News

University dropout’s startup acquired by Facebook

Josh Miller, originally a member of the Class of 2012, has sold the start-up he co-founded, called Branch, along with a sister company called Potluck, to Facebook last month for $15 million. Miller dropped out of Princeton in 2011.

Miller, who announced the sale via Facebook post on Jan. 13, said that he and the Branch team would be forming Facebook’s Conversations group, based in New York, with the goal of “helping people connect with others around their interests.” According to the post, Facebook’s pitch to Branch was, “Build Branch at Facebook scale!”

A spokesperson for Facebook wrote in a statement that the “acqui-hire” was intended to bring Branch’s team to work for Facebook. Miller and his co-founder, Hursh Agrawal, said that although Branch, for the time being, will continue to exist independently, its team will now officially work for Facebook.

Branch facilitates discussions between users on topics such as politics, technology and popular culture, bringing together those who are educated in the topic at hand to have a fruitful discussion. Potluck, on the other hand, offers a more casual setting in which users receive small bits of news and discuss what they find interesting.

“We’re going to be building similar things for Facebook,” Miller said in an interview with the Daily Princetonian.

Facebook recently announced that its News Feed, intended to show the “right content to the right people at the right time,” will now focus more on high-quality content such as news articles, as opposed to low-quality content such as memes. This goal intersects with services provided by Branch and Potluck.

Miller has been outspoken in the past about what he perceives to be Facebook’s flaws. In May 2013, Miller posted on Facebook saying that he thought the introduction of smartphones would pose problems for Facebook; on smartphones every app has one’s contacts and one’s photos, whereas on desktop computers Facebook was the only app that gathered this information in one place. Miller also criticized Mark Zuckerberg’s lobbying group, FWD.us, for effectively bribing politicians.

Even after selling Branch and Potluck to Facebook, however, Miller’s praise was not unequivocal. After the sale, Miller wrote an article for Medium titled, “Why I’m Bullish on Facebook,” in which he said that Facebook needs to create more valuable standalone brands.

“If the next Facebook products are going to be successful, and truly take advantage of the size and density of their network, my hunch is they’ll need to spend as much time working on new brand design as they do on product design,” Miller said in the article.

Branch originally had a number of investors, including Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone and BuzzFeed co-founder Jonah Peretti.

“Bringing precepts to the Internet”

Miller said that Branch functions as a kind of “precept for the Internet,” where people educated in a particular topic can discuss topics in a new setting.

He explained that the idea behind Branch was partially inspired by his time at the University, during which he noticed a significant difference between the ways ideas were discussed in lecture and the way they were discussed in precept.

In lectures, Miller said, students usually have to take what professors say at face value and can rarely contradict them. In precepts, however, he noted, people have the opportunity to call each other out.

“A place where it gets really interesting is in precept, where you have the annoying guy in the corner debating with that girl, but like they make different points and they’re going back and forth and calling each other out on each other’s bullshit, and that’s what makes you understand the nuances of the debate and the different perspectives,” Miller said. “So I thought we should create that for the Internet.”

Just before the 2012 election, Branch brought together Jodi Kantor, author of The Obamas,” Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, authors of “The Real Romney,” David Maraniss, author of “Barack Obama: The Story”, Jason Horowitz, a Washington Post reporter who covered Romney’s campaign and James Fallows of The Atlantic. They were given five “artifacts,” provided by Frontline, which were used to frame a discussion about the character of the two candidates. The six continued their discussion for about a week, often linking to other relevant articles written by each other and by their coworkers.

Discussions like these, Miller said, are useful because they allow users to understand the different sides of an argument rather than allow one person to articulate their opinion without immediate challenge.

Branch does not limit itself to politics or any one topic. Recent branches include a discussion on the pricing of the iPad mini, Homeland Season 2 and Twitter’s new blocking policies.

However, Miller noted, Branch often has the effect of putting its users on stage as though they were delivering a lecture in Dodds Auditorium, which might intimidate some users. To answer this, the Branch team created Potluck, which is more casual. In Potluck, users receive snippets of news and can comment and share what they find interesting with other users.

The Lean Mean Startup Machine

Former New York University student and Branch co-founder Hursh Agrawal explained that Branch first started when Miller entered the “weekend idea generation” competition Lean Startup Machine the summer of 2011 and joined Agrawal’s team. There, the pair, along with two other college students, conceptualized and pitched Branch. Agrawal noted that they ended up winning the competition.

Agrawal explained that he, Miller and two other men, who were the only college students there, started discussing the idea of how to get panel discussions online. Seeing that turntable.com was working for music, they decided to try out that idea for discussion.

Agrawal, who dropped out of NYU that year, noted that he and Miller both decided that the only way their project could get off the ground was if they both left school.

“We sort of looked at each other and we were like, ‘This is not going to happen if we go back’,” Agrawal said. “We both ended up just leaving school.”

Branch consisted of just Miller and Agrawal for the first few months, Agrawal said. The two lived together in New York during Branch’s initial stages.

“It’s funny because with work he’s so efficient, he goes above and beyond, but with his personal life, he’ll definitely get very lazy in the mornings,” Agrawal said. “And so he’ll just wash his clothes and leave them in the dryer. And then every morning, he’ll just run the dryer before he gets in the shower, to get his clothes all toasty, and then just put them on out of the dryer, which is probably a gross waste of electricity.”

Eventually, Branch added Cemre Güngör, a designer, who eventually became a co-founder. At the time of the acquisition, there were nine people on the Branch team.

Agrawal said that he and Miller have not yet made a decision as to what will happen to Branch over the next couple of years.

“Our goal is to keep it around,” Agrawal said.

Time at Princeton

Miller said that he does not regret going to Princeton at all, even if he only attended it for three years. At the University, Miller was a sociology major and a member of Tiger Inn and the fraternity Zeta Psi.

Travis McNamara ’12, who met Miller freshman year in SPA 101: Beginner’s Spanish I and is now one of his roommates, said he was the type of guy who always had a lot of ideas and had always been interested in the technology startup scene.

“Every time you saw him, he’d sell you on this idea that’s going to change the world, and every time he did it you always believed it,” McNamara said.

Miller himself, however, noted that although he completed three summer internships with firms such as IBM and Meetup, he thought of them as stressful and found Branch, his after-work project, much more enjoyable.

“I just realized, you know, a Princeton degree would be nice and it would be fun to finish the year with my friends, but I’ve never been this excited and happy about working,” Miller said.

Both McNamara and Kelly Shannon ’12, Miller’s other roommate, said that Miller was very social and outgoing at Princeton, and McNamara noted that Miller’s personality has changed very little since then.

“You would never know he’s in the position he’s in right now, even when the talks with Facebook were first starting, it was very casual. He’s still the same guy, which is great,” McNamara said. “The only time he’s ever brought up that he’s running a company is when we ask him to do the dishes or something. He’ll say he’s too busy running a company.”

comments powered by Disqus