Product Hunt’s happy hour starts in 20 minutes, and the line stretches far down the street. As I stroll through Geary, blocks from the bar, I’m convinced the crowds must be gathering for a Diplo concert or something. There’s no way this many people showed up for drinks with the young, Andreessen-Horowitz backed tech company.
But I am wrong. The public Facebook event invite reached 312,000 news feeds, 16,000 people viewed the event page and 3,700 RSVPed. The bar only fits 1,200 people. Half an hour before the start time, hundreds of people have showed up early to Product Hunt’s fifth official Happy Hour, trying to make sure they get in.
For the unfamiliar, Product Hunt is a Reddit-like app for early tech product adopters. The community upvotes and downvotes cutting-edge new products, which range from GIF keyboards to musical pants to the new version of Foursquare, and the founders surface frequently to answer questions. Product Hunt raised $6.1 million from Andreessen Horowitz in September, and with fewer than twenty employees it’s still pretty small by tech standards.
That hasn’t stopped it from exploding in popularity. It’s the place where Yo and Ship Your Enemies Glitter were discovered, and it’s regularly surfed by early-stage investors and journalists looking for the next buzzy companies.
The overrun happy hour Thursday further solidified the company’s status as hot new tech community. But it also raised the question: Have we reached peak Product Hunt?
The people in line may be there to bask in Product Hunt’s limelight, but they’re not too pleased about the wait. One young man near the front mutters, “Sure, it’s popular, but I don’t know if it can monetize.” His friend says, “Maybe they’ll raise money on Kickstarter. They have a great community.”
Blocks away, a few friends stop short when they see the hordes of people waiting in line. They swear loudly and snort, “Never mind.”
— Caleb Garling (@CalebGarling) January 23, 2015
The snaking queue of fans leads right to the door of the bar 620 Jones, rented out for the night. Ryan Hoover, Product Hunt founder and CEO, meets me inside. He hasn’t checked out the line snaking around the corner yet and is nervous to stroll past it, lest he get mobbed by tech groupies. He tells me he prefers smaller events but knew a lot of people would want to come to this.
Much like [company]Twitter[/company], [company]Facebook[/company] or Reddit, Product Hunt needs a loyal user base of people posting content to survive. Offline events help these users develop connections with each other, leading to a sense of community, which is not an easy thing to build. That in turn intensifies their loyalty to the application.
[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”909141″]One young man near the front mutters, “Sure, it’s popular, but I don’t know if it can monetize.”[/pullquote]
The bouncer starts slowly letting in clusters of people and Hoover disappears into the masses. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering how his life has changed with his newfound fame. Although he’s a confident person, he’s a self-admitted introvert who gathers his energy in moments of solitude. At the last Product Hunt happy hour, a smaller event that happened pre-funding, he snuck away early while the party still raged.
The soft red lights of 620 Jones give everything a chic, sophisticated vibe. Top 40 music pulses in the background as founders, techies, PR people, salesmen and reporters mingle. Many of the people I speak with have never used Product Hunt, but they’ve heard of the company and wanted to familiarize themselves – or be associated with it.
“I didn’t know what it was, but I saw the Facebook event group and thought I should find out,” a social media professional in pointed heels and a tailored dress tells me. Her friend, a publicist for the firm that represents Yik Yak, nods beside her in agreement.
When I ask a co-founder of an online music merchandise service why he came, he says, “I don’t know. It’s a viral thing. People feel like they have to be a part of it but they’re not sure why.”
Many attendees are huge fans and recognize Hoover on the spot. Two women from CODE2040, a nonprofit formed to encourage diversity in technology, ask him questions over the throbbing bass. A man interrupts them to frantically show off his social app, before being interrupted by another man wearing an ironic t-shirt.
An older, reserved fellow nursing a glass of wine at the bar tells me his company is one of the sponsors of the drinks. He jokes that the company didn’t pay enough money to get its name anywhere at the event. He marvels at the fact that the event was so overbooked, even as sponsors they were initially told they could only put one person on the guest list.
The crowd reminds me of the shifting nature of tech culture. I show up expecting nerds and geeks and instead see cashmere sweaters and polo shirts, slicked-back hair and biceps amid the hoodies and startup T-shirts.
Tech has gone mainstream and Product Hunt is the water cooler where the cool kids hang out. It’s a characterization I suspect Hoover would feel uncomfortable with, and it’s perhaps not representative of the app itself. But the app has become a brand that people want to be associated with, regardless of whether they’re using it.
There’s an inherent contradiction in Product Hunt’s business premise. It wants to be the place where early product adopters can come together, and it also wants to go big. If this happy hour turnout is any indication, it’s starting to achieve that.
But it will be challenging for a community that’s all about the early adopters to scale without losing its magic along the way. After all, if everyone is an early adopter, is anyone really an early adopter?
One line from this story has been removed since publishing because it happened during an off the record part of the interview.