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As WhatsApp Hits 500 Million Users, CEO Jan Koum Preaches Focus

The only barrier to WhatsApp's future growth is a bloated product, argues Koum.

Asa Mathat

While waiting to hear whether European regulators will clear its $19 billion acquisition by Facebook, the mobile messaging app maker WhatsApp hit a big milestone yesterday: It has 500 million active monthly users. They are sharing 700 million photos and 100 million videos per day.

What’s the company going to do to celebrate? “We’re going to get our engineers together and fix a lot of bugs,” said WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum.

His point: While the public story of WhatsApp may have been rather exciting of late, the internal focus has been rather boring. And apparently, that’s just how Koum likes it.

“We don’t have anything huge we’ve changed in our last six months, but we’ve had probably 1,000 little bug fixes and improvements,” he said.

The next big feature for WhatsApp has already been announced; Koum said at Mobile World Congress earlier this year that the company would roll out support for free voice calls. When? “In the next few months.” The Mountain View, Calif.-based company’s previous big release was voice messaging last summer. Smaller changes since then have included new privacy settings that allow users to decide who can see their status and profile photo.

Koum and his co-founder Brian Acton — who say they will continue to operate WhatsApp independently when and if the Facebook acquisition goes through — spent all last week answering customer support emails so they could better brainstorm things to fix.

All this feature-tweaking (some might say thumb-twiddling) is justified, in Koum’s opinion, because he thinks the single biggest barrier to WhatsApp’s continued growth would be making the app complicated and bloated.

“I worry about how to offer a competitive set of features without making the UI difficult, the user experience worse, the application bloated,” he said. “These screens are small. There’s a limited amount of memory and bandwidth. It’s just all about focus.”

Simplicity is especially important because many of WhatsApp’s users are joining the service as they buy their first phones and come online for the first time.

Geographically, the company’s four biggest sources of growth right now are Mexico, Brazil, India and Russia, Koum said.

WhatsApp now has 48 million active users in India alone, its largest single country. Koum noted that this number is about half the number of Facebook’s active users in India. The company has arranged deals with carriers there to offer unlimited WhatsApp data usage for 30 cents per month.

In Brazil, WhatsApp has 45 million actives. “The message growth rate in Brazil — it’s not like a hockey stick, it’s like a vertical line,” Koum said.

In Turkey, where Twitter had recently been blocked, WhatsApp has 14 million active users. WhatsApp just hired its first Turkish-speaking employee yesterday, Koum said. It is working to hire customer support people who speak all the languages its customers do.

While Koum might spend his days worrying about feature bloat, there’s also the reality that WhatsApp faces competition from zillions of other mobile messaging app makers, many of them quite popular around the world — and some of them talking about taking their companies public.

Especially in Asian countries, WhatsApp is getting beaten by competitors. Line has more active users than WhatsApp in Japan, Thailand and Taiwan. KakaoTalk has more in Korea. WeChat has more in China.

Koum pointed out that his competitors have had trouble making inroads in WhatsApp strongholds like India and Spain, despite splashy and costly efforts. “There’s not enough money and not enough celebrities in the world to convince people to use a shitty product. People are so savvy these days. People expect a good user experience.”

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