The Browser Company’s CEO on going up against Alphabet, Apple, and Microsoft
Presented by Slack
This is the sixth article in a series of conversations with Slack Fund portfolio companies, which explores their growth stories and the roles they play in creating the future of work. In this piece, Jason Spinell, head of Slack Fund, sits down with Josh Miller, CEO and Co-Founder of The Browser Company, to talk about his journey from the White House to shaking up the tech industry with a completely new web browser.
See the first five in this series featuring Hopin CEO Johnny Boufarhat, Daily Co-Founder Nina Kuruvilla, MURAL Co-Founder & CEO Mariano Suarez-Battan, Notion COO Akshay Kothari, and Paige McPheely, CEO and Co-Founder of Base.
Every day, we humans spend countless hours in these digital rectangles we call web browsers. And while the way we use the internet has fundamentally changed, web browsers themselves haven’t changed much at all. Until now.
The Browser Company, headed up by Josh Miller, is on a mission to build a better web browser — one that enables people to build their own home on the internet, and arms them with the tools they need to be more focused, organized, and in control.
Josh and his team are taking a unique approach, fusing art and technology to build a beautiful, highly functional web browser unlike anything out there today.
I recently caught up with Josh to learn more about his journey, the culture he’s building at The Browser Company, and what the future holds for the way we all use the internet.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Jason Spinell: Why don’t we start with an introduction? Can you tell us a little about yourself, and your journey to becoming the CEO of The Browser Company?
Josh Miller: I’ve always been interested in the intersection between technology and humans. I started a company out of college, then found myself at Facebook for a bit, and then worked in the Obama White House. I was a political appointee, and when I left at the start of 2017, I was a bit jaded about the role technology plays in the world, especially the idea that a couple of huge companies had so much control over how we use the internet.
After taking a break, I realized that the way people were using the internet and their browsers was much different than it had been previously. I felt there was a really exciting opportunity for a new type of operating system or platform.
People are spending pretty much all day, every day, be it for their professional life or their hobbies, in these digital rectangles we call web browsers. How can we make them better and improve people’s experience?
Jason Spinell: We’ve all heard the buzzword “future of work.” Can you talk about what that means to you, and what role you think software will continue to play in shaping that?
Josh Miller: From our perspective at The Browser Company, I think the future of work will be a lot more open and welcoming. We have five or six parents on our team, people in countries all over the world, and even team members that live just a little too far away to commute every day. It’s all about flexibility and being more inclusive to different types of people from different walks of life.
A lot of work is going to be mediated by the internet. That’s not to say everything is going to be remote, or co-located, or hybrid, but regardless of what work looks like, the internet will be at its core. When COVID hit, companies still managed to function with the help of software like Slack and Zoom. To me, that suggests that the internet is already playing that mediating role.
It also makes me think back to when I was at the White House. It wasn’t a super tech-forward organization, and in-person meetings were definitely more of a focus than they would be at tech companies like Slack. But even as I was running from meeting to meeting, I was always glued to my phone, checking for updates on various things. As much as we think of COVID as being this great accelerator of the future of work, the internet was already central to the way we worked before the pandemic.
When it comes to hybrid and remote work, my thinking has really evolved. Personally, I can’t wait to be back in the office. I really want to have at least a hybrid world. But at first I didn’t realize that if our goal is to work with a certain type of person who shares our values, is extremely talented, and can help us achieve our goals, why do we care where they live? Because COVID meant it didn’t really matter where our employees were, we kind of stumbled into this view, but I see it as something exciting that’s come out of all this bad.
Jason Spinell: We saw that at Slack too. Obviously Slack, being the product that it is, enables a lot of this flexibility. But before the pandemic, we were in favor of office-first, but now, our thinking has really matured on that.
Let’s dig a little deeper on the idea of flexibility, culture, and inclusivity. How do you think about developing the next generation of leaders at The Browser Company, and even beyond?
Josh Miller: We’ve found the impact our team members have does not correlate with their years of experience. And frankly, I’ve noticed this pattern everywhere in my career. Obviously, there are certain disciplines where having a decade of experience under your belt is very helpful, if not essential. But in general, we believe that years of experience is a poor indicator of the impact a person can have on the company.
At the same time, we view our ability to hire amazing people with that decade plus of experience as a great enabler for the company. Hiring these types of folks as leaders helps us mentor junior employees who can have a huge impact with just a little bit of help.
Our hiring strategy isn’t just about hiring these super accomplished, experienced leaders, or bright young people a year or two out of college, but attracting the perfect blend of these people. The interplay between them is so important.
It speaks to the product we’re building too. If you were to create a venn diagram of the apps that myself, my mom, and my niece use, there wouldn’t be much in the middle, but the web browser would be there for sure. People all over the world use web browsers, so it’s important we build a diverse team that includes people at different stages of their career and professional development, especially people with a really high growth trajectory that just need a little mentorship.
Jason Spinell: How is that working out? You’ve attracted some really experienced leaders in the tech world. The old adage might be that these types of people don’t really want to mentor new grads. Are you seeing something different?
Josh Miller: I once got this advice: If your values aren’t alienating, they’re not good. If both Slack and The Browser Company had intelligence as a core value, how is someone supposed to be able to tell the difference?
We think a lot about our values. The word ‘alienating’ has negative connotations, but what we’re trying to do is to make it really clear who should work here and who shouldn’t.
In reality, most people shouldn’t want to work here, even if on paper, they seem like a good fit. To your point, we do ask specifically about mentorship. If someone isn’t interested in developing talent and colleagues, it’s clear they’re not a good fit. And that’s not being judgemental — there’ve been periods of my career where, for whatever reason, I didn’t want to devote time to mentorship. But at The Browser Company, we view mentorship as a cultural canon. That goes both ways — everyone has something to learn from each other.
We’re David, and we’re going up against Goliath. We’re literally competing with Alphabet, Apple, and Microsoft. We have no choice but to punch above our weight, and the only way we can do that is in a collaborative way.
Jason Spinell: Switching gears a little bit, let’s talk more about the product. I love the teasers you put out on Twitter. You talk a lot about focus, control, and making the internet more personal. Can you share a little bit about how you guys are thinking about enabling that for your users?
Josh Miller: The browser used to be just one of many applications on your computer. But now, it really feels like our home on the internet. Your professional life, personal life, side projects, news and media — everything is on the internet.
To your point on focus and control, one of the things we do in the architecture of the product is create different spaces for different things. It’s similar to your physical home — you have different rooms for different things, with different feels and different things in them. We want to give people that same level of control when it comes to designing their home on the internet. If my wife and I are trying to figure out our son’s immunization requirements, that space should feel different and focus me differently than if I’m going down a rabbit hole on YouTube.
There are a lot of little things we’ve noticed. I stay more focused when I don’t have to context switch all the time. I have all these apps that I use, and I’m constantly flying around between them. It’s much more distracting than people realize.
In our product, we have a mode to hide the browser Chrome, which in effect makes the browser totally invisible. That makes any website or web app feel like a native app. I can have Slack right next to Twitter, next to my calendar, all in the same window, without any of the distraction of flipping between different apps all the time.
Our goal is to give people more control and agency over their experience of using the internet. The apps that may be important to you might be distracting for me, and vice versa. It’s less about our own team’s super opinionated takes on what’s right, and more about building simple tools that let people create their own workspace on the internet.
Jason Spinell: That’s one of my favorite features.
Josh Miller: It’s actually been huge for my Slack usage. So much of what I do in Slack is clicking on links in messages, and when it’s a different app, there’s a lot of switching. But when I use Slack on my browser, it’s really the hub of my work, it’s where I spend the most time.
Jason Spinell: Stepping away a little bit, you’re growing a business and embracing this hybrid work style. I know Slack plays into the tech stack you use to run the business, but what are some of the other tools you’re using?
Josh Miller: There’s obvious ones like Figma and Zoom, but I’m going to shout out some lesser known ones that I really love.
One that has been really fun and productive for me is an app called Tuple. It’s great for paired programming for engineers. They’ve really nailed the details — the latency of the screen sharing is fantastic, you can control other people’s screens, rope in other people to the call, start audio only then move to video, and so much more. In many ways, it’s replaced traditional video or phone calls. It feels a lot more fluid, casual, and even more powerful in some instances. It’s clear their team has a real love of the craft on the engineering and design side.
I’ve also been a big fan of a product called Sprout. It’s one of those products that you can really feel the people who made it on the other end — it has a real spirit and a warmth. I use it for 1:1 meetings that are somewhere in between a brainstorm and a casual catch-up.
The other one I have to mention is Linear. Issue tracking software might not be super exciting, but the attention to detail is amazing, and it’s the backbone of our software development.
Jason Spinell: This is a broader question. We’ve talked a lot about collaboration, but how do you see that evolving now that so many people are remote? How does the internet, and The Browser Company, enable different types of collaboration?
Josh Miller: I think there’s been too much focus on the communication part of collaboration. We talk about collaboration in terms of video, audio, emoji reactions — it’s almost always the communication part that is focused on.
What I’m really excited about is the objects we’re making together and collaborating on. I mentioned tools like Sprout — to some extent, that’s what I find so interesting about that product. We’re working on that kind of stuff too, and it’s coming to a browser near you soon.
If you look at some of the jewels of the internet, they’re much more about the things that people made when they came together, rather than the communication tools they used while working on them. Think about platforms like Wikipedia and GitHub, it’s the encyclopedia and open source libraries that people talk about, not the commenting tools.
Jason Spinell: Speaking of prototypes, is there anything you can share about what’s in the pipeline for The Browser Company?
Josh Miller: I’ve recently changed my perspective on mobile browsers. Don’t get me wrong; desktop remains our focus, and browsers play a more important role on desktops than they do on mobile. But I think we took for granted the number of times you actually use your mobile browser every day — it’s actually one of the mobile apps people use the most.
Mobile browsers are just as outdated and uninspired as desktop browsers, if not more. They all look the same and do the same things in the same way. And so we’re working on a new browser for your phone. We just hired one of the co-creators of Facebook Paper, along with some others, to really focus on it, and explore what you can do on mobile with a blank page and a child-like mind. I’m really excited about that, even though it’s something that I under-appreciated previously.
Jason Spinell: Let’s talk about advice. What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to entrepreneurs or founders just getting started?
Josh Miller: I can answer this without hesitation, but I know that this advice would go over the head of my younger self, and even to this day I’m still trying to internalize it.
You’ve got to build what feels right to you and your team, and have your creation be an authentic expression of you. Not what the market wants, not what a blog post says is good, and not what some fancy person told you to do, but what feels right to you.
Like I said, I still struggle to take this advice. There’s the pull of the twittersphere, investors, the media, competitors. Through all that, the only way you’re going to win is to stay really authentic to who you are.
If someone had told me that at the start of my career, I’d have thought it was boring, cliché advice. But it’s so important to own who you are and what you’re trying to do. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take advice, but when I was younger, I paid too much attention to others.
Jason Spinell: It’s so true — it’s impossible to fake it. Even the examples you brought up earlier — Sprout and Tuple — you talked a lot about how the personality of the team comes through in the product. Where do you take inspiration from?
Josh Miller: Someone that’s inspired me the most — outside of family members — is an artist called James Turrell. He’s blown my mind. His work defies definitions of whether he’s an artist, an architect, an astrologist, a sculptor. It’s so clear to me that he’s been working on expressing the same thing in many forms throughout his career. I very much look up to him and admire the way he’s lived his life.
One of the things we’re trying to do at The Browser Company is to take inspiration from outside the tech industry. One of the defining parts of our product is the visual treatment — people describe our browser as modern and beautiful. The inspiration came from a woman on our design team who had quit tech and was making furniture. We persuaded her to bring that love of design to our product. The inspiration for the design aesthetic that people love so much about our browser came from her and a visual artist named Robert Irwin.
Jason Spinell: Last question. And it’s a tough one. Do you, or The Browser Company, have a favorite Slack emoji you use the most?
Josh Miller: We love the custom Slack emojis. We’ve created many of our own that memorialize different moments. So while we don’t have a specific Slack emoji (there are so many!), the best thing about Slack is the fact that it gives us the ability to create our own.
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