Josh Miller needed advice. His startup, Branch, would soon be going live to the world, after months of invite-only beta testing, and Miller wanted to pick the brain of someone who had gone through the experience before. He reached out through an investor to David Karp, the CEO of Tumblr, who was happy to meet. Miller then traveled six avenues east and seven blocks north by foot to Tumblr's headquarters in New York's Flatiron district.
"I walked from [our] offices because I was nervous—I had so many questions for him," Miller recalls. "I spent most of the hour [we met] just grilling him."
The reason for his enthusiasm? He was about to learn whether Branch, an online conversation platform designed for invite-only debates, could scale to the general public while still retaining its secret sauce. The beauty of Branch is that only users involved in a specific conversation topic can invite others to join, a smart mechanism to filter out the noise and negativity common of high-volume sharing services like Twitter. With $2 million in funding, and backing from BuzzFeed's Jonah Peretti, Branch got off to a promising start, thanks to high-level web debates between thought leaders such as Nick Bilton, MG Siegler, and Anil Dash. But when Branch goes live to outsiders, Miller wondered, "How do you keep content high quality? How do you keep it relevant? How do you make sure that it's open to everyone but that it doesn't turn into the flame wars you see in comment sections?"
It's a challenge of scale that most every startup faces. As Groupon's audience reached new heights, for example, the company struggled to keep its daily deals appealing to its ballooning user base. As Instagram becomes the go-to photo-sharing platform for hundreds of millions of shutterbugs, cofounder Kevin Systrom must figure out how to keep the service feeling personal. And as Pinterest's e-commerce platform continues to evolve, the startup's cofounders have to make sure its content remains highly curated and compelling. Miller offers insight from his own experience: "Originally, we were trying to be approachable to the average person because we wanted to create this platform that pleased everybody," he says. "But what we quickly realized was that that [approach] doesn't please anybody."
It's a lesson David Karp crystallized for him during their recent meeting. When Tumblr was first getting off the ground, Karp focused on promoting the site's feature set to its users, emphasizing why users would want to take advantage of the blogging platform. "But now when you go to Tumblr, it's all like, 'Follow the world's creators,'" Miller says. "So I asked [David Karp], 'Do you think you wasted time in the early days focusing on the features of your blogging platform? Shouldn't you have just skipped to suggesting that users start following the world's creators?'"
Karp's response? "He said, 'Heck no!'" Miller recalls, adding, "'What made Tumblr Tumblr was that in its first years, we just focused on our core small 1% set of users, who were creating most of our content and really loved our platform. We really wanted to just build features for them, and by getting them so addicted—really focusing on making them happy—it would allow our platform to grow and blossom. Now, we can focus on the other 99% of users but only because we had started with such a passionate group of users.'"
It was the same feedback Miller heard from Branch investor and Twitter cofounder Ev Williams. "Maybe in the long term we can get to the 99%, but what we realized is that there is a small group of people addicted to and passionate about Branch, and we should really focus on making them happy first," Miller says.
Toward this end, Branch is emphasizing features for its official launch to encourage participation through feedback, a streamlined publishing process, and Branch recommendations. The startup introduced a feature to highlight and comment on specific text from another user—sort of the digital equivalent of a magazine pull-quote—which Miller feels will make Branches more welcoming. "It grabs what's important before you take a deeper dive," he explains. (Karp specifically suggested looking for ways to make the design more inviting to new users, so they'd feel more comfortable joining a conversation or starting their own.) The team also made the publishing process easier in order to foster conversation. ("We didn't want you to have to worry about making a narrative flow or the right topic sentences—you can just write in bullet points," Miller says.) And the service will keep track of the groups you're in and the Branches you follow to make smart recommendations for other conversations you might be interested in, so the platform doesn't become overwhelming like its noisy predecessors.
On Monday, Branch finally came out of invite-only beta. "We don't think the quality of Branches will change," Miller says. "We designed the product to inherently avoid that from happening."
[Image: Flickr user Đỷḹḁṋ]