When Facebook shelled out a stunning $19 billion for WhatsApp in February of last year, few here in the US had heard of the tiny Silicon Valley startup. The move surprised even the small coterie of journalists who so closely cover the Bay Area tech scene. This was because WhatsApp doesn’t do much PR—and because its eponymous smartphone app was predominantly used overseas.
But, oh, how it was used overseas. Facebook shelled out $19 billion because the app—a way of sending text messages over the Internet, without paying the typically high SMS fees that wireless carriers charge to send texts across their private networks—had reached a similarly enormous 450 million people across Europe and the developing world, including India and Africa. Sure, the app was simple. But it met a real need. And it could serve as a platform for building all sorts of other simple services in places where wireless bandwidth is limited but people are hungry for the sort of instant communication we take for granted here in the US. One simple messaging app could provide voice calling, video calling, instant payments, and more.
“It’s an amazingly powerful communication tool, distributed to populations that frankly have been reamed for years by SMS charges, and it has changed all that,” David Soloff, who used WhatsApp to help bootstrap his company, Premise, told us shortly after Facebook acquisition was approved last fall. “This is a profound thing.”
Now, a year after regulators approved the Facebook deal, WhatsApp is used by more than 900 million souls, which places it among the most popular apps on earth. Facebook is used by more than 1.5 billion, but few others even come close. And indeed, WhatsApp has added voice calling to its service, with more additions undoubtedly on the way. What may be most impressive, however, is that the company has done all of this with such a small staff. One of the most popular apps on the planet is run by a company that employs about 50 engineers.
And yet, the US media still has little to say about WhatsApp. The app is still mostly an overseas phenomenon—and the company still does little PR. In the one story they participated in—a profile in Forbes that appeared the day of the Facebook acquisition—company co-founder Jan Koum was unapologetic in saying he considers PR and press a drag on the company’s time. “Marketing and press kicks up dust,” said the Ukraine-born Koum, who founded the company alongside an old Yahoo colleague named Brian Acton. “It gets in your eye, and then you’re not focusing on the product.”
But in the wake of the company’s one-year anniversary with Facebook, Acton agreed to answer some questions, though only by email. The result is below, edited (slightly) for clarity.