With its Obvious roots, Branch and Facebook make strange bedfellows

By Michael Carney , written on January 13, 2014

From The News Desk

When Josh Miller founded Branch (then Roundtable) in 2011, it was an ambitious attempt at reinventing commenting and online discussions. But the company has struggled to drive user adoption and on a number of occasions has pivoted its strategy and product roadmap. Today the company was acquired by Facebook for $15 million – a modest return on the $2 million in venture capital it raised, but hardly a major success from a product impact point of view.

Branch was initially popular with much of Silicon Valley’s most public faces like MG Siegler, Mark Gurman, and John Gruber, but never managed to drive mass adoption or even awareness among the everyday internet users. In some ways, the product was solving a problem that only affects a narrow segment of the population: those with large audiences and a need to host orderly, public-facing discussions online. Not exactly online scrapbooking or photo-sharing in its appeal.

The company’s arch was similar in many ways to one of its most prominent backers, Obvious Corporation. Obvious is a product development studio, cum incubator and investment vehicle co-founded by Twitter founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone, along with Jason Goldman, a former Twitter VP Product and Google product manager. The trio had previously worked together on Blogger, both in its independent Pyra Labs days and following the company’s acquisition by Google.

At the time of Branch’s launch, one of the strongest arguments in favor of the new service was the collective experience of “the Blogger and Twitter guys.” Goldman quickly shifted his day-to-day focus to Branch, while Williams and Stone focused on the rest of the portfolio. But it doesn’t seem like that Obvious halo effect translated, either to Branch or to any of Obvious’ other ventures.

The Obvious team has dabbled in a number of different areas since leaving Twitter to focus full-time on the project beginning in 2011. This includes launching the next-gen blogging platform Medium, a nod back to the Blogger days, and more recently social search and Q&A platform, Jelly. Obvious also invested in Branch, Lift, Beyond Meat, GoodFit, and Neighborland. None of these products, however, have yielded a runaway success. Medium may be the most widely used out of all its portfolio products, although, like Branch, it remains largely the domain of tech insiders.

It’s little surprise that Obvious appears to be transitioning into more of a loose collaboration among friends, than a formal, all-consuming business. The venture simply hasn’t yielded the returns that you’d expect from a team of its caliber.

Another odd wrinkle in today’s acquisition news is that Facebook is the on the short list of the most hated competitors of both Twitter and Google, the two companies most closely associated with the Obvious triumvirate. Branch’s Miller has hardly been a fan of Facebook either, publishing a series of blog posts over the last two years criticising the company, and even Mark Zuckerberg personally.

In a December 2012 post titled, "Tenth grade tech thoughts," he concluded, "Facebook may have an irreversibly bad brand." In his May 2013 post, "The Next Facebook," Miller questioned Facebook’s ability to address its growing problem with mobile and questioned the service’s dominance now that effortless social networks exist with of our smartphone address books. The same month, in “ Breaks Its First Promise: To Be Different,” he chided the controversial Zuckerberg-backed lobbying group for “employing questionable lobbying techniques, misleading supporters, and not being transparent about the underlying values and long-term intentions of the organization.” Two weeks ago, he changed his tune – presumably amid acquisition negotiations – writing "Why I'm Bullish on Facebook" and a "utilitarian" and "comprehensive social network."

It’s obvious (pun intended) that Branch simply wasn’t working as a stand-alone product. To that end, an acquisition by Facebook that will keep the team together and put a little cash in the pockets of everyone involved may have been the best remaining option.

At the same time, it’s hardly a victory, for Miller or for the Obvious team. In the end, Facebook and Branch make some strange bedfellows.

(Disclosure: Branch backer Lerer Ventures is also an investor in PandoDaily.) 

[Image via rstreet]