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Lessons Learned from Shutdown Startups - Part 1 - Late Checkout - a Substack by Greg Isenberg

There is a newfound appetite for consumer internet products and services. People are exploring what the "new normal" means to them and what products can help them get there. From 2016-2019, it felt like we were at peak app, but today we are downloading apps again.

As we enter this new boom, I think back to all the great products that have been shut down. Gone but not forgotten, there are insights we can gather from these fallen consumer communities to better inform what might resonate with new products.

What was once daring technologies, today is taken for granted or lost .

Let's dig in:

  1. Sunrise

    What it was: A beautiful mobile calendar app

    Years active: 2012-2016 (acquired by Microsoft)

    Why people loved it: There is Hipchat, and there is Slack. You first chose Slack because it was shinier and cooler. Sunrise tapped into that same vibe

    Key community: NYC tech community and design-forward professionals

    Key takeaway: Design pays in spades. Calendar apps were "just fine" back then. When a product is "just fine”, not anything special but "just fine", there exists an opportunity. Think of all the "just fine" products you use and mark those down as potential opportunities

    Questions:

    How can you look at popular apps and disseminate the content in a new, creative way (SMS, email etc)? i.e: Sunrise started off as a beautiful newsletter that sent you your emails in the AM

    Would people be willing to pay monthly (ie: Superhuman) for these apps?

  2. Polyvore

    What it was: Moodboards using clothing, beauty, and home products

    Years active: 2006-2018 (acquired and shutdown by SSENSE)

    Why people loved it: The easiest way to create a moodboard that could be simply shared via Polyvore or Instagram

    Key community: 12-18 year old females

    Key takeaway: People buy infrequently, but dream often. If buying is the tip of the iceberg, the iceberg is the imagination. Many communities resonate with experiences that allow them to capture their imaginations and express themselves

    Questions:

    What are other ideas of products that capture imagination?

    Is there an unbundling of Pinterest opportunity? ie: Polyvore was a vertical network based off similar to Pinterest

    With moodboards easily shoppable, what does the future of content and commerce look like?

    What are other tools to create that are designed for Instagram sharing?

    What do people use in-lieu of Polyvore?

  3. Rdio

    What it was: A more cool-looking Spotify focused on music discovery

    Years active: 2010-2015 (acquired and shutdown by Pandora)

    Why people loved it: It was like walking into an infinitely big music store. Instead of recommendations from store clerks, Rdio gave recommendations from people you know. Those are the best recommendations anyways. This made music discovery on Rdio feel like magic

    Key community: 30-something music heads

    Key takeaway: Never underestimate the power of a really solid recommendation. Recommendations builds trust and trust build word-of-mouth. Many times there exists just as much joy from discovery than purchasing or experiencing products

    Questions:

    What are other recommendation verticals out there?

    Is Yelp ripe for disruption?

    How do you recreate more physical experiences like an old school music store and bring it online (ie: clubs, bars etc)?

  4. iGoogle

    What it was: A personalized web start page (email, news, calendar, weather, articles that matter to you)

    Years active: 2005-2015

    Why people loved it: Saved time and allowed you to have a customizable home page

    Key community: Google community (20% of all visits to Google's homepage used iGoogle)

    Key takeaway: Having a sense of a home creates tremendous retention

    Questions:

    What are other opportunities to create home-type zones in other verticals?

    What are the other productivity opportunities left? How does customization play a role in them?

    Is there still an opportunity to create the most delightful and productive homepage?

  5. Path

    What it was: A private social network for you and up to 150 of your closest friends

    Years active: 2010-2015

    Why people loved it: It made the world feel smaller. It was the anti-Facebook. It established fascinating ways of interacting socially (ie: they invented reactions, the timeline, ambient social sharing). Bonus points for a remarkable design

    Key community: Tech SF initially and eventually anyone overwhelmed by Facebook

    Key takeaway: Sometimes smaller is better. In a world of noise, offering a focused alternative can be a winning differentiation. A more focused social network allowed users to be more open and more trusting with their closest contacts. New behaviors and deeper friendships followed

    Questions:

    Is there room for more private, more intimate, and smaller social networks today?

    What does a more trusting social network look like in 2020?

    What are other anti-xyz opportunities? Anti-Instagram, Anti-Amazon (see my tweet here )

  6. Meebo

    What it was: An integrated platform to manage instant messages from AIM to Facebook to Windows Messenger.

    Years active: 2005-2012

    Why people loved it: Consolidation. Rather than having to open various messenger platforms, Meebo allowed you to easily keep track of all incoming messages in one platform.

    Key community: Students, sometimes aiming to get around school network blocks on instant messaging

    Key takeaway: Users love ease, the ability to manage all incoming instant messages provided a delightfully helpful experience

    Questions:

    Where can we benefit from some consolidation today?

  7. Circa

    Circa Launches Their Innovatively Mobilized News App For iPhone

    What it was: A sleek and simply designed news app to provide just the news, without opinion, fluff, or commentary

    Years active: 2012-2015

    Why people loved it: Even pre-2020 there was a lot of news, Circa provided a snackable amount of headlines to help you stay informed without eating up all of your time

    Key community: Avid news followers

    Key takeaway: Brevity is beautiful. There's a lot of noise out there, sometimes the best thing to do is provide exactly the amount of information required, and nothing more

    Questions:

    Where do we see the a high ratio of noise to value today?

    Are Instagram/Snapchat Stories good enough for news or do we need a format dedicated to news like Circa

    Outside of news, where are other verticals that might benefit from a vertical-specific bite size format?

  8. Songza

    What it was: Music streaming featuring expertly curated content

    Years active: 2007-2016 (acquired by Google)

    Why people loved it: Handcrafted (often by experts), mood-based discovery. Up until that point, the idea of mood-based discovery didn't exist. It crafted a new category in music discovery.

    Key community: Casual music streamers

    Key takeaway: In the age of algorithms, Songza stood out through the use of human touch.

    Questions:

    Which platforms today would benefit from a bit of human touch?

    Is there an opportunity to amplify the reach of genuine experts amidst the cacophony of armchair experts?

    Songza was a perfect app recommendation for your mom. What are other products designed with your mom in-mind?

One way to look at shutdown startups is, there is a reason these products no longer exist, so why bother?

Another way to look at it is, catching lighting in bottle is so rare in successful communities, it's worthwhile to dissect what went right and what went wrong. Understanding that magic helps us truly understand people's motivations and allows us to build better products in the future.

I hope you enjoyed part 1 of Lessons Learned from Shutdown Startups. Part two is coming soon. Feel free to @me/DM on Twitter with other shutdown startups you’d like me to cover here

If you got any value from this please subscribe or share. I appreciate you.

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Best,

Greg Isenberg

Gone but not forgotten

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My guide to startups: I've lost millions, hired hundreds, raised millions and sold companies before the age of 30 Read this to become better:

over 1 year ago

Trying to grow a company with 11% net churn vs. -4% is not in the same ballpark. That single metric can be the difference between $250k ARR and $1M ARR (or more).

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The Guide to Unbundling Reddit - Late Checkout - a Substack by Greg Isenberg

Every few years a great unbundling occurs

In 2010, Andrew Parker wrote a defining post about the "unbundling" of Craigslist where he outlined the opportunity to carve out niche products from broad horizontal networks like Craigslist. The broad networks are everything to everyone, the niche ones are something special to a certain group. If you add up the value creation of the vertical companies (ie: Airbnb, Zillow, Stubhub, Etsy etc) it is greater than the sum of its parts (i.e: Craigslist). It turns out going vertical, is pretty profitable.

The destiny of every massive social network or marketplace is unbundling. It's a not a matter of if but when. There is startup "unicorn status" (reaching $1B+ valuation) and there is startup "unbundling status". Unbundling status looks undesirable on the surface but it means you're doing lots right. It is one of the rarest clubs around.

What is a vertical network?

It's a social network or marketplace for a particular audience, usually giving customers/users that warm and fuzzy feeling that the product is for them. Sometimes it starts out as a utility and blossoms into a social network or marketplace. Vertical networks could be anything such as games (ie: Roblox) or photo-sharing apps (ie: Snapchat).

Example: Poolside.FM looks like a Mac from the 1990s but is a popular internet FM radio station/social network targeting a unique audience

The Great Unbundling of Reddit

Reddit is being unbundled as we speak. It's largely due to three reasons:

  1. Major social platforms today are noisy. People have found refuge in groups (iMessage, Fortnite worlds and group chats). If Facebook is Walmart, tools and communities like Discord (ie:gamers) or Public.com * (ie: casual stock traders) are boutique stores

  2. There is too much surface area for Reddit to possibly cover within constraints of subreddits. This creates opportunities for startups to swoop in, create brands and products that really resonate with people

  3. COVID created an unsafe physical world yet people still want to explore their interests. The need has only grown but the ability to physically experience your interests have become more difficult. The internet provides the safest alternative to be with your people and buy products that earn status, reputation and major utility

These reasons compound together to generate terrific thirst for vertical network products worldwide. In 2020, people are particularly willing to try your product, download your app and join your waitlist. Press is particularly willing to write about you. It reminds me of the same hunger that existed for mobile apps back when the App Store launched in 2008. These moments are few and far between.

Some examples of subreddits and their startup vertical communities

r/medicine → Doximity (1m+ medical professionals on it)

r/Beauty -> Supergreat app (backed by Benchmark)

r/sports → StadiumLive (spaces for gen-z sports fans)

r/Streamers → Pipeline.gg (top esports streamers community by top esports player Snoopeh). Note: I think many influencers will launch their own vertical networks and be successful

r/ insert city → Nextdoor (unicorn company)

r/books → Goodreads

and thousands more....

How to find an audience and build the right product

  1. Find opportunities. Understand what subreddits are trending and what are popular subreddits at RedditList.com (directory of top subreddits)

  2. Understand the lay of the land. Map out popular utilities, marketplaces and social networks for the audience that speaks to you the most. Ask yourself what's the average week look like in the average r/LoL, r/bitcoin or r/explainlikeimfive subreddit users. Map out that user journey in-depth. Be confident that there is community/founder fit

  3. Create a brand people will fall in love with. Branding makes or break vertical network products

  4. Build a waitlist and seed it with the community. Use that waitlist time to learn even more about the needs and wants of the community. Friendship build with microinfluencers/influencers in the vertical

Example opportunity:

r/gifrecipes → 2.2m members who consume and share recipes in GIFs in a vertical (cooking)

Case study: Discord

Discord is "Slack for Gaming" with a valuation ~$4b. Its humble beginnings are rooted in the the process I described above.

  1. League of Legends is trending around 2015 and gets huge adoption

  2. r/LoL turns into the key big hub for the community

  3. The tool many League of Legends players use to communicate in-game and out-of-game is Teamspeak and feels out of date

  4. 2015 Discord team swoops in and creates a modern tool for that vertical that looks and feels great

  5. Discord spreads from just the LoL community to other gaming subreddits as the defacto esports tool

  6. by 2020, Discord counts 250 million registered users

The future is bright

I'm excited to see what sort of new behaviors will emerge from this next-generation of networks.

"There's only two ways to make money in business: One is to bundle; the other is unbundle." - Jim Barksdale

If you got value out of this Substack, someone else might too, so please share!

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If you have a question, feedback or would like to see a certain topic covered in a future Late Checkout newsletter, @ me on Twitter here .

Best,

Greg Isenberg

Public.com * - Disclaimer: I'm a proud advisor

Image credits: Image: Kevin Hyunh at Get Together , Reddit , Discord , Andrew Parker

Every few years a great unbundling occurs In 2010, Andrew Parker wrote a defining post about the "unbundling" of Craigslist where he outlined the opportunity to carve out niche products from broad horizontal networks like Craigslist. The broad networks are everything to everyone, the niche ones are something special to a certain group. If you add up the value creation of the vertical companies (ie: Airbnb, Zillow, Stubhub, Etsy etc) it is greater than the sum of its parts (i.e: Craigslist). It turns out going vertical, is pretty profitable.

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The Ultimate Guide to Unbundling Reddit - Late Checkout - a Substack by Greg Isenberg

Reddit is one of my favorite places on the internet. It's like an early version of a metaverse, where people come together to create interconnected worlds, each with its own culture.

That interconnectedness is what makes Reddit great, but for the system to work, each community has to conform to the one-size-fits-all mold of a subreddit. One size fits all, but it doesn't fit anyone particularly well. That creates unbundling opportunities.

There are hundreds of wonderful startups waiting to be built using this simple strategy: create a product that serves the unmet needs of an individual subreddit.

A few months ago, I wrote an overview of unbundling Reddit . In this post, I want to lay out a step-by-step process for creating your own "unbundling of Reddit" business.

Reddit is a diamond mine of startup ideas, here's your pickaxe:

Step 1: Find a Subreddit 🔎

First things first, you need to find the perfect subreddit. Start by browsing redditlist.com to see rankings based on subscribers, 24 hour growth, and activity.

While you browse, look for a subreddit that meets these criteria:

  1. It's growing fast.

    Subreddits that have grown ~40% or more in the last 6 months are the most promising ( https://frontpagemetrics.com has long-term growth stats).

  2. It has a critical mass of subscribers.

    It doesn't have to be millions of subscribers - anything over 50K is an opportunity to build a multi-million dollar business. Beyond that, focus on growth trajectory over current size. That's where the hidden gems are.

  3. You have a competitive advantage there.

    The perfect subreddit is one that you're especially well-suited for. For example, you could have expertise on the topic or existing connections in the community.

  4. You're passionate about it.

    It's important to be passionate about the topic you choose. You need to be able to connect with the community authentically. Besides, it's hard to beat the competition if you’re spending on time on something you aren’t obsessed about. Authenticity wins.

Step 1 Example

  1. I'll be using r/fire as an example throughout this post. "Fire" stands for "financial independence/retire early”. It's a community of people focused on achieving financial freedom so that they can live life on their own terms.

    Here's my evaluation:

    1. It's growing fast. ✔️

      It has doubled its subscribers in the last 7 months.

    2. It has a critical mass of subscribers. ✔️

      It has ~70K subscribers.

    3. You have a competitive advantage there. ✔️

      I have experience building some of the biggest financial communities on the internet.

    4. You're passionate about it. ✔️

      Financial literacy changes lives. It's like normal literacy - it unlocks the world! I wish I had known more about finance sooner.

Step 2: Join the Subreddit 🤗

Now that you've found the perfect subreddit, it's time to become one with the community. Immerse yourself like an anthropologist in an isolated jungle tribe. Learn their language and their rituals. Their memes are your memes now.

Aim to spend 1-2 hours everyday on the subreddit.

Take notice of which posts resonate with the community (pro-tip: some of the best posts have lots of comments but not a lot of upvotes). Ask questions you're interested in and answer questions when you have helpful knowledge. Share useful links.

The most important thing is to be authentic. Engage like a human - don't spam or use marketing speak. At this stage, you aren't looking to establish a brand or sell anything.

Your only job is to make genuine connections and learn from them.

Step 2 Example

The top posts on r/fire are success stories from people who have hit big milestones. Comment sections are usually quite active, with lots of members offering advice and motivation to each other.

I could interact with the community like this:

Post a question asking, "What will you do in your first year post-retirement?"

It would tap into the aspirational nature of r/fire and teach me about the members.

Answer questions about how to manage living costs in expensive cities.

I've learned some tricks for reducing my expenses over the years that could be helpful.

Share a link to Lambda School .

Many members of r/fire struggle to save because their jobs don't pay well. They might not know that it's possible to boost their earning potential without going to college.

Step 3: See What They Want 🔮

While you spend time in the community, always be thinking about what problems they face. Get used to viewing everything you read through the lens of motivation. Instead of focusing on an action a member took, focus on what motivated them to take that action.

Look for themes that emerge. Pay special attention to problems that your startup could make a real dent in.

Here are some useful questions to ask yourself:

What recommendations do they ask for?

Do they keep complaining about something specific?

If you were trying to achieve their goals, what would make it easier?

Whatever your hunches are, try to confirm them by talking with the community. Collect clues that support or refute your hunch until you feel confident in your understanding.

Step 3 Example

On r/fire, I've noticed that newcomers are overwhelmed by all the information. They don't know where to start. It's so common that asking, "How do I FI/RE?" has become a meme there.

I also see lots of posts from people feeling discouraged and looking for moral support. The flip side of this trend is that posts about reaching goals get a lot of traction.

Those patterns point me towards two needs: guidance on how to achieve financial goals, and motivation to reach them.

Step 4: Create a Closer Space for Communication ☕️

The subreddit format has low bandwidth for communication. Interactions are almost never real-time and rarely one-on-one. They can also be limited by the norms and rules of the subreddit.

Once you've gotten comfortable with the community, take your connection from dialup to fiber by creating your own gathering place. The goal here is to have more personal and direct interactions.

The best options are usually Discord servers, Slacks, Instagram pages, or Facebook Groups. You'll have to make a judgement call on which to use based on the demographics of your subreddit. Whichever you choose, curate it as much as possible for the community.

The trick: make it feel like their own special corner of the internet.

Once you've created your new space, use the subreddit to spread the word. Make a post about it, mention it in comments, invite people personally with private messages. Do NOT spam though.

Be like a gracious host inviting someone into your home, not a pushy salesman trying to hit quota.

Step 4 Example

For r/fire, I would go with Slack. It's a community focused on early retirement, business-oriented (so I'd do Slack > Discord).

I would create channels like #investing, #milestones, and #savingtips. I'd also create a #welcome channel with links to the best FI/RE resources.

To set the tone, I'd personally welcome each new member that joined.

Step 5: Build Something for Them 🧱

Now that you've gotten to know the community and can talk to members directly, you're finally ready to build something for them!

  1. Figure out what to build

    Figuring out a community's needs is the hardest part of knowing what to build, but you've already done that. Next, brainstorm ways you can help with the needs you uncovered. Try to think of the smallest thing you can build that will solve a problem for them.

    You're still exploring, so think of this as setting up camp. You can start developing the city after you find out if the land is farmable.

  2. Build it

    Once an idea has come into focus, get building. (I won't get into how to build product in this guide, but here's an awesome overview by Michael Seibel if you're interested. Late Checkout also occasionally partners with leading brands to do this)

    This is where the space you created becomes really valuable. Share what you're building and ask for feedback, then incorporate that feedback into the product. Repeat!

  3. Launch it

    You can use the same strategy you did in Step 4 for spreading the word.

Step 5 Example

The biggest need I saw from r/fire members was a need for guidance on achieving their financial goals. There's lots of information out there, but it's overwhelming.

The idea I landed on to help with that is an "investment checklist".

The checklist would show users where to put their money, in what order, to minimize taxes and maximize interest as they build up their savings. It would be interactive - they could enter their monthly saving amount and other details, then see a projection of how they should progress.

Before I started building, I would ask the community if they thought the investment checklist would be useful and what features would make it great. Building is old, co-building is the future.

As I co-built, I would check in regularly to make sure I was still on the right path.

Step 6: Build on Top of What You Built 🏰

At this point, you have two very valuable resources: your space and your product. Those are the twin boosters that will get your spaceship to escape velocity.

You now have everything you need to build a big business.

To do that, find opportunities to build on top of your product. There should be no shortage. Ask yourself how it could evolve into a community or marketplace. Build in social components. Add on features to cover more of the community's problems.

Iterate, iterate, iterate.

It's also helpful to use your predecessors for inspiration. Try to reverse engineer how Discord evolved out of the League of Legends community, or how IndieHackers evolved out of the bootstrapping community.

If you pay close attention to the community, they'll show you the way.

Step 6 Example

For my example, I think the best play is to create a FI/RE knowledge hub.

I could build out other valuable tools and host them on the same site, like a savings calculator that tells you how much you need to save each month to hit your retirement goal by a certain year.

To monetize, I could create an online course for how to retire early. The tools would drive traffic to the site, where people would discover the course.

Since online courses are a great way to build community online, I could create an accompanying Slack for students.

From there, I could expand into podcasting and YouTube to grow the community, drive traffic to the website, and generate ad revenue.

Bonus: r/manga 🎁

I believe so strongly in the unbundling Reddit approach that Late Checkout does a weekly unbundling of Reddit scrum, where we pick a new subreddit to unbundle. It’s a fun, creative way to come up with startups ideas.

Click the unbundling image below to go to Slideshare

I hope this guide has been helpful. This guide is to get you thinking of the world of opportunities to unbundle Reddit. The next 18 months marks an incredible opportunity to be unbundling subreddits.

Good luck out there 💎⛏💎⛏💎

If you got an ounce of value from this post, please share this with a friend, share it on Twitter and follow me on Twitter below 👇

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Reddit is one of my favorite places on the internet. It's like an early version of a metaverse, where people come together to create interconnected worlds, each with its own culture. That interconnectedness is what makes Reddit great, but for the system to work, each community has to conform to the one-size-fits-all mold of a subreddit. One size fits all, but it doesn't fit anyone particularly well. That creates unbundling opportunities.

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over 1 year ago

How to generate startup ideas: - Write. Keep a problem & key insights journal - Create anti-roadmaps. Product roadmap for the anti-IG, anti-FB, anti-Amazon etc - Virtual travel. Go to FB groups and Subreddits to understand what people want Now, write one idea every morning

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Startup Advise Greg Isenberg
over 1 year ago
over 1 year ago

The road to product/market fit is clarity: 1) Get clear on what you're making 2) Get clear on who you're making it for 3) Get clear on why you're making it for them 4) Get clear on how you can efficiently reach them Clarity pays off

over 1 year ago

How to find product/market fit: 1. Study a small niche (research) 2. Create something you wish existed (product) 3. Grow a community you wish existed (attention) 4. Validate with no/low code (iteration) 5. Make it useful & fun (retention) 6. Stand out (positioning) 7. Stay alive

over 1 year ago

People don't care about original ideas. They care about wonderful products Strategy: copy popular startup, localize and improve e.g: - Wealthsimple is Robinhood for Canada ($1.5b val) - Sharechat is Twitter for India ($1b val) - Paystack is Stripe for Africa (acq'd for $200m)

over 1 year ago
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Pomp Podcast #340: Greg Isenberg On Building Consumer Internet Products

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Vanity Metrics: How to focus on the right goals

How to stop wasting time

If you replayed your life and took the shortest path to where you are today, you’d see what an absurd amount of time was spent on the wrong things.

Some say this is unavoidable—that you need a lot of exploring to find yourself. This isn’t the full story. You can train yourself to identify when you’re working on the wrong thing—in real time as it’s happening.

This ability comes from startups. Startup founders have a term for the wrong metric to focus on: a vanity metric. For example, how many people visit your website is a vanity metric. The more rewarding metric is how many buy from you.

Bold people will look inward to identify their personal vanity metrics: they assess the metrics they live by.

Take two examples:

  • Education : Reading many books is a popular vanity metric for adults. Adults act as if there’s a reward for reading 50 books per year. No, rewards are found in learning efficiently and making interesting things. Reading plays a role, but don’t maximize the time spent reading. Maximize the ability it grants you.
  • Relationships : Having many friends is another feel-good metric. The problem: Most friends aren't friends. They're acquaintances. Friends phone you out-of-the-blue because they want to hear your voice. Friends drive you to the emergency room at 3 am.

There’s a way to never again obsess over the wrong metric . That’s what this post introduces—so you make better use of your remaining years.

Our first step is uncovering why we focus on vanity metrics.

Why we chase vanity metrics

We chase vanity metrics because they’re visible and easy .

Vanity metrics are intermediary goals that occur before the fulfilling goals that matter. Because vanity metrics occur sooner, they require fewer steps to accomplish. This makes them easier.

Further, we rarely recognize when we’re focused on vanity metrics because society normalizes them. When everyone’s showing off how many books they’ve read, we internalize this as a worthy goal for ourselves.

In short, we inherit society’s most visible goals then we don’t challenge them.

How to spot vanity metrics

Vanity metrics are stumbling blocks toward our goals. Whenever we pursue a goal, it falls into one of three categories that we’ll explore:

  1. The Goal Path: Goals where we create change.
  2. The Ability Spectrum : Goals where we signal our ability.
  3. The Virtue Spectrum : Goals where we signal our virtues.

These frameworks reveal how to say no to everything that doesn’t matter.

1. The Goal Path: When we want change

If your goal is to create something or change something, you'll use what I call The Goal Path framework. Examples of “creating" or “changing” include deepening friendships, getting a new job, or building an audience.

With The Goal Path framework, you start by drawing a line on a piece of paper:

Along that line, you place the steps required to reach the ultimate goal. If our ultimate goal is starting a successful side project, the steps in our path might be:

  1. Hours worked
  2. Tasks completed
  3. Progress made on the key parts of the project
  4. Project completion
  5. Desired outcome achieved

And here’s a goal path for building a newsletter:

  1. People visit your website
  2. People subscribe
  3. People open your email
  4. People read your email
  5. People click links in your email and take action

Vanity metrics—the metrics we’re at risk of narrowly focusing on—are most commonly found near the beginning of a path. That’s because the earliest steps, such as website visits and email subscribes, are the furthest from the ultimate goal. When we over-optimize either of these early steps, we see extremely diminishing returns if few people are then subscribing, reading, and clicking.

The only time to obsess over an early step is when it’s a bottleneck that prevents you from reaching the next step. If a step is not a bottleneck, you should typically 80/20 it and move on.

Below, each bullet point represents a goal path. The arrows between steps indicate the progression toward the ultimate goal. Notice how your friends who get trapped by vanity metrics never make it past the first couple steps:

Finance

  • Possessions → Income → Net worth
  • Venture capital raised → Revenue → Profit

Work

  • Employee perks → Employee culture → Employee fulfillment and belonging
  • Employee headcount → Revenue growth rate → Profit growth rate

Politics

  • Hype → Votes → Power → Change → New consensus

Health

  • Hours in the gym → Muscle mass → How healthy and good you look
  • Number of friends → Percentage of friends’ weddings you’re invited to

Routinely sanity check whether you're stuck on an intermediary step toward a goal.

Time and resources

Let’s look at our Goal Path diagram again:

Time and Resources are the assets that are turned into steps. As a result, they are always found at the beginning of a path. That has a huge implication: Time and Resources are always vanity metrics.

People boast “I spent four hours at the gym today!” or “I pulled an all-nighter at work.” These are the worst vanity metrics possible. They’re the very first step in the path! Any fool can throw more time or money at a problem. But it takes discipline to turn time and money into ultimate goals with efficiency—if that’s what you’re aiming for.

Life is not about “putting in the hours.” It’s about seeing results and enjoying the journey.

2. When we signal our ability

Sometimes, our goal isn’t to create or change something. Instead, it’s to broadcast our abilities.

For example, you can get an MBA to signal your entrepreneurial ability or get verified on Twitter to signal your clout. These goals are part of what I call The Ability Spectrum , which is our second framework for avoiding vanity metrics. The Ability Spectrum helps us identify credentials that aren’t true reflections of one's ability.

Take, for example, this clichéd bio:

“Forbes 30 Under 30. Harvard MBA. 1M Instagram followers.”

Each of those is a vanity metric because each can be gamed . This doesn't mean they lack signaling power, but that you can't take them at face value. Whenever a signal can be gamed, it’s not a complete representation of the underlying ability, and it must be discounted.

Let me show you what I mean by breaking down those claims one at a time.

Forbes 30 Under 30

  • This arbitrary award attempts to signal your significance in an industry.
  • The problem: It’s easy to lobby and play politics to receive awards. Awards also suffer from adverse selection: judges don't see everything.
  • So what should you tout instead? Here's an alternative credential that would be harder to game, and is therefore more representative : Data-backed rankings. For example, if you’re the most-searched CEO on Google, that objectively signals you’re popular. Or if you were to publish your company’s month-over-month profit growth rate, there’s no denying that you’re building a successful business.

Harvard MBA

  • This credential attempts to signal one’s business acumen (among other qualities). It's a fine credential, and the least gameable on this list, but nonetheless gameable.
  • The problem : While it’s hard to earn a Harvard MBA, and it certainly has signaling power, it’s not an accurate representation of your ability. It's also fairly gameable. You can lobby to receive arbitrary credentials like these. And credentials suffer from “exam engineering” where it’s easy to optimize for the questions you know will be asked—not what life really throws at you.
  • Harder to game : If you're showing off your MBA to signal your business acumen, a harder to game alternative would be how much revenue your businesses are actually generating. Or possibly how wise you are on a podcast. It’s impossible to fake sounding smart for an hour. For ten minutes? Sure. For an hour? No. Assess the percentage of listeners who made it to the end of your episode. If you have novel advice to share, they'll stick around to listen.

1M Instagram followers

  • This stat attempts to signal one’s influence and popularity.
  • Harder to game : Your engagement rate and your ability to influence action—not your follower volume—reflects whether people care about your output.

This brings us to the diagram for The Ability Spectrum. There are no steps on this spectrum because it’s a gradient instead of a sequence. The Ability Spectrum assesses how representative a signal is of your ability.

Easy-to-game accomplishments prioritize lower-effort social optics over accurately representing your ability. That makes them vanity metrics. If your goal is to impress talented people and to have your work outlast your lifetime, seek accomplishments that are hard to game.

Hard-to-game accomplishments have something in common: they create valuable output. For example, whereas earning an MBA or receiving an award creates no output, creating content that people actually enjoy—as in, receives high social engagement—does.

In short, if your goal is to do more than make a quick buck, let your output be your signal—not your credentials. Smart laypeople and subject matter experts see through credentials to focus on your output. And those are the people you’d want to collaborate with, who’d fund your ideas, and who others respect.

When trying to impress people, impress the intended people.

(I recognize that you often have no choice but to reach for shiny credentials. They may be needed to advance your career. If they're unavoidable, they're unavoidable. This section is about seeking optional credentials.)

3. When we signal our virtues

The final category that your goals fall into is The Virtue Spectrum . This spectrum measures how authentically you care about a virtue you associate yourself with.

Take, for example, the act of tweeting about a political issue. Unless you're a whistleblower or sharing breaking news, tweeting your support is typically low impact. On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, greater impact might come from running for office to affect policy. That’s very hard—unrealistic for most—and signals higher authenticity.

In short, how much we authentically care about something is reflected by how much meaningful change we attempt to produce .

When you post a snarky tweet, you’re likely not changing minds. You're earning kudos from other low-effort virtue signalers. You don’t need the admiration of these people.

When you signal a virtue, you fall somewhere on The Virtue Spectrum:

The Virtue Spectrum differs from the prior Ability Spectrum in that it uses effort instead of gameability to measure your authenticity. A theme is emerging: vanity metrics are the antithesis of authenticity.

Let’s look at two examples of turning low effort virtue signals into increasingly higher effort ones:

  • Complaining that homelessness is a problem → Tweeting a politician about it → Organizing a march to force all politicians to pay attention and take action
  • Snarkily calling people out on Twitter → Constructively educating them → Running campaigns to educate people about the problem → Creating programs to address the root cause

When your action is high-effort, you’re putting skin in the game—your time, reputation, and resources—to earnestly produce change.

Let’s look at an example. When Twitter users recommend other Twitter accounts to follow, you’ll often see their recommendations are socially biased toward people like themselves. Their followers thoughtfully call on them for greater diversity. There are two ways to call people out:

  1. Low effort : Merely call the Tweeter out on their bias. This is fly-by Tweeting.
  2. High effort : Explain why they should do better and suggest diversified accounts to follow.

People accustomed to low effort callouts might think, “But, calling attention to a transgression is sufficient because it brings awareness.” Yes, awareness helps. It's absolutely better than nothing. But merely calling attention to something is the lowest-effort move possible. It’s like pointing your finger at an injured kid in the playground so others see them—instead of helping her back to her feet. If you’re in a position to contribute, why not do a little more to actually produce change?

Worse yet, chronic low effort risks misleading yourself into thinking you're having a meaningful impact and that you're doing all that needs to be done. There aren't enough people left over who are actually doing the real work.

In short, whenever you act in a low-effort manner, you risk broadcasting that your objective isn’t solving the problem. Instead, it can look like you're trying to broadcast your virtues. People outside the finger-pointing club detect this then dismiss you. The people who transgress don't learn—they're just put into fight-or-flight mode—and little meaningful change is produced.

Avoiding vanity metrics

Everything you did this week had a degree of vanity to it. Your objective is to spot that vanity and walk away from it. If you’re proud of how many hours you worked yesterday or how many Likes your Tweet earned, ask yourself if you’re proud of the right metric.

Vanity not only makes you inauthentic to competent people, it’s also an enormous drain on your time. Companies that over-optimize for PR and venture capital often end up failing. Social influencers who indiscriminately grow their follower count can't manage to push 100 t-shirts.

Do not wait for hindsight to be 20/20—you can have clarity in the present too. You do this by not obsessing over goals that don’t matter. Ask yourself:

  • Am I signaling a virtue ? Then focus on behaviors that have an impact. Otherwise, you're foregoing long-term change for short-term social validation.
  • Am I signaling an ability ? Then focus on value creation that is hard to game. Otherwise, your work won’t impress talented people, and it’s unlikely to last.
  • Am I chasing an outcome ? Then don’t obsess over early steps in your goal path. Otherwise, you may never reach your ultimate goal.

To reduce this article into one sentence: Don't inherit goals without challenging them.

How to focus on what matters—by overcoming vanity metrics and optimizing the metrics that really matter.

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Product Hunt: The Internet's Destiny Machine - Late Checkout - a Substack by Greg Isenberg

This post is in collaboration with The Generalist. Mario from The Generalist is awesome. Subscribe to his Newsletter here . It’s worth it.

Every hero begins in the ordinary world.

Harry Potter languishes in the closet under the stairs.

Luke Skywalker toils as a farmboy on Tatooine.

Lucy Pevensie searches for entertainment in a country house.

Odysseus rules as unremarkable king of Ithaca.

To fulfill their destiny, the hero has to leave this prosaic realm, crossing the threshold to the supernatural world. Mythologist Joseph Campbell best expressed this narrative archetype. In his work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell drew from religion and mythology to suggest that humanity's greatest stories conformed to a set structure he described as "The Hero's Journey."

As noted, the journey begins with the hero living in the ordinary world. A call to adventure incents the hero to begin their pilgrimage. With the assistance of supernatural aid, the hero crosses a threshold into the supernatural world. In this new realm, the hero faces a series of travails that culminate in an ordeal. Once the hero triumphs over this ordeal, they return to the ordinary world, bringing hard-earned reward and wisdom.

There's an undeniable familiarity in Campbell's framework, and each stage is worthy of study. But it's that first threshold that is arguably most compelling. The dividing line between ordinary and supernatural, mundane and magical, nothing so clearly signifies a change has occurred than this act of passage.

Harry crashes through the conditional wall of Platform 9¾, Luke vaults into the vast planetary universe, Lucy creeps through a wardrobe's portal, and Odysseus survives the demarcating storms of furious Poseidon.

Unlike any other company, Product Hunt represents the first threshold of the founding journey. Since its creation in 2013, the platform has become the de-facto launchpad for new products. In doing so, it established itself as the dividing line between the ordinary and supernatural worlds. You begin as a consumer; by launching on Product Hunt, you become a maker.

In owning (and opening) that narrative terrain, Product Hunt has created immense value for the startup ecosystem. But while the company has helped countless tech titans achieve their destiny, it hasn't quite fulfilled its own.

That might be changing. With new ownership and fresh funding, the internet's favorite kitty may be getting a new lease on life. But to take the next step in its own journey, Product Hunt will need to streamline its product, double down on core user flows, and change its business model.

In today's briefing, we'll explore:

  1. Product Hunt's history

  2. Being acquired by AngelList

  3. The current platform

  4. The changes that can bring it to the next level

History

Linkydink

Ryan Hoover had an idea.

Everyone he knew loved talking about new products, trading recommendations, and surfing the web for the coolest launches. Hoover found himself browsing different countries' App Stores in his spare time, looking for apps to try.

Despite that everyone in his San Francisco set was obsessed with this ever-changing frontier of entrepreneurship, there was no good place to find new products. On a chilly November morning, Hoover sat down at Philz's Coffee and tried to come up with a solution.

His to-do list that day had just one item on it:

Create Product Hunt

(Aside: Hoover reportedly spent "maybe five minutes" coming up with the name for his newest project. Pretty good work.)

The idea had been percolating for the previous few weeks. What if you create a dedicated platform for new products? And not just a spiritless website but a community, a place for users to connect over their mutual obsessions. Sure, Hacker News solved some of this, but it was general-purpose and more liable to spark into life over a coding disagreement than a product launch.

The internet needed something new.

Looking to validate his idea without development work, Hoover turned to the now-defunct Linkydinky. A link-sharing tool, Linkydink turned out to be a perfect proving ground for the concept: Hoover created a group on the platform, invited some startup friends, and asked them to contribute by sharing links to their favorite products. Once a day, those links would be compiled and shared via email. In that respect, Product Hunt was an early example ofstarting with a community and then building the product, rather than the other way around.

In a blog post announcing the project , Hoover set two rules for contributors:

1) Don't state the obvious. E.g. everyone knows about Snapchat.

2) Don't repeat past product entries (if you can help it).

With that, Product Hunt was off to the races. With Nathan Baschez, Hoover shipped the first version of the platform just eight days later. The following month, Pando wrote about the startup, and Hoover matriculated to Y Combinator.

Valley darling

By the time Product Hunt graduated from the accelerator, it had attracted tens of thousands of visitors, growing 75% month-over-month. More impressively, Hoover and Company had tapped into the tech world's zeitgeist, capturing the attention of Silicon Valley's power brokers while democratizing access to the latest entrepreneurial endeavors.

That traction convinced a slew of impressive investors to back the business with GV, Slow Ventures, Ludlow Ventures, Betaworks, Cowboy Ventures, Tuesday Capital, and SV Angel participating in the seed round. Angels like Kevin Colleran, Abdur Chowdhury, and Nir Eyal contributed, too. (Interestingly, Hoover had helped Eyal on his book, Hooked , before founding Product Hunt.)

Then, of course, there was Naval Ravikant. Hoover had met the AngelList founder six months after launching with a degree of trepidation. Already in its short life, Product Hunt had seen venture capitalists flock to use the platform as a sourcing mechanism. An early note from USV partner Andy Weissman articulated Product Hunt's opportunity:

Love how you have all kinds of VCs subscribed! Build an angel list syndicate off this list and disrupt them (us) ;-)

If Product Hunt had chosen to move in that direction, it would have represented a threat to AngelList's position as the default syndication platform.

Tensions dissipated as the pair strolled through San Francisco's Yerba Buena neighborhood. Rather than a cut-throat competitor, Hoover found a kindred spirit in Ravikant, someone who had devoted his life to helping new ventures get their start. That resonated with Hoover's mission. Shortly after that meeting, Ravikant asked to invest. It represented the beginning of a partnership that would have a significant impact on Product Hunt's future.

Just a few months after its seed, Product Hunt announced a Series A. Andreessen Horowitz led the $6.1 million round, marking the company as a preeminent player.

With money in the bank, Product Hunt continued to scale. Aided by Erik Torenberg, the company ran one of the most impressive grassroots community-led acquisition strategies in tech, catalyzing the creation of Product Hunt chapters in cities worldwide from Brazil to Hong Kong. More than winning new users, Product Hunt won affection , building a genuine, warm community very different than the snark and sarcasm of Hacker News or Reddit. Much of that was down to Hoover himself, by all accounts a genuinely kind, charismatic leader. In a previous interview, Torenberg captured Hoover's genius memorably:

Ryan is the best community and product person I've ever met. No one could have built Product Hunt as he did. He's a master of community, partially because he's so genuinely likable. And he's likable at scale.

That proved useful as Product Hunt continued its hyper-growth over the next two years. The company entered 2016 as one of the most recognizable tech companies on the planet, beloved by the vibrant community it had empowered.

Crunch

There was only one problem: Product Hunt wasn't making money. That had been a strategic choice, with Hoover prioritizing the platform's growth, a playbook pioneered by other consumer hits. Today, Hoover remarks that "in hindsight, I would have dedicated 10% of our resources toward [generating revenue]."

A year earlier, that might not have mattered (and in the years that followed, it certainly wouldn't have), but 2016 was the year the " Series A Crunch " entered popular parlance. In the years prior, seed funds had proliferated without an equivalent flourishing at the later stage. The result was increasing competition for subsequent rounds. Though Product Hunt had raised a Series A, clearing that financing hurdle, picking up a Series B wasn't much easier. Hoover was especially unlucky to face the crunch when Facebook's dominance had frightened investors away from social.

(It's worth noting how strange this feels given the current venture environment. Clubhouse has not earned a nickel in revenue but raised more than $100 million at a multi-billion valuation. Other hot startups are raising Series B rounds pre-launch. How fiercely contested would a Product Hunt Series B would be in 2021? Few companies achieve such scalding product/market fit; fewer still attain Product Hunt's level of influence.)

In pursuit of revenue, Product Hunt launched a " Shop " in partnership with General Electric. The company also explored other verticals, integrating podcasts and book reviews. It didn't move the needle.

As funding talks dragged, Hoover began opening up acquisition discussions, running the processes in tandem. Among the company's admirers was Ravikant, who saw a natural fit between his and Hoover's platforms. By late 2016, Hoover had two choices: a Series B on unfavorable terms or a new alliance with AngelList. As he tells it, a big part of Ravikant's sell was the chance to remain relatively autonomous under the parent company:

Naval was a seed investor, and I've had a ton of respect for AL since their beginning. I felt very aligned with their mission and culture, and the opportunity to remain very independent (we maintained our own Slack, codebase, brand, etc.).

On December 1, Hoover announced the news in a community post. The deal had reportedly closed at a $20 million valuation.

AngelList

Ravikant appears to have been true to his word. Over the next four years, Product Hunt's brand continued to rise independent of its owners with little obvious overlap between the platforms, barring a period in which job postings funneled through to AngelList's site.

With the immediate pressure of finding a viable revenue model lifted, Product Hunt entered an experimental new phase marked by frequent feature launches.

Ask Product Hunt, 2017. This brought non-launch discussions to the platform, giving users the chance to ask for product recommendations and receive community suggestions. It has since been shuttered.

Ship, 2017. Product Hunt traditionally only helped makers when it was time to launch; Ship changed that by offering pre-launch audience-building tools. This represented Product Hunt's first attempt at generating subscription revenue and remains part of the platform today.

Sip, 2018 . Looking for new ways to strengthen its impressive distribution, Product Hunt launched "Sip," an interactive tech news round-up. Failing to gain sufficient traction, Sip was sunsetted in 2019.

Live Chat, 2018. Essentially, Product Hunt DMs. Hoover notes that Live Chat was "This was VERY effective in building the brand in the early days" but didn't make a meaningful difference at scale.

Makers, 2018 . Just a couple of weeks after launching Live Chat, Product Hunt took the wraps off of Makers, a place for builders to share their daily goals and solicit help and support from others. This has since been deprecated.

YourStack, 2020. Arguably the Product Hunt team's most adventurous launch, YourStack is a platform to share product recommendations. In that respect, it builds on the premise of "Ask Product Hunt," though it does so on a separate, dedicated site. The project appears to be dormant.

Early, 2020. Capitalizing on the mayhem over Clubhouse invites, Product Hunt launched Early, a service that shared new TestFlight apps every Friday. It remains active but does not seem to have become a meaningful part of the platform.

Product Reviews, ??. Distinct from recommendations is Product Hunt's "Review" feature. Consumers can review products out of 5.0, providing commentary. It is still live.

Of the company's launches, few elements have stood the test of time or meaningfully altered the platform's complexion. Only Ship can be considered an enduring success, though even that is of the minor variety. Most initiatives have shuttered or deprecated. (Given the need for nimbleness and experimentation in building social platforms, that's to be expected, to a certain extent.)

If there was an upside to this turbulent period, it was in proving the abiding appeal of the core product. Hoover's insight that people want to share and discuss new products was shown to be remarkably correct, many times over.

Spinning out

The persistent attraction of the platform didn't escape Josh Buckley.

After founding Mino Games as a teenager, Buckley had spent the past few years as an investor and startup advisor. In addition to serving as Chairman of data enrichment unicorn Clearbit, Buckley invested in coveted companies like Rippling, Retool, Lattice, Mercury, Truework, and others. In the process, Buckley developed a reputation as a particularly audacious "solocapitalist," succeeding in snagging lead positions in financings for NexHealth and PlayCo.

His next move was arguably his most imaginative.

As Hoover tells it, he and Buckley had known each other for many years before reconnecting in 2020. What began as a "quick catch up" morphed into a long conversation about Product Hunt's future.

Hoover had been thinking of leaving for a while. After seven years spent building one of the internet's liveliest communities, he felt it was time to turn the page. Just as with Ravikant, Hoover found a kindred, community-minded spirit in Buckley. Over several conversations, a plan formed: Buckley would not only invest in Product Hunt, he would take over as CEO.

On October 22, they announced the news. A few months later, Buckley announced the hiring of Ashley Higgins, formerly of Reddit, as GM.

Product Hunt was entering a new era.

State of play

Before imagining what Product Hunt might become, it's worth looking at the company Buckley and Higgins have inherited. In particular, we'll look at three elements:

  1. Brand

  2. Model

  3. Product

Brand

As alluded to above, Product Hunt's fundamental appeal remains undimmed. That's true for both of the company's key stakeholders: makers and consumers.

According to SimilarWeb, Product Hunt routinely attracts 4-5 million monthly visitors to the platform, a figure that's remained unchanged over the past six months. Though roughly a quarter of that traffic comes from the US, the platform has supporters in hundreds of other countries, speaking to its range.

Notably, more than 40% of traffic is direct, suggesting strong organic allure and familiarity within its consumer base. Surprisingly, email contributes less than 2% of traffic.

Makers — from solo operators to titanic companies — also seem besotted with Product Hunt. It is now almost unthinkable for a new product to launch without posting on the platform. It represents an opportunity to win new users and attention at no added cost, often resulting in meaningful valuation changes. We have seen early-stage startups raise rounds mainly on the back of a strong Product Hunt showing, while an unnamed unicorn noted the platform is the primary source of new users for one of its core features.

That so many marketing sites embed a Product Hunt widget (especially after a successful launch) further indicates the respect and affection the brand has earned.

Model

Product Hunt makes the majority of its revenue through advertisements. The company sells five sponsorship products: promoted listings, email collection, topic-based ads, newsletter sponsorship, and job postings.

According to Hoover, Product Hunt forecasts $3.3 million in revenue this year, with $2.9 million coming from advertising. The remaining $400K in revenue comes from Ship and Founder Club subscriptions (more below). Hoover notes that the company was nearly profitable in 2020.

Given the previous uncertainty around Product Hunt's business model, the current figures represent no small feat. The company is close to being self-sustaining, albeit at a modest level, and revenue is growing year-over-year.

If they wanted to, new management could likely double ad revenue simply by adding inventory. As it stands, Product Hunt has taken an admirably minimalist approach to sponsorships, prioritizing the smoothness of the user experience.

We doubt this will be the direction Buckley and Higgins choose to take, given that there's a much larger prize to be won.

Product

The period of experimentation between 2016-2020 had left Product Hunt with a slightly disjointed platform. While the core feed remains mostly unchanged, it's surrounded by satellite features that only somewhat speak to the core user journeys of discovering new companies or launching a new product. Many of these elements seem to receive little usage.

The successor to Live Chat and Ask Product Hunt, Discussions gives users a place to talk in topic-oriented threads. There's no direct connection between these conversations and the companies listed, perhaps explaining why it is a sparse message board. It feels most similar to HackerNews, with a UI ill-suited to true community building.

Somewhat confusingly, Deals leads to a product referred to earlier: Founder Club. For $720 a year, subscribers can unlock discounts from partners. That includes $5,000 in AWS credits, waived fees on Stripe up to $50,000, and $1,000 worth of Airtable credit.

Though the available discounts look genuinely valuable, there's little messaging that explains this to potential users, nor is there an explanation of how Founder Club fits into a Maker's journey. With dark mode visuals, Founder Club feels almost like a separate platform.

Jobs is an orphan. Again, there's no connection between the companies on the platform and the openings listed. Though there was some sense in Product Hunt serving as the funnel for AngelList's more active recruiting forum, without that connection, Jobs lacks the context to separate it from other venues.

Ship is the most natural of Product Hunt's extensions. Serving makers not quite ready to launch (and consumers that want to get in on the ground floor), Ship provides tools to attract an audience, including a landing page builder, a survey tool, and email functionality. While these are valuable additions, Ship's messaging is convoluted, with Product Hunt pointing to four separate pages. The first leads to a dedicated feature page, the second leads to a general marketing page, the third only highlights AWS credits, and the fourth takes you to the same general marketing page as link two.

The result of this circuitous path is a diluted value proposition. The inclusion of credits is particularly confusing given the presence of Founder's Club, undercutting both. Once a user has onboarded to Ship, they get access to a clean, functional dashboard of real utility.

Beyond the primary navigation, it's a mixed bag. Collections allow users to organize products by theme, which others can subsequently "Follow." The feature appears mostly inactive with top Collections accumulating followers in the low thousands, and no clear explanation of what value following grants. Topics do something similar, though creating a new category is not open to users. Neither seems to alter the consumer or maker's experience meaningfully.

The Newsletter is Product Hunt's daily briefing, read by 500K. This is hugely impressive and deserves more real estate on core feed. This newsletter overlaps with some of the longer-form content in Stories ; a more elegant combination seems possible.

Time Travel is a nifty way to travel back to previous listings but shouldn't have greater prominence than Upcoming , which allows the user to receive updates on pre-launch products (from makers using Ship).

Strangely, clicking one's profile photo also unveils a Founder Club prompt, which takes you to a different marketing page.

Despite this chaos of overlapping products and pages, it's hard not to come away from looking at Product Hunt and see untapped potential, above all else. Squint, and you can imagine the platform taking all manner of seductive forms:

Ship could become the default starting point for new founders, eventually competing with tools like Stripe Atlas.

Jobs could serve as an intra-community Upwork, with makers hiring consumers and openings hosted on company pages (more below).

Profile pages could become de-facto maker's resume, taking over from LinkedIn.

Product pages could become company pages, hosting information about key people, previous launches, funding announcements, relevant discussions, and open roles. In the process, this would disrupt platforms like Crunchbase and Medium.

Streamline

To add, sometimes you have to subtract.

Product Hunt should clear room for new growth by shuttering or transforming the site's least used corners.

We would start by closing Reviews until there's a better placement for them. The current incarnation struggles to differentiate itself from launch day comments, making it easy to conflate the two. There's little indication of how Reviews help the maker by boosting ranking or aiding discoverability.

With hesitation, we'd take a similar approach with Discussions . It's clear that Product Hunt has an engaged, enthusiastic community, but the current version doesn't do that justice. Without context, the forum feels random and untethered from other activities on the platform. We think there's an excellent opportunity to bring this feature back in a new form (more below).

Both Collections and Topics should be deprecated. Though an interesting idea, Collections doesn't seem to have worked, though it remains a CTA across the platform. Given there's likely some useful product graph information in existing Collections, we wouldn't scrub this outright. Topics are useful as a search function but don't need to take meaningful space on site. While de-emphasizing this would mean losing some ad revenue from sponsors that use this modal, we imagine this is a relatively underused slot.

The functionality of Jobs , Ship , Deals , and Early should remain, but not in their current form. Product Hunt should free up space by folding these features into a revamped core build around coherent user flows.

Double down

Product Hunt has two key stakeholders, as mentioned: consumers and makers . Though journeys vary, each user follows a basic flow.

The consumer journey looks something like this:

  1. Get the Product Hunt daily newsletter

  2. See an interesting startup

  3. Click over to the site

  4. Check out the launch

  5. Upvote and leave a comment

  6. Click over the company website

Meanwhile, the standard maker flow might look like this:

  1. Have an idea

  2. Start building it

  3. Get help (freelancers and hires)

  4. Decide to launch

  5. Realize you need to generate some excitement

  6. Ask your friends for help

  7. Launch on Product Hunt

  8. Try and convert visitors into users and generate investor interest

Both journeys share the same fundamental issue: wasted energy.

Because of the platform's focus on individual launches, the relationship that forms between consumer and maker is time-bound. Product Hunt is extremely effective at channeling effervescence to a company's launch page; then allows the connection to run cold. Like a drafty house, the heat the company creates constantly escapes, making it necessary to re-stoke the flames every day.

We think there's an opportunity to deepen the connection between consumers and makers while improving other elements.

First, we'd more aggressively push Product Hunt's newsletter, giving it the spot at the top of the page that Discussions once occupied. This should increase the ad revenue opportunity while growing readership. As the company pursues alternative business models (more to come), having a reliable, dedicated channel to communicate with users could prove invaluable. It also ensures that Product Hunt remains top of makers’ minds, rather than surfacing only when it’s time to plan a launch.

Second, we would introduce Company Pages , a home for information about a given business. At the moment, there's no connection between a company's product launches: Stripe Atlas, Stripe Billing, and Stripe itself all sit on separate pages. By establishing a hierarchy with Company Pages hosting launches, Product Hunt would improve upon this issue while opening up the potential for richer information.

In addition to hosting a list of launches, Company Pages could serve as the informal, community-driven wiki for businesses, hosting job openings, targeted discussions, and specific deals. All three are siloed products now but make more sense in this context. If applicable, external information (think funding details or headcount) could be integrated. Just as many domain names that end with /blog redirect to Medium, Company Pages could become the default destination for /community.

Critically, by making this change, Product Hunt would reduce the heat leakage discussed above. Whenever consumers found a launch they liked, they could have the opportunity to establish a relationship with the business behind it.

The natural corollary to richer Company Pages is better User Profiles . Though clean, current Profiles default to highlighting "Activity." By refocusing on "Made," Product Hunt has the opportunity to turn profiles into portfolio pages for the world's best shippers.

A reinvention of this page might make space for project descriptions, outside work history, current projects, technical skills, and availability. Once developed, it's easy to imagine how this might dovetail with job openings, with interested makers receiving targeted notifications and companies perusing relevant applicants on-platform.

While an incarnation like this might, at first blush, seem suited only to makers and freelancers, the reality is that careers are becoming increasingly multi-modal. As employment fragments, everyone is becoming a “ polyworker ,” running side hustles in addition to a full-time job, and helping others on their own projects. Revamped profiles could capture this diversity, graphing roles between collaborators.

Finally, to improve upon the basic maker flow, we would make Ship free. As illustrated above, most builders don't come to Product Hunt until it's time to launch. That doesn't need to be the case. The company should forfeit subscription revenue to establish itself as the de-facto starting point for every new builder. Succeeding here would positively benefit both stakeholders: consumers would get to interact with exciting projects earlier, while makers would have the chance to establish an audience, improve their chances of a successful launch, and build relationships with users for the long term.

(Down the line, there might be an opportunity to launch a Ship Pro feature set. While selling to early makers is notoriously difficult, we think that bundling private community discussions — think LinkedIn Groups, but good — could be sufficiently compelling to entice subscribers.)

Leveraging early traction data (number of email sign-ups, for example), Product Hunt could bring Early into this flow, giving an extra distribution bump to promising projects.

Ultimately, by doubling down on its core stakeholder flows, Product Hunt has the chance to deepen the relationships on the platform and better serve consumers and makers. Just as importantly, it allows the company to execute on a new business model.

Ownership

For seven years, Product Hunt had delivered absurd value to makers but captured almost none of it.

It's time to change that. To best monetize its audience of early-stage companies, Product Hunt should prioritize ownership , not subscriptions. (Ads are still solid for monetizing consumers.) Not only is this a better fit with its audience, many of whom may not have disposable income as they begin their founding journey, it represents the most effective way to build enterprise value.

While Buckley's expertise certainly adds to Product Hunt's capabilities, the truth is the platform has always had a unique advantage when it comes to attracting and identifying talent. From its earliest days, Product Hunt drew impressive founders to the site, and with the help of the community, effectively tested product-market fit.

What would Product Hunt's value be if it had invested in some of its biggest hits?

The potential of this model can be seen from the start. With the Time Travel feature's help, we rewound the clock to the earliest available entry: January 1, 2014. A fantasy portfolio constructed from companies that launched that first month would look rather remarkable:

In the years since, Product Hunt has hosted launches from other monster hits, including Ro, Triller, Notion, Airtable, Drift, Zoom, Stripe, Figma, Chime, and dozens of others. Even if the company only hit a handful, returns would have likely been remarkable.

There are signs that new management recognizes this opportunity. Earlier this year, Product Hunt announced a "Maker Grant" program, which distributes $5,000 to community members. While this may represent a simple act of goodwill, with Buckely onboard, it feels more significant.

That raises the question, of course: how should Product Hunt best implement an ownership-focused model?

We hope the company pursues three strategies, in the order listed:

  1. Incubator

  2. Opportunistic fund

  3. Crowdfunding

Founders often need help before they have an idea, let alone a product to work on. To front-run the existing maker flow, Product Hunt should establish an incubator . While the early-stage environment is highly competitive, Product Hunt has a leg up on many VCs thanks to its beloved brand and the impressive distribution at its fingertips. Though its arguably never been easier to launch a startup, it’s never been harder to gain attention. Like few others, Product Hunt can fulfill the promise of bringing companies new users, with plenty of opportunities to highlight their work. In particular, Product Hunt could use the Newsletter, Early, and its core feed to boost its portfolio.

Companies that go through the incubator could run their building process with Ship, guiding further development. Founder Club could easily (and perhaps more logically) rebrand as a portfolio perks page.

To capture companies it misses at the incubation stage, Product Hunt should raise and deploy a traditional venture fund . Buckley has already shown he can deploy large amounts of capital into competitive rounds; with the benefit of Product Hunt's distribution engine, he could prove unstoppable. While Product Hunt certainly has the reach, bolstering the company's reputation as a thought-leader would help here. A16z has executed the best playbook in the space, producing a consistent stream of high-quality podcasts and articles. While Product Hunt shouldn't be expected to reach that level in the short term, it should use its re-prioritized Newsletter as a testing ground for deeply-researched briefings.

The company recognizes the importance of this play in expanding its differentiation, bringing on a new Content Lead, and promoting an opening for a "Head of Content and Community" role.

Though executing these first two ideas would alter Product Hunt's complexion, we think the purest instantiation of an ownership strategy would be crowdfunding . Not only would it fit the company's community-first ethos, but it simplifies and augments so many other exciting elements of the platform.

What better way is there to build an enduring connection between consumer and company than through investing?

How better can makers create and convert effervescence around a launch than by opening up allocation?

That this hasn't happened is perhaps an indication that AngelList might not have looked kindly on such a move, though synergies are apparent.

To start, Product Hunt could collaborate with Republic, another AngelList partner. In the long-term, it would be in the company's best interest to own the process.

In doing so, Product Hunt would run the gamut on community engagement and change how launches are done. In the past, companies launched products to gain attention, to win customers, to attract investment. With a crowdfunding model, all three of those needs (attention, customers, and investment) could happen at once.

Rogue ideas

The last thing Product Hunt needs is to make an off-the-wall bet; now is the time to focus.

But, we couldn't help ourselves. In particular, there were two comparatively wacky ideas that we found promising:

  1. PH Pro

  2. Community Coin

If Product Hunt wanted to take another shot at earning subscription revenue, there might be a play to be made monetizing investors . VCs are constantly scanning the platform for a potential deal — the company could lean into that by offering a premium service targeting this audience, effectively a PH Pro .

The product would offer detailed insights on rising trends and breakout products. PH Pro could package early data from makers using Ship, along with more detailed analytics on products post-launch, breaking down traffic sources and conversion rates. Social signaling information could also be shared, highlighting when notable users upvoted or commented on a new product.

VCs are constantly trying to build scrapers like this for LinkedIn, looking for information on who Bill Gurley just added to his network or which hiring post Mary Meeker just hearted. PH Pro would have the chance to provide proxy information.

Crypto Spring makes it impossible to ignore the potential for a Community Coin . The company explored a play a few years ago before deciding against it. It might be time to revisit that decision in the not too distant future. Consumer interest in crypto is at an all-time high, and platforms like Rally and Roll have gained traction offering creator coins (though not without issues ).

Though it would require community buy-in, it's easy to imagine how creating an on-platform economy might coincide with existing and desired behaviors. Consumers could be rewarded for their support, companies could hire community members, and makers could sell unused or unwanted projects. It feels like a fit with Product Hunt’s playful community, too. In its Glasshole Kitty the company has the perfect mascot to rival memetic crypto hits like Dogecoin. (We’re only halfway kidding.) Opportunities abound.

***

In ten years, we may look upon 2020 as Product Hunt's threshold moment, the beginning of another Hero's Journey. Over the past seven years, the company Hoover founded has fundamentally changed the tech landscape, successfully empowering the industry's most prominent companies to achieve their destiny.

With new leadership at the helm suited to a fresh endeavor, it is time, once more, to enter the supernatural world.

Thanks for reading,

Greg and Mario

If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing to the Late Checkout newsletter

And if you like the way we think, believe in community-based products like Product Hunt, consider invest alongside myself on our new AngelList Rolling Fund here

This post is in collaboration with The Generalist. Mario from The Generalist is awesome. Subscribe to his Newsletter here . It’s worth it.

What company should we cover next? @ me on Twitter and let me know :)

This post is in collaboration with The Generalist. Mario from The Generalist is awesome. Subscribe to his Newsletter here. It’s worth it. Every hero begins in the ordinary world. Harry Potter languishes in the closet under the stairs. Luke Skywalker toils as a farmboy on Tatooine.

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