This morning I had a meeting with a couple entrepreneurs whose company was recently acquired. It was just a general catch up session, no real agenda. Still, it seemed quite random when a good third of our conversation was spent talking about WhatsApp and its incredible penetration in India.
Why was this growth happening? The consensus was: focus. On what they’re good at. On what their users want. On what ultimately matters.
A couple hours later, what at the time seemed a random conversation turned almost a little spooky when it was announced that Facebook would be acquiring WhatsApp for $19 billion and change.
I’m not going to spend time breaking down this extraordinary deal as I know no more about it than what I’ve read. But what I do find fascinating is what’s becoming clear from those closest to the company: in an age of pomp and circumstance around all things startups, the team behind WhatsApp was all about keeping their heads down, focusing on product, and avoiding bullshit at all costs.
Reading the posts by Jim Goetz, Parmy Olson, and David Rowan, one can triangulate some pretty clear themes about WhatsApp. The team wanted to focus on simplicity. They wanted to grow naturally and sustainably. They wanted to avoid advertising at all costs. And, perhaps most interestingly, they didn’t want press.
This “flying under-the-radar” approach seems not only foreign, but downright insane to many entrepreneurs I talk to these days. But I tend to agree with it, depending on the situation. The reality is that you’re so much better growing as WhatsApp did. Because at the end of the day, no amount of press you get will matter if your product isn’t where it needs to be.
Yet the inverse can be true. If your product is where it needs to be, you will not need much or any press to grow into something worth, well, $19 billion. The press can help add fuel to a fire — few people know this better than me. But a lot of the time, entrepreneurs cross a line and end up getting nothing more than burned by that fire. It’s a much better approach to grow silently until the press aren’t needed to fuel your flame, but rather have to show up at the site of a huge forest fire, unaware of how it started. Like today.
This is why I love reading quotes like this one from WhatsApp founder Jan Koum: “Marketing and press kicks up dust. It gets in your eye, and then you’re not focusing on the product.”
While there was a fight-to-the-death going on in the United States to control the mobile messaging space, WhatsApp seemed glad to focus on parts of the world like England and India. They saw what was working for them and they didn’t get distracted. They didn’t build apps for the Galaxy Gear or Google Glass, they built apps for Nokias and BlackBerrys. Why? Because that’s where their users were.
Such unsexy apps on dying platforms will ensure you absolutely no press. But they will ensure you a shit ton of users, apparently.
Hell, these guys were so anti-distraction that they apparently refused to even put up a company sign. “I can’t see a reason for there being a sign. It’s an ego boost. We all know where we work,” Koum told Olson. Amazing.
My sense is that history will inevitably want to chalk up the story of WhatsApp to incredible timing and luck. But reading over these accounts, it seems pretty clear to me that these guys were able to build this amazing company through a lot of focus on what matters and a lot of avoiding what doesn’t. Kudos to them, that’s a lot easier said than done.