How we got 2nd on Product Hunt, were killed in 76 mins, while increasing traffic of 67%

This story was originally published as GuestPost on AdEspresso, Oct 28th 2015.

Yep, it did happen. And nope, it wasn’t fun. But if I have to be completely honest it *was* actually kinda fun, in some weird masochistic and startup-py way… also because there’s a very surprising ending to it. But first a disclaimer. We love Facebook and we think that it’s the best thing to happen to online advertising -among other things- since, well, ever. So much so that we built an entire business on it, namely AdEspresso, which at the current growth rate is going to process 1% of the Monthly Global Facebook Advertising Revenue within the next 5 months.

We also love the people of the different Facebook Teams we interact with on a weekly basis. We currently are one of the Top2000 Apps by Daily Active Usage of the Facebook Graph APIs (on more than 1.1M Apps worldwide) and of course we are Marketing Partners, so you could say that -yes- we do have a fairly close relationship. Which is why what happens next was quite unexpected for us as well. Here’s the story of how the Facebook Ads Gallery came to life and was declared dead some minutes afterwards. As BuzzFeed would say, “you won’t believe what happens next”. Read on.

Mid July 2015 — The Preparation Phase

We had been working on the Facebook Ads Gallery for around ten days, as a tiny little summer side-project. Truth be told, we loved it. But we weren’t sure it would have been that much interesting for the world out there. Sure, the ones that had a sneak peek were super excited. We had spoken to a few friends, customers, founders, and journalists… but that was it. Frankly we weren’t expecting that much of a response, also considering that there are a bunch of other companies out there doing specifically only that, with 500 times the Ads that we would have ready at the time.

That said, of course we had all our ducks in a row: we had consulted a lawyer that gave her green-light with some caveats we complied to, we had a basic interface ready with some *very* basic (if not ‘kinda shitty’, at least for our standards) graphic design, and we had checked with the Facebook Marketing Partner Team to make sure their feeling was a positive one. It was a tricky path to follow, that I would say, for a bunch of reasons: the other companies doing it charge their customers after having scraped the Ads in their database from Facebook, generating fake accounts in the process.

So as a matter of fact it’s not exactly the most transparent and legit way, since as you can well understand: other people would pay for Ads Impressions that wouldn’t generate anything, while these companies would make money out of the process. That’s why Facebook, well aware of the situation, has been sending already ‘cease and desist’ notices to several ones of them. That’s also why we were extra careful on how we’d do it and in letting Facebook know that (not going to disclose the secret sauce we used but… if you are one of our competitors, thanks for stopping by!).

July 23rd, 7.30am Pacific Time — The ProductHunt Launch

All-in-all, we had done our homework, so we’re ready to go live, confident that everything was ok… or so we thought. It’s the day of the launch. We move the Facebook Ads Gallery from the stage environment to the production environment. We publish on Product Hunt, and we let our network know that now they can browse it for their inspirational delight. Product Hunt approves the submission and tweets it out (below). Ryan Hoover upvotes it, Hiten Shah does the same, among many others. We begin trending and end up in the 2nd position pretty much since the beginning.

July 23rd, 8.30am Pacific Time — Facebook Comes Knocking

While a Product Hunter writes “Been looking for a tool like this for awhile now!”, another one says “Sounds like an awesome idea! I was just trying to Google ‘good FB Ads examples’ for inspiration so this is perfect!” and someone else chimes in “A site like this was probably my most searched in Google for the past one month. Thanks for bringing this!”. Clearly we hit a nerve… even more than we imagined. We also receive another message, not as flattering as the previous ones, from one of our Points of Contact internal to Facebook. It says:

Sh*t. Sixty minutes. That much went by from when we put the Facebook Ads Gallery live. On one side we were extremely impressed by the speed of reaction for a company so big and established. As one of the Product Hunters pointed out (you can find all these conversations on our PH page here): “See, they really do ‘move fast and break things’”. On the other side tho, while we were ready to answer all their questions, we’d have preferred not to take the Facebook Ads Gallery down. We already had 132 upvotes by then and we were in 2nd position in the daily chart… which was -quite frankly- pure gold.

You can imagine what happens next. Frantic conversation on multiple channels with multiple people, trying to get the message across about how we knew we had to be careful with this and about how -because of that- we fully complied with the Facebook Policy and also checked with the Marketing Partners Team and everything has been green-lighted and it’s also free just to help people create better Facebook Ads and please please please we’re second on Product Hunt and people are going crazy about it, check for yourself guys, just take a look at the comments. But guess what?

July 23rd, 8.46am Pacific Time — The AdsGallery Goes Offline

Ugh. That really, really hurt. Not because of the effort we put into it, ten days of work was little enough for us not to care about having wasted it. What we cared about, tho, was that people were raving about it. That it was something people wanted, something we could give them with relatively low effort but big impact. Because for us, at the end of the day, a big part of why we do what we do in the way we do it is to help and educate people. Seriously. Have a tour here if you don’t believe me: it’s all free. Sure, we generate traffic; but if we do great content but sh*tty tech, people are not gonna buy.

So we wrote the message above. Twenty words. The most difficult ones as a company yet, trust me on that one. Not to mention, two further things were making this moment extremely hard: a) since when we put the Ads Gallery offline, we knew that the urgency would end for our Points of Contact inside Facebook. We love them, but we’re also realistic about the fact that they’re all *very* busy people. At the same time, Facebook is an agile company but also a big one, who knows how much time until we heard back from the Policy Department? Double-Ugh.

b) We were super sad about the fact that the traction we had on Product Hunt would for sure die down. Such a great opportunity, wasted. We had never reached the second position until then, and now… not only we were able to reach it, but we were about to lose it and fall into oblivion. Yeah sure, who cares right? Maybe. Or maybe when you do something, you want it to shine and be recognized, regardless of the fact that it’s something small and relatively meaningless outside of your little niche. Triple-Ugh. As if we weren’t sad enough, the coup de grace hits: Product Hunt puts on a tiny little ghost beside the Facebook Ads Gallery name.

July 23rd, late morning, Pacific Time — The Long Wait Begins

Aaaaaaargh. Ok, we’re dead. Gone. Like the Facebook Ads Gallery never existed. It was fun while it lasted, but it’s over now. As a consolation prize, sure, we would have been able to write about this incredible story in a Blog Post… but yeah, kinda sh*tty consolation prize if you ask me. Plus we were aware of the fact that the more hours would pass by, the least likely we’d be to hear from Facebook. It’s like in case of homicide or robbery. Every hour passing by means that the suspect is going to be more and more out of reach, every hour passing by multiplying the chances of getting away with it.

Except that for us it was the other way around. Every hour passing by meant that it was less and less likely for us to hear from Facebook in time to leverage the Product Hunt exposure. There was one last chance for us tho, something that could have made up for all this struggle, putting an happy ending to this whole story: the Product Hunt newsletter of the following morning. We could have still made it if we were able to sort this out in a timely manner. Except, that hours were starting to pass by and no news were in sight. One of our competitors also put a further nail to the coffin.

July 23rd, mid afternoon, Pacific Time — ProductHunt Works Its Magic

It was just too painful to watch that onslaught being consumed. We cared too much. So we stopped looking and we went on with the daily routine, also blocking the PR push that we had prepared. Some friends from some of the most-read blogs in the industry had made themselves available and were super excited to write about the Facebook Ads Gallery launch, but the launch was not there anymore. No news from Facebook, either. After a few hours, out of curiosity we opened again the Product Hunt homepage… and to our complete surprise, this is what we saw.

What? WHAAAT?! Not only our up-votes had more than tripled in the meantime, but we were STILL in second position. Holy sh*t! Holy sh*t! Holy sh*t! But we still couldn’t do anything about it! Aaaaaaargh!!! Our heads were exploding. We reached out once more to our Points of Contacts inside Facebook, politely (key word here) asking for news, letting them know that we were still trending and that if we were able to get back online by 7.30am PT the following morning we’d be featured in the Product Hunt Newsletter. We were coordinating with the Product Hunt’s Team meanwhile, to that purpose.

July 24th, 6.00am, Pacific Time — After A Sleepless Night

We woke up reaching out for the iPhone and checking if any email from our friends at Facebook was there, but nothing. Ninety more minutes went by, and we received the Product Hunt newsletter. Of course, the Facebook Ads Gallery was not there… how could it have been? We’re ready to give up, move on, and archive this whole experience under the “great stories to be told but NEVER EVER EVER to repeat” category. Then the phone rings. It’s one of our Points of Contacts at Facebook. He heard back from the Policy Department. We’re good to go if we tweak a couple things.

After a quick assessment we confirm that: yes, happy to do the tweaks, it’s gonna be a less-than-a-hour job anyway. We can barely talk, we can actually barely breath. We high-five each other. Multiple times. Oh man, now it really *is* a story worth to be told. But first: we need to tweak the Facebook Ads Gallery and put it back online. Then we reach out to the Product Hunt crew asking to remove that annoying little ghost. It doesn’t deserve to be there anymore. We also notify to the Product Hunters that commented the day before that we we’re back. Product Hunt adds a fun pun via twitter:

July 24th, 8.08am, Pacific Time — Back From The Grave In 24hrs

YYes! Just in time to hit 500 upvotes. We’d eventually get to 750 and end up in the Top25 Upvoted Products of July. We still had an issue tho, as on Product Hunt the attention is all for the shortlist of the day, while we were ‘yesterday news’. And Product Hunt AFAIK doesn’t notify you when someone replies to your comments (hey @Ryan! -wink- maybe this is a good idea for a new feature? -wink wink-). We wanted to let all the people kind enough to upvote us know that we were back again, but (very important)… how to do it without looking spammy? Idea! We could tweet it to them!! Their reactions? You can see one below.

July 31st, 11.59pm, Pacific Time — A Final Surprise Was Waiting

A few more days went by and we got also covered by some of the most notable news outlets in the industry (here’s SocialTimes). Then, we looked at our monthly metrics. In just 9 days the Facebook Ads Gallery had become *the* single most viewed page of the *whole* month. Yep, you read that right. More than our pricing page, more than our homepage as well… as crazy as that sounds. And of course Product Hunt had become the biggest referral source for the month, accounting for a whopping 43% of the referral traffic. Total traffic growth:+67% MoM Uniques. This is how the graph looked like:

Since You Read Up To Here — What Can You Learn From This?

Well, a few things. Here are our Top3 takeaways in random order. Feel free to add yours in the comment, any further feedback is more than welcome.

  1. Some people will look at our experience and b*tch about ‘platform risk’. “You shouldn’t have built only on Facebook” they’ll say. But the reality is that every company has some level of platform risk, whether it’s aware of it or not. What if Google changes its ranking algorithm and your traffic drops down 40%? Or what if Apple changes how the Store works and your App drops down 50 positions and disappears from the Top150? You get my point. Every platform has its own rules, welcome to the real world. You get distribution advantage because of them, but you need to know how to play by their rules.
  2. I wouldn’t describe AdEspresso as an early stage startup anymore… and still, we just needed 10 days to put on the ground the version 0.1 of an idea, testing it and validating it against the market. Of course we want to index (eventually) hundreds of thousands of Ads, and to that purpose the Search Engine of the Gallery will need to be soooo much more evolved compared to the sh*tty little thing it is today. Still, from idea to version 0.1 in 10 days is “lean startup’s thinking” at its finest. Do the same. Plus: think of a product not only in terms of technology, but also in terms of how something is found, accessed, experienced. Never ever forget that.
  3. In a crisis situation, you are your worst enemy. In a crisis situation, the most difficult thing is to keep making rational decisions… really. Keep being polite, keep being respectful, keep thinking in terms of long term benefits instead of short term gains. Not less important: always always always over-communicate with all the stakeholders involved, and keep trusting (hoping?) that if you did everything right things will sort themselves out. Plus, above everything else, be human. People will see and appreciate that you care and will respond to that, more often than not in a positive way.

So, now you know. The secret story of how the Facebook Ads Gallery was born in 10 days, died in 76 minutes and came back from the grave in 24 hours. Without any doubt, our most hectic day as a company so far.