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Notes on Jan Koum's talk at Stanford

Mark Pollmann
August 20th, 2017 · 1 min read

These are my notes of the talk Jan Koum of WhatsApp gave at Stanford’s How to Build a Product.

Introduction and short talk about the history of WhatsApp

  • We got in early when Apple opened the iPhone app store to developers
  • First users downloaded simply because there were so few apps
  • Built the wrong product in the beginning. Started not with messaging but status updates. Only took off when Apple introduced push notifications and later, of course, messaging.
  • Nokia S60 had a Python runtime!
  • Learned scaling backends at Yahoo


Q: Were you afraid of the launch of iMessage as a competitor?

A: No, Silicon Valley is/was almost exclusively iPhones, rest of the world is 80-90% Android. iMessage was a small blib on the radar for them.

Q: What about Facebook Messenger?
A: Facebook friends are on a different social graph than friends you would give your phone number and allow to interrupt you (at least for him). New messaging app every month that supposedly takes over the world. None had users so they were no threat. Also Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp were split by country. USA and Australia had lots of Messenger users but few WhatsApp users. Europe and South America the opposite.

Q: How do you know if an idea has real potential?
A: Solve a basic need on a global level.

Q: Talk about the business side
A: We Didnt want to publish app under own name because a company looked more professional. In the beginning we used the server of a friend. Got kicked off when traffic got big but even later the expenses were manageable because of our knowledge of scaling from Yahoo. Apple users paid a dollar per year, that helped. Expenses really started when hiring people.

VCs came knocking. Company didnt need money but advice was money in the bank is always good. Chose Sequoia because of their strong branding, help with search for candidates and general hands-off approach.

Q: How did you get your first 1000 users?
A: Tweaked app name every couple days: 'WhatsApp: Status for your iphone', 'WhatsApp: Status for your phone', etc. This made them show up in the 'New' category in the App Store again each time. There were so few apps that people had to look there to find something.

Q: How did you scale to other countries?
A: Hired bilingual (perfect in Spanish, German, etc) people so UI was spot-on for those countries.

Q: How did you get your first hires?

A: Easy because most were unemployed :-). Also people loved the product, always got emails how WhatsApp saved lives, helped others get married etc. Also played up the technical challenges to people they knew couldn't resist.

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