How Discord Went From a Failed Video Game to a Unicorn Startup

Discord app icon on phone screen.

In the summer of 2015, Discord was just a failed video game. It had been released in May of that year to little fanfare and quickly fell off the radar. But in late November, something amazing happened: it hit 1 million users. And then 2 million users. And then 10 million users. What changed? How did Discord become so popular? 

We’ll detail how Discord went from rags to riches by making the right startup decisions.

Origin of the Startup Idea

What makes the Discord story so unique is the way it started. Instead of having the business established from the get-go, it took some iterations for Discord to be where it is today. Founder Jason Citron had previously co-founded OpenFeint, a social platform for mobile gamers that was acquired by GREE in 2011 for $104 million.

After the acquisition, Jason decided to take some time off and figure out his next move. He had no intention of starting another company; he just wanted to relax and play video games with friends. But during this time, he began an actual gaming company that was focused on tablets and core multiplayer games. The games had a built-in chat and text feature so gamers could communicate with each other. After a few years, Citron and his team realized the most popular part of their entire game was the chat feature itself. After a lot of deliberation on what to do with the data, Citron decided the company needed to focus on another direction.

It was at this point when the entire company made a pivot to focus on building out a chat feature for games that would replace the popular platforms at the time, TeamSpeak and Skype. The change did not come without its share of consequences, though. The company had to lay off a third of its workers and transition a large majority of workers to different roles within the same company.

Over the next few years, the company began to develop crucial features and improve the quality of the product, and in 2015, users began to take notice.

The dedication to improving the quality of the product helped solidify Discord as an important communication tool, but the company would have to continue to foster the relationship between its users to really make it big.

Development of the Startup

What Discord realized was that the most important part of the gaming community was the community itself. Gamers often wanted a place where they could speak about all topics of life, not just games. Discord helped open the opportunity by providing channels that automatically came with voice chats. Instead of needing to set up a call, plan one in advance, or provide secure information to join, Discord allowed users to simply join or start a chat whenever they wanted. Much like walking into a room with another person there and sitting down with them to start talking. Discord has also developed video chat along with their voice chat that works in the same way. 

That doesn’t mean that Discord hasn’t come with its set of challenges. In 2020, Discord began to get complaints about the lack of moderation on its platform, and the company now prints out company reports every year in an attempt to be transparent about its moderation efforts. The work is still ongoing and will continue to be a bigger part of Discord as the company continues to grow. 

A lot of the features that Discord implements in its platforms are not entirely unique to them. Many users can find video chat or voice chat or continue conversations in a forum-like atmosphere, but Discord seems to pull them all together effortlessly. They’ve created an online version of your personal community, much like a dorm building that has been transferred to the internet. 

No other platform that focuses on social aspects has the combination of features that Discord provides, and no other structure is quite the same either. From its humble beginnings as a video game to the multi-million number of users daily, Discord has shown what can happen when a startup pivots correctly and efficiently.

What’s Next for the Startup

Discord is often called in publications the “future of the internet” because of its many social features that seem to integrate seamlessly with each other. The company has essentially set up the closest online version to real-life communication the internet has ever seen. It’s not just about text, it’s not just about voice, and it’s not just about the video either. It’s about combining it all in a way where people can pick and choose how they want to interact. 

Users can freely flow through text, voice, and video and even open multiple channels at a time while choosing which one they have in focus. What started as a place for gamers has matured into a communication platform for all kinds of people and professionals. 

Discord is starting to talk more with its user base that isn’t into gaming to try and understand exactly how they can develop a better product for them. The company has rebranded itself completely from a place for gamers to a place where anyone can come to talk. They’ve had a redesign that appeals more to the everyday person and removed a lot of the gamer-specific language they were using on their website.

As Discord continues to promote its services to a bigger audience, it will have to continue to monitor the actions people take on its servers on a bigger scale. It’s also looking to add new tech to its growing platform like VR and AR. These two newer technologies seem like a natural progression for Discord and help bridge more communication gaps.

There were talks of Discord possibly being bought by Microsoft and integrated directly into existing systems, but the deal never went through. It is clear, though, that it won’t be the last offer Discord has in its lifetime. 

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