When Corley Hughes left her position as a general manager for Microsoft to become Product Hunt’s COO, she went from one of more than 100,000 to one of four. Since she joined in early 2015, Product Hunt has grown to more than 20 employees and recently launched its first revenue-generating platform, the Product Hunt Shop.
The San Francisco-based startup, which allows users to post and up-vote their favorite tech-related products, has quickly gained name-recognition and popularity. Wired last year dubbed the site “tech’s new tastemaker.” Now, in addition to finding and recommending products, users can also buy them directly through the site.
Hughes appeared on this week’s GeekWire podcast and radio show to share insights about Product Hunt, its millennial founder Ryan Hoover, and making the transition from Microsoft. She also discussed her experience with the now-infamous “Ship Your Enemies Glitter.”
Listen below and continue reading for an edited transcript.
Todd Bishop: For people who have not heard of Product Hunt, how do you describe it?
Hughes: Absolutely. It’s the place to discover your next favorite thing. Each and every day, new products are posted to the site and the community up-votes and discusses them and really determines what makes it to the top of the site. The new next favorite thing.
TB: A lot of sites over the years have done things similar to this and maybe back in the day TechCrunch might have played this role for some startups. What makes Product Hunt different? What’s been the secret to the success and the growth of this site and this service?
Hughes: Absolutely. For Product Hunt itself, it’s really about users, that are part of the community, come and post products they find. They may be the creator of that product or they may have just discovered something interesting and are sharing it with the community. Then the community decides what makes it to the top of the list. They discuss the merits of the product and go and test it out. The interesting thing is, I really think of TechCrunch and GeekWire and other places as things that work symbiotically with Product Hunt. You’ll see really interesting and exciting things when something is posted and also written about. It’s just a different way to get people access to your product.
TB: For example right now, number one popular on Product Hunt, as we’re recording this, is Facebook Deep Text, which is Facebook’s text understanding engine, which is a big news story as well.
TB: That gets to your point.
TB: It’s a new product. It’s a new thing for people to try out, but it’s also something for people to learn more and understand more. How does that work together? How are you different from a news site?
Hughes: Well, we don’t write a big piece about it on the day of the news. Using the Facebook example, it gets posted and then the actual creators from Facebook come in and talk with the community about the product. Sometimes it’ll be, “why are you doing this or what was the inspiration behind it?” There might be pricing discussions. Then for the people who have built the product, they get access to people who are super passionate about products in general and provide great feedback.
TB: It’s primarily technology products, like web apps, mobile apps, some hardware products, but then there’s also games, as well, and then books. You educated me on this — podcasts too. … Are there things that Product Hunt wants to get into that you can talk about, like new areas, new verticals? Where are things headed, to whatever extent you can say here?
Hughes: Absolutely. Our focus right now is tech and so when you think of games and books and podcasts and you go in there, you’ll see those have largely a tech bend to them. That’s why GeekWire is a great podcast to have in the podcast part of Product Hunt. We believe that your next favorite thing could be beauty products. It could be fashion-related. The potential of where Product Hunt is going is really interesting as well.
TB: Tell me about the mechanics of Product Hunt because this took me a little bit to figure out in terms of who can post, who can comment, who can hunt products. Can you walk me through the logistics of it and a little bit of the vernacular? This may also help people who are new to the site as well.
Hughes: Absolutely. If you just stumble upon Product Hunt and you’re new and you haven’t registered, you get to see how the community itself is creating the priority of the products for the day. It’s mostly just from a discovery aspect. If you are a community member, it means you’ve registered, and now you’re voting and commenting on those products themselves. You simply vote for the things that you really like and then jump in and participate in different types of conversations depending on your interests, et cetera.
In terms of what we call ‘hunting a product,’ which means you’re posting a new product or a podcast or a book, this group of people are actually invited in to do that. It started as a very small group of people largely to do with how we were building the product and it has expanded over time. Anyone in the community can invite others. Then we, of course, keep our eye out for people who are just very active on the site and we want to invite them in to do that as well.
TB: About how many people can actually hunt products these days and what percentage of the overall community is that?
Hughes: We don’t talk about all of those numbers publicly. What’s been interesting is what started as a small group of people hunting and therefore determining the initial makeup, that was 80 percent of the initial product posts. Now, that group is less than 10 percent of the posts.
TB: Oh, wow.
Hughes: It’s really, truly, the community that has been invited in and who are determining which products.
TB: Interesting. Well, and it creates a different dynamic with those different layers of involvement. Are there ever any issues that you run into where people are like, “Hey I want to be able to hunt. Why can’t I hunt?” How do you deal with those types of issues?
Hughes: Absolutely. People reach out to us on Twitter and e-mail and whatnot and say, “Hey I really have this great thing and I want to post it.” We try to be as welcoming as we can. One of my favorite stories is, there’s an engineer on the team who keeps his eyes out and he likes to just, what he says, go and surprise people and just make their day. It’s one of the things he does on the weekend. We all try to encourage that. If someone is really interested and they’re active on the site, we invite them into the community to do that.
TB: What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found on Product Hunt? I know I’m putting you on the spot with that, so you can sit here and think about it for a second or even maybe you don’t have to say the coolest, but can you think of an especially fun thing or cool thing that’s changed how you do work or anything like that that originated from something you found on Product Hunt? I’m putting you on the spot here.
Hughes: Yeah. No, there are so many different ways that I could take that. One thing that comes to mind is the products that we use within Product Hunt.
Hughes: Prior to Product Hunt, I had used Windows products my entire life.
TB: We should point out, you used to work at Microsoft, which I want to talk about later on.
Hughes: Totally, totally. My first day I showed up and I was given a Mac and so I have discovered the entire ecosystem of products that I use on Product Hunt. One that I have loved is Quip. I use it instead of Word. It’s great for sharing with teams. It’s almost like our team wiki and documentation tool. That’s a very practical thing that I found on Product Hunt. Then there’s tons of really fun things. There’s an app and I, for the life of me, cannot remember the name, but it allows you to watch Netflix with your friends. My husband and I, living between two places, then we can use that and have used it on occasion. I know Ryan has as well and others on the team to watch a movie with someone that you care about, but you’re not in the same place with them.
TB: Not Netflix Party is it?
TB: The Ryan that you mentioned is Ryan Hoover. He is the founder of the company. Tell us the story of how this was founded because Ryan started it as an e-mail newsletter in Philz Coffee, is that right?
Hughes: Absolutely. Philz still plays a big role in Product Hunt today. I will start with Ryan and fill in the Philz story too. Ryan has had an incredible vision around this, in that his career has been in product and after his last company, he just started writing a lot and reading a lot and continued to explore all things product-related. He found that there was a gap in the market. Where do you go to discuss products that are new and interesting and get inspiration?
He started sharing these things with people via e-mail and then that became the newsletter and then the newsletter became the site. If you go back, even just a year ago, to what the site looked like and what it looks like today, it was originally literally a list with an up-vote button. Now there are images and a lot of other dynamics associated with it.
TB: It sounds like he has a real sense. He might be the original product hunter in a lot of ways.
Hughes: Oh, absolutely.
TB: What is his skill in terms of identifying what’s going to work and resonate with a product? It sounds like he has a real knack for it, right?
Hughes: He does, he does. This has been one of my favorite things that I’ve learned about Ryan and working with him is just his really keen eye for products and what’s going to be interesting. When we’ll come in for the day and we’re talking about what’s on the site, it’s amazing the extent to which he just completely is in the ethos and I think if you asked him every single day what you thought would be one of the top three, I bet within a margin, he’d be statistically correct because he’s just that immersed in product.
TB: Got it, got it. I know he’s still in his twenties.
TB: Does that have something to do with it, where he’s just in tune with it in addition to just his natural ability to peg it?
Hughes: Yeah. Well, it’s the next generation of people in technology. I have to say, I look at products and technology differently today than I did when I first started because I’m one generation later, right? My views on tech and what was interesting, at first when I was sitting in the room with him, I’m like, “Wow, my perspective is really different.” Well, it’s shaped by a whole different set of perspectives in history and experiences. Yes, he’s that next generation of people who love technology.
Imgur has done some really interesting things around the geek culture and Product Hunt is similar in that way, which is there’s just this different kind of way that the next generation is looking at technology and I feel incredibly blessed to have been in there first-hand with the team and seeing it through their eyes.
TB: You were a long time general manager at Microsoft. You worked with Tami Reller who was in Windows marketing for many years. She had worked in Office as well. What was it like going from Microsoft, a company with more than 100,000 employees, to Product Hunt where I believe you were employee number four?
Hughes: Correct, correct. I had trouble describing work as work when I first started at Product Hunt because everything was so new in a very different way. Now a year and a half in, I would say my Microsoft experiences are interesting because I can rely on them and then just scale everything back to something that is appropriate for 20 people. But everything is new. You are determining everything from, “how are you going to make money?” Which is very important, to “how are you going pay people?” You sit down and Ryan and I would brainstorm something and the next day, we see it on the site. It’s just a very different process from beginning to end. It’s a much faster dynamic. It’s great.
TB: And they have Macs.
Hughes: They do, they do. Although, I was just over at Microsoft and I was saying to someone, I went through, I had the intellectual honestly to basically go, “I’m not going to use anything Microsoft.” Then I tried everything and I started adding things back in. Yes, I use a Mac, but I still use a surface. I have a surface at home. Nothing beats Excel. It is by far, still one of my favorite products. But I’ve tried all the other things to see what I might like that would be new and different.
TB: Yeah. I know that the Product Hunt team is very distributed.
TB: I imagine there’s probably still some meetings at Philz Coffee, as we were saying earlier. What kinds of tools does the team use for collaboration? Is Slack right at the center there?
Hughes: Oh, Slack is our BFF. If you were to go out on Twitter and look at Slack and Product Hunt, we clearly love one another. Slack is at the center. I go back to my first day when Andreas, our CTO, said to me, “We don’t use e-mail here. You came from a place that used e-mail. We use Slack.” I was like, “Okay what is this Slack thing?”
Hughes: We don’t. We use Slack. We do not e-mail each other.
TB: Not at all?
TB: Okay, because we use Slack, but we also e-mail a lot among the team. That’s actually a problem. Wait, did they send that to me on e-mail or Slack? I could see where it would be more pure just to go with one option.
Hughes: Correct. It was actually one of the smartest things that I think we did as a company early on was, Slack is our form of team communication and therefore, we use it.
TB: You’re sending direct messages to each other in Slack in lieu of e-mail?
Hughes: Correct. The only time we are on e-mail is because we are e-mailing someone outside of the company.
TB: Wow, interesting.
Corley, you came from Microsoft and there’s an interesting back story here. You were at one point in the Windows organization, a general manager.
TB: Of course, another person who’s come out of the Windows organization and now is in Silicon Valley a lot is Steven Sinofsky, who is a board partner at Andreessen Horowitz, which is Product Hunt’s lead investor.
TB: Do you get to collaborate with Steven these days?
Hughes: Oh, absolutely. Steven, we talk to Steven regularly. He is an outstanding board member and incredible supporter of Product Hunt. We are lucky to have him. It’s been a real pleasure to work with him in this capacity.
TB: Have you seen his approach change leaving Microsoft to this new role as a venture capitalist, essentially?
Hughes: Well, they’re different constructs. As a board member and advisor, you’re giving feedback and encouraging a company to grow, but the company has to make its decisions. I’ve really appreciated Steven’s input and guidance as we’re building Product Hunt.
TB: I can tell he’s enthusiastic about the company. I think he did an ‘ask me anything’ or an AMA on there, a Q&A.
Hughes: He did, he did.
TB: I think one of your graphic artists or one of your staffers at Product Hunt did a great GIF of him typing like the cat.
Hughes: Correct, correct. I have to give Niv credit. He’s the GIF master on team.
TB: You need one of those in every office.
TB: What are some interesting stories, some things might have surprised you at Product Hunt that might have been funny behind the scenes? What are you favorite anecdotes that you tell over coffee to people?
Hughes: Absolutely. There are a couple of different things. I’ll start with an early product one and this left an impression on me because it was just so early on and was an example. Ryan has this belief that no product is too silly. That you learn from the product development process itself. There was this product, Ship Your Enemies Glitter, that showed up on Product Hunt and was so successful that this kid actually had an exit for a company.
TB: Somebody actually acquired them?
Hughes: Yes, because he had had so many people sign up to ship enemies glitter. You can go out and actually search and see all the different stories. It just became this really funny, delightful, not serious, not a really serious product, but certainly fun and something the community enjoyed. It was just very early on in my time at Product Hunt. It’s going to be one of those things that are forever in my mind like, glitter? Why glitter?
TB: Was it discovered and did it become relevant in the world because of its place on Product Hunt?
Hughes: Correct, correct. It went from just this kid in, I think it was Australia, who was trying to be funny. It got posted to Product Hunt, got discovered. I don’t think there’s a single major outlet that didn’t cover, Ship Your Enemies Glitter.
TB: I have to tell you, we received one in the newsroom.
Hughes: Oh, no!
TB: Well, I should say one of our writers in particular. I won’t get into the details. I came in on a Monday morning and I was like, really? Yes. The thing was, I was the one who got bombed because I opened it up.
Hughes: Oh, I’m sorry about that.
TB: Yeah, great product. Thanks, Corley.
Hughes: Yeah, sorry about that.
TB: Well, the site has been around long enough at this point, back from the newsletter form to now as a site, that I know some products have basically been born and died essentially, sun-setted, on your watch. How do you handle those and are there any good examples of those?
Hughes: We’re very respectful of the whole life cycle that a product can go through. One of the products that left an impression on me was one by the name of White Album.
TB: White Album, okay.
Hughes: Yeah, if you were to got to Product Hunt today, you would see a little ghost emoji next to it and that indicates that that product no longer exists in the world. It again, was a product that I fell in love with very early on when I was working at Product Hunt and used it voraciously. It was something you would take pictures of. You would never see the picture, but they would send you physical pictures once you hit 24 pictures. They were beautiful. The design was great. The founder was outstanding. Then he e-mailed me to let me know that in a week they were going to e-mail anyone that had used it and that they were retiring White Album.
TB: It just didn’t work as a business?
Hughes: Correct. That’s part of product development. Sometimes you make great things and they go on to exist into the world. Sometimes you make great things and their life cycles are very short.
TB: Yeah, interesting.
Hughes: All of those products hold a place in our hearts for sure.
TB: Speaking of businesses and revenue and product life cycles, I know you just recently at Product Hunt launched Shop?
TB: What is that and how does it tie into the bigger picture of where you’re headed?
Hughes: Totally. What we’ve seen is that we are able to drive five times the number of sales to different products when products are posted on Product Hunt. We wanted to actually even decrease the friction further from finding a product, falling in love with it, into transacting. Two weeks ago, we launched Product Hunt Shop, and it’s products that have been posted on Product Hunt that you can buy them as a user from Product Hunt directly. To just again, decrease the friction from what you find and discover and getting that into your hands.
TB: Obviously, is that part of the future revenue model for Product Hunt in terms of basically taking a slice of those sales?
Hughes: Correct. It was our first step into generating revenue, so very exciting. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but so far the reception has been great. We have lots of interest in people wanting to add their products to the Shop.
TB: That’s very cool. Do they have to have already been hunted on Product Hunt or could they be hunted simultaneous with going in the Shop?
Hughes: Absolutely. I think that that’s going to be the most interesting use case, especially in the immediate term. If you were to go to the shop today, one of the products that sold out was actually launched on the day in which it was put into the shop. I think that will be a very real scenario and valuable one for product development creators as well as for the community itself.
TB: Some people out there listening have probably used Product Hunt. There’s probably other people who have not. What would be your tips for new users once they get onto the site? Is there one thing that they should be sure to do and maybe something else that they should absolutely avoid to maybe avoid making a splash in the wrong way in the community?
Hughes: Yeah. I would say there’s a couple things. Definitely sign up for the e-mail. It’s the summary everyday and so it’s a quick way to digest what were the top ten products from the previous day. You can use that as a guide if you haven’t been on the site for the day. Then the other thing is, don’t be afraid to up-vote. Don’t be afraid to get in and experiment with the things that you love. Then also don’t be afraid of comments. There are other sites where a majority of their community support people are spending time with trolls. I could count on one hand the number of times.
Hughes: Yeah. None of it has been that bad. It’s just been more, hey we would appreciate it if you didn’t talk in that way. That’s been the extent. … Don’t shy away from getting involved. You’ll find there’s a bunch of really welcoming people in the community.