Your obsession with "winning" at Hacker News and Product Hunt is hurting your business

Back in my first company (12 years ago?), we were obsessed with finding that lucky marketing hit to get in front of millions of customers in one fell swoop.

And eventually, we succeeded! We were featured on one of America's largest talkshows, second only to Oprah. Here are the hosts, demoing our app, live on prime-time TV in front of seven million viewers:

Live in front of seven million viewers

And here they are high-fiving about how awesome it was:

What fun

Our numbers went through the roof. And you know what happened next? Fucking nothing. (Apart from a twenty grand bill from AWS.)

Our numbers fell straight back to their baseline. And of course they did! We had been dumbasses, naively hoping that sufficient visibility might paper over the shortcomings in our product.

A sad spike

We knew that our retention wasn't good enough. We knew that although people liked it, they didn't love it. We knew that organic growth was near zero.

And yet we ignored all that knowledge and wasted our time going for the flashy play to stroke our egos. And then we sat around, sheepishly wondering why we had wasted so much time, energy, and emotion trying to make it big before we had made it right:

I later repeated a variant of the same mistake by obsessing over real-time analytics. I would spend all day watching numbers go up instead of doing real work. These one-time marketing wins are crack cocaine for your ego and cyanide for your business. (At least in the early stages -- they're obviously amazing after you've already got solid retention and referral in place.)

Every time I see a post about tactical tricks to "get noticed" on product hunt or hacker news, I cringe a little bit. Not because the authors are giving incorrect tips... But because the whole obsession with these sorts of "wins" is distracting from what really matters: your product and its users.

When retention and organic growth are strong, then yes, by all means, go nuts with the publicity stunts. That's the time to get tactical about hacker news and product hunt. But until then, tune it out. Get one delighted user. Then five. Then ten. Then a few who showed up because your other users couldn't help but recommend your app to them. Stay focused on the bit that matters until the foundation (i.e. retention and referral) is rock solid.

And take it from me -- there's no feeling worse than to finally succeed at the big, impossible PR win, only for your business to lose because you did stuff in the wrong order.

  1. 18

    I love this post. Too few founders understand that if retention and word-of-mouth growth are low, then getting a ton of traffic and press is pointless. It's the equivalent of pouring a bunch of water into a leaky bucket. You need to patch the holes first, otherwise all that traffic you get is just going to disappear after a few days.

    I've also made this mistake numerous times myself, which was dumb, because there were so many stories like yours to learn from. Hopefully this post will resonate with some and save them from having to learn the hard way what their priorities should be!

    1. 1

      Thanks for sharing that, I think you nailed a very important concept with the leaky bucket analogy.

  2. 6

    Thanks Rob. Needed to hear this. Revenue is up even though traffic is down right now.

    Your post is a reminder to focus on value instead of visits.

  3. 6

    I couldn't agree more. We as humans are so obsessed with numbers that we sometimes neglect actual work. Spikes in signups / pageviews are cool to show off in your twitter posts, but real organic growth comes slowly and only if you keep improving.

  4. 5

    crack cocaine for your ego and cyanide for your business.

    Hilarious and vivid :)

    Also, The Mom Test is a fantastic resource. That book helped us greatly in the early days.

  5. 3

    20k bill lol. That's painful. I still think it's awesome you got on such TV show. I cant help visualize the smile on your mom's face.

    I couldn't agree more about having the feedback is more crucial in the beginning.

    As someone who's just launched Product Hunt 3 days ago, I do think I should have launched it way earlier (like 1 year earlier). It was actually hunted by someone and I said f it, let's go on with it. I think there're too many gurus in the Internet, that tell the story of Product Hunt marketing tactics. That had prevented me to wait for the perfect moment - perfect design.

    To be fair, I think the reason we all like to talk about Product Hunt is it's replicable to any company. Anyone can do it without skills. And the marketing doesn't need to be tailored to your specific audience.

    My lesson takeaway is instead of going for the shiny one-time launch, launch it frequently every time you build a feature - that is micro launch. That'd create a good feedback loop without the hustle of building a full scale blog.

    1. 2

      These are wise words

    2. 1

      Are you allowed to re-launch your product on producthunt whenever you launch a new feature? If so, why are not many developers doing it?

      1. 2

        Check out invision maker Clark's profile. He's submitted InVision 55 times. You can also check some blogs about more on the exact line between feature and version upgrade.


  6. 3

    I noticed that too. Of course, my spikes are nothing (1000 people on my blog in one day! Yay!), but they are still spikes, and I still have this rush going on each times it happens.

    I needed to see, repeatedly, that these spikes don't help on the middle / long term to stop focusing on them. Now, I try to get useful feedback, and it's even harder, but I believe it's more useful too.

  7. 3

    I agree, and many founder think when they fail at producthunt launch, they shutdown the business.

  8. 2

    This is a strong reason why I've stopped submitting my projects to Product Hunt, every once in a while a friend or a stranger on the internet will find a project and submit it to PH, but I never "prepare" for it. Focusing on things like MRR and % growth is far more important than raw numbers. KPIs are what define a product and PH by definition goes against it.

  9. 2

    We knew that our retention wasn't good enough. We knew that although people liked it, they didn't love it. We knew that organic growth was near zero."

    So critical for any business owner/founder to realize and acknowledge this. We are stuck and obsessed with analytics and numbers and forget the important things which are marketing, talking to customers and most importantly: narrowing down the ideal customer profile.

  10. 2

    One thing I have to keep reminding myself is that isolated events usually won’t make or break a business. This goes for bad things as well as good!

    There was the time my credit card integration was broken for at least a week before my friend pointed it out.

    There was the time a refactor broke rendering (my app’s most important feature) overnight.

    There was the time I misconfigured both my uptime checker AND my host, and my app was down for an entire day before I noticed.

    All of these felt so acutely painful at the time, like I had made the dumbest possible mistake and my business was about to crash land. Months later, I barely remember them except to tell stories like this.

    It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment of a big launch or an outrage that we forget that most success stories don’t happen in one moment of truth, but bit by bit over months and years. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that you should forget about big marketing opportunities or that you shouldn’t worry about outages. But remember that they’re one small part of a much larger picture.

  11. 1

    This is critical, particularly if the audience of those platforms are not your customers. You could get millions of visitors but not a single one experiencing the pain point you're solving for.

  12. 1

    Great advice, thanks Rob

  13. 1

    Needed this reminder, thank you. It's time to kick the HN front page habit to the curb.

  14. 1

    I started a million dollar marketing business and have been to work on our website.

  15. 1

    Those platforms are good when your audience is techies and typically small companies.

  16. 1

    Thanks for the reminder. This made me think about the people on my signup list who are waiting for the product to launch - it's a small number (10) but I should already start focusing on delighting them (perhaps with regular useful posts), while they wait for my product to be ready for them to use.

  17. 1

    This is some tough love we all need :)

  18. 1

    Okay Rob, let's back to the work.

  19. 1

    Preach it! 🙌🏻

    I've always view PH/HN/TC as a popularity contest and been skeptical about them providing long-term sustainable customers/revenue.

    I have acquired some customers through these platforms, so I believe it's ok to use these as a strand in a larger strategy but putting a tonne of energy into getting featured isn't the best use of time.

  20. 1

    I bolted an API endpoint onto my business that I curl every few hours that tells me the aggregate growth stats that matter for me: email subscribers.

    This keeps me focused and helps me calibrate the effectiveness of whatever tactic I'm trying today or yesterday.

  21. 0

    Marketing & sale is the hardest part for most startup:-)

  22. 2

    This comment was deleted a year ago.

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