“Facebook may have an irreversibly bad brand,” wrote 22-year old Branch founder Josh Miller in December 2012 in a post about his 15-year old sister’s predilections for social apps. Almost a year later, his chat startup was acquired by Facebook. Awkward.
The “criticize Facebook” > “get bought by Facebook” dynamic in the Branch/Potluck acquisition was so ironic, it was the first thing to come to mind for many upon hearing the news of the merger. Will Oremus over at Slate wrote a whole post peppered with critical quotes from Miller, ending with a quote from SLC Punk: “I didn’t sell out, I bought in.”
Miller had successfully “negged” Facebook.
For the lucky people who are unfamiliar, the concept of “negging” comes from the decades-old craft of pickup artistry, and involves the pickup artist saying something mildly insulting to a target, in order to pique their attention and make them feel like they have something to prove e.g. “You have a pretty face, but you’d be even prettier if you’d lose the bangs.” The purpose of negging is to take your target “down a notch” and make them want you more.
Despite Facebook’s Achilles’ heel being teens at the moment, Miller’s negging was just not limited to that sore spot. In one of the multiple posts he wrote about Facebook’s flaws, “Facebook needs Air Jordans,” Miller underscored Facebook’s need to get off its laurels and build standalone apps.
Mr. Zuckerberg, you know those 70 engineers that you had working on Graph Search?
Take ten of them and task them with rethinking online dating. Call it Bar, put the Facebook logo in the footer.
Then take another ten engineers and have them figure out why half of my friends can’t find jobs, even though the other half are working at firms which are hiring. Call it Cover Letter, put the Facebook logo on the About page.
In a post called “The New Facebook” (it really doesn’t get much better than this), Miller compared his eventual parent company to a suburban basement.
Previously, Facebook’s competitive advantage was that it took a lot effort to establish social connections on new services. With Contacts access, that’s less true. Thus, people are flocking to new services.
It’s sort of like the Internet just turned twenty-one! Before, you could only drink in your friend’s suburban basement. Now all of a sudden you can go wherever you want — clubs, bars, you name it.
From what we hear these posts were not brought up during acquisition talks, which first started when Branch was a mere twig, and progressively got more serious when other suitors, like Yahoo, entered the fray. But there’s no way that Facebook Corporate Development didn’t do a Google search for Josh Miller’s name in their due diligence. No way.
For what it’s worth, Miller, not so far from the crucial teenage demographic himself, is on to something in his critiques. Facebook does need Air Jordans, discrete non-branded apps that further the scope of its monolithic product.
Facebook’s social graph becomes less and less valuable in a mobile world when all of your friends are already in your phone. Miller also holds in his writings that the next Facebook will bring way more than friends together, eventually connecting the over 2.5 billion strangers with internet access.
Snapchat, Miller’s teen tech trend darling, took full advantage of the access to users’ address books allowed by iOS and Android, essentially proving it didn’t need Facebook to be popular. This, like in dating, only made Facebook want it even more. Snapchat negged Facebook so hard Zuckerberg cloned it and then tried to buy it for billions when that didn’t work out.
“Welcome, Facebook. Seriously,” CEO Evan Spiegel responded at the time.
Snapchat may be the only app that Facebook will try to clone twice.
But contacts portability means that it’s just as easy to leave Snapchat as it is to leave Facebook. And those fickle teen trends may one day anoint Whisper, which we’re hearing is trying to raise a Series B, or Tinder next in line to the throne. “The next Instagram.” “The next Snapchat.” The next target in Zuckerberg’s crosshairs. The next app to not need Facebook.
And though it very clearly wasn’t the new next thing, Branch was a solid acqui-hire. These days the deadpool runs deep, and not every startup team gets acquired, but it’s especially rare when all nine team members are under 25. Josh Miller was exceptional because he, a Princeton sociology dropout, deeply understood the confluence of social and mobile. And wasn’t afraid to be vocal about it. Even at the risk of offending potential acquirers.
Sell them what they want. Even if you don’t have it.
Disclosure: I own FB stock and my significant other works for General Catalyst, a VC investor in Snapchat.