WhatsApp - The Small Messaging Application That Won The Market
How did two friends well in their thirties, with stable jobs at Yahoo!, decide to leave and take a trip to South America, just to play frisbee and later create an innovative, yet simple mobile application for instant messaging?
These two partners are Jan Koum and Brian Acton, friends that rocked the instant messaging sphere to its core. Their journey is an inspirational one, since they both got rejected by Facebook, and their product was built for free use.
The partners wanted to create a product that would eliminate missed calls on their smartphones and therefore, become a basic need on all mobiles.
So how did this simple product win the market against giants like Facebook Messenger and Snapchat?
When Two Different Worlds Meet #3
Jan Koum and Brian Acton are two people from two different worlds. Jan was born on February 24, 1976, in Kyiv, and at age of 16, he immigrated to California.
On the other hand, Brian was born a week earlier - on February 17th. He was raised in Florida and attended the University of Pennsylvania and later on Stanford University, where he received his degree in computer science in 1994.
Jan enrolled at San Jose State University in 1997 and was working at Ernst & Young as a security tester, sitting a desk away from Brian, who in the meanwhile had become the 44th employee hired by Yahoo.
Six months later, Jan also landed a job at Yahoo! and in just his second week there, he decided to quit school, saying he didn't like it anyway. The two worked at Yahoo! for 9 years and witnessed many ups and downs. Jan was an infrastructure engineer and Brian was in charge of inspecting the company's advertising system.
Brian tried his luck in the dotcom boom but reportedly managed to lose millions after the 2000 dotcom crash, and when Jan's mother passed away in 2002, it was Brian who offered him support and let him stay at his home. They formed an unbreakable bond and decided to work together from that point on.
They were both exhausted working for Yahoo's ads and dealing with an advertising platform called Project Panama, and in 2007 they both had enough and left the company for good.
The Rejection That Led To WhatsApp
After leaving Yahoo in September 2007, Jan and Brian wanted to take a year off and just travel to South America to play ultimate frisbee. But while doing so, Brian applied at Twitter and then for a job at Facebook along with Jan, since they couldn't live off their savings forever. Everything came crashing down when both applications were rejected, with Brian being rejected from Twitter three months earlier. He was done trying to work for a big-name company, and tried his luck in the startup route instead.
As disappointed and worried as they were about their future, this rejection will turn out to be a blessing in disguise, setting them on another journey that would later result in the founding of WhatsApp.
In January 2009, Jan bought himself an iPhone and quickly realized the potential of the 'then-seven-months-old' App Store, and that it would create a whole new industry of applications. Jan wanted to design an app which could show statuses next to the user's name, and he shared the idea with Brian but they encountered a problem - if this was going to work, they would need an iOS developer.
With help from Jan's friend and restaurant owner Alex Fisherman, both friends talked about this idea for hours. After some time, Alex introduced both of them to a Russian developer named Igor Solomennikov - and the plan was set in motion!
Every beginning is hard, and Jan and Brian felt that instantly. The money they saved from Yahoo! was long gone so they had to do it without any financial support!
Jan spent weeks trying to write down the backend code that could sync his app with all phone numbers in the world. The chosen name was WhatsApp, simply because it sounded exactly like 'what's up' to Jan. Brian accepted it.
Finally on February 24, 2009, just a week after his birthday, Jan launched 'WhatsApp Inc' in California.
Among WhatsApp's first users were Alex Fisherman and his Russian friends, but the first problems were around the corner. None of them liked the app, because of battery drain issues and constant crushing that made Jan extremely disappointed , so much so that he wanted to abandon the project and start looking for another job.
At the last second, Brian convinced Jan to stay put and give it a month or two, saying 'You'd be an idiot if you quit now. Give it a few more months.' That's what best friends and partners are for right?
Well, in June 2009, salvation was in sight: Apple announced the push notification update, the eventual savior of WhatsApp.
Jan wasted no time trying to capitalize on this opportunity and did some modifications to his app to send push notifications to his friends whenever a user changed his status.
Alex and his Russian friends were yet again the first to try out the new version and were quite amazed by it. Shortly after, this feature became a channel for instant messaging and users started to chat through statuses. Seeing this as an opening, Jan upgraded the operating model to an internet-oriented instant messaging platform.
That's how WhatsApp 2.0 saved their entire work and secured their future.
The Future is Bright
Brian was not yet an active member of WhatsApp but he managed to convince former colleagues at Yahoo to invest $250,000 in seed funds. It happened in October 2009, and the two friends were back together.
Soon after, the app finished the beta version, and both partners were sunk down in emails, mostly from iPhone users, wondering about the future additions to the app. Many repeated the same questions: when would WhatsApp become available for Nokia, or even Blackberry?
It became hard for just two men to focus on every detail, so Jan hired his friend Chris Peiffer to work on the Blackberry version. It was launched two months later.
Even in 2009, most mobile operators in the US were offering free minutes and SMS within the country, so people had no real reason to use WhatsApp, making the US market the worst place to start with - until now.
Jan and Brian had other plans - take this app to Europe and Asia, where people's texts were actually evaluated. Now that everyone knew about WhatsApp, the duo quickly finished the Symbian OS, Android, and Windows versions in the span of 2 years. Just like that, WhatsApp was live on all platforms and their lifework skyrocketed.
As users flocked in, so did investors. On April 8, 2011, WhatsApp raised a $8 million funding from Sequoia Capital, and another investment worth $52 million in 2013.
Despite being the most popular social network, Facebook considered WhatsApp as its main competition. One day, on February 8th, 2014, Mark Zuckerberg invited Jan over dinner to his house and offered him a deal - join Facebook's board. A week and a half later, Jan signed an insane $19 billion Facebook deal paperwork on the door of his old office - what a way to sign the biggest contract of your life!
WhatsApp became the most popular instant messaging app in 2015, and since then there was no looking back. The number of users constantly grew and quickly became the go-to tool for communications for individuals and companies alike. One year after going fully encrypted, WhatsApp was updated with a business model specifically designed for companies. Now, it allowed businesses to create their accounts and use any other feature for free.
Both Jan and Brian left the company in 2017 after Facebook purchased it, with Brian stepping down as a member of Facebook's board of directors and Jan leaving because of data privacy issues with Facebook and WhatsApps's new business model.
By February 2020, WhatsApp was being used by a mind-blowing 2 billion users worldwide! Although WhatsApp is no longer run by Jan and Brian, their ideas and innovation is put in great use by Facebook. The duo is an example that not all job rejections can end your dreams and people should never quit if something goes wrong. Thanks to Jan and Brian, today we can connect to every person around the globe with just one tap - for free!