The Disqus Demo Day Story
I’ve told bits and pieces of this story here on AVC over the years but I don’t think I’ve ever told the whole story. Y Combinator (YC) Demo Day has been going on over the past few days up in Silicon Valley and it prompted me to remember a demo day in Boston (where YC started) ten years ago:
— Fred Wilson (@fredwilson) March 22, 2017
It was the summer of 2007 and back then YC would do a summer session in Boston and a winter session in the Bay Area. Paul Graham eventually moved himself and YC to the Bay Area and the summers in Boston ended. I agree with my partner Andy that those early demo days in Boston were something special.
So a few days before demo day, Paul Graham emailed me and told me that a YC team wanted to launch its new product on AVC at demo day. He explained it was a new modern comment system that was better than the ones that came with WordPress and Typepad (which was where AVC was hosted back then). I was intrigued as I really hated the Typepad comment system. But I did not want to do any work to add a new comment system to AVC. Paul suggested I give him the login credentials to my blog CMS and he would give them to the founders. I agreed and over a few days, Daniel Ha and Jason Yan, the two founders of Disqus, put their comment system onto AVC. They left all of the old comments in Typepad and set up Disqus to power the comments on the new blog posts.
I showed up at Demo Day excited to see all of the companies (19 that day) present. When it came time for Disqus to present Daniel got up on stage, explained that the current comment systems were terrible, and that they had built a better one. Then he pointed the browser on the presentation computer to AVC, scrolled down to leave a comment, and there was Disqus running at the bottom of the post. He showed how easy it was to login, post a comment, and how it rendered nicely in line with the post. It was slick and I was impressed.
After the presentations, the investors would mingle with the founders. Paul and Jessica put out a super nice cheese and cured meat spread. I went up to Daniel and told him that I really liked his presentation. He thanked me and asked me if I would keep Disqus on AVC. I can’t remember if it was even called Disqus back then. But anyway, I told him that if he and Jason could build me one feature quickly, I would keep Disqus on AVC.
Here’s that feature request. The Typepad comment system would email me every time someone posted a comment on AVC. But I would have to go to AVC to reply. It was clunky and I hated it. So my feature request was “send me the comment notification emails with the ability to reply right in my email” (on my Blackberry at the time). Daniel said they would look into it.
I think Demo Day was on a Thursday. The following Monday, I got an email from Daniel saying that they had launched my requested feature over the weekend. So I tested the feature and it worked exactly as I had imagined it.
I had been making this feature request of Typepad for some time and they had not been able to get to it. I totally understand that a big company with a long roadmap is different than two founders with a brand new product. But the fact that Daniel and Jason had built it and shipped it over the weekend impressed me.
Disqus has been running on AVC ever since and I still love the product and the founders.
But I did not think about investing in Disqus at the time. I thought it was a utility that could be replaced by an even better comment system that would come along some day. In January of 2008, I caught up with Daniel in San Francisco and he explained that Disqus was running on tens of thousands of blogs and everyone who commented on the AVC blog with a Disqus profile could also comment on those blogs with the same profile. Then it dawned on me that Disqus was a network, not a utility. USV invested something like $300k in a seed round a month or so later and we have been investors in Disqus ever since.
To me, this is the quintessential YC story. Two “hackers” built something that the market needed over the course of a month or two during a summer in Boston (they were based in SF), demoed it to a bunch of investors, hooked one of them with the slick presentation, and eventually got the VC to invest in their company. But the part I love the most about this story is the feature request that they implemented over the weekend. That feature turned out to be highly viral because anyone who left a comment on any Disqus powered blog would get an email when anyone replied to their comment (and still do). That brought people back and the conversations flowed much better on Disqus powered blogs than on the incumbents’ comment systems. That is the power of listening to your customers. And the power of turning a customer into an investor.