The little tweet the blew up

Earlier this week, I visited Product Hunt’s website (which I do 2–3 times a week), just to see what cool products have launched recently. Then something interesting caught my eye and I decided to tweet about it. Let’s just say it got a few people really fired up (more on that later). But I believe that my comment touched on a few serious, very real issues related to how internet businesses make revenue and how the “free” internet is possible.

For those not familiar with Product Hunt (PH henceforth), it is a reddit-like online community, where people post about cool new products (usually, but not limited to, tech). Just like on reddit, people can upvote products they like, thus influencing the ranked list of “product of the day”. The most popular products end up in the “product of the week/month” lists, getting even more eyeballs. It’s an overall great way to get your product out into the world and, most importantly, a merit-based democratic system where the best or most interesting/cool products make it to the top. Sometimes it can be the case that the project with simply the coolest gif/cheesiest tagline might end up first, but hey, we all like chasing shiny things now and then.

So what was it that I noticed about PH that was different? In short, they now allow product owners to “cut in line” and interject their product in the list of top products, appearing as a “promoted post”. Apparently, PH has been offering this service to companies for over a year now. Here’s the actual example that I noticed and tweeted about.

This ad was somewhere between place #6 and #8 that day — I forget exactly where

To me, this is a game-changing move: it turns an online community built with user-generated content (UGC) to an ad platform, not much different than Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (a really bad thing IMO). Of course, PH is not even close to the scale of these, but this is more about semantics.

The internet being the internet, there was a lot of yelling, as expected. Here’s the actual tweet that started the flame wars:

Within the next 48+ hours, this got me a crazy amount of notifications in my Twitter profile (of course, I don’t have the app on my phone and my phone has almost all notifications suppressed — I like to keep my sanity).

That’s a lot of activity 🙀🙀

Cutting through the noise, here are some of the top types of responses I got:

  1. Ads powers the “free” internet: sadly, this is how the internet grew on us, with users expecting things to be free. In my view of the world, this produced quantity, not quality. And never forget the dogma of the “free” internet: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
  2. It’s a company and it needs to make money: in hindsight, this was poor choice of words on my end. Greed is definitely a strong and maybe unfair term and it doesn’t correctly capture what I was feeling. It was more a disappointment that they allow the top products list to be tainted by companies which have an advertising budget vs. independent creators.
  3. Sponsored products are few & non-invasive: while true, this again goes back to the change in semantics. It’s a big difference to say “we never take a single dollar of ad money” (although PH never claimed this AFAIK) to “we’ll take some ad money”. It can change a company’s priorities.
  4. You’re a communist/you don’t get how capitalism works: these were pretty hilarious comments. I work for an investment startup for crying out loud — it would have been quite a laugh if I didn’t believe in capitalism. But again, here’s the “greed” choice of words coming back to haunt me.
  1. I am 100% in favor of revenue-first companies. I’ve never liked the model of “let’s grow as big as possible and figure out monetization later”. This usually ends up yielding products that are ad-supported and shady practices that harvest your private data to improve ad targeting. Some of my favorite examples of such companies are Basecamp (who recently made a public claim that they’ll be a 100% Facebook-free business) and Whatsapp (whose co-founder was openly anti-ads from day #1). If you make a great product, people will want it and they will pay for it.
  2. We need a paradigm shift in powering the “free” internet. Although we can’t go back in time and change the paradigm, it looks like there is a positive change happening, with people opting to actually pay for quality content and products, often directly to the creators. Further, there are many new ways of rewarding internet users for using digital products or marketing directly to users, in a privacy-conscious way.
  3. Greed is a real thing. If you’ve lived a bit in Silicon Valley, you’ll relate to this. Companies that are built from nothing and sold for a $10–20 million are considered almost failures. Even getting into the 100s of millions is no longer an exceptional result (yeah, maybe you’re cool but why aren’t you a unicorn?). I don’t get this. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a modest middle-class household and making a few millions sounds like a big deal to me (especially if the higher upside comes with sacrificing health, quality non-work time, and other craziness). Instead, I much prefer companies that Bo Burlingham refers to as Small Giants: companies that choose to be Great, instead of Big.
  4. Ads are a terrible thing. OK, take this with a grain of salt. I’m quite a passionate minimalist and only purchase things that I truly need (and extremely rarely things that I want). With that in mind, ads are 100% incompatible to my ideals. The best things (even better: experiences) that I’ve had have come from passionate referrals from people whose opinion I trust (and never from ads). This is why I’ve liked platforms like PH: they are a great, viable alternative of promoting your product without having to bombard people with ads. Truly great products are those that people can’t stop recommending to their friends and they don’t need ads.

In short, yes. It’s a fantastic community, with great people behind it and it’s a great place to both discover new products and get a platform to showcase your product. However, it has lost some of its initial appeal: it’s no longer a level playing field and it has shifted from an online community to an ad platform. In multiple anti-ads debates where people have asked me “how am I supposed to get the word out there for my product without ads?”, my answer has been “just put it on PH and if it’s a great product, people will want it”.

Right now, I feel I can no longer give that endorsement. At least not until they explore new and more innovative monetization schemes that restore the level playing field. What could those look like? Here are a couple examples:

  • Premium, paid services for makers: they have already been exploring such options with services like Ship. There is a lot that goes in building a great product beyond the core (design, marketing, distribution, etc) and there could be definitely an opportunity here. You can think of it like the AWS of product building and launching: you focus on the core value you’re providing to customers, while getting the out-of-the-box support for all the other (hard) things.
  • Patreon-like “support the maker” feature, where PH takes a cut. People who make cool products need to cover their life expenses to keep building and improving their products.
  • Steemit-like “reward for participation” feature, where they can also take a cut, while rewarding users for bringing positive value to the platform.

I really hope if anyone from the PH team reads my thoughts take it as 100% constructive criticism. And maybe this stirs an interesting discussion or two.

Co-founder & CTO @ AgentRisk. Former infra-tech guy (storage, networks). Startup nerd. Always building cool side-projects. #LongLA