Whatsapp, the multiplatform mobile messaging app that has been one of the runaway success stories for ad-free, paid services, has been in talks to be acquired by Facebook, according to sources close to the matter.
We’re still digging around on potential price and other details about how advanced the deal is. But as mobile becomes the most bloody battleground in the Internet’s game of thrones, you can see how such a deal could make sense.
For starters, it would be another way for Facebook to continue extending its touchpoints with mobile consumer. Mark Zuckerberg asserted, on the occasion of reaching 1 billion monthly active users on Facebook, that mobile would be crucial to Facebook reaching the “next billion.”
“The big thing is obviously going to be mobile,” Zuckerberg told BusinessWeek. “There are 5 billion people in the world who have phones.”
Whatsapp also has a footprint that fits with Facebook’s focus on international/emerging markets: The messaging app has users in over a hundred countries covering 750 mobile networks, on the iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Nokia S40, Symbian and Windows Phone platforms.
The startup also has demonstrable scale. We’ve heard the company has something like tens of millions of daily active users globally and these users utilize Whatsapp to send messages to family and friends. Every minute a user spends on Whatsapp is likely at the expense of a minute spent on Facebook.
At the end of October 2011, when
the last time Whatsapp updated its usage numbers, it announced that it was serving 1 billion messages per day — “Just how much is 1 billion messages? That is 41,666,667 messages an hour, 694,444 messages a minute, and 11,574 messages a second,” the company wrote then. In August 2012, that number had grown ten-fold to 10 billion messages per day, 4 billion inbound and 6 billion outbound (because they go to more than one recipient). The app, which is built on Erlang, has the potential and ambition to grow more and wants to provide “a great mobile messaging system for a global market, regardless of your handset.”
It is currently looking for translators in Arabic, Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Filipino, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese (Brazil), Russian, Simplified Chinese, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Traditional Chinese, Turkish, Urdu, “and many more languages.”
Unlike Facebook, Whatsapp is a paid app. And obviously, having a paid, ad-free service is an expansion of Facebook’s business model beyond advertising. We’ve already seen Facebook launch another service that diversifies it — Gifts — and the positive impact that had with investors.
And, as a paid app, Whatsapp is doing well: It’s currently the No. 2 paid app in Apple’s App Store (U.S. version), where it sells for $0.99. (Although there are often sales on the app where it gets discounted or given away.) On Google’s Play Android store, it is free for the first year, and then $0.99 per year thereafter. Google indicates that the Android app has had between 100 million and 500 million installs to date.
Ironically, Whatsapp’s explicit disavowal of advertising as a revenue source could even work in its favor during acquisition talks. Facebook has faced significant backlash over how much its advertising has become more prominent and (some argue) intrusive as it attempts a meaningful revenue steam. Having an ad-free, paid feature as part of its portfolio could be a way for Facebook to answer or mitigate some of Wall Street’s criticism. Whatsapp is a global business with many active users, a clear business model, and strong momentum. So there.
And still, today, the business models of the two companies couldn’t be more different.
“Advertising isn’t just the disruption of aesthetics, the insults to your intelligence and the interruption of your train of thought,” Whatsapp co-founder Jan Koum wrote in a blog post earlier this year. “At every company that sells ads, a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it’s all being logged and collated and sliced and packaged and shipped out… And at the end of the day the result of it all is a slightly different advertising banner in your browser or on your mobile screen. Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.” [Koum’s emphasis.]
And that is just one reason why a Whatsapp/Facebook acquisition would be a surprise. At other times, Koum has been public about his distaste for startups that sell out quickly. “Totally agree with Vinod Khosla,” he wrote in July. “People starting companies for a quick sale are a disgrace to the valley.” (He’s also, btw, noted that getting on TC shouldn’t be a goal in itself. Too true.)
It’s unclear whether statements like this translate into deal-breakers with Facebook, or whether any parties would get bought out, were a deal to happen.
But there is some other great detail to this story that gives it an extra layer of interest: The two co-founders, Koum and Brian Acton, first worked together at Yahoo. It’s where they developed their dislike of advertising-based business models.
Yahoo happens to be in an acquiring mind, and has shown interest in mobile specifically. (Coincidentally, Yahoo is currently also revamping its messaging services.)
Whatsapp’s business development head, Neeraj Arora, came to Whatsapp from Google, where he was a senior member of the corporate development team. According to his LinkedIn profile, he “led acquisitions and strategic investments across products and geographies. Recent transactions at Google include the acquisitions of Zagat, Dailydeal.de, Slide, Picnik, Cleversense, PittPatt and Talkbin.”
And Acton himself apparently has pitched to Facebook before — perhaps for a job, perhaps with another product, perhaps with this idea.
“Facebook turned me down. It was a great opportunity to connect with some fantastic people. Looking forward to life’s next adventure,” he wrote in August 2009, the same year they founded Whatsapp, which is backed by Sequoia.
Acton’s most recent tweet was on January 13, 2012 (no, he’s not an active tweeter), a day notable for Whatsapp getting pulled from the App Store (restored four days later). The tweet was “Whatsapp.”