I am headed back home after spending 48 sleepless hours at MWC and I find myself sitting across WhatsApp co-founder and CEO, Jan Koum at the only coffee shop open at Terminal 1 of Barcelona’s El Prat airport. A few minutes ago I had spotted Koum along with Neeraj Arora, who takes care of the business aspects apart from also wearing the publicist and PR hats when required, in the check-in queue. Koum couldn’t believe I wanted to interview him at “f#*%!#g 4:46AM” but nevertheless invited me to the table and spent 30 minutes answering my questions.
It had been a crazy week for Koum, who sold his startup to Facebook for a staggering $19 billion. He had a keynote session on Monday at MWC and it marked the day WhatsApp turned five. It also happened to be his birthday that day and that of Priscilla Chan’s, the wife of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. That night, an otherwise reserved Koum celebrated the acquisition and birthdays at Barcelona’s Boujis restaurant along with the Zuckerbergs complete with paparazzi waiting outside.
Most Americans woke up to the existence of WhatsApp only after Facebook announced it was paying $19 billion to acquire it. However, the messaging service already has over 465 monthly active users of which 70 percent are active daily and is adding a million new users every day. Koum calls WhatsApp an “SMS replacement” service. However, the bigger news from MWC is that WhatsApp would soon add voice calling capabilities to the service.
“It will initially be available for iOS and Android,” Koum tells me. “It will work on most data connections as the system continuously analyzes network speed and tweaks the quality accordingly,” he adds. Koum’s vision is for WhatsApp to be the primary means of communication for smartphone users. He believes voice calls over WhatsApp would drive the next phase of growth for WhatsApp and also help it compete against certain rivals.
This obviously isn’t going down well with some carriers in India, who are demanding services like WhatsApp to be brought under some regulations. While these services add to a carrier’s data revenue stream, SMS and voice still account for 75 percent of revenues for carriers in India. WhatsApp has over 35 million monthly active users in India. (UPDATE: WhatsApp now has 40 million active users in India.)
Koum and Arora are unfazed with these demands and even claim ignorance about hearing anything on these lines. In fact, Arora points out that WhatsApp already has partnerships with some carriers in India and would be announcing more carrier partnerships soon.
Being acquired by Facebook has not only brought WhatsApp under the limelight but also under a lot of scrutiny considering Facebook’s past track record regarding privacy. Koum sees the deal as a partnership, where WhatsApp will continue to work as an independent company. “Ours is a partnership with Facebook. There are several such examples in the US where companies get acquired but continue to work independently. There are many such examples within GE. And I also have a seat at Facebook’s board,” Koum says.
WhatsApp’s acquisition has been painted as a bidding war between Google and Facebook but Koum downplays it. “Let me say that a lot that has been reported in the press about it is factually incorrect. I like the guys at Google,” he says. Google’s Sundar Pichai too denied ever making an offer to acquire WhatsApp.
However Koum isn’t really pleased when I bring up reports about WhatsApp’s own privacy and security records. He unlocks his iPhone and slides it towards me. “You cannot complain about security if you leave the gates unlocked,” he says. “We only keep your phone number, carrier and any additional things you might have mentioned in your WhatsApp profile. We store only the phone numbers from your phone book.”
WhatsApp claims it does not share these details with any third party. The company has not used advertising as a monetization model, and hence says it does not need to create user profiles in order to serve targeted ads. And that remains to be something Koum is unwilling to compromise.