Daniel Ha on communities, engagement, and the future of technology


 

Rohan: I am a huge fan of Disqus. It is my commenting system of choice and it’s one of those products I cannot stop recommending. I can count up to 8 bloggers who switched to Disqus thanks to my recommendation – I can’t think of too many other products I evangelize as much.

Disqus was co-founded by Daniel Ha. Along with close friend Jason Yan, he founded this online discussion and commenting service for websites, while at UC Davis and I was obviously delighted to have had some of his time for a very insightful 30 minute discussion.

About Daniel Ha

Daniel is the CEO and co-founder of Disqus, a company he co-founded with close friend Jason Yan in 2007. Disqus is based in San Francisco and is a small but quickly growing company that aims to improve conversations online. Today, the Disqus commenting platform is used by it’s 79 million users across some of the largest sites on the web.


Interview Transcript

 

Rohan: What is the back-story of Daniel the person?

Daniel: Disqus is my first company and it is also my first job. I did techno internships when I was in college and had a number of other jobs. However, as far as out of school concerns Disqus is my first project. That’s the same story wit my co-founder. We started Disqus while we were still in school. We loved building things and we moved straight into crossing all the hurdles that come with working with larger companies. Very soon we found out that we were really interested in pursuing Disqus!

Rohan: Where did you grow up? What is your personal story?

Daniel: I grew up in San Francisco in the Bay area. It is right next to Silicon Valley, San Jose. My father worked with tech companies on the finance and business side of things. He gave me the opportunity to learn about companies out there! I was really inspired by that.

I guess that’s like growing up in Hollywood and seeing movie and music studios all around you, being right in the middle of it. That’s how I never knew any other life from tech. I also realised that some people do not have this kind of an opportunity.

I was always into computers and technology. I started working with computers very early on, between the ages of 7 and 9 years. I started with simple programming. I started using the web a little bit after middle school. When I was 13 maybe 12 I met another little boy named Jason, who ended up being my co-founder in Disqus. We met in an advanced algorithm class in middle school. The first thing we ever did together was to play Star Craft. We got together to build a website which was a way for us to share music. This was probably around 1997, which was a little bit before peer-to-peer got popular!

We got a lot of online forums and discussion boards. Apart from that we were the nerdy kids in school, so we were able to work these projects! Through out though high school we were not as close and we lost touch for a while. We reconnected and went to the same college at University of California, Davis. It is outside of Bay Area, north of California. We did Computer science and Engineering. It was almost like we picked up stuff from our 13-14 year old selves. Now we were 18-19 and we had started working together!

Over the couple of years we did a lot of micro projects and I think a big driving factor was that we were really bored in school. A lot of the science classes were already done for us. So we did a lot of unrelated things before we finished up school.

I really did not like Chemistry. In the end I had this one class to take for graduation. We felt we had learnt everything there was to learn. And we realised there was a lot of opportunity waiting for us. We started Disqus in 2007 and started making it a company really in 2008!

 

Rohan: So what was the inspiration for starting Disqus?

Daniel: To improve your own blog or for blogs in general?Daniel: I am a non-blogger. I would not pretend to know much about this. Thinking back I had read a lot of blogs, but I never had one myself. Disqus started as a way for us to take what we know about good online communities from all the time we spent on message boards, RC Channels and other micro communities that exist all over the web to talk about movies and music. We wanted to link up all these small communities were we end up making a lot of friends over common topics. We wanted Disqus to be a new way for discussion platforms to work. So Disqus became something that was not only better software but understood how communities interacted.

One of the initial ideas was to make this completely network based. Say I was on a particular network and I talked about something in which I was a complete badass knowing all there was to know. And when I travelled to something completely different like say video games, they are not exactly the same communities, but a lot of cues about my contribution existed. And so we started off with this project and called it Disqus. One of the things that we did was look at the way it worked.

We figured out a way to put a microform that embedded into the website itself. At that time I was going to start another blog. I have started lots of blogs but I have never really kept up with them in the form of blog posts. Disqus was an excuse for me to say if I disconnected with my blogging I would still like to keep my engagement around. So we simplified the process and over time it looks just like comments and nothing else. So what started off as a discussion platform became a comment system and now we are on a path to go back to discussion platform.

 

Rohan: What is the vision ten years from now for Disqus?

Daniel: I look at the web today where there are a lot of huge answers on social networking. That is because we have a lot of personal information about people, which makes a lot of transactions and exchanges very authentic. I can buy something online and I can have a good sense of who you are. That’s the sort of dimension that has opened up. It has created a lot of excitement by making everything more social and interactive. I think that’s a very cool thing.

It really does make you think about where that ticks and how that makes the audience to relate to the true philosophies of web. When I got familiar with the Internet and the web, it was a lot of exchange of ideas and thoughts. Now days it’s mostly about people who are defined by the ideas they share. I sort of think Disqus as a place for web communities were discussions still matter.

Independent publishers and bloggers are struggling because while they have great content, they need to do something more to give a unique experience to their user. Some people do that by creating a brand image. The newsletters and publishers have their own stamp.

All we want to do is help the small communities create their own mark and space. When you are creating a community you are creating a nightclub or a bar or a lounge where people comment. They like people not because they know them from another life, but because they like the same content and exchanges. Bigger brands like Fox News, or CNN have an image, which resonates.

We certainly don’t want to take and own the concept of commenting. There is discussion happening everywhere on the phone, on the web, on the television and on the street and we want to help build communities that are super strong.

 

Rohan: You are a Silicon Valley boy. What inspires and drives you?

Daniel: Lot of things inspire me personally and that’s because of people around me. I think I am inspired by the things people do. I am really fascinated on a macro scale about technology being commoditised. I should explain that a little bit!

Right now in Silicon Valley, San Francisco everything is considered a technology company. Maybe you are creating a new way for transportation or you are creating a new way for digital avatars to have conversations, or new ways of commenting. If you think about it, it’s interesting because 100 years ago, companies were electric companies? If you used electricity you were unique and that was your classification.

Right now we use technology and we can’t really be tech companies right? I am really excited about where this whole thing is headed. Just understanding that as a whole, we are not just building technology companies. It’s just a commoditised thing. People would build on what we are doing right now. I am really excited about what the next two generations of people using Internet would make out of it! That’s what drives me! What I am doing today with Disqus has a potential to shape the Internet and the way things function. We want a scenario where Internet is being taken for granted. Right now the infrastructure is still being built. The walls are still being built. And we are in it shaping someone’s foundation!

 

Rohan: Who would say are mentors who have inspired you?

Daniel: This might sound a little cheesy but my long time role model has always been my dad. He got me into pretty much anything I was interested in like cars and computers. A lot of his work ethics and his view on technology inspire me. I still talk to him about all these things. He’s always been a very curious person – making sure that I had access to gadgets and electronics. It has given me an incredible opportunity to get things I have always wanted to.

Other sources of inspirations are living in this area – where I am constantly surrounded by entrepreneurs of all areas and ages with different drives – all of whom really care about what they are doing. You can’t help but feel a bit lazy in comparison to them. So you always work a bit harder to achieve a little more.

We did something called Y Combinator. We met a lot of great guys at YC and our current neighbours are from YC as well.

Otherwise, I like Henry Ford as a person – his views on industries and what that means for people and companies. His impact has been far reaching.

 

Rohan: Was there a defining moment in this entire journey? Or was it just a gradual evolution?

Daniel: We had a bunch of major milestones along the way. I would say that nothing would ever top the first couple of weeks of getting started. A lot of it was the transition from playing house to running house.

Me and my co-founder, we would met up at a diners at college. It was during breaks while we were still in school. We would come up with fake business plans and fake product documents. It was this sort of make-believe and fun-pretend exercise. Its funny that after all the research of seeing who does what and how, you end up throwing everything and doing it your own way.

 

Rohan: What are little things you do in your week to stay productive?

Daniel: I am a big list maker. It’s always big things to small things and medium things featuring there. Every week is a list of small things on a bullet list that need to be accomplished to make next week better than this week! I usually have 20-30 items on the list. I try to identify the top 2-3 that just has to be done. Every time I start a new project I start with Evernote or a notebook.

People always come up with challenges but the details it takes to address them can get fuzzy. I like to keep things in a very execution driven thing. I never do anything unless it’s on my bullet list and all the steps needed are listed down there. I find it very helpful!

 

Rohan: What is your message to those who are watching this/reading this?

Daniel: You are never too good for any opportunity. That was very helpful to get my foot in the door for various things.

You really need a lot of advice for how to do things. People do put a lot of ideas around how valuable your time is and how you should do something. Never let that cloud your judgement for taking up opportunities! Anything that comes up that could lead you to something new, you should go for it.
When you are starting something new you will always have something else as your competition. They can be better in every way. But you can be more prolific and you can try harder. It’s really easy to drag your feet when there is so much advice out there.

In this ecosystem its very interesting that everyone has done some version of what you are trying to do. In the technology, entrepreneur or marketing side, someone likely has more experience. Whatever decision you do make, make a push on it. Do not give up on it!


Thank you Daniel for that! We heard some really interesting ideas about technology in the future. And hey we love lists too!

Real Leaders Team