People often ask me some variant of this question: “What’s a startup out there that will be a great investment hit but no one really thinks of that way yet?” There are many possible answers, but I’ll focus this week’s column on one: Disqus.
Now, there are many smart folks who believe online comments are either dead or worthless, and they have some valid points. Some believe online comments should exist apart from the original content, whether on Twitter as tweets or Facebook as sub-conversations, or through re-blogging on Tumblr, and so forth. And there are others, like me, who invest time in Disqus as a user because they believe it’s the single-best commenting system out there. (Disclaimer: I use Disqus on my personal blog, and all the billions I make my blog are kept in the Caymans.)
And now, here’s the rub — before you wonder why I’d select Disqus, a nearly 6-year old YC startup as a sleeping giant, slyly hibernating while everyone else frantically scurries to grab attention here and there, we must let go of one overlying assumption tied to the company: It’s not just the comments themselves that matter.
In the subterranean world of Disqus, the currency is social- and interest-based relationships. For me, most of the individual bloggers I follow closely and interact online with use Disqus, and they all reply to most of their comments. Disqus, then, knows who reads my stuff, knows who influences me, how often we interact, what we talk about, whether my thoughts are moderated in or out of a discussion, and how others interact with my comments.
Put another way: Disqus is really a data company sitting on top of a goldmine of graph information with millions of channels and entry points to target advertising or other forms of marketing, yet it masquerades as a simple comments plug-in. Disqus is immune to the vagaries of whatever happens with Facebook or Twitter, it allows conversations between blogging platforms like WordPress and Tumblr, it isn’t yet picked up by the web “extractors” like Instapaper or Pocket, and is quietly under-the-radar, just like this scrappy startup wants to be. It’s only raised $10.5m in its long life and, in my opinion, will be worth many, many multiples of this, if it isn’t already.
Finally, there are two channels I truly pay attention to for meeting and getting to know new people: Twitter, and Disqus on my blog or other folks’ blogs. I’ve had discussions with new people over years now on Disqus and slowly built up trust with them through this medium. It’s a way to meet new people around interests, and they can be who they are, or take up a pseudonym as someone else, or blocked out through moderation if they abuse it. Yes, the companies do need to make it easier for any would-be blogger to integrate and upload their offers, they need more creative partnerships, and will hopefully integrate natively with mobile devices or apps, but their head start, focus, and deep experience confers many opportunities.
For all of the noise around new startups, the “me-toos” and copycats, the endless pivots and stealing each other’s work, for me it’s a company like Disqus that captures my attention and imagination. It is not new and shiny. It hasn’t raised lots of money. Its mission is simple yet deep. I learn by using it, and I meet great people through its web of notifications. It allows users to build a reputation slowly, over time, for good use. And, it has survived other commenting services, Facebook’s social plugin, new publishing platforms that don’t even integrate comments, and much more. For these and the reasons listed above, Disqus is a diamond in the comments rough.