WhatsApp Co-Founder Brian Acton Talks About Not Getting “Swallowed By The Borg” At StartX


In his first speaking engagement ever, at tonight’s StartX event, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton talked about the company’s big “F” word (focus), how people in the U.S. just didn’t get the service when it first launched five years ago, and, of course, its record-setting acquisition by Facebook (Acton said that WhatsApp will not be “swallowed by the Borg” after the deal is finalized). He also divulged that WhatsApp will finally offer a voice-calling service this year, which competitors like Line, WeChat, Viber, and KakaoTalk already do. Read on for excerpts from Acton’s talk.

On being acquired by Facebook for $19 billion

“I am a new father and in some ways being a father overshadows it, to be brutally honest. How did I feel? It hasn’t closed yet. I’ll say that when it closes there will be a sense of relief because between announcing and closing there are any number of months.

More than anything you are somewhat numb and dumbstruck. There are a flotilla of lawyers around you, 96 hours of being in a conference room with lawyers non-stop. By the end of it, it’s just hazy. You are just numb and trying to grasp it all and I don’t think I really grasp it all just yet. It will hit me in stages. I’m looking forward to it, but also with some apprehension.

I think this is pretty well-documented, but [Mark Zuckerberg] spent time with Jan at Esther’s German Bakery on San Antonio Road. It got really real in early February when he put a number in front of us and we were like ‘Oh shit, we got to pay attention to this.’”

On why WhatsApp agreed to be acquired by Facebook instead of going public

“Going public is 18 month process, while an acquisition is a 6 month process. Going public means going under so much scrutiny, regulatory approval, auditing, magnified 10 times. Having the stomach to do that isn’t necessarily in my DNA. My DNA is building a product and a service. Mark gave us an opportunity to do that.”

How WhatsApp will protect users’ privacy now that it is under Facebook’s umbrella

“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.

You sign up with a telephone number and go. You might have a notification name, but there is not a lot of data to share to start with. When people get concerned about data sharing, to start with there’s not a lot of data to share with Facebook. There’s the idea that we go crawling through messages–no. We don’t have the bandwidth to do that. We are 30 engineers, 60 people total. For us to go and skulk around people’s messages in 40 different languages, there’s no value for us.

It goes back to the utility concept. In Asia, some sentimental differences manifest. In Line, there is some cute iconography in the product, characters, entities called stickers. It feels very Asian when you use it. What we try to do is build something more universal for a broad base around the world. It’s worked for us in the Middle East, Latin America, South America. It’s hurt us a little bit in Asia, but Hong Kong and Singapore have been the best countries for us in Asia, so it has also helped us there.”

On setting the bar for high valuations

“There’s a certain degree of speculation that goes into valuations. In so far as the market supports a valuation, everyone who gets a great one deserves it, but they should also be cautious because that speculation is temporary. I saw Yahoo go from $100 billion to $10 billion. It’s not a long-term measure. Companies that have been built and operated for a long time are the most successful companies.”

On explaining and justifying WhatsApp when it first launched five years ago

“I worked several years for free and had the hardest time explaining to people in the United States. If you look at what our products is, it resonated earliest in Europe. WhatsApp provides phone number based messaging and people asked isn’t that what SMS is? Yes, but SMS is expensive, antiquated, and what WhatsApp did was modernize and level that playing field.

For example, in Europe, if France wants to talk to Belgium, it’s extraordinary costly because of border and telecom charges. It’s like asking North Carolina to talk to South Carolina. In the U.S. people asked ‘why not just keep using SMS,’ but people in Europe were like ‘I can talk to friends in Switzerland, in Belgium?’

It picked up super fast in Europe and then spread out virally through there. Eventually we figured it out and then it started taking off in the U.S. We do have more competition. Facebook has a messenger product as well, but we are also different. Facebook Messenger is built on the Facebook graph, but we are built on the phone graph, so we are complementary to each other as well.”

On avoiding an API or platform play

“I wouldn’t say we have completely excluded an API or platform play. We de-prioritized it. We really focused being the big ‘f’ word for us, building a great consumer experience to start with. We have people knocking on our door to say that we want an API, but with an API can come spam and we are very cautious about introducing a third party into the system. We don’t want people to uninstall WhatsApp because you suddenly start getting messages about low fares to Hawaii or something. We want to put that well into the future.

It’s hard because the world is a very diverse place and providing a good messaging service in Africa is very different than providing a good messaging service in the U.S.

WeChat and Line provide very diverse services, ranging from the Snoop robot on Line. That gets back to gimmickery. Who wants a Snoop robot to talk to? It’s fun for 30 seconds, and then you are done with it.

What we think about is voice. We will build it and plan to roll it out, plus users asked for it and we believe it’s useful. But a hookup service, finding friends nearby, those are not exactly the most useful things in the world.”

Photo courtesy StartX Media

More TechCrunch

Ahead of the AI safety summit kicking off in Seoul, South Korea later this week, its co-host the United Kingdom is expanding its own efforts in the field. The AI…

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

10 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities