As a hot, buzzy start-up in private beta, Branch has enjoyed advanced hype thanks to some high profile users and backers. But it also suffers from misconceptions as well because it’s not quite clear to the public what it will be. Is it a form of a private Twitter, or a comments replacement, a publishing tool or something completely different?
The service, which won’t go public for another six weeks, evolved from Miller’s first idea called Roundtable. That was initially framed as a high-brow content source, pulling in expert commentary from people on different topics. Branch has since been reshaped with the help of Twitter founders Ev Williams, Biz Stone and former Twitter VP of product Jason Goldman, who are investors along with SV Angel, Betaworks, Lerer Ventures and others. The service, which closed $2 million in seed funding in March, now allows people to pull in other people into multimedia chats that can be preserved with a URL and can evolve as participants invite others into the conversation.
I recently sat down with Miller, a 21-year-old Princeton drop-out, at his office at Betaworks and asked what the right analogy might be for the company. He said in some ways, Branch is trying to be a simplified version of the now deceased Google Wave, a comparison he has never talked about before. That may not inspire a lot of confidence, but it speaks to what Miller is really trying to do with Branch.
“I think the promise of Google Wave is really interesting. Ultimately, it was too complicated a product,” Miller said. “We’re focused on offering a very simple user experience. We’re really interested in the portability of conversations.”
Google Wave launched to a lot of fanfare in 2009, offering users a real-time tool for collaboration. But it died a year later after failing to gain user traction. Miller believes that Branch can replicate some of the spirit of Google Wave but re-imagined in a simpler format. Users can just initiate a conversation by inviting a person via email or through Twitter or through a bookmarklet that can turn a tweet or URL into a conversation. The conversation is public by default but hidden until someone shares the URL. Branch recently added the ability for people to view videos, photos and gifs inside a conversation. Users can add any one else to a conversation and there’s also a new way for viewers of the conversation to request an invitation.
“I’m trying to replicate a dinner conversation with a the ability to add a plus-one. You can just start with a group and the conversation and group can grow organically,” Miller said. “I think there’s a place for intimate direct conversations.”
Publications like Nieman Journalism Labs and TechCrunch have embedded Branch conversations on their site. The early uses on sites have led some to believe Branch was trying to be a replacement for commenting systems, albeit a pretty private one. A few months ago, Nick Denton instituted a new comments design with “branches,” which prompted speculation that Gawker had stolen Branch’s idea.
Miller said he isn’t trying to court any one use case. He’s hoping that users will find all kinds of different applications for Branch, whether it’s for internal corporate communications, sponsored forums, brain storming or as just a casual hangout area for friends.
But Branch also faces competition on various fronts. Commenting services, IM providers, blogging platforms, email threads, enterprise social services, group messaging start-ups or even Twitter and Storify also compete on some levels with the vision Branch is trying to promote. The challenge is for Branch to carve out enough use cases amid all those existing services while still projecting a coherent identity. But that, Miller admits, could be Branch’s weakness too if it can’t find one killer application.
“That’s my biggest worry. It could be amazing for a lot of things but not great for one,” said Miller. “But that’s our biggest opportunity too, with how many use cases there are.”
Miller has gradually learned to be open to the possibility that he might not have all the answers about his start-up. He said he was already leaning toward a more open approach with Roundtable when he went out to San Francisco in January to partner with Obvious Corp., the new venture by Williams, Stone and Goldman. It was there that he flipped his model away from a content site to a communications platform at the urging of Williams, who told him his users would ultimately help him figure out what the service would be.
That’s been one of many lessons in Miller’s crash course in start-up education. As a junior at Princeton, Miller interned at Meetup in New York. Last summer, he left his studies behind to pursue his first idea Roundtable. Huffington Post and Buzzfeed co-founder Jonah Peretti became an early advisor and initially helped steer him toward building a media company. Now, he’s guided most closely by Goldman, the former VP of product at Twitter who moved out from Obvious Corp.’s San Francisco to live in New York and advise Branch, which has relocated back to New York.
The company just hired its first iOS developer, who will be working to get Branch a mobile app. It’s also hired someone to coordinate with publishers, who want to use Branch on their sites. That could be part of Branch’s revenue story, which could also involve brands using Branch for sponsored forums.
I have to admit, the first time I heard about it, Branch sounded a little elitist. And it also made me believe that it would work more with users who had a big following of fans interested in seeing some interesting conversations preserved. But it looks like Branch is really trying to be more of an all-purpose tool. I, for one, was a little sad to see Google Wave go though I liked the idea of it more than the actual product. I’d like to see if Branch can evolve and become more of an every day tool in that same vein. It will be a tall order and there’s no guarantee Branch won’t face a similar fate as Google Wave.