How Inbox Zero hit #1 on Product Hunt

Two weeks ago I launched Inbox Zero on Product Hunt. It finished in first place with over 1,000 upvotes and gained thousands of new users.

This post is about the growing trend of commercial open source (COSS) and why you should consider making your next project open source. I’ll also give you actionable tips on how to rank first on Product Hunt.

Inbox Zero helps you clean up your inbox fast. It lets you bulk unsubscribe from newsletters, automate emails with an AI assistant, automatically block cold emails, and provides email analytics.

I also run a YouTube channel for devs called Learn from Open Source.

Commercial Open Source (COSS)

Commercial open source projects have been getting a lot of attention lately. Some of the recent first place finishes on Product Hunt include Cal, Posthog, Papermark, OpenStatus, Novu, Documenso, and many more.

Just this week we’ve seen Maybe Finance go from a dead closed source project to a viral open source project with 12,000 stars.

Maybe is a personal finance app that was founded in 2021. They raised money and put $1m into developing the product, but they weren’t able to make it work. So they shut it down.

A year later the founder decided to open source it. His tweet about open sourcing it went viral with 500k impressions, which led to the 12,000 GitHub stars, and 23 contributors adding code to the project.

Because of success stories like these, we will see a huge wave of new startups building open source products.

Some larger open source success stories include GitLab ($400m funding, now public), Sentry ($200m funding), Metabase ($51m funding), Cal ($32m funding), and PostHog ($27m funding).

Why open source?

There are many reasons to open source. For one, users love open source products.

It brings transparency and credibility. I don’t know what TikTok does with my data. But if I want to know what PostHog is I can look at the code. This builds trust in the product.

People can self-host the product. Or at least have the optionality to self-host in the future. This prevents future lock-in and extortionate pricing.

People love openness. Just a take a look at the build in public crowd. Open source is a form of build in public.

People can improve the product, fix bugs, and add their own integrations.

Open source products have longevity. The product will live on even if the founders stop working on it one day. Many startups close. But an open source product can always be self-hosted, so will never fully disappear.

As a founder there are even more benefits to open source. It provides a strong marketing boost. Distribution is a key problem for many founders. But open source projects have a strong base of support. A lot of the members in the COSS Discord were influential in helping Inbox Zero achieve first on Product Hunt. Any time a COSS founder launches, we all chip in to support.

Being a COSS product is almost a cheat code for reaching first place on Product Hunt. OpenStatus, Papermark, Documenso, and Formbricks have no or little funding. But all finished in first place garnering a lot of attention.

Being open source also means anyone can contribute to the project to improve it or fix bugs. Inbox Zero already has developers from all over the world contributing to making it better. Top open source projects have hundreds of contributers.

Some developers contribute to improve their CV. Others do it because they want to improve the product as users themselves. Or they just want to help build something cool.

Open source projects also have strong communities built around them. More so than closed source products. As developers can meaningfully contribute to the project and impact its direction. And its important for contributors to have a place to collaborate.

New ways to market

Being open source opens up new ways to market too. Trending on GitHub is a real way to get attention. This is especially helpful for dev focused products. But it’s helpful for any product. Cal is an open source Calendly alternative. It has 26,000 stars. It’s likely that some of the developers in your company have heard about it because they’ve seen it trending on GitHub. And they can encourage their team to use it.

The same applies to Posthog, an open source product analytics alternative to Amplitude or MixPanel. Devs will be involved in the decision as to which analytics product to use. And that it trends on GitHub may be why they know about it.

When something trends on GitHub it doesn’t just happen once. It can trend weekly. Cal and Posthog are both VC funded companies. But smaller companies like Dub created by Steven Tey can and do trend too. Dub has 14,000 GitHub stars.

Privacy focused clients

Open source projects can be self-hosted. And this opens up a new category of buyers that may not have bought otherwise. You can sell to governments and institutions that are extra careful with their data.

Cal can sell their booking system to hospitals because they can self host it. A client that might not buy from Calendly for privacy concerns.

And Cal can make good money when selling to the hospital. The hospital will need support. There’s a high chance they don’t have the in-house team to self-host it. So the Cal team will help them deploy it on-premise.

Organizations with large budgets, low technical resources, and high privacy demands can be excellent clients for open source companies.

Anyone that cares deeply about privacy is a potentially amazing client for an open source product.

Won’t someone just steal my product if the code is public?

The most common question I hear about building an open source product is whether someone could steal it.

Well I have some news for you. There are many open source products you can already “steal”.

Sentry and GitLab are two large COSS companies. But doing a quick Perplexity and ChatGPT search, neither seems to have competitors that cloned them. They do have competitors of course. But those competitors wrote all their own code.

The same is true of all the other companies I mentioned.

Cal is doing $2m ARR. It’s a working business you could take. But I haven’t seen anyone take their code and customers. And the same goes for all the other apps I mentioned.

Cal even has a license that would allow someone to clone it legally. Most of the codebase is AGPL v3. So as long as you keep the codebase open source too you can create a Cal competitor. But in practice it rarely happens.

So why don’t we see more clones?

  • It’s hard to build a brand and user base. Code alone doesn’t bring users. And if your brand is that of a clone, you’re unlikely to get far.
  • Lack of differentiation. Why would someone choose the clone over the original?
  • People need support and reliability. You’re unlikely to get that from a clone.
  • Cal has built a strong community and ecosystem. Not something that’s easy to clone. Especially when you’re a clone.
  • Cal has deep in-house technical expertise on its product. The clone doesn’t. When Cal makes a breaking change the clone could be in a lot of trouble. Not to mention any license changes they might make.

Code is largely a commodity today. With a few hundred thousand dollars you can clone most apps. Whether they're open or closed source.

The hard part is building the business. Which includes distribution. It would be hard to build significant traction as a 1:1 copycat.

Rocket Internet was famous for copying businesses and had some success doing it. But for the most part, running a copycat company doesn’t work.

Now despite everything I’ve just said there are legitimate concerns to letting your code be public.

It can be dangerous to open source if you have some secret sauce you don’t want competitors getting their hands on. The hundreds of hours you spent perfecting your AI prompt - now anyone can easily steal it.

And there are cases of businesses being copied.

There are good reasons to open source despite these risks. But it's up to you to decide whether the pros outweigh the cons.

The same can be said of "build in public". There are both pros and cons to sharing financials publicly. The upside is the marketing. The downside is that there are people that will copy you when you succeed.

And the same is true when pitching your business idea to a VC. It's something every company goes through. But it would be naive to think VCs never exploit the information you share with them.

Open source is a form of sharing information about your company. You're sharing the code.

Won’t someone just run it for free and not pay me?

Another common concern people have is whether the company will lose revenue to self-hosters. Instead of paying $10 per month to use Inbox Zero, you could clone the project for free and self-host. Which would hurt Inbox Zero's revenue.

It’s especially bad if you have an expensive product. To save the $10-19 per month fee that Inbox Zero charges for the pro version, it might not be worth the effort to self-host. The time it will take you to set it up, and then run the servers yourself, you’re better off paying the monthly subscription. Not to mention 99% of people can’t self-host. You’d need a developer to do it.

But if a company is being asked to pay a $50,000 monthtly subscription for a SaaS product, the company may decide it's cheaper to self-host and not pay that fee.

And this really happens. Why would you spend $50,000 per month if you can self-host for $5,000 per month including engineering hours?

So open source sucks, right?

Not so fast. This disadvantage is also an advantage.

That you can’t be tied into an unreasonable contract that you’re forced to accept is a massive plus for the company deciding between different tools. When choosing between HubSpot or an open source alternative, you may well decide to use the open source alternative because of this future flexibility.

The company may decide to go with the cloud version of PostHog knowing that it can migrate in the future. And it’s happy to pay a monthly subscription fee to PostHog till then.

Product Hunt

Now on to the Product Hunt tips.

I’ve seen SaaS influencers proclaim Product Hunt dead. Or "Don't bother doing Product Hunt".

But they couldn't be more wrong.

Ranking high on Product Hunt can bring in thousands of users and sales.

It did for Inbox Zero.

Inbox Zero Growth

The launch led to Inbox Zero being featured in popular newsletters such as Ben’s Bites and The Rundown AI. Newsletters that are read by hundreds of thousands of people.

Tweets about the launch received hundreds of thousands of views.

And the GitHub repo went from 200 stars to 1,200 stars.

Product Hunt won't help every business. Not every launch translates into sales. You still need a good product that is relevant to the PH community. But you’d be silly to outright dismiss it as a place to launch. At the very least it will boost your SEO. And thousands of people seeing your product is never a bad thing.

Practical tips for launching on Product Hunt

Here are some practical tips to help you have a successful launch. Many of these tips will help all types of projects. Not just open source apps.

This is the Product Hunt page for Inbox Zero for reference as I talk about some of the things I did:

I’ve also created a video that goes into more detail here:


Organize a list of people that will support your launch. My list was 100 people. It was largely from my own network. Both in online communities and friends that work for startups. I didn't network specifically for this launch. Although some people do this, it's a lot of extra effort.

You can also add communities to the list. Many Slack or Discord communities have a channel to promote yourself. These are a good places to get some extra eyeballs. And of course LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook groups, and other social media platforms you’re on.

You could skip organizing the list ahead of time. But it adds a bit less pressure to the day of the launch if you have it organised.

I used a mini Notion CRM myself and had a status column for each person.

I didn’t spend time asking family members to vote, as non Product Hunt users don’t help your ranking. The people I asked to support my launch had already used Product Hunt before.

I also posted a video on my YouTube channel which has 2,000 subscribers. And emailed 20,000 newsletter subscribers midway through the day. But by this point I was already in first place by a long way. I’d be surprised if those led to even 50 more votes. But I did keep pushing throughout the day to ensure I stayed first.

Open source launches

Being open source is almost a cheat code to getting a first place finish on Product Hunt. The open source community will rally around your product to push it to number one. Make sure to post in as many open source communities as you can when you launch (although don’t spam).

What time to launch

Don't overthink the day of the week you launch. If you launch on a less competitive day you stand a better chance of hitting top spot. Which might be better than coming third on a more popular day.

I launched the day after Christmas. It wasn’t planned to be that exact day. I wanted to launch two weeks earlier but the launch was pushed back as I ironed out the product.

A small benefit of launching that day is that companies likely avoided it as their employees are off work. Did launching that day impact my reach? I don’t know, and frankly don’t really care. I still managed to get 800 votes on the day of the launch and it’s now climbed above 1,000.

In terms of timing, you should aim to launch at the start of each day. This can be scheduled in advance. I woke up at 3am to make sure I was awake when my product went live. I spent an hour sharing it with friends and communities before going back to sleep.


Product Hunt has said you no longer need a hunter. But I made sure to have one. The Product Hunt team doesn't feature every product that launches on the homepage. So I felt adding a hunter would give me a better chance of the PH team selecting Inbox Zero to be featured. It also adds some legitimacy to the launch.

Product quality

Build a good product that solves real needs. Far too many people believe all you need for a launch is good marketing and a network. Those can definitely help. But long term for your product to succeed and grow beyond the launch, it has to provide real value to users.

There are products that do well on marketing alone. Even though the product is subpar. But there are far too many people building subpar products that don’t solve a need and then blame their failure on bad marketing instead of poor product quality. Don’t be that person.

Marketing copy

Tell a good story. Keep your copy clear. Remove the fluff and buzz words. Aim to solve real problems. Don’t come up with generic taglines. If you’re bad at a copywriting, the easiest thing you can do is to just tell me plain and simple what you do.

If the product is online video editing software, don’t use “Get your product in front of millions”. That might be compelling copy for a marketing tool. But it isn’t for an online editor. “Create professional videos in minutes” is a better tagline.

Launch Video

There are apps that launch without a video. But if you're going to add one, here are my tips.

I built up my video editing skills over the last few months from launching my YouTube channel. I'm still far from being a pro. But the basics:

  • Use a tool like Loom or Screen Studio to record.
  • Descript is great for trimming out the "umms" and other filler words. "Sort of" and "like" are some of my filler words. Descript gets rid of them quickly.
  • Tools like CapCut or Da Vinci Resolve can help to trim even further. CapCut is free and my recommendation for those without experience. Other tools like Veed and iMovie are also great.

Don't overcomplicate things. For most people recording on Loom is enough. Loom also has built in editing functionality to cut out the pauses.

Target a minute or so for the video. Don't bore people.

The flow I use myself:

  • Screen Studio to record.
  • Descript to remove filler words.
  • Da Vinci Resolve to further edit out the pauses. I have more control with Da Vinci than I do with Screen Studio or Descript which is why I do this.

I have a microphone, and improved lighting. And I've started to adjust the audio when I speak too loudly. But none of these things really make a difference. The main focus should be on telling a good story about your product and explaining concisely what it does.

Another trick I use is recording short segments. So 10-20 seconds on each feature. And then stitching it together in Da Vinci Resolve. Doing this means I can make a mistake and fix it without having to rerecord the whole video.

A lot of my early YouTube videos were done in one take though. So don't overthink this either. You can go a long way without any editing.

Maker copy

Product Hunt allows the maker to add a comment. For the maker copy, I recommend keeping it short. Use short paragraphs. Put in a link for the user action you want to drive. That might be a sign up. Or a follow on Twitter. This is where the reader gets to learn about you and your story.

Product Images

For images, I actually didn't love many of the examples I saw from others on Product Hunt.

What I'd recommend here is to create a simple slideshow. I created mine on Figma but you can use any tool. Watch this video to see exactly how I did this.

Don't fill up the slides with text. A few words per slide and a graphic is more than enough. People might not even click the images. So keeping it as simple as possible is most effective.

Remember, people are assessing many different products. The easier you can make it for them to digest what your product is about, the higher the chance you have of getting their vote. And hopefully signing up for your product.

Much of the above won't make or break your product. I've seen plenty of products hit number one without a video, with poor slides, and with a subpar maker comment. But every little bit helps. And it's good practice for your product as a whole. The marketing copy you write for Product Hunt is the marketing copy you will use across your site.

It's the story you tell your customers, your team members, and your investors. Storytelling is a powerful skill every founder should work on.

It’s okay if you don’t get traction

Just because the Product Hunt community doesn’t like your product doesn’t mean you have a bad product that can’t be profitable. Most businesses don’t launch on Product Hunt and do just fine.

Launches are sometimes popularity contests. If you’re up against a YC company and 400 other companies in their batch are voting for them that day it can be hard to compete.

Don’t worry if you don’t come first. It’s hard and has a good amount of luck involved.


In summary, Open source is great. And Product Hunt is great.

Open source has changed the world and will continue to do so. Open source can be monetized and be sustainable.

Product Hunt can be an excellent driver of traffic and sales.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to try Inbox Zero to automate your email and clean up your inbox.

You can follow me on Twitter at: elie2222.

And subscribe to my YouTube channel, Learn from Open Source.