My name is Jan Koum. I escaped communism in Ukraine and in America I started from scratch. I created WhatsApp because I hated censorship and sold it to Facebook. For 19 billion dollars. My story for you, and for 450 million others …
When he lived off public assistance, the Koum family went to collect vouchers for food purchases a couple of blocks from the Mountain View office, without signs, which today houses his company, WhatsApp. Koum emigrated from communist Ukraine to 16 years old – where the telephone lines of all the citizens were intercepted – and he and his mother rarely could afford the luxury of phoning from America to the family members left there.
And so, when at 31 years old Koum leaves his job to Yahoo! with enough money in his pocket to set up his own business, it was natural to think of a project to democratize telephone communications. As he took his first steps, he kept to just three rules: his service would have been devoid of publicity: it was a foreign element to Koum's Soviet education, and his absence had seemed positive to him; he would not have stored messages jeopardizing citizens' privacy; would have focused on the task of securing a user experience free of gadgets and frictions, and reliable.
Five years have passed since the launch, Whatsapp among the most popular and profitable phone apps in the world, and Facebook recently bought it for16 billion dollarsplus another 3 billion for the founders and for the staff. On a typical day in January, over 18 billion messages were sent through his network, two billion more than at the beginning of December, and a breath away from those 19.5 billion messages sent every day as text messages. About 450 million people they are monthly active users (they were 400 million in December 2013, 300 in July and 200 in January). And this activates differentiates WhatsApp from many competitors that boast large numbers: as Koum said with anger on Twitter compare the total number of registered users and the number of active users as compared to a Ferrari 250 GTO and a skateboard. Most active users pay one dollar, one pound or one euro per year.
As a non-technician managed to create a product that, if the current growth rates are maintained, will start at the beginning of 2015 exceed one billion users? How did it, in a market saturated by mobile messaging apps, to stay ahead of Apple's iMessages, Tencent's WeChat, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Line, Kik Messenger, Kakao-Talk and others and all this with just fifty employees ? And what will be the future of Whatsapp, now that it's part of Facebook, with his data collection and its business based on listings?
Stuck on Koum's desk, in his open space office, c a handwritten note from the other founder, Brian Acton: No advertisements! No games! No tricks!. Next to the card is a pair of walkie-talkies that Koum is using to better understand how to simplify the voice message function. We are the most atypical of the Silicon Valley companiessays Acton, a well-groomed forty-two-year-old from Michigan with a little red face. The opposite of Koum, which is 1 meter high and 88, dark and dark without shaving. We were thirty when we founded; we focused on economic sustainability and profits, rather than expanding rapidly; we are above all mobile; and we are above all global.
Acton was the employee number 44 of Yahoo !, he worked on banners, shopping and travel, and then on sponsored ads. Computer Science graduate a Stanford, raised in Florida playing golf: his adoptive father had attempted a career as a professional player, while his mother ran an air transport company. In 1997 he hired Koum for a job in system security. Both left Yahoo! on the same day, 31 October 2007, and remained in contact. On February 24, 2009, on his birthday, Koum told Acton he had just registered a company to create a phone status app. It would have been called Whatsapp.
The first trial, in May 2009, was a hole in the water. But a month later Apple introduced in iOS 3.0 push notifications. This prompted Koum to rethink WhatsApp as a complete cross-platform messaging app that would use the phone contact folder as a a prefabricated social network, and the phone number instead of a login. The first summer Koum had to go through three different Skype accounts because he couldn't remember username and password, and he was determined to let his app it just worked. By September, when the thing started, Acton had already decided to join Koum, to tour collecting investments and experimenting with business models that would have brought profits, but also ensured a controlled growth, that their infrastructures were able to withstand. When we were free our growth had been superfast 10 thousand downloads a day, recalls Acton. And when we switched to the paid service we started to decline up to 1000 a day. At the end of the year, after adding messages with photographs, they decided to charge a one-time download fee, which was later changed to an annual subscription. From the very beginning, advertising was refused, according to Koum's first tweet of August 28, 2011, in which he reported the words of Tyler Durden in Fight Club it makes us chase cars and clothes, do jobs we hate to buy bullshit that we don't need.
There is nothing more personal than communicating with friends and family, and interrupting this with advertising is not the right solutionsays Koum when we interview him, before the agreement with Facebook. And we don't need to know a lot about our users. To address advertising well, companies need a crazy amount of data. And then I was born in the Soviet Union, which was a world without advertising.
Koum, 38, raised as a Jew and a rebel boy in a village outside Kiev. Life was hard. Society was very isolated: you can read 1984, but we have experienced it. I didn't own a computer up to 19 years. When in 1992 he emigrated to California with his mother and grandmother, his father remained in Ukraine. Being able to send instant messages to my father at that time would have been a great thing. In class, he was the one who didn't have a car at home, so he had to get up at six in the morning to get the bus; he didn't speak a little English, and I got into trouble because I was a bully with those who bullied me. Koum leaves college I studied computer science and mathematics, I was scarce in both and I was bored and start doing chores. After a while, during an Apache security conference, met one of the founders of Yahoo !, and was invited to a job interview.
In the United States it is taken for granted that a communication platform gains a insurmountable advantage on the market once a degree of penetration is reached such that the network effect eliminates any incentive to migrate elsewhere. The fact that WhatsApp can go on six platforms Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, Nokia S40, Symbian and Windows Phone have guaranteed this advantage.
it is easy for the messenger market to experience a the-winner-takes-it-all situation, due to this strong network effect, He says Jim Goetz of Sequoia that he cleverly financed from the beginning Google, Yahoo!, LinkedIn and many others, before giving $ 8 million to WhatsApp in 2011 and another $ 50 million last summer. The trends of the graphs of Jan and Brian are approaching those of Facebook and I believe that within 24 months there will be overtaking, in the mobile sector. In the not too distant future WhatsApp will have over a billion active users.
On the day of the interview the two make it very clear that they want to remain independent. I worry about what a buyer could do with our user populationsays Acton. In the long term they always end up putting their beaks on it. Let someone come and buy us against my personal integrity. Koum adds: We worked in a big company and we weren't very happy. Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo! c a common element. None of these companies has ever sold. They managed to get big just because they remained independent. They also say they did not seriously consider an initial public offering. It is not part of our agenda, Acton short cut.
Mark Zuckerberg had contacted Koum in 2012; they had found themselves drinking coffee in Los Altos. But only many months later Zuckerberg made a formal offer; the agreement was announced on February 19th. Apparently the $ 19 billion in cash and shares (and a seat on Facebook's board of directors) have alleviated the doubts of the founders. In a blog post, Koum insisted that WhatsApp will remain independent and will operate independently, is that no advertisements will interrupt your communications.
Talk about the multi-billion dollar assessment of the company and its growth figures seems almost an element of distraction, when Wired arrives on a visit to Mountain View before the acquisition. We focus on what our brains can embrace, such as customer complaints. It is also possible that this assessment is not completely realistic that it is a bubble. Yahoo! in 2000 it was a 100 billion dollar company. Sixty days later it was a $ 10 billion companysays Acton.
Koum says that revenue is not his main concern. We have a similar approach to what Google has with research. Google wants users to leave their site as soon as possible because Google has done a good job. We want you to talk without being interrupted by advertisements. The monetization is important for us, but we have no obsessions of squeezing the pockets of users to the last penny.
Koum and Acton want to be considered a reliable and simple app. What keeps them awake at night are the sporadic interruptions of the server service, such as that of Saturday 22 February 2014, which has made people have panic attacks on Twitter, to use Koum's words. A whiteboard indicates that in 2013 the availability time of the service was 99.9% with 600 servers that guaranteed the smooth delivery of 250 thousand messages per second, and a billion images a day.
Here the dirty word with the F not fuck, but focus, that is focus on one thingsays Koum. Acton adds: People ask us for a desktop version, for usernames, but we focus on utility, simplicity and quality of service. We don't want to create an app to pick up and get to know partners. We take care of those that are already intimate. As for the new press-and-talk voice messages, a single tap on the microphone is enough to record and send a voice message; to listen to it, the phone automatically switches from speaker mode to low volume, when its proximity sensors warn that the device is being held near an ear.
Yet prudence can be a high-risk strategy. WhatsApp was accused of innovate slowly and let the trends slip by like that of the messaging to maturity, which is said to have led to Snapchat an offer of 4 billion dollars from Google.
Acton has no hair on his tongue. I'm not 100 percent clear about what Snapchat does, He says. Great, teenagers can use it to get fucked. I don't give a fuck about this stuff. I'm 42, I'm married and have a son. I don't send sexual messages at randomor to people I don't know. I send messages of I love you. She sends me pictures of our baby. Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, has only the wrist of a part of the world. People want to keep the chat history. They are a permanent testimony of a relationship.
These histories can be very attractive to security agencies. Have governments asked WhatsApp to grant access to their servers? We have no keys to givesays Koum. The US National Security Agency, he insists, does not have access to user messages. People must understand that we are different from companies like Yahoo! and Facebook that collect your data and store it on their servers. We want to know as little as possible of our users.
a philosophy of life, even before a work-related decision. Says Koum: I grew up in a society where whatever you did you were intercepted, recorded, spied on. Some of my friends got into trouble for telling jokes about communist leaders. No one should have the right to intercept conversations. The communications between the client and our server are encrypted. We do not save any messages on our servers, we do not store chat history.
Last summer Saudi Arabia threatened to block WhatsApp and other messaging apps for not having respected national legislation. We are an American company, cut short Koum. We have no offices in Saudi Arabia. If we get stuck, I wouldn't worry as a CEO of WhatsApp, I would worry because I'm one who believes in freedom of opinion and the right to privacy.
Also Apple in 2012 blocked WhatsApp removing it for four days from the App Store, for matters that Acton defines of compliance with iOS 5, which were then resolved. We have excellent relationships with Applesays Acton impassively as Koum laughs. Look, we'd rather talk about how much we like working with Androidsays Koum. Having an open system we can develop new features more quickly, we can have them faster for our users, and if we find a bug we can go back without taking days, but minutes. Acton adds: On Android we can innovate without fear. Apple is too scared. The only approval cycle sufficient to stifle your creativity.
Ovum Consulting expects that these services will pass, in 2014, 71.5 trillion messages, when in 2013 the trilliards had been 27.5; Flurry Analytics calculates that the exchanges of 2013 were three times those of 2012. Social messaging, as Facebook knows, a key means to promote mobile engagement.
a world war: WhatsApp offers customer support with operators who speak Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Turkish, Arabic, Indonesian and other languages.
Great for Facebook: the acquisition favors access to emerging markets. LIndia is WhatsApp's largest customer tank, with over 40 million active users. Mexico has over 30 million users and the United Kingdom 17. In the United States will have a penetration of only 5%, but in countries like Brunei, Kuwait and Hong Kong WhatsApp present on at least two thirds of the phones. I tend to see messaging as part of a wider trend, smartphones are used to increase openness and democracysays Koum. Look at how the news about the protests in Ukraine are spreading fast. Messaging is a cornerstone.
And the way the founders see it, the phone is only the beginning. Messaging will be incorporated into all devices, says Acton. Miniaturized, we will work in a pendant to wear around the neck, in the glasses, in a fashion accessory ….
But what does Koum feel at the thought of have you created a business worth $ 19 billion? I don't think about it, that's all he says after a pause. flattering, a confirmation of what we have done, but we still have a long way to go.
Koum swears that he try to ignore the numbers of the growthto.They have become so large that they seem incomprehensible to us, Acton reflects. And we are not even present on half of all smartphones, yet, adds Koum. We are far behind! We are not doing our duty! I know it's not sexy, I know there isn't a third partner suing us. We're just growing the company, hiring smart people ….
Jokes aside … in an area where the competition is so strong, don't you feel threatened by what other tech companies could do to grab this market? I grew up in Ukrainesays Koum, heading for the door. I don't let myself be scared.