On Product Hunt: What does it really say about the tech community?

05 August 2014

(Warning: this post, like this earlier one, waxes philosophical on the startup world, and consequently is a bit long.)

Product Hunt is a website that's taking off in the tech world. It is a website where contributors can post interesting "products" that they've discovered, and visitors can upvote products they like. These products tend to be new ones (though old ones are accepted too) and so PH serves as a kind of pulse on all the projects, large and small, that people are working on in the tech world.

I have really enjoyed following PH and checking it multiple times every day. The sheer volume of projects and ideas that people around the world are working on is awe-inspiring. Often, I find a product that I begin using myself. There's nothing quite like that feeling of "Wow, I can't believe this didn't exist before" when learning about a new product.

By virtue of its voting system, its curation of members with posting and commenting privileges, and its tech-heavy audience, PH is a reliable source of quality content. For product creators, it is also a marketing tool, a signal of legitimacy, and a source of feedback and market validation.

However, even though I'm an avid fan of PH, I sometimes think about how it fits into the startup world. Although PH definitely brings value to the tech community (and is, itself, a product I can't believe didn't exist before), I do think it reflects two major phenomena of the tech community: scattered-mindedness and narrow-mindedness.

The Slot Machine of Ideas

If you look at the products listed on PH over time, the products might begin to sound a bit repetitive. Sometimes competing products get posted on the same day, which elicits helpful discussion about the competitive landscape. But, often reading the one-line product summaries leaves you feeling vaguely like you've heard of the idea before, but you're not quite sure where.

What I think is actually happening is that at some level there's a "slot machine of ideas": many of the product listings are trying to "bring X (existing solution) to Y (new audience), but with Z (twist)". In this slot machine, you'll see a lot of the same adjectives being thrown around ... "real-time", "interactive", "connected", "cloud-based", and "smart", for example.

I'm not saying that audience Y doesn't need solution X. Nor am I saying that twist Z won't make a big difference. Nor am I saying the the combination of X, Y and Z isn't a valuable or worthy-to-execute business proposition. But it does feel like, on a page that's supposed to emphasize the ingenuity of the tech world, most ideas are surprisingly echoes of each other.

Perhaps this is an accurate reflection of the entrepreneurial process. While we glorify true game-changers, many clever businesses take existing ideas and apply them intelligently to new problems to solve new needs. But, especially in the tech world where you can spin up landing pages for new businesses extremely quickly (and sometimes even the businesses themselves), I think this type of entrepreneurship has a few consequences.

First Consequence: Ooooo, a shiny new idea!

Nowadays, validating a business idea is easier than ever, and PH is a source of market validation. On PH, many of the listed products link to well-designed landing pages that describe an idea and then ask for your email address to "sign up for updates". I have no statistics on how many of these landing pages actually become operational startups, but I suspect that many of these pages are just ways to validate ideas, to gauge interest or demand for a product before more effort is put into building out the product.

This is hardly a bad thing; it is, in fact, integral to the scrappy start-up philosophy. But, on a forum like PH, these pre-business ideas dilute the attention given to ideas that teams are actively working on. A start-up that's already built a product and trying to gain users requires much different feedback than an individual who's deciding whether or not to even pursue an idea via a landing page. A related effect is that these landing pages create an inaccurate representation of what's "out there and being worked on", which could discourage other entrepreneurs from tackling that idea.

I also feel that this kind of landing page approach is symptomatic of something deeper - of a certain level of entrepreneur impatience. What I mean by this is that there are ideas out there that fall into the category of "slow-to-grow". This doesn't meant that the business shouldn't exist, but it does mean that the timeframe needed is longer than many in the tech community have patience for. Nowadays, if an idea doesn't seem likely to lead to hockey-stick or step-function growth, it is often relegated to a "lifestyle business" idea, or discarded as "not a big idea".

Entrepeneur impatience is amplified by seemingly quick ways to validate business ideas. PH is a great feedback tool, but, for reasons which I'm about to cover, does not provide accurate market validation. However, it might feel like it does, and as it gets easier to test an idea with an audience, the shorter patience becomes.

The scrappy philosophy of entrepreneurship that is popular today holds that we should throw a lot of ideas against the wall and see what sticks (Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, wrote a great piece about this culture). Sometimes it feels like the tech community is throwing more ideas at the wall faster than ever, and waiting for less and less time to see if those ideas stick.

Second Consequence: Standing in our own shoes

Another consequence I fear PH is having is the creation of an echo chamber, one filled with not just similar ideas, but similar ideas that address a narrow audience.

There is definite value to the advice that you should try to solve a problem you're an expert on, and there's much to be said about "dogfooding" (or using one's own product). But, PH attracts a very particular kind of audience. Namely, it is an audience in the tech/startup space, which means people who are likely technically literate, younger, urban, doing well for themselves economically, highly-educated, etc. etc. Though these people are far from homogeneous in terms of where they came from, they are in a similar place in life currently.

Naturally, with all the budding entrepreneurial energy in this audience, many of the products on PH tend to solve the problems of this particular group. I don't mean to understate the diversity of ideas on PH, but I see an inordinate number of developer tools, services geared towards busy and young urban professionals, email and/or calendar and/or project management tools, and funny (one might say "vanity") products that feel like a fun weekend hack using a new API.

This level of creativity is awesome. But, there are a lot more people out there who aren't in our demographic! These people have problems that can be addressed as well.

I get a reminder of this every time I go home to visit my parents. Inevitably my parents will ask me to explain what a new fad like "Snapchat" is. I'll give an explanation that sounds completely simple and understandable to me. But, my parents kind of scratch their heads and shrug, uncertain of what the hubbub is about and uninterested in this new "service". The problem or desire being addressed by Snapchat is completely foreign to my parents. Sometimes, working in the tech community, I forget that not everybody out there is even very comfortable working a smartphone, much less wanting an app like Snapchat.

PH, by no fault of its own, has become a place to share ideas that excite us, its followers. But we are a very special crowd, and the products that interest us are not the ones that will be providing the most benefit to those unlike us, nor are they necessarily the ones addressing problems, big or small, elsewhere in the world. Occassionally there is a product posted that attempts to do something big for another audience, but as much as this excites some portion of the PH audience, it is quickly overtaken by (yet another) email efficiency tool that promises to get you to Inbox Zero faster than ever.

Is this the purpose of PH? Maybe, maybe not. Should entrepreneurs be more focused on solving "big", "global" issues? That's far too lofty a question to tackle here. But, it concerns me to some degree that a website dedicated to finding the coolest new products is surfacing the coolest new products for only a small, small section of the population. There are so many problems out there, but the "solutions" posted to PH solve only a small, small number of those, and I worry that this is an accurate reflection of the energy and attention of some of the most entrepreneurial people out there.

I don't mean to hate on PH, and I don't mean to imply that PH should be solving some of the nebulous, deep concerns I mentioned above. These are just some of the ideas that have crossed my mind as I've reflected on my experience in the startup world; I don't (yet!) have realistic, workable solutions to propose for any of these points. But, I am fascinated to see where PH and the wider startup community will go in the near future.

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