9 min read

How Jason Citron Built Discord

I use Discord everyday and thought it would be interesting to talk through the company’s history and why I think Jason Citron is such an awesome entrepreneur.
How Jason Citron Built Discord

If you’re a gamer, you probably use Discord to chat with friends. Heck, even if you’re not a gamer, you probably still use Discord these days. Everyone uses Discord, but no one seems to know exactly why Discord is completely destroying all the other chat apps. And that’s a shame, because the founder has one of the most interesting stories I’ve ever heard in Silicon Valley.

His name is Jason Citron, and he just became a billionaire with Discord’s recent massive fundraise at a $7 billion dollar valuation, but he didn’t go to an Ivy League school, and he never worked at a big tech company. His path to success broke so many Silicon Valley conventions, and every one of his strategies can be directly copied if you’re building a startup yourself.

Like most successful founders, Jason is super humble. In fact, when he is asked about why Discord became successful, he usually just says something simple like this:

“We were successful because our product was ten times better than and ten times easier to use than the things that came before it, so people have been switching” - Jason Citron

And sure, building a great product is key to every startup success, but that doesn’t really explain how Discord became so popular in the beginning. What does Jason know about growing a startup that the rest of us don’t?

In many ways, Discord was late to the party in communication software. They have plenty of competitors in the gaming space, and Slack offers similar functionality to businesses. Slack actually launched two years before Discord and now that SalesForce acquired them for $27 billion dollars, they should basically have limitless resources to compete with Discord, but Slack seems to be falling behind. Which raises the question: how did Discord get so big, even though they launched two years later than Slack?

Most social apps fail completely, but when they succeed and get big, they tend to get really big, and I think Discord is just getting started. The company recently passed 140 million users and has completely broken out of the gaming niche where they got started.

That type of growth is extremely hard to come by in Silicon Valley and it really shows that Jason has a unique strategy that differs from other startup founders. Fortunately, the way Jason thinks about growing a startup can be summarized in just three key points. So let’s dig in to try and understand the mind of Jason Citron.

Jason’s biggest strength is actually something that many people might think of as a weakness. He didn’t have any impressive qualifications before becoming an entrepreneur. Instead of studying engineering at MIT or getting a business degree from Harvard, he attended a small school in Florida named Full Sail University. The school specializes in media and arts, and isn’t exactly known for churning out successful startup founders, but Jason knew he was interested in video games, and Full Sail University has a great program for game-design.

Jason had already taught himself to program at a young age, so when he got to college, he was able to focus on applying those skills to something he loved, making video games. After college, he went to work for a series of game studios making iPhone apps and actually won some awards for mobile game design.

After only two years working for other people, Jason quickly struck out on his own to start a company. Even though he didn’t have an impressive resume, Jason knew that he could build something gamers would enjoy, and that’s Jason’s first key advantage as an entrepreneur: he’s a relentless builder.

People like to think that in order to start a massive company, you either have to drop out of college at a young age, or graduate from a top school, but that’s simply not the case. Let’s look at some data to see what I’m talking about here. This data set was compiled from over a hundred unicorn companies, meaning they have been valued at over a billion dollars. More than 35% of these unicorns were founded by people with only a bachelor’s degree. And more founders had PhDs than were dropouts. So the myth of the magical dropout founder is just that, a myth. Clearly, no matter what your educational background is, you can start a great company if you solve the right problem and create a great product, and Jason clearly knows that.

And when it comes to attending prestigious schools, it might surprise you to hear that just as many founders of billion-dollar companies graduated from schools ranked in the top ten as from schools with rankings that didn’t even crack the top one hundred. That’s the amazing thing about entrepreneurship: it doesn’t require anyone’s permission. Getting a job at a top tech company or working at a fancy investment bank is incredibly difficult if you don’t have the right school on your resume, but build something people want, and investors will look past your background in a heartbeat.

Having the right credentials didn’t matter to Jason, he just wanted to make great games, so he started building. In 2008, he launched Aurora Feint, which was a puzzle game for iPhones that had a lot of really compelling role playing elements. The game was fairly successful, but ultimately couldn’t gain mass adoption because of its high price point. Most games charged just one dollar, so it was hard to get attention if you charged more. Even worse for Jason, some developers had already figured out how to sneakily offer in-app purchases, even though they weren’t technically allowed by Apple. Jason had made a very common mistake by focusing too much on the core product and leaving the business model as an afterthought. Although it’s incredibly important to build something great, you can’t put off thinking about how you’ll make money forever. Besides, a gaming company that goes out of business isn’t going to make any gamers happy at all, so it’s important to test your business model a bit before you commit to it fully.

With Aurora Feint struggling to make money, and the company running out of cash, Jason decided to pivot. The games were underperforming, but the company had built some really solid technology. This was before Apple had announced Game Center, and it was still a huge hassle for game developers to add social features to their games. Having the ability to invite friends to play games with you could easily make a game go viral. That’s what happened with Words with Friends, which was a social version of Scrabble for mobile devices and Draw Something, which applied the same principles to Pictionary. Both apps grew organically because every user would invite their friends to play with them and create a positive feedback loop. Playing games with real friends online is way more fun than playing against a computer or a random person, so social features quickly became a must have for every mobile game.

But building these social features was often difficult and game developers were more interested in improving their core game mechanics. Connecting to the user’s address book and linking up Facebook accounts was a very boring programming task that no developer wanted to get stuck with, so those features often got left to the last minute, or put off entirely.

Jason’s idea was to offer these social features as a neatly packaged software development kit that would make adding these features quick and easy. There was only one problem though. His team hadn’t actually built any of that and they didn’t have the time to. They were only 3 weeks away from bankruptcy and couldn’t afford to spend all that time building this new idea unless they were absolutely sure it would work.

But that’s where Jason’s second key advantage comes in: He’s a master of prototyping.

Even though Jason didn’t have time to build a full-fledged product, he could still keep the company in business if he proved that people wanted this new social platform. So he set up a landing page for the product which he called “OpenFeint” and outlined exactly what the product could do for game developers. Nothing had actually been built yet, but people visiting the page didn’t know that, they just saw a new tool that could rid them of a tedious task, let them launch faster, and ideally make their games go viral.

In order to drive traffic to the new site, Jason pitched the story to TechCrunch and convinced a reporter to write an explainer article about OpenFeint. Overnight, they got 400 developers to sign up, which completely validated the concept. Jason and his team worked hard to build OpenFeint into a real product and get it in the hands of game developers.

When you’re working on a new startup idea, it’s extremely common to get sucked into developing the actual product, especially if you’re a software engineer and enjoy coding. I’ve certainly been in that situation myself. What makes Jason so unique as an entrepreneur is that he can balance his programming skills with prototyping to validate his ideas. Obviously the cash crunch motivated his decision to launch the simple landing page. It was really his only option. But validating your startup idea before you start building is always an option. So be sure to use prototyping effectively like Jason.

The strategy worked out perfectly and OpenFeint grew significantly. The growth was so strong that just two years after launching, a Japanese company bought OpenFeint for over $100 million dollars. This was an amazing windfall for a guy who was just 26 years old and didn’t come from a wealthy family, but it wouldn’t all be smooth sailing from there. Even though he had sold the company, Jason originally planned to stay onboard at the company and help build an even better version of OpenFeint. But the new management didn’t see eye-to-eye with him, and so they asked him to resign. Fs in the chat for an ousted founder. You hate to see it.

But leaving OpenFeint behind was definitely a good thing in hindsight. It let Jason get back to what he loved doing most, building great software for gamers. So he set out to make a new game. This time, he built a multiplayer online battle arena for iPads called Hammer & Chisel. The basic idea was to bring an experience like DOTA2 or League of Legends to mobile devices and the initial response was quite good. He pitched the game at TechCrunch disrupt in 2014 and received lots of positive feedback, but true virality just wasn’t there, and Hammer & Chisel fell short of breakout success, much like AuroraFeint had 6 years earlier.

So once again, Jason refocused on finding a problem that all gamers struggled with, and just like with OpenFeint, he landed on connecting socially while gaming. Even though he had been focused on mobile up until this point, Jason and his team realized that the PC would be a much easier platform to target. There were millions of PC gamers who were open to trying new software, and building a communication app for desktop PCs would be easier than building something that would run smoothly on a mobile device while gaming.

So he started building the first version of Discord, with the goal of bringing great chat and voice communication to gamers. Discord was an almost immediate success, and lots of people credit the app's improved design over competitors as the main reason for Discord’s growth, but I think there’s something more going on here.

First off, Discord didn’t just look different from competitors like TeamSpeak or Mumble. Although, we do need to take a second and just look at how old those apps looked at the time that Discord launched. Ridiculous. The more important design innovation here was the fact that Discord could run in a browser, so on-boarding was extremely easy. As long as there was one person in a group of gamers willing to quickly set up a Discord server, everyone else could just be invited with a simple link. They wouldn’t need to install any program to get up and running, something all the other chat apps required. But that wasn’t the real reason people stuck around and switched to Discord permanently.

See, Discord is all about building authentic communities. A Discord server might start with a few friends, or a specific topic in mind, but what really makes people keep opening the Discord app is the feeling of a sense of community. And that’s Jason’s third key advantage: he is a great community builder.

This comes from the fact that Jason himself is both a game developer and a gamer. He understands the impact that clear and reliable voice communication can have while playing a competitive game. He’s an authentic member of the gaming community and you can feel that every time you open Discord. But it doesn’t stop there. When Jason initially launched Discord, he created a dedicated server just to help new users. His entire team would be there to answer any questions users had and troubleshoot any issues that came up.

He was also able to seed Discord into the right communities by having friends post on specific subreddits that were dedicated to particular games. The Final Fantasy Fourteen subreddit was particularly critical for Discord’s growth in the early stage, since these players needed reliable voice chat to communicate with their friends in game. By building a strong community of early adopters, and making Discord easy to share with friends, Jason had finally created the viral product he never could as a game developer.

Discord has been growing exponentially since launch, and I personally hope it only gets more popular. Jason Citron is clearly a super talented founder and someone we should all try and emulate while building the next generation of startups.

If you want to chat about entrepreneurship, you can always DM me on Twitter.

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