Most teenagers would probably wince at the idea of waking up every day at 5 a.m. Stanislav "Stan" Vishnevskiy was not one of them.
In fact, he did it just so he could cram in more hours playing Final Fantasy XI, a multiplayer online role-playing game from the popular eponymous franchise. He became so addicted to it that by high school he had assembled a team of about 40 people that quickly earned enough points to be the game's highest-ranking team in the world. That was thanks, in part, to online tools he developed to better communicate with his teammates.
Today, the 29-year-old is the CTO and co-founder of San Francisco-based Discord, a voice, video, and text chat platform that connects individuals with a shared passion for video and computer games. More than 90 million people worldwide use it to communicate with friends or strangers, be it while playing an online game like Fortnite or simply to discuss the latest trend in cryptocurrency. The startup recently doubled its valuation to some $1.65 billion, earning it so-called "unicorn" status.
"My whole life I've always tried to make websites or apps that connect people together," Vishnevskiy says.
Striking Out, Starting Up
The path to success hasn't been easy--even for a guy once heralded as Final Fantasy XI's No. 2 player in the world. The truth is Vishnevskiy and his co-founder, CEO Jason Citron, both struck out before collaborating in 2015 on Discord.
Vishnevskiy had tried to transform all the tools he had created for his Final Fantasy team into a service other gamers could use; they didn't. Citron, on the other hand, had been successful in his first entrepreneurial endeavor, a gaming business he ended up selling to a Japanese firm for $104 million. His second company, in which Vishnevskiy ended up working as an engineer in 2013, didn't do so well -- its debut product, a mobile game called Fates Forever, basically flopped.
So in December 2014, several months after Fates Forever had launched, Vishnevskiy revisited the idea of connecting gamers together, this time in the form of a voice chat platform. He pitched the idea to Citron, and they started working on it in January 2015.
When Discord finally launched later that May, one of its key advantages was the ability to use it either on a web browser or by downloading the app. It was a "fancy app," as Vishnevskiy puts it. Essentially, it offered gamers the ability to create their own chat rooms (Discord calls them "servers") for free and hold a massive conference call while playing a game.
Still, at the time it had only about 20 sign-ups, and most---if not all--were friends. That changed after one user posted about the new service on Reddit. When the thread started getting responses, Vishnevskiy quickly offered to answer any question on Discord. That day, the company added 600 new users, which, the co-founders say, "kind of kick-started the viral growth."
Talk Isn't Cheap
Today, Discord has raised more than $150 million in venture capital, counting money Citron had raised for the previous startup, from Silicon Valley's top firms, including Benchmark and Greylock. Its user growth has skyrocketed. Just last summer, it had 45 million registered users; that number has since doubled. The company currently has 100 employees.
Three years in, though, Discord has yet to turn a profit. That may soon change. In January 2017, the company introduced a paid subscription called Discord Nitro. For $5 a month, users get access to some digital goodies, like custom GIFs and a bigger file-size limit for uploads.
Josh Elman, partner at Greylock and one of Discord's board members, believes there will be "a lot of possibilities" to monetize the app's popularity, particularly as it finds new ways to "integrate in gamers' lives."
He says, "Playing online games is becoming more of a social activity," adding that the gaming industry is worth over $100 billion worldwide, with PC games making up about $30 billion on their own.
Reining It In, Staying Positive
Of course, Discord's rise in popularity has also brought fresh new challenges. Last August, a New York Times article proclaimed it the "Alt-Right's favorite chat app." According to the story, major white supremacy groups used Discord to organize protests and rallies, including one carried out in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the death of a 32-year-old civil rights activist.
Since then, Discord has banned and closed multiple servers for violating its policies. It also maintains a trust and safety team, along with a customer support team, available 24/7 to monitor users' reports. By default, Discord's servers are private, which means people have to be invited to join. Users can access various tools to control their own spaces, including limiting or restricting posting privileges.
While there are multiple online databases that list and offer links to join Discord servers (one purporting to have more than 24,000 listed), Citron says: "Most people don't experience any [bad] stuff."
On the bright side, it is probably a good thing the issue has emerged early in the startup's life. That gives its co-founders more leeway to introduce changes to resolve it, as opposed to more mature companies (here's looking at you, Facebook). Even with its 90 million users, Discord is still a small player in the gaming chat space. There are, after all, more than 2.6 billion gamers in the world.
The co-founders are choosing to focus on the positive. "So many of our best relationships and experiences in life are built around playing games with our friends," adds Citron. "Being able to bring that to more people is the ethos of the company. Our whole mission is to bring people together."