WhatsApp's Journey From Being Ignored To a $19 Billion Exit

WhatsApp's Journey From Being Ignored To a $19 Billion Exit

Unless you've been living in a cave, you've probably heard that WhatsApp was purchased by Facebook for $16 billion in cash plus $3 billion in RSUs.

But what you may not know is that originally, WhatsApp was not solving a problem that people had. In fact, originally, WhatsApp was completely ignored.

It's a great lesson for startups: WhatsApp kept at it and iterated from zero traction, to the fastest growing messaging platform of all time (in fact, some might say the fastest growing platform as calculated by monthly active users of all time). Here's what that growth looks like:

But the original concept for WhatsApp was more of a status update app. This Forbes article articulates it well:

“Jan was showing me his address book,” recalls Fishman. “His thinking was it would be really cool to have statuses next to individual names of the people.” The statuses would show if you were on a call, your battery was low, or you were at the gym."

Even more revealing is this forum post that Jan, the CEO, wrote on the FlyerTalk forum back in May of 2009:

"i spent a couple of months and developed a little tool called WhatsApp - it can let you set a status like "On the flight to munich, send email instead of calling me"or "In Japan for two weeks, my cell there is +81 829 282718"

But here's the kicker: Nobody responded to his post. Nobody wanted a status update app. Well, almost nobody. The only response was from someone pointing out the classic catch-22 of platforms: Distribution woes.

"It appears that this requires the other party to also have the app installed, right?"

Ha! Indeed. Here's what WhatsApps usage looked like for three full years -- very low:

But Jan and team kept iterating on it and kept making WhatsApp better. And that's what matters. That's how they succeeded. They focused on one thing and knocked the ball out of the park.

The best part of this story? In Sept of 2013 Jan posted an update to the FlyerTalk forum:

"so i was looking on this forum for something else (trying to use my M&M miles) and remembered i posted this thread 4 years ago. i am thinking some of you might be using WhatsApp now."


So if you're an entrepreneur frustrated with your lack of traction, just remember that it took Jan three full years to get usage on his platform to really start taking off -- and that's after he pivoted from a status update app to a messaging app. Your startup doesn't fail until you give up. So instead of giving up, keep iterating until you find something that people want.