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.

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.

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