Obvious Corp. Wants its Startups to Build the Next Wikipedia, Not Zynga

By Erin Griffith , written on August 20, 2012

From The News Desk

Last week two startups launched out of Obvious Corp., the incubator hybrid started by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone. One is Medium, a blogging platform that came out of nowhere.

The other is Branch, a discussion board I've been anticipating since co-founder Josh Miller wrote about his company's move from San Francisco to New York.

Branch (formerly Roundtable) moved to New York but the company's philosophy couldn't be more Silicon Valley. That's thanks to Williams and Stone, who pushed the company to make a world-changing technology platform without worrying about how to monetize it.

When Branch began pitching itself to investors earlier this year, the company's founders proudly proclaimed that the young company was already profitable. They were selling "sponsored branches" for $50 a pop.

The Obvious team told them to stop that immediately. They said, "If you're worried about being profitable now, you're not building a big business," Miller says. Branch should build something that could change the world and think about profitability later, they advised.

"They'd rather have us build the next Wikipedia than the next Zynga," Miller says.

The timing of this is a little uncanny. Williams and much of his regime were pushed out of Twitter, a company that has inarguably changed the world. Over the last month, though, Twitter has stirred up controversy with new restrictions to developers building with its API. Twitter announced its new terms to an unhappy developer community--they've accused the company of caring more about profits than users. With an $8 billion valuation, Twitter has been under increasing pressure to deliver revenue on it's world-changing but unprofitable platform. Developers hate the move, but investors defend it.

Lucky for Branch and Medium, Williams and Stone don't appear poised to pull a Twitter.

Branch no longer offers sponsorships. Its plan to white label its discussion platform has been scrapped. For now, the site, still in invite-only mode, is available for users to start discussions, invite people to weigh in, and embed those discussions wherever they choose. The site will open an API for publishers to build into, should they choose.

The site isn't out to replace commenting systems like Disqus or Livefyre. But, in theory, it could. Comments sections on websites haven't radically changed in the last 15 years, Miller says. Publishers think they need to capture conversations on their sites, but those conversations are still happening all over the web. Branch wants to be a central place for them to happen.

The feature Miller is most excited about is the ability to "branch" conversations. When a question is posed, off-topic answers lead users to a new discussion. Even the best, high quality comments sections are huge and difficult to navigate. Rather than wade through the hundreds of side conversations on, say, a Fred Wilson blog post, a user can follow each tangent to its own page. Further, people who weren't invited to join a discussion can weigh in by starting their own branch.

Branch can be used like a forum, and since it is embeddable, it can live anywhere. Miller says the company will soon launch partnerships with publishers, which may lead to (gasp!) revenue.