It starts with a mystery
Earlier this year, having devoted countless hours to creating my latest app, I took a step that has become a universal milestone in the tech world: I submitted it to Product Hunt.
I hoped to see it chosen to be featured on the site’s front page. I checked for it there the first day, the second, and the third. No such luck. Disappointing, but understandable: Product Hunt gets hundreds of submissions per day, and as the FAQ explains, not everything can make it out of the /upcoming feed and onto the front page.
But the problem was worse: even after my app failed to make the front page, it was never added to the site for anyone to find. I had indicated several related “collection” categories that my app fit, but it wasn’t in any of those. In fact, it was’t searchable on the site at all.
The plot thickens
The official FAQ is vague on the process. So I reached out at first to one Product Hunt employee. As I learned more, I contacted its founder, Ryan Hoover, and several longtime Product Hunt employees and insiders. Not everyone would answer every question, but I was able to piece together many things that the FAQ skips over.
Most importantly, I learned that by submitting my app to Product Hunt, I had made a grave error.
What Product Hunt isn’t telling you
1. The blacklist: your app’s likely destination
Product Hunt’s community manager explained that submitting through the main form, the one that most vetted users see, adds the product to the “/upcoming” page, where it has a chance to earn votes by visitors for a day or two.
After that, if it hasn’t been chosen for higher status, it enters an undocumented state in which it can’t be submitted and considered afresh.
Which means, your product’s chances can be sunk by any competitor, any alpha tester, any well intentioned friend, or any eager founder obeying Paul Graham’s dictum to “launch when you have a quantum of utility”. That first submission is it. Odds are — odds are heavily — that it will end up on an internal list of products ineligible for future consideration.
In other words, blacklisted.
But that’s the gamble all products face, right? Aren’t we all in the same boat?
No. There is another way to be featured, one that the FAQ omits. And it is a big deal.
2. Half the products on the front page were promoted straight there
Product Hunt community manager Bram Kanstein — who has since left the company — wrote a post earlier this year about how he had launched the #1 most upvoted product of all time on Product Hunt. It is illuminating, not just for what it includes, but for what it leaves out.
Kanstein focuses at length on the timing of his submission, and the promotional emails that would direct people in his network to visit the site to vote on it when it went live on Product Hunt. This struck me as bizarre. How was he so sure that his product would be promoted to the front page? And exactly when he wanted, and not a day earlier or later — not even an hour?
It turns out that select users can post directly to the front page, while the far greater number of users without this access can only post to /upcoming. According to a former Product Hunt employee, half the products you see on the home page were put there instantly by these greater powered users, without first having to prove their worth alongside the majority of Product Hunt submissions.
Who are these power users? Creators, tastemakers, investors, journalists, entrepreneurs and programmers who Product Hunt has empowered as curators because of their enthusiasm, accomplishments, and influence. These aren’t employees or editors or Wikipedia-style domain volunteers; they are independent of Product Hunt, entrusted with the power to skip the /upcoming feed at will. They can grant a product the valuable promotion it would be unlikely to receive, were it submitted the way most products are.
They can be great allies in the discovery of deserving work. But they can also have complex connections to— and even financial ownership of — the very products they promote.
3. Front page promotion is often granted by an insider with connections to the product’s creators or funders
Browse Product Hunt listings, and reach out to the curators who posted them, and you will find a great many were posted by prior arrangement with the creators. Ryan Hoover emphasized to me that the central Product Hunt team itself conducts these arrangements only rarely, but wouldn’t say how much of the time the curators arrange featured postings for products they’re linked to.
Products are often posted by an advisor, but it’s rare to find any mention of that advisor’s ownership in the product. Tech startup advisors commonly take an equity ownership of around half a percent, or may work for a venture capital firm with a current interest in the startup. But the world of money is almost never mentioned in the enthusiastic product comments by either creators or curators. Unmentioned investments of money, time and status may provide very good reasons for a curator to privilege a particular product, regardless of its quality.
And yet, according to the curators and insiders I asked, Product Hunt gives them no instruction about conflicts of interest, and there seems to be no disclosure policy.
4. Assured promotion allows a coordinated launch
Careful followers of Product Hunt have caught on to the strategy of accessing this upper tier. Just consider the creators of Lrn, an app that teaches you to program in bite-sized chunks.
Lrn, while containing some new ideas, bears a striking resemblance to Swifty, a past product that had been previously featured on Product Hunt. Unlike Swifty, however, the Lrn team — having read Bram Kanstein’s post— found an advisor in advance with front page-promotion privileges and coordinated the launch with him, even going so far as to have him wake up at 4:30 in the morning so as to capture more European upvotes.
Confident of the precise timing and prominence of their promotion on the front page, they spread word and lined up press around a consistent launch time.
Their launch story, which they wrote up in great detail, avoids mentioning the crucial step of gaining an insider to promote their work. This follows an unspoken rule of Silicon Valley. They emphasize aspects of the process that are open to anyone — belief in your product, reaching out to your contacts, being open to generosity — and avoid invoking the vital but unattractive topics of power, status or wealth.
5. Product Hunt ignores successful /upcoming products
You might think catching the eye of many members of the Product Hunt community on the /upcoming feed is a sure way to make it onto the front page, but you’d be wrong.
As a former Product Hunt employee explained to me, there are just too many other products with more significant claims to the front page — some of them placed directly there, on a preplanned schedule, by someone directly involved with the product.
In fact, the former employee says there are many products that gained lots of upvotes through the /upcoming feed — against heavy odds—but which Product Hunt has never, and will never, put on the front page.
6. Forming a relationship with any insider you can find is the best path to promotion
Read enough from creators who have struggled to make the front page, and chat up enough of the active curators, and you’ll realize what several curators told me — that the /upcoming feed is not where you want to be. You need to work your network to find an insider.
Sometimes you have to read between the lines to realize how crucial this is. “Ask them to visit Product Hunt and search for the product”, from a post by a curator, is helpful advice if Product Hunt’s algorithm values upvotes that come from the front page more than upvotes that come from directly visiting the product page. But this only works if the product is already promoted.
Why this matters
We expect a lot from websites where our online communities form, sometimes too much. Product Hunt is a business, not a public utility, and it’s silly to treat it as though it has a duty to do anything.
It’s also easy to forget my own privilege. I was made a Product Hunt commenter a while ago — which is how I can even post to /upcoming at all. The inside doesn’t look so special to an insider.
Like a lot of developers, I have come to truly love Product Hunt. That’s why it was so dismaying to learn how differently it works than its brand and public face suggest.
Do you trust that Product Hunt itself cares as much as you do that the most deserving products be put on the front page? If you’re paying attention, you shouldn’t.
What’s most striking about all this is how opaque these workings are to Product Hunt users and fans. It’s hard to find any mention of the ability for well-connected creators to bypass nearly all other products at will; there’s an awkward caginess to how Product Hunt employees and insiders explain its workings, one that uses enthusiasm and euphemism in place of details that would be far more useful to the rest of us.
Product Hunt is built around the valuable access it provides to its most powerful stakeholders, much like industry PR venues like Variety in Hollywood. There’s a place for independent products, but they appear to be the icing, not the bread and butter.
Call to action
Ryan Hoover has said that he intends to improve Product Hunt’s transparency, and I applaud that. If you want to encourage Product Hunt to move in this direction, please consider this action:
Tweet that @ProductHunt should mark products placed by preexisting relationship. Bonus points for doing this with love.
A simple text tag like “Scheduled launch” or “Promoted” would clarify this. There could be a simple checkbox on the form that curators fill out.
Ben Wheeler is a software developer and teacher in Brooklyn. He’s usually totally not this cranky! Here’s proof: an article about cool stuff for kids!