Commenting Wars

Branching Out: How Josh Miller Went From Princeton Dropout to Alley Darling in Just Nine Months

Branch's neophyte cofounder hits the big time with a new idea for how to fix online commenting.
josh miller Branching Out: How Josh Miller Went From Princeton Dropout to Alley Darling in Just Nine Months

Mr. Miller (joshm.co)

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Josh Miller, the precocious 21-year-old Princeton dropout behind Branch, one of tech’s most buzzed-about new startups, took The Observer on a tour of the Obvious Corporation, a growing operation helmed by the cofounders of Twitter that advises and invests in an elite set of fledgling tech companies, Branch among them.

The San Francisco office radiated industrial California coziness, with tall windows and exposed pipes, dark grey walls and a fridge overflowing with Vitamin Water. Mr. Miller, who is tall and insouciant, with the laid-back linguistic tenor of one who spent his childhood in Santa Monica, bustled about the office, seemingly unthreatened by the fact that he is both much younger and less experienced than the majority of Obvious employees.

“Check this out!” he called from a breezy conference room with a panoramic view of downtown San Francisco. He pointed to a wet bar fully stocked with top-shelf bottles. “You know, I’m just out of college, so sometimes I’m, like, afraid to drink any of this because it’s so expensive! It’s like, where’s the Franzia?” he joked, referring to the cheap boxed wine favored by destitute college students.

Though he will return to New York this month, Mr. Miller has been working from Obvious’ offices since January due to the success of Branch, a platform he founded last summer that attempts to make online discussion easier and more worthwhile. The Branch website looks a lot like the comments section of a blog, though with a simpler and sleeker interface, and allows users to host invite-only discussions, ideally between experts or those who are passionate about a given subject.

“Thoughtfulness makes Branch different,” Biz Stone, a cofounder of Twitter and one of Branch’s advisors, told The Observer via email. “Every decision made in building the platform was given craftsman-like attention, and that sort of attention has an impact on the way people perceive and use the service.”

At its core, Branch is an attempt to resolve a raging debate among Internet enthusiasts over how to fix the “online conversation” problem. Website commenting sections have long been the target of Internet trolls and snarky know-it-alls, with anonymity generally exacerbating the problem.

But it’s not just about the trolls: One of the far-reaching problems with online discussion is that it’s open to everyone—the people we’re happy to hear from and also those we’d prefer to ignore. On the Branch blog, Mr. Miller wrote that he sees a “profound power inherent in the open exchange of information.” Branch, with its invite-only model and focus on quality conversations among identified users, is one of the first well-backed attempts at revitalizing online discourse, but it’s also a gated community seeking to promote intelligent dialogue: unlike most of the Internet, no dumb, off-topic or anonymous opinions are allowed.

Of his initial pitch meeting with Mr. Miller, Obvious Corporation cofounder Jason Goldman said that he believed “Branch was a big disruptive idea and was obvious in the sense that all the best ideas are obvious in retrospect.”

Some of Manhattan’s media moguls, including Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, have also been experimenting with ways to revamp online conversation. Recently, Mr. Denton told the tech news blog GigaOm that he believes Mr. Miller is one of the most interesting people in tech.

“Josh is working on a hard and important problem—online conversation—that hasn’t been solved yet,” said Jonah Peretti, cofounder of BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post and one of Branch’s advisors. “He really wants to solve the problem and will do whatever it takes to make it happen, even if it is hard, even if it takes longer.”

Since last summer, Mr. Miller has morphed from being a Princeton soc major to a college dropout with a half-baked idea to a cofounder of a well-funded, highly hyped company with advisors like Mr. Peretti and Twitter cofounders Mr. Stone and Ev Williams.

“If you had told me I was going to drop out of school, I would have said you were crazy,” Mr. Miller announced, after we’d settled into comfortable leather-backed office chairs in one of Obvious’ sun-drenched conference rooms. Behind him, a red plastic pig stared out at us from behind a glass dome. “If you had told me I was going to move to San Francisco, I would have said you were crazy. And then three months later move back [to New York]? I would have thought you were fucking insane.”

Mr. Miller attributes much of Branch’s swift rise to the fact that New York’s nimble tech scene yields myriad chances to meet with tech types who are eager to help. “You know how busy BuzzFeed is. But still, Jonah took this random meeting with this kid who had some sketches on a piece of paper,” he said, still clearly astounded by his luck.

Up until last year, Mr. Miller was known primarily for his activism in the education sector. While still in high school, he was named a CNN Hero Finalist in the “Young Wonder” category for devising a scholarship program that aimed to alleviate racial tensions following the death of his friend Eddie Lopez, who was killed in a gang-related drive-by shooting. At just 18 years old, Mr. Miller spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival, before shifting focus entirely to delve into the tech sector.

As a junior at Princeton, Mr. Miller decided to intern at a startup called Meetup. The company’s cofounder Scott Heiferman brought him to his very first New York Tech Meetup, an event held monthly at NYU that is typically packed with more than 750 tech enthusiasts.

“It was the coolest experience,” gushed Mr. Miller. “The energy of the room was incredible. Especially as someone who doesn’t know tech, it was like—oh, my God! People are excited, and they boo when you talk about revenue, and it was just a really cool environment.”

It was at this event, under the wing of Mr. Heiferman, that Mr. Miller decided to become an entrepreneur. At a startup workshop, he teamed up with an NYU student named Hursh Agrawal; together, the two devised the plan for Roundtable, an early prototype that would eventually become Branch.

By the time the 48-hour event had ended, and his project had won the competition portion of the weekend, Mr. Miller had found a potential technical cofounder and an idea that he was passionate about.

Eventually, he also persuaded Cemre Güngör, an NYU masters student and part-time designer at twee e-commerce site Etsy, to join the team. In order to woo Mr. Güngör, Mr. Miller told him that they would pay him twice as much as he was making at Etsy, which was a boldfaced lie—Roundtable had absolutely no capital at the time.

“What a hustler,” recalled Mr. Gungor via email. “I knew the company didn’t have any money, [but] liked the energy of Josh and Hursh so much that I decided to start informally helping out.”

With the team assembled and well-known advisors onboard, Roundtable exploded. After it was named one of the 20 hottest startups by Business Insider, investors started indicating interest, and Mr. Miller took a leave of absence from Princeton to focus on his startup full-time, much to the chagrin of his mother.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com