Josh Miller: Co-founder & CEO of The Browser Company
MM.06 Web browsers, the future of computing, and Browser's unique ethos
I talk to people and record it! Some call this sort of thing a podcast. I call mine Moth Minds and the premise is “interviews with high-agency humans." Subscribe to hear the latest on a bi-weekly(ish) basis: Spotify, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Pocket Casts.
Web browsers are one of the highest-margin and widely-used pieces of software today — creating very little incentive for the major players like Google, Apple, and Microsoft to innovate in this area.
The vision of Arc (Browser’s first product) is to create a thin client layer that allows you to access your tools, files, and tailor-designed browsing environment on any device.
Browser’s vision and approach are heavily inspired by moments in the history of technology when two ideas/feelings from disparate places were connected in an uncommon way (e.g. Snapchat’s introduction of play back into social media).
MM: Hi everybody. Today I’m joined by Josh Miller, the co-founder and CEO of The Browser Company. Previously Josh was an investor at Thrive Capital, Director of Product at the White House, and the co-founder and CEO of Branch, which was acquired by Facebook.
Our conversation covered web browsers, the future of computing, and The Browser Company’s unique ethos. I hope you enjoy.
MM: Awesome. Hi Josh, welcome to the podcast.
JM: Hi Molly, it's good to be here.
MM: Amazing. By way of introduction, my first question for you is, where were you when you had the idea for Browser?
JM: So there were actually three different moments. I wish there was that shower moment, I really wish, or I wish I could say I dreamed about web browsers when I was seven, but I did not. The first moment was actually I spent two years as a political appointee in the Obama administration and was pretty bummed, to say the least, about the outcome of the election. And I was walking with a mentor and my boss at the time named Jason Goldman and we were talking about the state of technology, the software we had both worked on, and our hopes for the future, and had honestly at the time a very depressing conversation about how truly only the operating systems and platforms have the agency and ability to change how we use software and the internet and technology for the better, for the worse. It's funny, a few years later you see that even with Apple's move with ATT and Facebook, that even Facebook is at the whims, to some extent, of the operating systems and the platforms.
And so at that moment I decided that I did not want to start another company, I never wanted to build an app again and the only thing that would get me to start another company was the opportunity to build a platform or an operating system that could have leverage on changing how we use technology hopefully for the better in ways that aligned with my values. However, I know nothing about inhalable computing or VR contact lenses, so my takeaway at the time was I would not start a company if there's nothing to do here. And there wasn't.
Flash forward two, or three years, I was at a venture capital firm at the time the firm Thrive had invested in Airtable and Slack and GitHub and Figma was flying around the ecosystem and Notion. And I was just unbelievably inspired by all of the creativity and the originality and these fresh takes on these categories of software that I thought were done and boring and could care less about, and all of a sudden I was getting that same tingle in your body that I got when I first used Snapchat or the iPhone from Notion, a Google doc replacement ostensibly. And I was just so inspired by all these pieces of software and they were all desktop-based primarily, and they all relied on the web browser. They were all web apps either because literally you use them in a web browser like Chrome or Safari or because you use them as a Mac app, but the Mac app was actually based on Electron, which itself is just a white-labeled version of Chrome. So they're effectively just web apps and web browsers.
And so in this moment of seeing all of this creativity and redefinition of categories of software that I thought were done and far from inspiring, they all relied on the web browser, but no one was touching the web browser itself. And so that was the first moment that had this thought, "Wait, why isn't someone taking that level of creativity and almost a consumer artistic lens to the web browser when everyone else is reliant on the web browser and doing things in adjacent categories of software?" But that was kind of from a VC lens.
“And so in this moment of seeing all of this creativity and redefinition of categories of software that I thought was done and far from inspiring, they all relied on the web browser, but no one was touching the web browser itself.”
And then the third and final moment was my wife is Swiss and we always go to visit her family up in the mountains in Switzerland every summer and it was on a walk there. I know it sounds cliche, I also wish it wasn't a walk because it sounds like I make it up, but it was indeed a long walk and my feet were hurting, and that's when I made the connection between, wait a minute, if all of the applications and files that we rely on are now in the web browser and then going to be even more in the web browser in the future, then the web browser starts to look more like an operating system or a platform because it's what tools and applications sit on top of and files sit on top of. And wait a minute, if it looks like an operating system and a platform, that is fascinating and doesn't come around every day, especially without having to invent inhalable computing or contact lenses that'll let you see the world.
And so the combination of those three moments over the course of many years is what led to the Browser company. Probably more than you were looking for, but that is the truth.
MM: I love that answer. It's wonderful, all building on each other. I'm also curious when you say that you were wondering why isn't anyone touching the web browser, now many years later, what would you tell yourself? What is the reason?
JM: Money, money, money, money, money. In fact, I think earlier in my career I wasn't really interested in business models and to some extent saw money and capitalism and all of those things as in conflict with creativity and artistry and the things that really got me excited. At Thrive, I learned to become actually very inspired by business models and money and public market and incentives and all of these kinds of businessy money-related topics as a fascinating creative jumping-off point or set of creative constraints and inspiration for radically new ideas.
And so the truth about web browsers is they are one of the highest margins, most lucrative pieces of software imaginable that power billions and billions of dollars in profit for the world's largest technology companies. And that is quite an incentive not to change it too much. So very practically what that means is, yeah, Google at its core is a search engine company and a search ads company and it's a big mature public company that has pressures from Wall Street to continue its growth and uphold its growth. And it views Chrome not really as a web browser, but as a cheap high-leverage way to get traffic for its search engine and search ads.
“And so the truth about web browsers is they are one of the highest margin, most lucrative pieces of software imaginable that power billions and billions of dollars in profit for the world's largest technology companies. And that is quite an incentive not to change it too much.”
And what that practically means is the team at Chrome can be creative and they are and they can be talented and they are, and they can have dreams of what a web browser can be in the future and they do, but at the end of the day they literally need to ab test any change to Chrome against what does this do to searches? Do people search more or less after we make this change? And the answer is they always search less because if you add anything to it, it distracts people from typing in that search box, which is the URL bar, the Browser.
And so this dynamic applies to Apple, which makes money off the safari by getting a check from Google in the same way, it applies to Microsoft, which monetizes Edge in an identical way, with Bing and Bing ads. And so what I would've told myself before was the reason is because the world's largest technology companies make the web browsers and they make a whole lot of high margin revenue from those web browsers in the form of search ads and that's what's really holding back the category more than anything.
MM: How did you convince yourself that all of those risks were worth it to still tackle this space?
JM: This is going to be an unsatisfying answer, it was an emotional decision. It really was actually driven by people. So I'm building this company with my now second-time co-founder Hursh, who I met when I was 20. We built a company together when we were 20, "company" together when we were 20. We've been to each other's weddings, we've seen each other through all major life changes. And at that point in my career, really what I wanted to do was I wanted to work with Hursh again and I wanted to go hire our favorite people that we had worked with, and I wanted to work on something that was ambitious and audacious enough that we could go hire all those people that I dreamed of working with, Dustin Senos, who runs our design team. When I was 20, I met Dustin and he was the coolest person in the tech world for me, like creative, wildly talented designer, engineer, hybrid and so god damn humble given how talented he was. And I'd always been like, "Man, if I could ever actually work with Dustin."
And the combination of Hursh being really excited about this idea and the audacity and the unknowns the ambiguity of it combined with the fact that as we thought about all of the favorite people in our world that we knew and people that we always wanted to work with, we thought, "Wow, every single one of them gets super, super excited by this prompt and the audacity of it." To be totally honest, it was much less that we convinced ourselves rationally and intellectually that we really could do it and much more that kind of the feeling in the gut was it was just really exciting, it just felt like it would be a lot of fun.
And again, there comes with a lot of privilege by the way at that point in my life and career could take the risk of saying it may go horribly wrong and I'll be okay, which wasn't true earlier in my career and isn't true for everyone. But that was honestly the assessment which is like, "This just sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun," and I think I do my best work when I feel that earnest energy and excitement and enthusiasm. And so for better and for worse, I'm much more of a emotion-driven gut decision maker even though I'm not proud of it at all times, and I am rationally we have decided that we can do this thing. And even to this day looking at the Chrome Oregon, it's thousands of people, we're a nicky little startup with 55. I still don't know if we can do it, but I'm having a lot of fun.
MM: I think it attracts incredible people too that are really drawn to that emotional mission. I'm curious too, how would you define what the big grand ambitious moon shot that you guys are building towards is?
JM: I don't expect anyone listening to believe this. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Sebastian. When he is 10, I want him to articulate his first computer as being our product Arc. Just like when I think back to my see-through translucent blue iMac, that was a defining moment in my life, a change in my life. And so our aspiration is for Arc to be a computer of the future.
Now that's weird. So what does it mean that they're going to build like a Chromebook? No, no, no. The big idea is that we're all underestimating the shift to the cloud. And the cloud is kind of this weird corporate public earnings branding, the cloud, it's data centers and servers and Microsoft earnings reports competing with Amazon, AWS. But really what the cloud is saying is our stuff, our digital stuff is all moving off of our local devices and onto the internet out there somewhere. And it's happening to our applications, it's happening to our files, it's happening to everything. If this computer you're recording this on, if you lost it and you got a new computer, you actually wouldn't have lost anything. You'd log back into your new computer and it'd be kind of annoying to log back in and you'd be bummed you lost the resale value of your old computer, but you would have everything right there because none of it's on your computer, it's all out there on the internet.
And so our big idea is if you play that forward five years, 10 years and you think that this will continue, and I think it absolutely will continue now, we already always believe that, but even since we started the company, the rise of LLMs most recently and AI developments, if you're into crypto and blockchain, whatever it is, you're excited about the future of technology, all of the big macro trends even more so are going to push us further to the cloud and the internet. And so if you believe are going to continue to go that way and more devices are going to pop up, Apple's going to release some new device any day now, I can't get in a rental car without it effectively being a computer, I can't use a TV without it having an app store, if you believe that these devices that are connected to the internet are just going to continue to proliferate and come in all shapes and sizes.
Our view is that a computer should not be one of those in a certain screen ratio in a certain shape. Your computer should be this kind of layer, this thin client that sits across all the different commoditized screen sizes and machines that you use that always has your stuff with you wherever you go, all of your tools, all of your files, all the things that matter to you. And our hope is that Arc is that. And so what looks like a browser today, we hope will look back and go, "Oh wait, that was actually a new type of computer," that if you think about the evolution of computers as going from the size of a room to sitting on your desk to sitting on your lap to sitting in your pocket to sitting on your wrist, we think it's going to get invisible where your computer will no longer feel like a piece of hardware at all. It'll be this thing out there in the cloud sitting on top of everything and that's what we hope Arc turns into.
“Your computer should be this kind of layer, this thin client that sits across all the different commoditized screen sizes and machines that you use that always has your stuff with you wherever you go, all of your tools, all of your files, all the things that matter to you.”
And I feel very confident that's going to happen whether or not we do it or not. So that's a unique part. This isn't a, "We're only going to get to markets if we do it," that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying this is definitely, in my opinion, where computing's heading, we want to be the ones that get there first or get there in the most humane, awesome way. But I think that's happening and already happening whether or not The Browser Company exists or not.
MM: How do you think you want your version of this feature to feel different from whatever would happen inevitably or maybe who will rise up to compete?
JM: As you know, I've been personally much more inspired by people and things outside of the tech world than I have in the tech world. I'm a sociology major by background, my dad was a drummer and a screenwriter before later becoming a lawyer. And I like products that make me feel something, whether that's a cultural product like a film or a piece of clothing that really makes me feel a certain way when I wear it. I really like experiences and products that make me and others feel something.
And so if I think about Google products for example... Actually many people would think competing with Google that I have some disdain for Google. I love Google, like Google Maps, fantastic. I love my little pins. My wife and I are about to move to Paris and it's been so fun to place all these little pins on the map and get to explore. So I love Google. Google never makes me feel anything. It's a very utilitarian company. And it makes sense, there's this culture in Silicon Valley of engineering being central and I actually think that's really good. But what comes with engineering disciplines being central is optimizing for solving problems efficiently.
And I think what that leaves out sometimes is some of the more human emotional elements to the software and the technology products we use. And so my hope is that what we can bring to these, we're calling these internet computers, the next evolution of computing that is agnostic to hardware and sits across hardware. If we want to call them internet computers for now, we hope that our internet computer is the one that makes you smile the most, that makes you kind of sigh a breath of fresh air every time you open it like you're home, is the one that just kind of has that feeling of wearing your favorite outfit or getting in your high school car again or going to your childhood bedroom or opening your favorite magazine on a Sunday. That it's not just the utility of whatever that thing is, it's also the kind of intangible qualities on top of it that kind of stir a certain spirit in your body.
And I recognize that may sound overly romantic or self-important or something, but I just want an internet computer that's a lot more human. So I think that answered. You had another question though, what was your second question?
MM: I think that answered it, that's great. Yeah, great. Something I've always really admired about you is how diverse your inspirations are, and James Turrell being one, and just how deeply you seem to appreciate quality in many different fields. I'm curious where that appreciation originates and what have been your primary inspirations in the journey of Browser and how you think it makes it stand out? I think you've already touched on this, but curious to hear how you articulate it.
JM: To be self-aware, when I've listened to podcasts like this and someone talks about their parents or their family, I find it a little hard to relate even though I find it lovely. But to be honest, my parents and my upbringing and the values that they raised me with. My dad's the sort of person who has this belief that we're specks of dust on this earth and everything is made up and that is actually really exciting because if everything's made up, it could be made up again. And so growing up with a dad who is a drummer and a mom who was raised by an artist and just generally kind of West Coast transplant philosophy of, "What are we going to do next? What else is possible?" I came from this tradition and I'm going to somewhere with a blank page, what should we do and see? I was raised in that environment.
I went to an extremely diverse set of schools where oftentimes I was the minority in the classroom and I grew up in urban Los Angeles taking the bus and in the age of LimeWire and the internet coming online. And just I feel like my childhood, both through my parents and my physical and digital surroundings, was one of X exploration and what else can be and what else is possible? I just have always derived so much energy, appreciation and celebration of things that kind of challenge perceptions of what is possible.
And I think one of the things I found over time is that the things that inspire me the most are intersection points, kind of intersections between two things that were never intersected before. And I think honestly, though it's a trope, I think Steve Jobs did this fantastically. What happens if I intersect calligraphy with computers? I know that's an overused example, but I do think it's a good one. Or if you look at what Virgil Ablo did with fashion and streetwear and high fashion and which one is it and what is original and what is it copycat? And James Turrell, as you referenced, merging the idea of astronomy with architecture with interior design with perceptual psychology. I just love people that mash up these different things to make something new and change our perspective of things because of the way my parents raised me, because of where they raised me, because of my childhood. I think it's just something I've always been super fascinated by.
“And I think one of the things I found over time is that the things that inspire me the most are intersection points, kind of intersections between two things that were never intersected before.”
And so that carries through to The Browser Company where when we think about the software we make, I think we look toward inspiration from outside the technology world as much as from inside because the people that I've always looked up to and the people a lot of our people on our team have always looked up to are people that take inspiration from these kind of previously dissimilar places and say, "Wait, what happens when you smash them together? What comes out of it?" It's not always good, we do some weird things that don't always work out. But yeah.
MM: I love that. One of my favorite definitions of creativity is just connecting old ideas from unconventional places in new and interesting ways and it makes it much more straightforward too because then it's like, well it's not actually about knowing the most about a particular thing and trying to find the areas that haven't been touched yet, it's more about just going broader and sourcing inspiration from a lot of different places and then seeing what amalgamation can happen in mind.
JM: Yeah, the thing I think that I've always believed, and I mean it as being very empowering and inspiring, but I think a lot of people think I'm being critical when I say it, is the tech world and the world of people that make software for the internet tend to think it's really special and unique, as if like, "Wow, this has never happened before in human history." And I guess the short version of it is, I agree with what you're saying, which is there are some attributes of the internet and software and computers which are unparalleled and new, but I think things take different shapes and forms, but there are a lot of similar stories and dynamics that play out over history. And so that doesn't mean we shouldn't feel grateful for the time we were born and the place we were born and the opportunity to be at the forefront of things like the internet and now AI, it is really radically different and exciting.
But I also think there's as much to learn from what is not new and what has come before us, as you're saying, as there is to examine the new parts of these phenomena or inventions. And so I think if you believe that, it's super exciting cause it makes you want to dive into history books and read about other industries and read about people who came before you. And again, adopted and updated the new and the current context. But I tend to think, it sounds like you, that the stuff is old as much as it is new, and that's actually really exciting in terms of sources of inspiration and creativity and possibilities.
MM: And it means there's always more to learn too and that it humbles you to know that you can revisit history and see what has been learned about these same patterns before and not just have to reinvent the wheel every time. And I think that that takes a certain amount of almost humility too, of I'm actually not the knight in shining armor.
JM: Yeah, you see with Arc, some of our most people love celebrated product attributes and features and flows... And it's really awesome, it makes our day and week and they say things like, "Wow, look at what Browser Company is doing. Look at this thing in Arc. They're really pushing us forward." And I mean, I live for that, I love that so much. But the truth is a lot of these things are, "Oh, we just borrowed that from movie trailers. We've been doing that for decades. We didn't do anything new, we just actually did a cheap interpretation in many ways of this thing that's been happening for many decades in this other industry." So again, I find that very exciting. But yeah, I think it's as much old in a new light as it is truly new.
MM: Totally. What are some of the companies or people or things happening in technology right now that you think are, other than Browser Company, a good embodiment of this approach of making something old new in a new and interesting way?
JM: Notion for sure. I credit Ivan and that team with honestly rekindling my inspiration and joy of building software. Just there's a purity to what they've been doing and a relentlessness to what they've been doing and an originality to what they've been doing, but also a deep schooling and appreciation for those that came before them and the concepts that came before them, both within software and outside of software and a celebration of that, not hiding that. And so Notion definitely stands out for me.
I mean, it'd be remiss not to mention Apple, a hundred percent, a hundred percent. I can have my issues with the way that the company has grown and matured and different elements that are seeping into their product development process and product experience. But at the end of the day, there's probably no company, technology that has inspired me in the team more than Apple. So again, in many ways an easy answer but also a true answer.
And then I'd say the final one, which not so much anymore is Snapchat, was Snapchat. And I think Snapchat for the playfulness. I think again the way that it can be easy in a conversation like this even to get wrapped up in the seriousness and the philosophy of it all. And I'll never forget, for example, when Snapchat did this marketing campaign where they were coming out with their glasses, I forget what they call them, and they did a vending machine that was a big yellow vending machine that looked like a face and it floated out of the sky from balloons like the Pixar film Up, and it was just so playful you couldn't help but smile. Or I remember when the application first came out and it was yellow, not even a nice shade of yellow, a pretty brutal shade of yellow, like a children's hair salon and the little dancing ghost when you refreshed it, wasn't even a beautiful ghost, it's just a little dancing figurine. And it just made you smile and it was so not self-important and just gave off such a vibe.
And so as much as I cite Notion and Apple, I think those are in many ways very serious brands with very serious missions and mandates and very serious ways of talking about themselves. And I really like that intentionality and spirit and heart, but merged with the ethos, I think a little bit of Evan and Snapchat of, "Let's have fun with it, let's make you giggle, let's make you smile." And I think you can see elements of both in Browser Company and Arc, which are on one hand very aspirational, I think very principled, very bold, and at the same time just having fun with it and not always knowing if we're joking or not and we don't even know how serious we are at times.
And so I don't know if that's the right language, joking and seriousness, but I think, again, talking about merging intersection, I like the intersection of go for it, go for it, go for it, be pure, be principled, look to history, et cetera. And don't take yourself too seriously at the end of the day. Again, my dad's teaching, you're a speck of dust, have fun with it and feel something.
“I like the intersection of go for it, go for it, go for it, be pure, be principled, look to history, et cetera. And don't take yourself too seriously at the end of the day.”
MM: Love that answer. It's interesting too, I feel like Snapchat was a unique time in technology where they could be playful and remind people that, "Hey, technology can be something that is just for personal use, and you and your friends and just playing around." I wonder if Snapchat could have that attitude today, you know what I mean? If they were launched again, I almost think that maybe it would be misconstrued or something because technology is just seen in a different place in our lives and it's become much more ubiquitous. But I feel like Browser is a pretty unique embodiment of both the phase of technology where we're at of we want serious tools that really work and are high quality, but then we also, they don't need to be stodgy or gray and like, I don't know, the Adobe Suite or something like that feels heavy.
JM: Yeah, when I was in my-
MM: For advanced users.
JM: When I started the first company with Hursh, there was a really, really famous kind of media executive, traditional media executive I had the privilege of meeting and I can't even paraphrase it quite honestly, but essentially what he was saying is that the media industry goes back and forth on this pendulum and it just swings from one side to the next. And if you look at the media industry over decades just really consistently goes back and forth in this way. And I do think that applies in many ways to the technology industry as well. You obviously see that in fashion and in music where the next cohort or generation of thing, media company, product, fashion in many ways is a reaction to what came before it kind of refutes and reacts to what came before it.
And I think very similar, I think that applies to technology too. Again, if you think of it as a fashion in many ways or a cultural product, I think a software is a cultural product. I think that's one of the things I really believe is I've used software in the same vein as music or film or clothing. And so I think in that sense, you're absolutely right that could Snapchat do the same thing today and be as effective? No, because a lot has happened. And I think that's even what I was trying to allude to about Apple is Apple in the moment in my life that it inspired me and I think did its best work, it was perfect for that. Two decades later, we're still doing the same PowerPoint format in the presentations and it's starting to feel a little bit meh, and that's not a criticism of them, but I think I'm really inspired by the companies, the constantly and the products and the creators, they constantly kind of push to be a reaction to their old previous self in many ways.
And so to that point, yeah, no, I don't think Snapchat could do the exact same thing today because the fashion has changed, the culture has changed, society has changed, and whatever comes next will be a reaction to that in many ways.
MM: It reminds me of Stewart Brand’s culture cycles, like the different rings and the different speeds that they operate at. I feel like he needs to slot in, I think it has for technology, but software specifically, I feel like it's almost a different pace and it's more between almost fashion and technology's pace.
JM: And by the way, that is the intersection that we're really interested in, in that it's not fair to say to your point, it's truly just like fashion or music or film because those products really are cultural products that are trying to literally share a perspective or tell you something or make you feel certain way, elicit an emotional reaction, entertain you. That's not what a web browser trying to do. It is a tool at the end of the day. It is utilitarian, it does serve a purpose, it has jobs to be done. But at the same time, our view is what we are reaction to is this very utilitarian, maybe boring, maybe drab, maybe inhumane depending on who you are, conception of our interface in digital homes, which are, they all look the same, they all do the same things, they get out of the way, they have no opinion.
Kind of what we're saying is, wait, that's not right either. So we're interested in what if you kind of mash up those two, you intersect those two, what do you get? And I have no doubt if we are really successful, let's say we redo this podcast in five years and our grandest dreams come true, I bet people will start to feel like, "You know what? Will the nice software just chill out? Let's stop having so much personality." And so again, and I think that's an exciting thing. Yeah, I hope that we rise and reinvent ourself in that moment too, so I think the pendulum swings.
MM: Totally. That's great, I like that articulation a lot. Pivoting a little big, I'm just curious, if you could clone yourself so that you could pursue other things in other universes, what would you be pursuing?
JM: I love that question so much. I really want to make a public sculpture park. I think I would make parks in public spaces. I think in a different life maybe it would've been an urban... The only really good grades I got in college were urban design and urban planning classes. And my mom worked as a city employee and my godfather was a city planner and I just love, love physical public spaces. So I'm not sure how much money there is in that or what the job is, but if I could make something that wasn't software, it'd be a public sculpture park in an urban area.
MM: Similar between that and Browser is perhaps spaces to play in and places for people to do their things and express themselves and all of that.
JM: Lay in land and let your mind wander and meet a friend. So put it like this, if I make a bajillion dollars, Elon can take us to Mars and I want to make a really, really lovely park. That's my Mars, a bunch of parks.
“If I make a bajillion dollars, Elon can take us to Mars and I want to make a really, really lovely park. That's my Mars, a bunch of parks.”
MM: That's super great, I love that. Okay, cool. Again, maybe tracing back a little bit, I'm curious to dig deeper into your background because you spent a few years at Thrive and I'm curious how you navigated what you wanted to do next when you were thinking about becoming a founder or an investor, and yeah.
JM: Horribly. I think I navigated it horribly. I mean, obviously I don't mean that literally because I'm very proud of how it turned out and I loved my time at Thrive, but I guess when I say horribly, what I mean, and this maybe just applies to me, whenever I've tried to do something, as in I very intentionally and intellectually and rationally tried to figure something out about my career, it did not go well. And so I would say I joined Thrive initially as an entrepreneur in residence, which is the world's silliest title, but it was a really cool job, and the intention of that role was to take a year and start a new company or do something, figure out my life. And it didn't go well. And that's actually part of the reason I transitioned into being an investor there was, "Well, don't know what I'm going to do still and it's been a year, I should probably get on with it and these people are awesome and this seems really fun."
I think as soon as I let my guard down and didn't try to figure it all out, I figured it all out. And I think that's true, I can't speak for other people, that has been true across my life, personal life with love or it just is always true for me that I just need to get into that state of being relaxed and not so tense and wound up trying to, "Ph, I want to figure go to X, Y, and Z and do this," and just kind of go with the flow and trust in the serendipity of life, which again sounds overly romantic, but I really believe in.
So the best part about Thrive was actually the period after I gave up trying to figure out my professional life and gave into the idea that maybe I was not going to pour my heart and soul into work ever again, I was going to have a job that I had a lot of fun doing every day, and I worked with really talented people and I learned great things, but it didn't necessarily reflect my personal creation and wasn't an expressive medium, which work had been before that. And as soon as I embraced that and let go, I started finding inspiration all around me, again, seeing how, "Wow Robinhood realized that all the public companies that competes with make money off of charging for trades, if we give it away for free..." I found inspiration in all these places that I was never looking and never thought could be inspiring because I just kind of like, yeah, I don't know, went with the flow.
And so yeah, my time at Thrive went horribly in that at first I didn't get out of it what I wanted to get out of it, and quite frankly, I think felt pretty lost professionally even though I was privileged enough to feel lost at a place that paid really well and was a really interesting job. But I don't think I felt totally satisfied and content that I knew what I wanted to do professionally. And as soon as I got there and let go, it all turned out okay. So I'm very grateful for my time there. I learned a lot. Browser Company wouldn't have happened without it.
MM: Awesome. Tracing it back even a little bit further, you spent time with the White House, as you mentioned, as Obama's chief product officer, what do you think Silicon Valley can learn from politics?
JM: I'm not sure learn from politics as much as what my time in Washington taught me from the people that I had the privilege of learning from and getting exposed to was how little I actually knew about how everything in the world works, whether that is people in the United States and the way that they live and what their culture is like and what their day-to-day is like to I thought because I read The Economist on Sundays and the New York Times every day on my phone that I understood our government and political system. It was a very humbling experience for me around my ignorance quite frankly, which again, some may see that as a criticism or bad thing. That was very liberating for me because it kind of like re-stoked that curiosity and hunger.
And so I think Silicon Valley can learn a little bit of humility in many ways. I know you wouldn't think of politicians as being humble and they're not, but the humility of being around people of all shapes and sizes and expertise in an environment where you're just constantly learning about and talking about and working on these really big problems and different shapes and sizes is very humbling. And I think in that humbling is a kind of fire in the belly that comes and a drive to learn and the curiosity.
And then at least for me personally, one of the biggest experiences was if I think about my childhood, I think of logging onto AIM after school or getting my first phone that had games on it or my iMac or Limewire and the internet and how lucky the year I was born in 1990 and what that meant for my childhood and what I came up with. But I think because of that, I forgot that I'm not really a tech person and I don't think most people are tech people, and I think they forget that because it is at the kind of apex of our society economically, culturally, politically. And so there's this gravitational pull towards tech as this thing or this area where it's like now I've come to see it as this sort of horizontal layer across it all.
I think getting myself physically out of the tech world to Washington DC and surrounded by people with backgrounds and experiences and things to teach that were so different to me reminded me I'm not really tech person. I think tech and software and the internet computers, they're interesting tools or means to ends, but the ends that I actually get energized by, nothing to do with software. Just like no one would call themselves an electricity person, no one would identify that way. I think getting myself physically out of it and intellectually out of the tech world reminded me of that personally. And I think the tech world could get a lot if everyone in it thought, "Who am I really? What do I really care about?" And maybe that means I make an app or maybe that means I go on a Y Combinator find, but that's not really someone's identity, I don't think, or I don't think it leads to interesting things when it is.
MM: Why do you think the tech world is like that? Electricians probably aren't like, "I'm an electrician, I buy it, this is a lifestyle," and yet tech has this pervasive one size fits all model that people seem to readily adopt. Is it because there are a lot of young people? What are your thoughts there?
JM: What do you think it is?
MM: I'm not sure. I think it's mostly because a lot of people come at formative times in their life and they're looking for identity, searching for ideology to adopt, and they see people around them doing a certain thing that is prized of high status and they're like, "Well, I'm just going to emulate them." And then it becomes race to see who could be the most impressive in it's very specific dimension, which is productivity and creating value and all of these things, which is mostly incentivized by the venture capital model.
I'm not sure though, I think that there's more to it than that. I think it's also there is a certain sensation of technology, of progress and being at the forefront and the frontier and all of that. And I generally think that's pretty good in terms of actually creating outcomes and pushing things in a positive direction, but I think it might be bad on the individual level often for the people doing it, but good on the whole. It's like what's good for society and what's good for the individual is often different.
JM: First of all, I would read if you wrote about this or a New Yorker essay or whatever if anyone to write this, I hadn't really thought about it.
JM: But I think if I were to add potential hypotheses on top of your fantastic ones, I'd say there is an optimistic and a cynical take. The optimistic take, which I felt in terms of what I think Washington DC can learn from tech, is there is a set of values and principles imbued in the tech world that I took for granted until I got there. For example, we sold our first company to Facebook, and when I arrived at Facebook, you really felt that it did not matter how old I was, it did not matter what my title was, if I had good ideas, I could manifest those good ideas and those ideas would be as impactful as I thought they could be, the sky was the limit. I could jump levels, I could jump comp, I could be heard, I could be listened to.
And to Zuckerberg's credit for all of his flaws, he created a culture where he, starting with him and everyone else, truly listened no matter who you were in what rank and how long you'd been in the industry. There's a speed at which people work and realize things, there's a level of ambition and audacity to dream. So I think we're in a moment culturally where it's easy, and I do this to kind of boo the tech world and point out its faults, it's a really special set of values and principles that we almost take for granted that I was reminded of when I went to DC. So the optimistic take is because it actually is that special. So the fact that the internet exists or computers exist may not be that anomalous relative to other transitions in the past and we may be too self-important, but I do think there's a cultural aspect to the tech world which is real and is special in many ways though it has second order consequences and are always good. And that has an alert to it.
“And to Zuckerberg's credit for all of his flaws, he created a culture where he, starting with him and everyone else, truly listened no matter who you were in what rank and how long you'd been in the industry. There's a speed at which people work and realize things, there's a level of ambition and audacity to dream.”
And I found myself going back there, I didn't go to a think tank after DC, right? I didn't change industries. I may have not served a company right away, but I went back to the place that dreams really big, moves really fast and celebrates people of all shapes and sizes at its best if they have something special to say. I think you're a great example of this. I'm thinking about our relationship and our background and all the amazing people that I'm sure on is going to be on this podcast with me. No one was like, I met you when you were student at UCLA, but there's this kind of part of the culture. And so that's the optimistic take.
I think the cynical take is it's where the power is and it's where the money is. And I wonder if you would say the same thing about the finance world in the 80s or the 90s. It's actually interesting if I think about college friends and friends of friends and parents of people I know that you could read about them on Wikipedia. They all started a hedge fund or a private equity, I don't even know how these things work or worked, I wonder if it's just, again, nothing is new, this isn't new, this is the power center, this is the money center, that's where people go and those people tend to think they're pretty special.
In the same way that I think I probably look too judgingly whenever I, "Oh, so and so's uncle is a billionaire. What did he do? Oh, he did leverage, buyout, whatever of whatever company." And I'm like, "What a waste of human potential and why does society reward them and make them billionaires when they don't even know...?" And I guarantee you, my son and his friends are going to say that about all these techy people who flipped a bunch of crypto assets.
So anyways, that's all to say the cynical take is there's nothing new to see here. This happened with finance, it happened to be industrialist before it, the power and the money. I think the truth is when I was younger, I definitely loved, and still actually to this day, people who know me the best tell me, I think too much in binaries. The truth is more nuanced and it's a spectrum. So I bet it's a little bit of both than some of the ones you've mentioned too. But those are my two best guesses, one optimistic, one cynical.
“So anyways, that's all to say the cynical take is there's nothing new to see here. This happened with finance, it happened to be industrialist before it, the power and the money.”
MM: I like that. And it's also probably a cycle. Again, it's like something that, we'll feel this way and then it'll go back to being optimistic or pessimistic.
JM: And this goes back to the intersection, the things that inspire me, I love anything that fucks it up. And sorry to curse, but I guess what I mean, I don't mean that in a negative way like burn it down or disrupt. I don't mean it like that, but just every time something new comes along and it's like, "Whoa," I love that feeling, just mixing it up. It's funny, my son has this book that, maybe it's on my mind, it's this book called Mix It Up, you're supposed to go mix it up. There's like one page that's blue paint, next page it's yellow paint and then your next page it's green because you mix it up. I like when we mix things up and I think, yeah, there'll be another transition soon. Yeah.
MM: Makes life interesting, makes the world more interesting. Yeah. Wonderful. Well that is all my questions. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Josh.
JM: Thanks for having me, Molly.
MM: It's been an absolute pleasure.