A lot has happened since then, inspiring me to reflect as we enter 2019. And then I stumbled across the video I submitted in Y Combinator application (S14, represent). This the first time I’m sharing this publicly:
Interestingly, the language I used 5 years ago mirrors the enthusiasm and direction we continue to pursue. Of course we’ve also learned a ton since then.
Over the past 5 years I (and we) got a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong. Starting a company and raising money is abnormal. Most people never do it. Those that do, have to learn on the job. My experience writing a 20-page business plan in college certainly didn’t help (if anything, it taught me what not to do).
But I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to be thrown in the fire, to start a company I love alongside many talented teammates.
On this anniversary, I want to share some learnings (and mistakes) I’ve made over the years building Product Hunt in hopes that it might help someone else reading this in the future.
Org charts and titles aren’t evil. For years Product Hunt had a very flat structure, driven by my desire to encourage autonomy and a culture of mutual respect across the org. But this lack of structure and clear areas of ownership resulted in the opposite effect. It also wasn’t scaleable to have 15+ direct reports. 😁
You should feel like you’re repeating yourself. As a CEO, one of the most frustrating things to hear from a teammate is, “What are we building? Why?” I’ve heard these words before over the years. Multiple times. It makes me want to flip a table. But it’s actually my fault. I did a poor job of communicating our mission and strategy clearly and frequently to my teammates that are often heads down on a very specific part of the business.
Be careful of what you say. The founder’s word carries a lot of weight within an organization, while they’re leading and even after they’ve left the company. The ideas a founder promotes or shoots down can dramatically shift the team’s focus and motivation, for better or worse. Jason Fried has a good blog post on this.
Bad hires might kill your company. The importance of hiring strong teammates is a startup advice cliche, because it’s true. Inevitably, startups hire people that aren’t a good fit. I’ve had to let go of a few people, not because they’re bad people. Sometimes it’s simply not the right fit for the product, culture, or stage of the company at that time. In most cases, they know that too.
Distributed teams are the future, but it’s not for everyone. Since the beginning, Product Hunt has operated as a distributed team. Today we span across seven timezones covering UK, France, Bulgaria, India, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.S. This has enabled us to hire amazing talent from anywhere in the world, not just the <1% that live in or can relocate to San Francisco. It’s also give us a global perspective, mirroring our global community. But distributed teams won’t work for everyone, especially those that scale to hundreds of people (although a few seem to have figured it out).
“Redesigns” almost never work. We wasted so much time redesigning Product Hunt’s homepage. As someone that takes a lot of pride in the product we ship, it’s tempting to make it look better and fiddle with pixels without having the self-awareness to question, “Is this actually going to change how people use the product? Will it meaningfully impact our metrics?” Don’t let your ego get in the way of prioritizing what’s right for the business and your users.
Build a relationship with investors you want to work with. Many will advise founders to avoid meeting with investors until it’s time to fundraise. While I would recommend limiting the number of “coffee meetings” as it can be a major distraction, investing is largely a relationship-driven activity. The more they trust you, the easier it will be when the time comes to raise. It’s also very important to pick the right investors. Once they’re on the cap table, it’s difficult to get them off.
Map out your potential acquirers early and start planting seeds. Like fundraising, acquisitions are also relationship-driven in many cases (maybe more so). Founders tend to pridefully claim that they’ll never sell without giving a single thought to who might buy their company. But they should, because optionality is key. If Naval didn’t invest in our seed round back in 2014, I’m not sure AngelList would have acquired Product Hunt.
Next week, the Product Hunt team is traveling from around the world to meetup for an offsite in Los Angeles and prepare our grand master plans for 2019.
As always, we’d love the community’s input so if you’re interested in joining our brainstorming session next week, add your name here and we’ll follow up with details. 😊
Much of this advise and learnings are specific to my experience building a venture-backed business. One’s work in building a bootstrapped SaaS business might be very different. And as I’ve said before, there’s no right way to startup.