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Brian Acton WhatsApp cofounder in IIT Delhi
Dressed in a bottle green T shirt with a WhatsApp visibly written on it and wearing a consistent smile despite a tight schedule, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton interacted with students of IIT Delhi on Friday which also happened to be the eighth birthday of the messaging app.
Ukraine born Jan Koum and Acton, both former employees of Yahoo founded WhatsApp in 2009. With more than one billion users including 200 million in India this has today become the most popular messaging application world-wide.
Moderated by Neeraj Arora, WhatsApp head of business and an IIT Delhi 2000 graduate, Acton took on a slew of questions from the acceleration in user base in India to the new features that could be added to the business model.
An edited excerpt of the question-answer session.
- On India being on the WhatsApp radar
In 2009-10 India was a Nokia country. Nokia helped us establish a foothold in India. In the last two years there has been an acceleration in people adopting Whatsapp in India and we welcome them with open arms. In the last two years, there has been an addition of 50 million users in the country, which is a sign of our robust growth in the region. We added a host of languages. India is a certainly a very strong market for us.
- On WhatsApp launch and market competition
I was in a semi retirement mood. Jan had done all the paper work. He chose the name WhatsApp and I thought it to be a real cool name. 2009 was a launch pad for us and we closed 2009 with just 5 people. There were many copy cat imitators in the market but we always had a strong perseverance and a strong focus. Initially we had a debate on whether we should have e mails instead of phone numbers or use both but finally we decided on phone number. We found the right recipe and brought in some real good talent.
- On moving from a technical environ in Yahoo to becoming an entrepreneur
Yes I grew up in a technical environment in Yahoo. In an entrepreneur experience, you have to do the needful. We tried to outsource as much as we could. I personally enjoyed the opportunity to expand my experience. We used to personally read all the emails and even reply. We were learning so much. There was so much of diversity.
- On security concerns for WhatsApp
WhatsApp has no means of eavesdropping. An encrypted world is a safer world. Any number of conversations can be safe on this platform. We are fortunate to have an end to end encryption.
- On the new additions for WhatsApp
We are aware of groups and the noise they make. Many a times I too suffer from the same problem. The groups do tend to get noisy. Yes there is a need to personalise content within the group. We started small, our starting group size was 5. As the groups became bigger, they became noisier. We soon felt the need for managing quality and added auto muting. We kept putting off status until mid of last year when we realised it was a time for a revisit. We kept acquiring feedback from the users. We wanted to enrich it with multimedia but at the same time preserve the encryption. I am also aware on the need to have an undo feature. I myself sometimes commit a mistake of sending a message to the wrong group. As the product develops more and more, you feel the challenges. We are working on it. Stay tuned for this.
- On what kept him motivated in the hard times
My parents always instilled in me the confidence to look at the bright side of life. For me to join WhatApp was the right fit. Many do not know that my first college was not Stanford but University of Pennsylvania. I later took the transfer to Stanford. I firmly believe that everything happens at the right time.
- On Facebook acquisition
Rewind back to 2014. We were 55 and going strong. We were having discussions with Mark Zuckerberg. Both Jan and Zuckerberg would meet at coffee shops, take walks together. Things started to heat up. We were still a small company but we never shopped. Two years down the line, Facebook continues to believe in us, continues to invest in us. We have been able to leverage Facebook technology. But despite being together, we have a different mindset. All said and done, we work very well together. On keeping up with customer expectations
We continue to push ourselves all the time. The users also keep pushing us in a good healthy way. Our main focus is on speed, reliability and privacy and we constantly work on these ingreadients. We have to preserve the health of our ecosystem. In terms of exact business model, we are still exploring. We are committed to build products oriented for business. This will help build a better ecosystem.
- On lessons learnt
We have failed in some of the countries like China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. We have also done some bad hiring. Mistakes happen but we have maintained the faith and kept alive the confidence.
(Written by Vanita Srivastava)