The mindset of the educational-industrial complex is threatening to take over online education as well

“Will this be on the test?”

Rethinking online education

by Seth Godin

The first generation of online learning came with a lot of hype but didn’t fully deliver on its promise. What does the future hold?

[This is the sequel to Stop Stealing Dreams, now reprinted on Medium.]

A few years ago, a computer science course online broke records and signed up 100,000 students. It was a revelation. Students from all over the world, without regard for their ability to pay, formal schooling or connections, were all able to take an advanced course from a world-class professor.

At a time when tuition at an Ivy League school is more than $40,000 a year ($5,000 a course), this online course delivered more than three billion dollars worth of higher learning aggregate value for free.

This is the sort of mammoth economic and access transformation that the internet enables.

The media was abuzz. Net theorists, teachers and organizations were excited because this was the beginning of a mammoth shift in the way everyone would learn everything. Not only a college education, but corporate training and everything in between.

Not mentioned in most of the articles was the fact that nearly 99% of the students that enrolled dropped out of the course. One thousand students graduated — an astonishing number, a huge contribution, but the tiniest fraction of the number that began the course.

In real life, a dropout rate of 99% endangers even a tenured professor’s career.

But, you might say, it’s the internet. We’ve come to associate the internet as low-engagement, a drive-by experience. We take for granted that the internet offers us things that are slightly flaky, or easy. So we’re not surprised when the drop out rate is so high. Easy in, easy out.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The course was as well-designed as a real-world lecture and the teacher was qualified and engaging, but it’s not a surprise that the dropout rate was so high: As soon as education gets difficult (and useful education always gets difficult) it’s social pressure, peer pressure and our own need to fit in and achieve that often keeps us going. The typical online course provides precious little of any of these elements.

Your peers can’t see you, which makes it difficult to see yourself.

It’s not surprising that traditional universities embraced online learning — it’s at the heart of their charter. And countless organizations jumped in as well, because it appears to be not only a public good, but a cheap way to train your people, with zero marginal cost and plenty of upside for everyone.

Centralized content, top-down control of the syllabus, the ability to approve every interaction — these are the hallmarks of a process that fits most bureaucracies.

Here’s the thing: large universities have built their institutions around lectures, tests and accreditation. So have many internal training functions.

Lectures are at the heart of the last century of higher learning. A proven scholar orates in front of a class of selected students.

Tests are the way institutions enforce compliance. They’re the stick.

And accreditation is the carrot. Put up with the lectures and the tests and we’ll give you the certificate, the scarce piece of paper that is (supposed to be) worth far more than the effort you went through to get certified.

In one question, then, an easy way to understand modern education: “Will this be on the test?”

The student absorbs, the student regurgitates, the student gets the prize of a degree (and a job).

Modern industrialized education is like a job because, in large measure, it’s funded by the very same folks who offer jobs. It’s like a job because school was invented to train us to be compliant in our jobs. And it’s like a job because compliance is easy to scale.

We’ve seen that when knowledge jobs meet the internet, they change. And now we’re seeing that online education is having trouble acting like a job as well.

Online courses can’t offer too much in the way of credit (because there’s too little scarcity) and online tests are difficult to administer in high-stakes situations. Worst of all is the fact that few people in the age of a TED talk will eagerly sit through a traditional lecture when there’s little at stake.

This has led to an explosion of low-stakes, as-much-fun-as-vocational online courses like the well-executed ones offered by Skillshare and Udemy. But because the stakes are lower, the amount of transformative learning that goes on is lower. It’s possible for a semester at Harvard Business School to change a life — but less likely it will happen in a lecture course online.

Traditional schooling is based on top-down power, fear and an elusive carrot. It uses brute force to move large numbers of people down a straight line of education toward a norm.

And the challenge for traditional educators is that when they go online, they have very little power, the fear that comes from hard work causes dropouts and the carrot feels very far away indeed.


Last year, I set out to try to find a different way to teach online. I decided that I wouldn’t create an analog of real-life learning online, but instead create a fundamentally new way to cause change to happen.

I’m sharing the results of that process here, because I believe we’re entering a new generation of online learning. This is how we built the altMBA.

At its core: enrollment, not tests. Experiences not media consumption. Peer to peer, not top down.

Enrollment is a simple concept: people are there because they want to be, eager to move forward, on precisely the same road that the course is. They are moving forward, and the job of the course isn’t to cajole, it’s to transform.

Students are on this bus because they want to be.

Experiences are at the heart of change. We change when we do something, when we interact with the world. Lectures weren’t chosen as the default in traditional real-world courses because they maximize educational outcomes. They were chosen as the default because they are the best way to efficiently control 45 unenrolled students.

It turns out that the best way to cause change is for people to actually change someone or something else. We learn what we do, not what we’re told.

Peer to peer scales. We have learned this from Facebook and from eBay and from Etsy and from Kickstarter and from airbnb etc. But school hasn’t learned it yet, because the existing bureaucracies in most industries (and yes, education is an industry) are built on the control that comes from going top down.

I began by imagining the opposite of the current system: Create a course that was small, not large. Relatively expensive, not free. Real time not asynchronous. Open to some, not to all. Experiential, not lecture based. With live coaches…

The altMBA, the course we now run, has some surprising elements:

  • The backbone is a hand-built, peer-to-peer learning environment, not a series of lectures. In fact, there are no lectures at all.
  • Cohort-based, with groups of five to twenty people engaged constantly with each other (we use Slack as a surprisingly powerful peer-to-peer setting for experiential learning). There is very little time spent engaging directly from top down.
  • There are no lectures, no proprietary videos, no secret lessons. Instead, there’s a deep syllabus of materials (some required, some optional, most of them free or low cost).
  • Almost all of the work happens through the 14 assignments our students take on in the course of the month. Every few days, they complete another one.
  • All of the final work product is in public. A lot like real life.
  • Every student reviews and then comments on several of the other students’ assignments.
  • Every student takes the five or ten comments received and turns them into a reflective script, detailing actual change, actual growth.
  • Everything iterates, again and again.
  • The students attending are from dozens of cities, more than a handful of countries, time zones around the world, but every admitted student shares the same mindset of seeking true growth. Self-selection plus curated admissions means that the support network is strong. Enrollment—in the outcome and the process—is the secret of effective education.
…Enrollment—in the outcome and the process—is the secret of effective education.
  • A team of ten trained coaches is engaged with the students, holding office hours in videoconferencing software, cheering from the sidelines and holding people accountable — not to a system, not to a test, but to themselves.
  • And so we set expectations. Again and again, about how we do things around here.
  • The group is always on the edge of something — success, a breakthrough, exhaustion… and then they regroup and do it all again.
  • Everyone makes promises, everyone shows up, everyone connects.
  • The dropout rate is less than 2%. We graduate more than 98% of our matriculated students, an almost symmetric reversal of the typical online course.
  • Many of our students are getting generous and direct feedback for the first time in their career. And it sticks.

Online learning is no longer about the technology — off the shelf tech is already good enough. It’s now about a series of choices that teachers and education impresarios can make (or shy away from).

“Is this voluntary or involuntary?”

“Am I doing this as a proxy for something else, as a payment to get the prize, or is the learning and the experience the prize?”

Transformational experiences almost always involve voluntary enrollment. Crossfit or running a marathon, a middle-aged man learning to play the cello, a teenager giving a TEDx talk. These aren’t things we have to do, they are things we choose to do.

When a course begins with that voluntary mindset and then uses that enrollment to generously pile on expectations, connections and promises, the rules are different.

Consider that public school is also known as compulsory education. The posture of everyone involved is that this is something you must do, not something that is sought out.

“Will this be on the test,” is a marker, an admission that few people involved in the process are actually willing participants. No test, no learning. No test, no credit. Few seek out tests, tests are something we do to people, not for them.

On the other hand, in the abundance-based economy of online learning, enrollment is essential. It’s voluntary, after all. Voluntary like the Boston Marathon, voluntary like a course in public speaking.

Volunteers lean into their work, they gulp instead of sip.
Volunteers aren’t given tests, they take an opportunity.
Volunteers don’t want less, they want more.

The new generation of educators can now build courses that take these volunteers at their word, pushing them to do the hard work to actually make change happen.

If you want people to become passionate, engaged in a field, transformed by an experience — you don’t test them, you don’t lecture them and you don’t force them. Instead, you create an environment where willing, caring individuals can find an experience that changes them.

The lecture doesn’t go away from our culture, and neither do tests. But neither can be at the center of the online learning environment, not any more.

It’s not easier to run a course this way, it’s actually far more difficult. I’m not sure that matters. What matters is: Does the process work?

We’re standing at a crossroads, even bigger than the one that the pioneers of public education saw a hundred years ago. Let’s not waste it.


For more on the current state of education and how we got here, check out the free ebook Stop Stealing Dreams, which comes with a matching TEDx talk.

Next Story — How to turn stress and panic into productivity
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How to turn stress and panic into productivity

What if we could use stress to our advantage?

This post originally appeared on the Crew blog. Check out more like it at crew.co/backstage

It starts off slow. Heart rate building. Dry mouth. A drip of sweat slowly rolling down from your temple to your cheek. And then wham. A punch to the gut.

Stress.

It’s inevitable in life. And yet so many of us see it as something we can’t control. Or worse, something we should bury and ignore.

Keep Calm and Carry On might work for t-shirts and tote bags, but as advice for real life? It’s about as useful as sticking your head in the sand.

Stress affects us in different ways, at different times, but one of the most common situations we’ve all encountered is right before a big performance. Whether that means talking to your boss, singing karaoke, or playing sports. Pre-performance stress is a real thing. And it kills our ability to act.

But what if there were ways to rewire our brain to use stress to our advantage? To take those feelings of dread and anxiety and transform them into energy, excitement, and focus? To make stress our own version of Popeye’s spinach?

Sounds like a dream. But thanks to new research into how our brains handle stress, it doesn’t have to be.

How our brains handle stress (And how to train it to use stress to your advantage)

When our brains feel stressed, they release a chemical called noradrenaline.

Noradrenaline is one of these strange chemicals that is both amazing for us, and terrible. In the brain, it both increases arousal and alertness, promotes vigilance, enhances formation and retrieval of memory, and focuses attention; while also increasing restlessness and anxiety.

We don’t function too well with too much or too little of this chemical, but, according to Ian Robertson, a cognitive neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin and author of the upcoming book The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper:

“There’s a sweet spot in the middle where if you have just the right amount, the goldilocks zone of noradrenaline, that acts like the best brain-tuner.”

Effectively, noradrenaline helps the different areas of therein communicate smoothly while also making new neural connection.

Which means that as long as we find ways to control and handle stress emotionally, it can actually be an incredible way to boost brain function, increase creativity, and ultimately (and somewhat ironically) become happier, less anxious, and less depressed.

But the trick is just that: How do we change the way we deal with stressful situations so that we use them to our advantage instead of crippling us with anxiety?

Start by reframing the situation

Many of the symptoms of anxiety and stress — dry mouth, racing heart — are the same as excitement. And studies have found that when people are put in stressful situations such as public speaking or singing karaoke, telling yourself to calm down can actually backfire.

Instead, those who reframe the situation as exciting and ride the wave of stress are better equipped to handle it.

When we feel anxious right before a meeting or before talking to someone we respect, that anxiety can drain working memory capacity, decrease self-confidence, and harm our overall performance.

And knowing that this is our usual reaction makes matters even worse. The anticipation of anxiety makes us think of the usual counter-balance: calm down.

But when Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, began looking at how we react to the idea of stress, she found that people who reframed their anxiety as excitement performed better than those who tried to bury it with calmness.

Both stress and excitement are characterized by high arousal levels and a low sense of control.

See stress as a challenge, not a burden

Another way to look at this is as either a ‘growth’ or ‘fixed’ mindset — an idea proposed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, which basically means that those who believe they can change, do.

With a fixed mindset, you believe that the things happening to you or the way you feel can’t be changed. This fatalistic approach holds you back from being able to change the way you see a situation.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset see potential failure as a chance to learn. They’re the ones who can turn stress into excitement and find that sweet spot where stress actually enhances performance.

Think about comedians or performers who worry if they don’t feel that ‘edge’ of anxiety before a performance. Or Tiger Woods, who said if he doesn’t feel anxious before a match, he knows he’s going to do badly. With the right mindset, stress can be a performance enhancer.

Build a new track for your mind

We’ve all felt those situations where negative and unproductive thoughts, stress, and anxiety just won’t leave us alone.

Each ‘thought’ is actually a complex pattern of activity between proteins and chemicals, gene expressions, and neural connections in our brain. And the more we have a thought, the stronger that mental connection becomes.

Neuroscientist Alex Korb describes this like a ‘ski track in the snow’.

“The more you ski down a path, the easier it is to go down that path and not another.”

So just like the fixed mindset, the more you react to stress with anxiety, self-doubt, and fear, the more likely you’ll feel the same way in a similar situation.

But psychologists have found a fix. It’s called ‘cognitive reappraisal’.

A cognitive reappraisal isn’t about turning off your negative thoughts (which is pretty much impossible without replacing them with something else). It’s not about turning untrue negative thoughts into untrue positive ones. The goal is to step back and ground your thoughts in reality.

Here’s how Hooria Jazaieri, a licensed family therapist explained in The Wall Street Journal:

“I tell clients to think like a scientist. You are using your observations and descriptions about yourself non-judgmentally, observing and describing facts.”

So, rather than letting your negative self-doubt run wild, you need to recognize when you’re going down this negative path and stop yourself.

Writer Elizabeth Bernstein suggests we write down our thoughts and identify what specifically triggered them:

“My boss sent me an email to call him and I started worrying that he hates my work and I’m going to get fired.”

Get those thoughts out of your head and on paper, and then get toss on your lab coat. Challenge your assumptions as a scientist would challenge a hypothesis.

Is your work bad?

Will you get fired over it?

Chances are when you start to actually think about it, you won’t have grounds to support your initial feelings. But don’t stop there. Look for evidence to the contrary. What are your successes? Did you get a promotion recently?

Write down all of the things that counter your self-doubt. Writing strengthens memory, and the more you commit to reframing doubt as confidence, the more you’re able to veer off that ski course you’ve been on.

And if that doesn’t work? Take it to the extreme.

You think your work is bad? Tell yourself it’s the worst. Tell yourself that there’s never been a worse writer/designer/developer than you and that you’re lucky they don’t toss you out to sea just to make the world a better place.

“You’re going for the laughter,” explains Steve Orma, a clinical psychologist and author of Stop Worrying and Go To Sleep. The laughter will make you feel better and will help underscore the absurdity of your negative thoughts.

If you want to get in shape, it takes more than one monster session at the gym. And your brain is no different.

Learning to reframe how you handle situations and turn stress and self-doubt into Red Bull for your productivity takes time. But actually not that much.

A 2014 study in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy showed that people who practiced cognitive reappraisals were able to significantly reduce their negative emotions in just 16 weeks.

Four months to a better, happier, more productive you. And all it takes is a little perspective.

Turn your own panic into productivity and start building something you love.

Check out Crew, a talent marketplace where you can meet and work with the best designers and developers. Over 10 million people have used products made on Crew. And over 3 million people have read our blog. Join them here.

Next Story — Making the most of your 5–9
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Making the most of your 5–9

How ‘microadventures’ make you a smarter, happier, and more creative person

Last week, I spent the night sleeping underneath the stars. With the gorgeous, open sky above me I felt like the perfect adventurer cozied up in my sleeping bag.

The kicker? I was in my backyard.

I’ve always been mesmerized by adventure. I love the idea of traveling the countryside with just a backpack, but too often life manages to get in the way with bills, deadlines, and chores.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

A few months ago, I stumbled across the work of Alastair Humphreys — National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year. While Alastair has some huge adventures under his belt (like riding around the world on his bike and rowing across the Atlantic Ocean) his passion now is all about going small.

He’s on a mission to encourage everyday people to experience adventure through small expeditions he calls microadventures (hence my backyard camping):

“Adventure is accessible to normal people, in normal places, in short segments of time and without having to spend much money.”

For Humphreys, adventure represents a simple mechanism to trade the rushed and mundane world for something fun and unpredictable. It’s the perfect way to push yourself outside of your box and absolutely necessary for innovators that want to keep their creative spirit alive.

The best part? A life of adventure is easier than it might seem.

This post first appeared on the Crew blog. Check out more like it here.

Why you need to live a life of adventure

Adventures can be messy. For one, you’re forced to step outside your comfort zone and trod through unfamiliar territory, while also taking time out from your regular day-to-day.

But, for all the risks and difficulties, adventures offer up some amazing benefits for creatives:

1. Adventures spark new synapses in the brain

In many ways, creativity can be summed up as the ability connect the unconnected — take two separate, seemingly unrelated ideas and combine them into something new and novel. Our ability to make these connections is heavily influenced by how our brains are wired.

Think of your brain as a complex highway system. If you’re constantly driving up and down the same roads it’s hard to have new experiences and novel ideas.

You need to break out of your rut. In the brain, this is referred to as neuroplasticity — the ability of our brain circuitry to change.

Research on travel indicates that new experiences can spur change in your neural pathways:

“Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit, meaning they’re also sensitive to change: New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain and may have the potential to revitalize the mind.”

Furthermore, recent studies have found ties between foreign travel and connecting ideas, the foundation of creativity:

“Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.”

The take-home here isn’t to pack your bags and get your passport. You can experience new sights, sounds, and smells minutes outside your door. You just have to look a bit harder (more ideas on that later).

2. Adventures get you outside of your cultural bubble

When I was in college I was fortunate enough to make multiple trips to Alaska. On one trip, we took a small plane to the remote fishing town of Valdez. I’ll remember that trip for several reasons, but mostly because of just how much the local lifestyle differed from my own. From the tour guides to fishermen, I found the community’s way of living fascinating.

At home, we naturally surround ourselves with people we like. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of those people are in fact similar to us in many ways. We create an echo chamber of our own thoughts.

Researchers suggest exposing yourself to different cultural identities as one way to break out of this echo chamber. It helps to remove what researchers refer to as a ‘habitual closed-mindedness’. In fact, cultural immersion is a key reason travel helps to increase creativity. Just lying on the beach in Cancun won’t cut it. You have to get involved with the local life.

Even around your own town there are ways to break out of a cultural rut. Sure, it might not be the same as going to another continent, but it’s a step in the right direction.

3. Downtime provides time for your mind to process

I’ll tell you a secret: I’m addicted to my phone.

Even when I’m on vacation, the temptation to check my email, touch base in Slack, or peruse my Twitter feed is overwhelming. I just have to take a look at the grocery store line or the table next to me at dinner to know I’m not alone. We’re constantly bombarded with an influx of information from our phones, and it’s harming our creative potential.

According to researchers, our brains need downtime:

“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”

During these periods of downtime, a part of our brains called the Default Mode Network springs into action.

This network reflects back on our day, processes memories of events, and does a sort of internal performance review. The Default Mode Network also encourages the mind to think obliquely and create new connections between ideas. If you have a steady stream of information coming in at all times, you’re missing out.

I’ve found a place where I’m great at disconnecting: in the middle of the woods. No cell reception means no email, Twitter, or apps.

If camping in nature isn’t your favorite, forcing yourself out of your normal routine also helps. Personally, if I don’t have a desk nearby with a laptop ready to go, I’m less inclined to work.

Staying in town? Go somewhere you have never been and leave your phone in the car. Leaving town? Rent an AirBnB and see how many new places you can explore.

It all sounds well and good but I can’t because…

You probably knew intuitively that adventures and break times are beneficial for your mind.

There’s a reason the book was called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and not Huckleberry Finn and the Incredible To-Do List. Adventures are fascinating, but they can be hard to rationalize in a busy life.

This is where the concept of microadventures comes to the rescue.

Excuse: I can’t take time off for long vacations

That’s perfectly fine. Adventures don’t need to be a week long. In fact, researchers indicate we might be happier with more frequent, shorter vacations than one or two long ones during the year.

Don’t worry about taking off an entire week. Instead, take off one or two days to extend your weekend. Use the time to take a drive somewhere new. You’ll be ready to go by Monday morning.

Excuse: With my busy schedule, I don’t have enough time

Humphreys runs into this excuse quite often. So often in fact that he developed the 5 to 9 challenge. Many of us are so busy from 9AM to 5PM that we can’t even think about stepping away, but we have 16 hours of free time before we’re back at the grind the next day. Those hours are ripe for a microadventure.

As with most habits, the key is to start small.

Don’t think about venturing off into the wilderness for days at a time. Focus on taking a few hours out of your day when you normally would be free anyway. Put it in your calendar and hold yourself accountable. I’ve done three microadventures (standup paddleboarding, camping, and hiking) within an hour drive from my house.

Excuse: The gear is too expensive

If you’re set on outdoor microadventures, you might be looking at a modest financial investment (Alastair put together a helpful list here), but odds are you might have more than you think already. If not, buy the gear over time and stick to free expeditions for now. Last week, we drove into the mountains and did a 2-hour hike complete with a gorgeous view at the top. Total cost: $20 (for lunch on the way home).

Excuse: I don’t know what to do

I struggle with that too. Thankfully, there are a handful of awesome ideas here to get you started. Here are a few that I’ve found to be pretty accessible:

  • Commute to work. Take the scenic route rather than the direct one and maybe even stop for breakfast along the way.
  • Climb a hill and watch the stars. In my case, we watched the fireworks. All you need is a blanket to lay on.
  • Try a new activity. In my case, we went standup paddleboarding (amazingly fun!). You could go rock climbing, kayaking, or ride your bike around the city. It just has to be something new.

It’s highly unlikely that I’m going to turn into the next Bear Grylls. You won’t see me on National Geographic cycling around the world or kayaking across the Atlantic. That’s okay. I’m content with sticking to smaller adventures.

Over the past few months, I’ve tried to get in some sort of adventure every week. I don’t always succeed. Life gets in the way. But, when I find myself setting up a tent in the middle of the woods as the sun is just starting to set, I feel a small tinge of excitement. For that one night, I feel like a man of adventure. That feeling is addicting, and it keeps me coming back for more.


This post was written by Jeremey DuVall. Catch up with him on Twitter.

Make your next microadventure building something you love.

Check out Crew, where you can work with the best designers and developers in the world. Over 10 million people have used products made on Crew. And over 3 million people have read our blog. Join them here.

Next Story — Product Hunt 101
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Product Hunt 101

Tips from a top hunter on how to crush it on Product Hunt

I first heard about Product Hunt a couple of years ago through Ryan Hoover, who I had gotten to know through his side projects, and I started using it right away. It was a great way for me to stay on top of products, but also a great way to connect with other people interested in sharing and discovering the best products. If you’ve been hiding under a rock and haven’t heard of it yet, check Product Hunt out here — you’ll get some great insights and ideas from companies and people. It’s a pretty amazing community.

Getting my PH 🔑

Fast forward two years — the Product Hunt community has exploded in growth, and I still use it almost every day. A lot of companies use Product Hunt to launch their products, and many have seen thousands of users join/use their product in a single day.

List of the top 10 hunters on Product Hunt

I love submitting products and was a very active hunter, in the early days. I had a natural knack for finding cool tools and apps, a few of which made it to #1 — this eventually put me Product Hunt’s top hunters list. I’m currently sitting at number 9 on the leaderboard in between Erik Torenberg and Hiten Shah. Because of Product Hunt’s traction and my profile’s visibility, I get pitched a lot about product submissions. I’m also frequently asked by friends and entrepreneurs, “How do we get on the front page of Product Hunt?”

The answer is a simple one, but requires a bit of context and insight into how Product Hunt works. Here’s the breakdown:

How does Product Hunt work?

Product Hunt is a social news site where community members post interesting products. It’s usually (but not limited to) digital products. The website is extremely popular, and has quickly grown into an equivalent to what Hacker News is for developers.

Generally, products get submitted and upvoted (like Reddit and Hacker News), and the community has conversations about these products. It’s a place for product discovery. By association, users also discover the companies and people behind these products.

TechCrunch exclusively used to be the holy grail of product launches, but Product Hunt is quickly giving it a run for its money (also see this and this).

Next Keyboard’s pre-launch Product Hunt post

It has become a part of many companies’ promotion strategies (for launches, updates, etc). Some people do customer development on there as well, getting real, high-quality, feedback, like what we did with Next Keyboard to acquire beta testers. Product Hunt has even recently expanded into games, books, and podcasts.

How to crush it on Product Hunt (pro tips & best practices)

Product Hunt front page

The Product Hunt front page gets a lot of exposure, but it’s doubly as important because top products get picked up and promoted in the email digest. Ideally, when you launch something on Product Hunt, you want it to get upvoted enough to stay above the fold (the visible part of the screen without scrolling or clicking anything), so you’re always visible to people landing on the website. The algorithm is similar to Hacker News, Reddit, and such. I recommend not sending direct links or getting people from the same IP address or location to upvote it, otherwise your product has a chance of getting blacklisted. (A simple way around the IP address issue is to get people to upvote via the app, or on a cellular data connection.)

You need an invite from a current member to be able to comment on submissions and to submit something new. And by the way, just because you can submit, doesn’t mean you should.

Submissions

Oftentimes, people try to get top hunters to submit their products. This is because top hunters have more followers. When they submit something, all their followers receive a notification that they submitted a product. You can find a list of top hunters here.

Influencers also have posting privileges that get their submissions directly to the front page. If you’re trying to go down this route, look at people who have submitted a lot, and see if their submissions have made it to the front page.

Scheduling

Ideally, you want your product posted first thing in the morning PST time. Product Hunt refreshes its leaderboard around 12am-12:30 PST everyday. Folks who live in the west coast or in Europe have an advantage here. I typically post around 6 or 7am EST. By that time there’s already a few products getting some traction usually.

Pick a good day of the week to do it. Weekends are usually slower. I prefer middle of the week, between Tuesday — Thursday. If Product Hunt is anything like Reddit, then Monday — Thursday are probably the most trafficked days.

Discussion

Reply to everything! It shows you’re active in the community and that you care. It also makes your post look more active, which helps to push your post up on the home feed.

Upvotes

Don’t ask for votes directly. Ask for support, love, feedback, shares but don’t ask for upvotes. (Also, as I mentioned previously don’t send people direct links.) The best way to ask for support is not to ask for support. This is similar to the VC adage, “Ask for money, get advice. Ask for advice, get money.”

A good example of asking for support on Product Hunt

Share the news with friends, and friends of friends, and in your networks. Think Facebook groups, Whatsapp groups, etc. Line up your supporters, fans, investors, beta testers in advance and let them know that the PH launch is coming. Similarly, if you’re planning on doing an email blast don’t forget to reach out to existing customers, letting them know you’re on Product Hunt.

Hunt details

Adding your hunt details — Old Flow — New flow is much better 👌🏾

Here’s what to keep in mind as you fill out your hunt details — the form before submitting an app:

  • Name: pretty straightforward, the name of your product
  • Tagline: should be descriptive — not your marketing tagline
  • Direct URL: URL to your product
  • Images and videos: share screenshots, promo video, marketing images. GIFs should be square and under 3MB. A GIF in your thumbnail helps the post stand out. This image should be added first
  • Twitter: Makers’ Twitter handles
  • Categories: These will enable Product Hunt users to discover your product as well
  • First comment: You should have your first comment written the day before your post goes live. This should be a short blurb from you, the maker, about things like why you built the product, who it’s for, why you think it’s great, and a call-to-action (something like, “Looking for feedback,” or, “Let me know if you notice any bugs!” It could even just be, “Thanks for checking it out :)” Ask your friends to upvote this so it floats to the top, and so that people know that you made the product and are responsive to comments.
  • Collection: For more exposure in the long run, get your product added to a popular collection related to your product. This way, more people will find your product through organic search.

This is all the information you need to consider, and provide, when you’re submitting a product yourself or trying to get the attention of a top hunter.

How to Pitch Hunters

Most top hunters have their own day jobs and are super busy people. They are also bombarded with submissions from other people hoping to hit the front page. Top hunters also love interesting products — that’s why they joined Product Hunt in the first place. They would love to submit something that resonates with the community. You can provide them with that. However, you must tread the very fine line between pitching (authentically) and spamming (annoyingly).

When in doubt, pitch like you would want to be pitched. Ask for feedback, speak to the person before asking for something, and spark up a conversation before you need the submission.

Figure out who the top hunter is, what pains they might have in their day-to-day job, what kind of products they’re interested in, and add value if you can. Maybe send them a couple of interesting products that you discovered, so they can submit them. With that said, I know that time can be a luxury sometimes. Even if you haven’t prepared or started a conversation with them prior, at the very least, be real and authentic when telling them about your product.

Ideally, do your homework to see if your product is something they’d be interested in. Product Hunt shows you all of the things they’ve submitted, upvoted, and made. You can tell a lot about a person based on those three things.

Don’t take it personally if you don’t hear back, because they might be preoccupied with other tasks or priorities. If they choose not to submit it on your behalf, it simply might not be a good fit for them. Similarly, don’t spam random people on Product Hunt to ask for feedback when you really want upvotes. (Spamming random people is very different from genuinely asking feedback, which I recommended earlier).

When you’re going to submit to Product Hunt, plan ahead. Your conversations should start when you start building your product. Build relationships, not just products. That way, you’ll have a community and stakeholders — people who are genuinely curious about the product — when you’re about to launch.

A Great Sample Pitch

I get pitched somewhat frequently. I run a studio, so it’s difficult for me to respond to each one. With that said, I like great pitches — and this was a great pitch.

The team at Core15 reached out to me with a short, concise, customized, email, but also made a video for me. They talk about how they like my app Quick Fit, which was closely related to their app, and they also provided a promo code within the description so I could give it a try if I was curious.

I didn’t know the Core15 co-founders before, but their cold email felt really personal. I was happy to submit it for them. The co-founder, Fei, kicked off the discussion with comments and promo codes for fast movers of the Product Hunt community.

The Calendar Invite

Another approach I’ve found to be super helpful is asking makers who I’m submitting a product for to send me a calendar invite for really early in the AM on the day they want it posted with all of the details I’ll need to make the post. Here’s a calendar invite my friend Mike Murchison recently sent me.

Calendar invite Mike sent me for a fun side project he was working on

Deconstruction Complete

Now that you have an idea of how Product Hunt works, I highly recommend checking the community out for yourself. Dive deep, be yourself, and share your favourite products. Reach out to other people and get deeper into the product community. While Product Hunt is established and has many users, I think that it’s still in its early days.

We regularly explore product-related ideas in our mailing list. Give me a shout if you have any questions, and obviously, if you think you have a great product to submit. I’m @robjama on Twitter.

BONUS TIPS:

Speaking on a panel at Product Hunt TO meetup in Toronto 🎙

Use Slack to connect with other makers and PH community members. If you’re a maker you should consider joining MakerHunt, an invite-only Slack community for makers. You can also talk to makers in your city on the phglobal.co slack group and at Product Hunt meetups IRL > https://www.producthunt.com/meetups

If you like this post, you might also like:

Robleh Jama is the founder of Tiny Hearts, an award-winning product studio. They make their own products like Next Keyboard, Wake Alarm and Quick Fit — as well as products for clients like Wealthsimple and Philips.

Check out our blog and join our newsletter to learn things like ‘How to get discovered on the App Store’ and ‘How to Make Products that People Love’.

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Next Story — A magic business model: Help someone sell leftovers
Currently Reading - A magic business model: Help someone sell leftovers

A magic business model: Help someone sell leftovers

As the saying goes: One man’s junk is another man’s treasure…


Like many businesses, Uber and Airbnb exist to make something easier. For Uber, it’s making getting a ride as easy as possible. For Airbnb, it’s all about easily finding a place to stay.

But if there are so many businesses that make something easier or better, why do Uber and Airbnb standout as being ‘revolutionary?’

Apart from being significantly better compared to alternatives, one of the reasons why Uber and Airbnb stand out is their business models are built on an ingredient that feels magical: they help people sell their leftovers.

Selling leftovers

I first heard about ‘selling leftovers’ from a post called ‘Sell Your By-products‘ by best-selling author and founder of Basecamp, Jason Fried.

Jason writes about one example in the lumber industry where lumber businesses have figured out how to create revenue sources from selling their leftover sawdust and other by-products after they cut wood.

Selling your by-products, or leftovers, means selling the leftover things lying around after you made your core thing.

Finding by-products in your process and packaging them up for sale not only saves you time but it turns something you might have thought was waste, into something of value.

Basecamp has made a living selling leftovers.

Their best-selling books were leftovers created from the experience they went through while building their company. The popular programming language, Ruby on Rails, was a leftover from creating their product. Even their blog is a leftover that has turned into significant value. Basecamp has never paid for any marketing. Instead, they’ve partially relied on selling their leftovers to build a multi-million dollar company.

The beautiful thing about the businesses models behind companies like Uber and Airbnb is they help lots of people sell their leftovers. They allow almost anyone with a car or home the opportunity to get something from nothing.

With Uber, you can make money from the leftover space in your car.

With Airbnb, you can make money from the leftover space in your house. Or your trailer. Or your treehouse.

That costly car or home, can become a cash machine overnight. And this feels like magic.

Why you feel like you get more from selling your leftovers

Selling a leftover feels special because of how you perceive the gain.

Here’s an easy example:

Let’s say you had a pretty table you wanted to sell. You thought it was worth $200, but you didn’t know who to sell it to and you didn’t want to take the time to sell it.

Then, a business came to you and said they’ll help you sell that table for $400. In exchange, they keep $100. You get $300.

If the table sold, you’d be happy. You didn’t have to take care of selling it and you got $300, $100 more than what you thought the table was worth. You’d feel like you came out on top.

Now let’s say you had a table you thought was so ugly that you were going to throw it away in the garbage tomorrow.

Then, a business came to you and said I’ll help you sell that ugly table for the same thing, $400. They keep $100. You get $300.

This might seem like the same deal but because you valued your ugly table at $0, you perceive this second deal as better. Three times better to be exact.

Pretty table deal:

$300 (What you made from the company who sold your table) — $200 (What you thought the table was worth) = $100 perceived gain

Ugly table deal:

$300 (What you made from the company who sold your table) — $0 (What you thought the table was worth) = $300 perceived gain

Though you make the same $300 whether you sell your pretty or ugly table, your perceived gain is three times more when you sell your ugly table.

How would this make you feel? Most likely, you’d have more positive emotions attached to the business that was able to help you make money by selling your ugly table and you’d be left thinking about that business, wondering how they were able to help you make something from nothing.

You’d probably come back to this business to see if they could help you sell more of your stuff you were going to throw away. You might even tell your friends to do the same thing, too.

Selling leftovers can have a bigger impact than selling more efficiency

These ‘Wow moments’ — the positive feelings people get from your product — are what makes you stand out in our hyper-competitive market today.

The more ‘wow moments’ you create, the more you stand out.

If you’re offering a better product but it’s still not good enough to produce ‘wows’, people likely won’t feel strong enough about you to switch from whatever they’re currently using to get the job done.

Mentally, our brain wants to do what gives us the biggest reward with the least amount of work. So if you’re not making things easier, why would anyone choose you?

This is a wall companies often run into.

They may have built a better product but they haven’t built it better enough to make up for the cost people perceive of switching from what they are currently doing and starting something new.

You have to build something so good that switching becomes obvious.

Multiple ‘wow moments’ in a product experience aren’t easy to produce. They can often take years to get right.

People were blown away by the original iPhone but it took 5 years to build right.

This is why figuring out how to help someone sell their leftovers can be an easier road to produce a ‘wow moment’ than selling someone more efficiency through better or more features.

When someone realizes you help them sell leftovers, that can stand out more than a feature.

Though not easy, thinking about how your product could help someone sell their leftovers will bake a ‘wow moment’ into your product. One that may leave an impression as strong as multiple ‘wow moments’ created by the features you build.

I’ve seen the impact firsthand.

Unsplash is a photography website we started that offers hi-resolution photos for free that you can do whatever you want with.

We primarily built Unsplash because we didn’t like any of the alternative stock photo options but it was also built on helping sell leftovers. Our leftovers.

We started Unsplash because we had leftover photos from a photoshoot that we weren’t going to do anything with. Rather than leave them in a folder and let them go to waste, we decided to give them away for free.

We thought if people found our photos useful, maybe we could get some exposure for our core business, Crew.

Because we weren’t using these photos anyway, in our mind, they were worth zero. So when tens of thousands of downloads of these photos happened, along with substantial exposure and sales for Crew, we were blown away.

Today, our aim with Unsplash is to do this same thing for lots of people: turn what may be leftover photos into value. Based on this model, we’ve seen Unsplash take off, growing to over 50,000 contributors, almost a billion photos viewed per month, and a lot of good vibes.

When you help someone sell their leftovers, it can be easier, yet more effective, than trying to sell someone another feature in a slightly better product.

In order to work, a business needs to be better than existing alternatives. But if you can somehow mix helping someone sell leftovers into your model, you’ve added a dimension to your business that will help you stand out even further.

If you help someone sell a leftover, more people will be struck with an ‘OMG, that’s amazing’ feeling toward you.

One of the best ways to figure out how you could help someone sell their leftovers is to look at your own leftovers.

What do you have sitting around creating no value?

What do your customers have sitting around creating no value?

For us, it was photos.

For the lumber industry it was sawdust.

For Basecamp it was books, a programming language, and a blog.

There are opportunities everywhere to build a product that helps someone package up a leftover and sell it.

Figuring out how to help someone sell their leftovers can have a bigger impact than selling someone more efficiency.

Want to build a way to help someone sell leftovers?

Check out my company Crew, where you can begin working with an acclaimed designer or developer in less than a day. Over 10 million people have used products made on Crew. And over 3 million people have read our blog. Join them here.

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