Exactly 8 years after WhatsApp started its services on February 24, 2009, it now has 200 million active users in India, making it the Silicon Valley-based firm’s largest market. WhatsApp is now exploring how it can play in the digital payments and e-commerce segments. In an interview, Brian Acton, Co-Founder, WhatsApp, shared his views on the future roadmap and India’s start-up ecosystem. Edited Excerpts:
When you started out in 2009, did you imagine that India could be your largest market one day?
We saw the potential. What we didn’t foresee was the enthusiasm. We saw that we could build a product that has global potential. But its an eye opening surprise that it has become such an integral part of people’s daily life.
How do you use this user base to monetise WhatsApp?
We are going to provide commercial services so that businesses can talk to consumers. We are having two different thought lines. One is – what do large companies need when they talk to consumers? Typically, that means that they need some sort of API to have the conversation. On the other side are small businesses that, need pre-built solutions, probably something in mobile space, that they can use for things like customer support. We still don’t know the business model. What we don’t want to build is an advertisment supported product where businesses are sending offers or unsolicited messages and really creating negative experience for users.
Do you see WhatsApp going beyond messaging to things like digital payments in India?
I had a great meeting with the Indian IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad where we discussed a number of things including how WhatsApp can be used for civic engagements, how WhatsApp could be used for e-commerce and digital transactions and payments. All these are in the space of opportunity for WhatsApp. We want to blend that to our core mission of connecting users and creating a great communications experience that’s simple, reliable, trusted and safe. We would continue to research, evaluate and figure out what we can build that best serves the people of India.
You have grown five times from 40 million in 2014 to 200 million now. Will you reach a billion users in India in 2 years?
I think it’s achievable. But the limiting factors are smartphone adoption and low cost affordable data plan. Without these I don’t think we will hit a billion in India in 2 years. Also, whenever you look at growth you look at the economic S curve where at a certain point you hit a saturation point. We have not hit saturation point, we are still at the sweet spot of the curve.
There is a debate going on about fake news. One sees a lot of fake stuff being circulated around on WhatsApp. How are you dealing with this?
It’s a tough question. We are trying to understand it and develop the right tools to tackle it. We are an encrypted platform and we don’t have any means of examining content. We have to rely on users telling us. We have to rely on teaching users to have good judgment so that we can provide them with tools with which they can report things. Some of these tools are already built in and as we get more mature in our understanding we may add more capabilities.
How do you see the concern around H1B visas under the new U.S. administration?
We are in the position of caution. We are observing the actions the President is taking and reconciling that with our goals. Our goal is to hire the best and brightest and for us the H1B programme is important. Lot of tech interest revolves around more H1B visas because that’s really important to build the best products with the best talent.
You have personally invested in Indian start-ups. Do you see the next Google or Facebook coming from here? Are you worried about the bubble bursting?
I am terribly excited about what’s happening in India. Booms and busts are part of cycles. Some of the best start-ups are formed during a bust. I absolutely believe that the next Facebook or Google could come from somewhere in India. I myself have invested in companies in India. I am predominantly limited based on my ability to do due diligence being in U.S. I don’t have the luxury of flying to India and vetting companies. So I do it on personal network basis. But larger firms and individuals are investing in India and they should. There are some great businesses being built out of India.
Founders usually move out and do something else once they sell out. You have continued to stay on at WhatsApp even after Facebook acquired it. Why?
I really truly believe in the mission, we want to connect the world. We have made tremendous progress but there is work to do in connecting the world. The other thing is that it’s one thing to build a product and another to create a business. I want to see this through till it becomes a strong sustainable business.
There’s a lot of buzz around Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality. Are you using these technologies on WhatsApp?
We think ourselves as a conduit. Over time, you can expect that an enterprise might want to build some sort of customer service using Artifical Intelligence (AI). So if you want to talk to that AI service, WhatsApp could be the conduit.
So you wouldn’t do what Google is doing with Allo, where it offers assistance and information to users?
We wouldn’t yet jump into a conversation between you and someone important. We don’t want to examine your conversation and ‘oh you are talking about a restaurant so let me recommend one’.
Over time, an enterprise might want to build some sort of customer service using Artifical Intelligence (AI). If you want to talk to that AI service, WhatsApp could be the conduit