Product Hunt Radio
Apr 22, 2020

How to bounce back as a maker with Josh Howarth


Great episode from Product Hunt Radio with Josh Howarth who founded Exploding Topics, an app that lets you find trending topics to build products or content around.

This story has a familiar structure... builds product just to make money, forgets to think about marketing, gets some customers but hits a wall and loses interest, builds something new to solve own problem, other people like it and want it too, grows, gets acquired.

Lessons learned

  • Josh spent 2 months building a product that he saw other people having success with. But didn't plan how he was going to distribute when launched. So no initial traction. You gotta have a marketing plan 🤦
  • Hustled to get some customers but after 6 months ran out of steam. Didn't know where to get more leads from. And had lost interest in the product (never really had interest) so felt like an uphill slog. You need some passion to keep at it so go for a space you're interested in.
  • Josh also noticed that other makers who were having success were tapping into growing trends eg Justin Jackson's Transistor (podcast hosting) and Pieter Levels with Nomad List.
  • So... he started looking for trends. And built some scripts to automate his research.
  • Thought that others might be interested so cleaned it up and turned into a simple app. Posted to Reddit to get feedback. Got traction. Reddit tip - don't market, value first and ask for feedback.
  • Next best thing to getting money for validating a project is getting emails. The Reddit post got subscribers.
  • Use iterative launches on platforms before going for the big ones. Get feedback, make changes and do the next launch.
  • It's easier when you are your own audience. Easier to market and sell to when you really know the problem first hand.
  • When an idea is working, you'll know - it will start to snowball by itself.
  • Writing updates publicly as a solo founder helps keep you accountable to what you're doing. It also attracts others to you (and sometimes support). And it can solidify your ideas instead of leaving them bouncing round your head.

On this episode Abadesi talks to Josh Howarth, co-founder of Exploding Topics.

In this episode they talk about...

His early days as a maker and what he would change if he could do things over again

“It’s not the case that you build it and they will come. It took me two months to build and then I was like, now what? I hadn’t thought at all about marketing channels.”

Josh talks about one of the projects that he created at the start of his journey to becoming a maker. He worked on a website plugin that he had seen other people implement where you spun a wheel to see what kind of discount code you would get for entering your email.

He says that he didn’t realize how difficult getting distribution for the plugin would be and spent a lot of his time after releasing it reaching out to different people trying to get business to sign up. He achieved some revenue from it but it seemed to quickly fizzle out.

“You can usually tell pretty quickly whether it will work or not if you’re putting it out there for people to see. I probably should have quit sooner, like after two months instead of six on my previous project.”

He realized that he didn’t have any passion for the project and that it would have been better to work on something that he cared deeply about. In hindsight, he also realized that he spent too much time working on it when it was fairly clear that it would always be a slog to try to keep the revenue up.

“If the goal is to run your own business, you should go for a space that you’re interested in because someone else who is passionate about it will beat you in the end.”

The genesis and evolution of Exploding Topics and the lessons he’s learned through the process

“It’s 100 times easier to bootstrap a profitable online business if you ride one of these big market trends. You will grow with the opportunity and the competition won’t be too fierce either. That’s when I started to build a project that would spot these trends, to scratch my own itch.”

His experience with his previous project led him to research emerging trends that he could potentially build an online business out of. He did a lot of research and turned his research project into a web app when he realized that the results might be of use to other people as well.

“I didn’t intend for it to become a product in itself but I decided I had solved this problem for me, I may as well turn it into a web app and see if other people are interested in it.”

He started to post the project on the web with lists of the top trends that he was seeing at the time, which proved to be very interesting to people. One day his site was near the top of Hacker News when his database went down, leading him to scramble to upgrade to a paid solution before losing all the traffic that he was getting.

He explains what he learned and what he would have done differently with Exploding Topics if he was starting over again.

“You can feel it when you have something that people like and that is taking off. With the with the previous SaaS app it felt like I was pushing like a boulder uphill, but this thing was like snowball, everywhere I posted it people loved it and it just kept growing and growing.”

How writing updates kept him accountable as a solo founder and his advice for finding a co-founder you can work well with

“Make sure there’s a good co-founder fit, make sure that you know them and they’re going to bring a lot.”

Josh says that it was very gratifying to see people use Exploding Topics to create their own sites based on emerging trends. This was what he had hoped to do with his original project with the web plugin.

He says that it was important as a solo founder to write updates on Medium for his users. This encouraged him to make sure that he was making progress consistently on the site, because he needed to show his users and readers that he was always working on it. He also heard a lot of useful feedback from users who would use the site and sometimes even from people who were simply following his journey.

He ended up taking on a co-founder for Exploding Topics via the sale of his site. He explains what the most important attributes in a co-founder are and why he and his co-founder work well together.

“Writing updates and keeping people updated on your progress is fantastic as a sole founder because it keeps you accountable. It also helps to clarify your thoughts and direction. It helps to get support from other people who reach out to offer support, advice and guidance.”

We’ll be back next week so be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Breaker, Overcast, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. 😸