The Brief Wondrous Life of Branch

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This week’s deep dive into internet history features a company whose trajectory is best described by its name:

Branch!

Within 3.5 years of raising $2 million, it saw 4 apps, 2 redesigns (AFAIK), 1 acquisition, and 4 shut downs (2 as part of Facebook).

For a better understanding about how and why it died, I’ve chronologically mapped its fast and furious timeline at the end of this post.

Editor’s Note: I’ve found collecting articles and founder interviews in this way helps me paint a mental picture of

1) what the thought process of the team must’ve been like,

2) what might’ve gone wrong, and

3) how others might be able to do better in the future.

Let me know if it’s a format I should stick with!

For the unfamiliar, Branch aspired to be a high quality alternative to more open and lightly moderated discussion platforms of the time.

They adhered to the prevailing “move fast and break things” wisdom, working on each product for less than a year each on average.

As an outsider looking in, it feels like they chased hyper-growth at all costs — both independently and as part of Facebook.

In last week’s post, I suggested social software companies need to be Slow and Wise, and Branch is a great supporting case study.

One of the standout aspects of Branch was its stellar UI — though founder Josh Miller shared a counter-intuitive lesson:

The UI was so sleek it turned off some users from posting. In essence, they felt the words they were writing were not worthy of being “published” on such a polished page.

A true testament to the talent of the team, and a huge lesson in the design online spaces — “better looking” isn’t always better.

An understanding of human psychology, and clear-eyed focus on desired behavioral outcomes (in this case, contributing to a conversation) — is essential.

In the end, Branch & friends were commendable experiments. It would’ve been a treat to see how far a long-term, sustainable approach would’ve taken them!

For more on how I plan to make the app I’m building great for quality conversations, and more notes like this — subscribe and say hello on Twitter.

Annotated Timeline

2011

Nov 7 — Roundtable Launches

New York-based Roundtable is an elegantly designed message board in which people are put on two levels: selected experts and everyone else.


2012

Mar 6 — Branch Raises $2M

Jul 3 — Branch aspires to be a simplified Google Wave

The YouTube version of this article is a great example of how journalists craft stories to fit whatever narrative they’ve decided on prior to talking to you.

Journalist: “Is this, sort of, in the vein of Google Wave?”

In article, response is noted:

“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.”

So…not aspiring to be Google Wave? 😑

Aug 13 — Branch opens public invites

<rant>

Early-stage social app promo videos must be one of the worst ways to spend your company’s money. They’re almost always bland, feel generic, and just aren’t cool!
Branch’s video:

reminds me of a worse one by Yobongo:

</rant>

Oct 15 — Branch widens focus with redesign

Founder: “Right before launch, I kind of had this realization that our favorite part of Branch isn’t reading Branches. The best parts are when we’re in Branches ourselves, talking about stuff we care about. And we got that feedback immediately when we launched."

Founder: "People want to talk so bad. Those were the two big learnings. People are going to talk, and it’s not going to be all serious."

Aug 30 — Video: This Week In Startups Interview

Dec 17 — Video: Forbes 30 Under 30 Interview


2013

Jun 25 — Potluck Launches

The goal is to make Potluck "more personal and less stressful," a place to talk with your friends, and friends of friends, without the pressure of performance that comes with posting on Facebook.

Jul 16 — Founder writes: Seed Funding Model is Flawed

It has become clear to me that the popular model for funding early-stage companies is fundamentally flawed — and likely stifling innovation.

Founders should be married to a thesis about the world — not a specific product concept.

Nov 21 — Potluck Redesigned

He says that the earlier version of the app had a very engaged, core community, but it wasn’t growing very fast. “Each spend an average of 7.5 minutes on the site every time they visit, and our most addicted users visit something like eight times per day,”

Eight times per day?? 🧐


2014

Jan 13 — Facebook buys Branch for $15M

Apr 14 — Video: CMX Fireside Chat

“We will not be working on those products, but they’re not going anywhere.”

Oct 23 — Facebook Rooms Launches

Oct 23 — Q&A: About Rooms


2015

April 1 — Riff Launches

Jun 3 — Branch and Potluck Shut Down

“While it was a great way to have more in-depth conversations that wouldn’t fit on Twitter, Branch never really caught on beyond its influential early users.”

Dec 7 — Facebook Shuts Down Creative Labs (Rooms + Riff)

Facebook is famous for its mantra "Move fast and break things." The company decided some of these initiatives had, in fact, failed to gain traction and is shutting them down.


P.S. In my spare time I enjoy long walks in the park and reading the blogs of dead social media companies from start to finish:

Here’s the archive of Branch’s blog

Enjoy!

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