No Games, No Ads, No Gimmicks: Why WhatsApp Is The Startup Silicon Valley Deserved

In a land of pushy 20-something wunderkind CEOs, WhatsApp's Jan Koum is a 37-year-old black sheep who just wants to build a great product without media attention. No muss, no fuss.
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Two days ago, if I'd mentioned the name Jan Koum, you would've had no idea who I was talking about.

Today, you might recognize him as the now billionaire CEO of WhatsApp, the messaging service that on Wednesday announced it was acquired by social networking juggernaut Facebook in the largest acquisition ever for a venture-backed company.

The deal has understandably drawn a staggering amount of media attention. There are now profiles of Koum and his humble beginnings and statistics justifying the deal's high price tag. The publicity has shed some light on this otherwise very understated company run by a couple of very private men.

And the more I hear about Koum, the more I think Silicon Valley needs to be taking notes. In a land of pushy 20-something wunderkind CEOs and data leak scandals, he's a 37-year-old black sheep who just wants to build a great product without media attention, without selling his customers' data, without even worrying about advertising his product. No muss, no fuss. And, bigger than that, he's just a nice guy about it -- a quality that extends to his product and how he does business. (Apparently, it's paid off.)

So, Mark Zuckerberg, you spent $19 billion bringing WhatsApp into the Facebook fold. Want to get your money's worth? Here are some lessons you can learn from your new Facebook board member:
  • Stick to Your Guns: In the beginning, Koum said there would be no advertisements. Five years later, WhatsApp still has no advertisements and has no intention of using them anytime soon. Koum repeatedly states that WhatsApp stores no data from its users; he says it doesn't need to if it's not making ads. There's absolutely no money-grab aspect to WhatsApp. It's just a great service for which you pay a small fee.
  • Make it Easy for the Consumer: One of the key elements of WhatsApp -- what helps to make it work -- is that it's very easy for the consumer to use. It syncs with your address book. You don't have to build a new friends list or remember a password or find a username that's not embarrassing. You use the phone number and list of phone contacts you've been building for years.
  • Don't Get Fancy: ...if it sacrifices quality. In a market in which messaging services have become saturated with features like desktop versions or usernames, WhatsApp has been keepin' it clean and simple. The result is an easy to use, consistent product that is never bogged down with unnecessary features and buttons. It doesn't worry about how brands will use it to connect to consumers. It doesn't worry about attracting teenagers. It does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to provide an easy, convenient messaging service for the consumer. Nothing more, nothing less. And more than 400 million monthly active users seem to like that.
  • Patience is a Virtue: If you make it, they will come... if it's good. WhatsApp watched its service grow, slowly, throughout the course of several years with no marketing effort on its part. Focusing on organic growth, WhatsApp spread by word of mouth from user to user -- a strategy that was so effective that even charging for services early on didn't hinder the product's growth.
  • No News is Good News: WhatsApp doesn't really bother with a lot of media hype. Leave Apple and Google to their "look at me" product launches and rumor mills; WhatsApp has instead asked bloggers and journalists to stop spreading rumors. In an interview at the D: Dive Into Mobile conference last May, he politely asked bloggers to be more "responsible," since addressing rumors distracts from what's important: building a great product.
  • Stay Humble: It's a mark of Koum's "good-guy-edness" that his product has more active users than Twitter, and we're only finding out about him now. He has routinely avoided the limelight, stayed out of the public eye and focused on his product first. In the same interview at the D: Dive Into Mobile conference, he said he's concerned he's wasting time being interviewed when he should be answering customer service emails. Based on what I've read about him, it doesn't seem likely that attitude will change now that he's a multi-billionaire.

So Silicon Valley, are you taking notes? Because you should be.

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