes, in "product culture" you win praise for building Mobile Flow, an app that just tracks how long you’ve been in airplane mode on iPhone to show the world via Twitter...once you are back online that you were able to live, for a spell, without being connected.

The same is true if you were to grace the world with Flappy Bird, a draconian game that takes a design that looks like a level from "Super Mario Bros 2" and makes touching anything on the screen immediately end the game and your playing history. Nathan’s response to the quirks of "product culture" was interesting. “Products are a fossilized form of advice. The most important thing with Mobile Flow is the suggestion that you should unplug. Similarly we could say iPhone is a product that advises 'you could use a lot more information about the world around you as you are on the go.'"

If all the recent "media + platform" darlings seem like online yard sales, at least Product Hunt makes sense to me as something to consume daily. For example, I can’t get myself to care enough to actually go to Kickstarter every day. As much as we hear about the breakout successes, my Facebook friends are actually backing "Nesting Twitter: A Startup Story Told Through Nesting Dolls,” so I can’t be bothered with the rummaging. And unless you are an accredited investor or raising a round of funding Angelist doesn’t work like a media site, nor does it work like a network.

For everyone else, it’s a lot of re-following people you’ve seen on Twitter and Linkedin or scanning the job board. If we must discuss HackerNews, the site that Product Hunt looks most like, I feel the Y-Combinator precursor is just too dense to actually spend time on each day. As much as I’d like to be interested in how "We spent a week making Trello boards load extremely fast. Here’s how we did it,”  I can’t really say that I am. But what’s worse about HackerNews is that since they allow anyone who would like to join, the way to get a post on the homepage is to create friend tribes to conspire to upvote whatever the hell they want. Once the link is on the homepage, it fulfills the prophecy of its worth through massive exposure.

After all that discussion with Nathan, I finally I figured out why am I interested in looking at the daily emails and visiting the site of his little side project every day.

Product Hunt is the first viable alternative to TechMeme. TechMeme, is a news popularity contest but not one that I’d actually want to come back to, because it rewards intrigue and tech politics rather than tech products. Instead of the story that has the most page views, comments and flamewars, Product Hunt has the right priority: the products that make the most people happy.
[Image via Thinkstock]