Ryan Hoover doesn’t know why things happen. He doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing either.
But that’s ok.
Having founded Product Hunt in 2013, he now finds himself an arbiter of which tech companies will be the one in ten that succeed. Each day the site features new startups that users can upvote to the front page. Sort of like a Reddit for products.
Product Hunt wasn’t supposed to get this big. It was a side project that transitioned to a main project, raised a $6.1 million Series A, and now counts Jack Dorsey and Ashton Kutcher as fans.
Before deciding to focus all his attention on the site, Ryan left a product manager job at a San Francisco startup, admitting he asked himself what he was doing leaving the relatively stable position.
Now the question doesn’t seem to matter.
“I’ve gotten an opportunity to meet a lot of amazing people – people who I would read about or watch interviews of. I’m increasingly realising that so many people, as amazing as they are, are just figuring it out too,” says Ryan.
Ryan explains his vision for Product Hunt to GV back in 2014
Ryan’s been figuring things out since his time at the University of Oregon. He graduated in 2009 with a business degree, and says that a chance decision to join the American Marketing Association while studying led to a job at Portland startup InstantAction.
A year later and things weren’t working out. He was “really bad” at his job and wanted to move on. A former coworker who had left the company for San Francisco was in town and asked Ryan to meet up for food and a beer.
Ryan learned there was a job going at his friend’s new place of work, gaming startup PlayHaven. He jumped at the chance.
A chain of connected moments
Ryan says a chain of connected moments has brought him to where he is today. He’s reluctant to break up the chain to single out one pivotal moment in his career.
But the move to San Francisco was a big deal. His mother and brother drove to Portland to help him out.
“They were super nice to help pack all my stuff. My brother and I left for San Francisco the next day. There was this big truck with all my stuff in it. I was sort of crying, because I was leaving the state and moving to a relatively foreign place to me.
“I do remember shedding a few tears when I made that move,” says Ryan.
Ryan worked with PlayHaven for three and a half years before he realised that video games wouldn’t sustain his interest for life. Product Hunt was started as a simple email list in late 2013, gaining 20,000 users in 20 days.
He’s sure that the site wouldn’t have taken off to the same degree in Portland. Just being in San Francisco has been fundamental to what he’s learned and how he’s grown professionally.
“There’s no right answer for everything. There are all of these moving parts that lead to unpredictable things,” says Ryan.
The San Francisco Giants are now Ryan’s hometown team
I built it. I built this thing. It’s here. It exists. I did it.
Ryan probably inherited his entrepreneurial streak from his father. His dad used to sell video games out the back of his car, “back when NES games were hard to get in Oregon,” says Ryan. When Ryan was 12, he was put in charge of restocking the gumball machines in his dad’s video game store, and would record the expenses and profits on his grandpa’s old Apple computer.
“Stuff like that opened up my eyes. I realised that there are more ways of making money than working for an hourly wage. I never liked that idea because it’s not a real demonstration of the value you’re creating,” says Ryan.
He developed a love of building things and got a thrill from turning an idea into something tangible. He remembers learning the basics of HTML and CSS and building a “really ugly, hideous website” as a child. “It was super fun,” he says.
He also built a tree-house in his family’s garden. Every day at three o’clock when high school finished, he would start hammering nails.
“I think that the process of building something is sometimes more fun than the actual results. With the treehouse, I built it, and then I was done. I never really used it. It was just, ‘I built it. I built this thing. It’s here. It exists. I did it,’” says Ryan.
Family taught Ryan to be an entrepreneur
Not just another treehouse
But Product Hunt is definitely not just another treehouse. Before joining Y Combinator in 2014, Ryan needed to be confident that he really wanted to pursue work with the site. He decided he needed to be comfortable being tied down for a decade.
“That was my barometer. Not for two years, not for three years, but a decade, which is a long, long time. At least in internet years,” he says.
For Product Hunt, he became a voracious reader and writer, turning out 150 blogs in a year and learning about cognitive biases and product experiences from Nir Eyal’s blog.
Although that focus has taken a backseat as the company has soared, Ryan is now looking to grow in a different way. He’s looking to right some wrongs from his university days.
His one regret from college is that he didn’t party more. Being “fairly introverted”, he says that he spent a lot of his time “not going to parties” and focusing on his studies. He’s now making time for fun.
“I’ve gotten particularly interested in music over the past year and I love going to concerts. I’m going to Coachella in April, and my girlfriend’s in LA so I’ve been going down there every three or four weeks for a weekend,” he says.
At 29, Ryan’s an old man in internet years. Like the teenager working on a tree-house, he still obsesses over building things. But he has to stop himself. For now.
“I constantly have ideas that I would like to pursue, which aren’t necessarily businesses, but just little side projects or apps I’d like to exist. I have to hold myself back because I need to focus,” he says.