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.

Mr. Miller’s success is attributable in part to his charm, which was mentioned by almost everyone we spoke to. He is also fiercely determined: He once drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back in one day just to meet with Jason Goldman, a cofounder of Obvious.

“I definitely think he thought I was a little crazy at first,” Mr. Miller joked.

“[Josh] is a natural, charismatic leader who people want to root for,” Mr. Goldman said.

Mr. Miller is also take-charge and highly organized; he meticulously scheduled every detail of our interview, including when and where it would take place and precisely how long each portion—the tour, the interview and lunch—would last. Somehow, in an industry bursting with dotcom veterans, his age and relative naiveté haven’t hindered his growth but have served to make him all the more endearing.

“Josh is absolutely relentless and determined,” said Mr. Peretti, whose initial wisdom—that Branch’s vision might be too hard to accomplish, and that Mr. Miller should stay in school—was mostly ignored by Mr. Miller.

After the tour of Obvious, we walked the few blocks over to The Grove, a busy lunchtime spot in downtown San Francisco that boasts an ethereal tree strung with lights. At the register, Mr. Miller swatted away our credit card.

“My mother will kill me if I let you pay,” he insisted, a reminder that, successful or not, he is really young.

“Josh is incredibly focused and responsible at work, but this doesn’t always translate into his personal life,” Mr. Agrawal told us via email. “He is so lazy with laundry that after it’s done, he just leaves it in the dryer—like, perpetually—and runs the dryer for 10 minutes every morning to warm up and de-wrinkle his clothes for the day.”

Next month, the Branch bunch will return to New York to work out of the Betaworks office, another startup incubator that backs them. Despite the ups and downs of the current media landscape, Mr. Miller said that he likes that New York is media-oriented. “I think a lot of tech companies are scared and allergic to the word ‘media,’” he told us. “They’re like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t scale!’ But we’re really interested in that space, so New York is perfect for us.”

“I’m going to try to take a lot of meetings on the Highline,” he added.

A few weeks after our interview with Mr. Miller, Mr. Denton introduced a new commenting platform across all Gawker Media properties that focuses on empowering users, a seven figure investment. Oddly enough, he decided to call each discussion thread a “branch.”

“Well, the idea of comments as a tree is owned neither by Branch nor us,” Mr. Denton told us by email. “Not going to avoid using a word because it’s in their name.” He pointed us to emails he had sent as early as 2008 that discuss the idea of comment threads as trees and branches. Just after we reached out, Mr. Denton started a “branch” on the site justifying his decision to employ the term by printing an old internal email that had used it. There have been discussions about licensing the technology to other companies.

Mr. Miller said he had “no comment” on the incident, but it was clear that the Branch team was not thrilled with Gawker’s terminology. Eventually, he admitted to the The New York Times, “I just wish [Mr. Denton] would have used a different name.”

Mr. Miller seemed mostly unfazed by this taste of cut-throat competition. While start-ups like his don’t have a great survival rate, for now he remains marvelously tanned and earnest, eager to return to New York and build the next great Internet company.

After lunch, as we were both rising to leave, Mr. Miller had a question for us. “Can I give you a hug?” he asked, extending his arms.

A version of this story appeared in The New York Observer on May 2nd.

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