Last Wednesday, I launched an app for the first time since my company joined Y Combinator. It was huge for us: our TechCrunch article has been shared over 1,500 times, we were on the front page of Hacker News, and the ProductHunt post about Treeline has received almost 1,000 upvotes. Best of all, in the first 48 hours, we had almost 10,000 developers sign up for our app.
Since then, a lot of people have been asking about our launch strategy, and for the low-down on our numbers. Rather than responding to everyone individually, I figured I’d put together a more complete analysis for everyone to share. Here goes:
Wednesday morning, I drove up to San Francisco to chat with Kyle Russell from TechCrunch. We had just launched our developer preview of Treeline a few days before, but we still hadn’t announced ourselves as a company in the Winter 2015 batch of Y Combinator. With Demo Day fast approaching, it was time.
The chat with TechCrunch went well (Kyle’s a really cool guy), and about an hour later I was on my way to SFO to fly back to Austin for South by Southwest Interactive. I wasn’t sure exactly when the TechCrunch article would go out, but I figured we’d have at least a few days to “batten down the hatches”, so to speak.
So when the plane landed in Austin at around 9PM and my phone started going off with over 100 Slack notifications, I started to panic a little. The TechCrunch article on Treeline had gone out 18 minutes ago.
There were a few comments on the article itself, but I spent most of the next four hours glued to my phone responding to tweets. Back in California, Scott and Cody had turned our living room into a command center to send out beta invites and monitor our infrastructure, and Irl was responding to in-app questions with Intercom.
Within an hour and a half, we were on the front-page of Hacker News. I geared up for a long night. This had happened to me a few times before: when I posted the original Sails.js screencast, when I first talked about the framework on InfoQ back in 2013, when Microsoft contributed to the framework, and more recently when I taught a live Sails.js course on Platzi.
A good eight hours on the front-page of Hacker News usually drives anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 unique visitors, depending on the time of day. That’s not all that crazy, but it’s important because of who the visitors are: in my opinon, the Hacker News readership is a mix of extremely vocal (and oftentimes nameless) commentors and mostly quiet but influential readers. The comments can get pretty negative sometimes, but there are usually some nice folks who will stand up for you, particularly after dark (PST).
It’s important to realize that 90% of the value that comes from this sort of attention- whether it’s a TechCrunch article or getting on the front-page of Hacker News or showing up at the top of subreddit- is the social media whirlwind that follows. Remember when I mentioned the 1,000-5,000 visitors from Hacker News earlier? The real number is actually much higher thanks to shares on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, and other social media websites (more like 15,000-30,000 unique visitors.)
By 11:30 Austin time (9:30 back in California), we’d seen over 2,000 new signups for the beta, and the TechCrunch article had around 500 shares. Unfortunately, Hacker News went down a few times during this stretch of the night and we lost some traction there. However, despite only being on the front page for a couple of hours, Cody’s post picked up around 60 upvotes and definitely drove some virality.
As we invited more and more users to our closed beta, we ran into a memory leak which took us offline for several minutes, but we got around it temporarily by cranking ourselves up to 20 Heroku dynos. We were eventually able to resolve the issue, but around midnight, we had to triage our experimental API hosting feature. This was unfortunate, but not that big of a deal (Treeline ships with a CLI tool that you can use to develop against your app locally)
By around 1AM PST, we had around 3,000 signups, and that was just fine. I was relieved everything was working again for the people we’d let in so far. But then things got weird.
I’d heard of Product Hunt, but being rather disconnected from the mainstream Silicon Valley scene, I didn’t really know much more beyond the general idea: a website that lists a bunch of product launches you can upvote every day.
But nothing could prepare me for what happened next.
While I learned a lot last week, perhaps the most surprising thing I discovered was Product Hunt. It does not drive more web traffic than “official” media channels or Hacker News… but it drives positive discussion, valid questions and actual early adopters. It brought us some of our most influential and active users from outside of the Sails.js community- people who actually use our platform.
As to “how?”…unfortunately, I have no idea. It’s possible that Treeline was a fluke, or that developer tools are just a particularly good fit for the Product Hunt community (as of today, our launch is the 15th-most-upvoted post in the history of the site). But either way, I can’t emphasize enough how important the platform was for us. If you’re a startup founder putting together a lauch plan, you should definitely make sure you’ve got ProductHunt near the top of your list.
Here are some of the things I would do differently next time:
1. Special invite code for the Product Hunt community
Even though we weren’t ready to allow open access to our platform, I should have thrown together a quick hack to allow people from Product Hunt to enter a special invite code which was time-boxed for 12 hours. Then we could have shared that invite code as a comment on the post and let more of the Product Hunt community access the site
2. Tweet button after signing up
We forgot to put a “Tweet” button on the “Thanks for signing up for our beta!” page until days after our launch. This could have added an additional factor of exponential growth, since every developer who signed up would have been reminded to let their friends and coworkers know about Sails.js/Treeline (we also could have put a “Tweet” button on every circuit so that new developers would know that they could share a permalink to the their app, or even down to a specific route or model. It was a feature we spent a lot of time working on, but no one even knew about it)
3. Spend more time in Product Hunt
We didn’t realize how much of our growth was coming from Product Hunt until we were all about to pass out and go to sleep. If we had spent less time in Twitter and Hacker News comments, and more time granting beta access to folks on Product Hunt, we could have done even better than we did.
Anyway, hopefully reading about our launch was helpful for you. And if you’re using Treeline, thanks so much for your support. Your early involvment and feedback is crucial to the success of our mission: eliminating repetitive backend development forever.
Feel free to hit me up if you have any questions.
PS. if you’re still waiting on your Treeline invite, please be patient— we’re still trying to keep up. If you’re anxious to get started, give @treelinehq a shout on Twitter and me or someone on our team will help you cut the line.