Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp raised eyebrows. Was it worth it? many wondered. Fans of the popular messaging service feared their privacy, a key feature of the app, would disappear if integrated into Facebook’s invasive approach.
For the first time since the deal was announced in February, Brian Acton, the press-shy WhatsApp co-founder, has spoken in a public forum. On Wednesday at StartX, a Stanford University-connected non-profit for budding entrepreneurs, he offered some insight into the future of WhatsApp and what it’s like to reach middle age (at 42, he’s an elder in Silicon Valley) and suddenly strike it rich.
On striking it rich: The Facebook buy – the largest-ever for a venture-backed company – ain’t got nothing on fatherhood, Acton said. Asked whether he feels as if he just got lucky, Acton smiled. “I feel like the luckiest person in the world every day of my life,” he said, referencing his wife and son.
Approaching his 20th college reunion, Acton still dresses like a teenager, addressing the crowd in a baseball cap, cargo shorts and a T-shirt. Though he is now a billionaire many times over, his newfound wealth and fame don’t appear to have affected him outwardly all that much, or his vision for his company, Not yet at least.
“It’s going to change my life. I know that,” he said, adding that he was still “numb and trying to grasp it all.”
On privacy: Since they founded the company in 2009, Acton and co-founder Jan Koum have had a firm policy of “no ads, no games, no gimmicks.” Acton said he intends to keep it that way.
“One of the best aspects of the deal is that Jan and Mark have agreed to a model of independence in how Facebook will own and operate WhatsApp. We said it publicly, it’s business as usual. We are not going to on day one start sending data to Facebook. By the way, we don’t have any data. People don’t understand this. We don’t have much beyond a phone number to work with.” WhatsApp doesn’t collect names, addresses or really anything other than a user’s phone number, which is necessary for authentication.
On protecting the integrity of WhatsApp: “You have a certain identity that you present to the world on Facebook and you have a certain identity that you present with the telephone, and they are different,” Acton said of WhatsApp’s smartphone-based messaging services. “Your insurance broker has your telephone number, but your insurance broker doesn’t have your Facebook ID. I think they are very different modes of communication. Commingling them can come with risk and peril.”
That said, Acton left room for overlap: “I think, as they will continue to operate independently, each will continue to experiment in its own way with features and capabilities. Over time, if something is supremely successful, I would expect both platforms to support it. Facebook, I think, recently offered some video and camera capabilities that we’ve already had. Hell, iMessage is adding stuff. A lot of times, people copy from each other.”
On choosing Facebook over an IPO: “Being acquired is a six-month process. Going public is an 18-month process. … You go under so much scrutiny from bankers. You go under so much scrutiny from Wall Street and regulatory approvals and everything else. Having the stomach to do that isn’t necessarily in my DNA. I am focused on building a product and a service.”
On expanding to other platforms: “We have always been mobile first. People really identify with their mobile telephone numbers. When you start to put the mobile experience on non-mobile devices, it kind of dilutes it a little bit. We want to be protective of that. So we have no immediate plans. That doesn’t mean we are close-minded about it. We just have no immediate plans.”
On what’s in it for both companies: Acton said the hardest thing about growing WhatsApp was being based in the United States, where it isn’t well-known. The service is much more popular in Europe, where it enables users to avoid costly charges for cross-border communication. “We are most popular outside of the United States, but we are based in the United States. That has made it harder for us to hire and find great people,” he said. However, Facebook has stateside talent. And in return, WhatsApp has more than 500 million monthly active users, a goldmine for a social media empire that is seeing slower growth, especially among younger users.
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