From small beginnings come great things, right?
When Facebook announced last month that it had spent $19 billion to buy a tiny 55-person startup named WhatsApp, keeping small proved a recipe for success. Here are five ways WhatsApp and founder Jan Koum, who had his own humble beginnings, did things right to become great in the end.
#1. They Took A Global Approach
WhatsApp didn't bank its product's success on iOS or Android and their target market wasn't just the United States. By providing a messaging platform that worked on virtually every phone in the world with even the weakest data connection, they reached markets that even Facebook doesn't succeed in. In order to do this they created versions for Blackberry, Nokia S40 series phones, Nokia Symbian, and Blackberry as well as Windows Phone, iOS and Android. They truly are a global product on a truly global platform.
#2. They Stayed Small
Creating a product and a platform that is supported by nearly every phone in the world is no easy task. WhatsApp managed to do this for 450 million users with an engineering team of just above 30. Each developer in the team supports 14 million active users, something that is unheard of in the digital product industry. A lot of startups rush to build a very large team, investing in human capital. WhatsApp stayed small, efficient, and easy to manage.
#3. They Stayed Simple
Technology advancements can be a catalyst for innovative new features and are sometimes the basis for very successful products. WhatsApp remained very simple in its feature set and instead focused on doing one thing very well for very many people. Alternatives spring up that attempt to win on catchy games and gimmicky features. Remaining consistent through its growth helped WhatsApp retain its loyal users and allowed the small team to stay focused.
#4. They Went Viral
There are useful messaging apps out there that bring together and aggregate your messages from across all of your existing services and networks. These are useful tools but they often require marketing, advertising and, at the very least, passive word of mouth for distribution. WhatsApp is a closed network that requires both parties to have WhatsApp installed on their phone. This causes viral adoption, as using the service means you must share the app with other people.
#5. They Kept It Inexpensive
WhatsApp isn't free but most people forget that. By charging just $1 per year to use the service, WhatsApp is able to monetize immediately (and in a huge way) but remain accessible for just about any income level. WhatsApp is also free of any kind of advertisements, premium features, or partnerships. When you use WhatsApp you get WhatsApp and don't pay for it with any kind of gimmicks or ads.
Along the way, Jan Koum had laser focus on building a simple and elegant product. He kept a note on his desk to remind himself of his priorities in building WhatsApp that simply read "No Ads! No Games! No Gimmicks!" While every day there's a new idea on how to build the next big thing, perhaps the answer is to drown out the noise and focus on what matters most - keeping true to your core ideals and focusing on the product.
For Koum and his 55 employees, product - not advertising, marketing, gimmicks or anything else - meant the difference between growing successfully or puttering out and fading away like most apps on the market.
John Roescher is CEO & Co-Founder of Handsome, an Austin-based agency capable of delivering services spanning strategy, design, development, and consulting across web and mobile platforms. Follow John on Twitter @HandsomeMade
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