Last year roughly around this time, I got a chance to interact with Jan Koum. Now seems to be a good time to re-collect those 60 minutes. I had almost given up on the visit since my visa application had gone in at the very last minute and the 10 other Co-Founders from different start-ups from India were already on their whirlwind visit across Berlin, London, New York & San Francisco (of which WhatsApp meet was also a part). But a last-minute grant of the visa meant I was on my 36-hour sojourn within 6 hours of getting my passport back and hoping to be in time for the luncheon meeting at the WhatsApp office in Mountain View, literally half way across the world from New Delhi. The madness of the last 2 days meant the only thing I could do before the meeting was to try to stay awake & alert. And also to brush & shower, lest the other co-founder friends of mine refuse to sit next to me!
A few things dramatically stood out and it only validates why on earth would someone pay Rs 1,18,313 crores for a 5 year old start-up with 55 employees (if you’re living under a rock and wondering what I’m talking about, do see this).
1. No Chichi
As we parked our cars in one of the ordinary bylanes of Mountain View, we started looking for a huge WhatsApp building somewhere in our sight. But all our attempts to find it only left us more frustrated, and even the *holy* Google maps seemed to give up on us (while it kept saying the office is right there, we could only see decrepit looking ordinary buildings & no WhatsApp). After two wrong attempts, we finally entered a very ordinary looking corner office building (with no branding, no boards or any other signage) and were almost sure that we had entered the wrong building like we did twice earlier until we checked with the lady sitting at the reception. “Straight to your right” was her crisp reply on being asked for directions to WhatsApp’s offices. Before we left, we figured it was just one of the many offices in the building. We entered the office and, within a few minutes, saw Jan Koum walking in – a semblance of crumpled shorts, a plain t-shirt and slippers.
2. Razor-Sharp Product Focus
The first thing Jan said to us was “So, what do you think about WhatsApp and how can we improve it?” All of us were caught off guard; we had assumed he would take us through his professional journey, tell us how he was rejected by a host of VCs, how he convinced one guy to give him the money and how he eventually made it this big - the monologue everyone is so used to listening, of the god forsaken underdog who triumphed against all odds. But like his office, he surprised us again - he didn’t do any of that and was only interested in spending the next 60 minutes brainstorming on how to make WhatsApp better.
For those of you who may not know, WhatsApp strictly stays away from the media. It banishes all PR folks, press personnel and even live tweeting from its offices. In fact one of our group members who happened to be from TechCrunch wasn’t allowed entry into their office as part of this policy. In a world where start-up founders would do anything to gain attention and press coverage, Jane went out of his way to make sure WhatsApp stayed in the shadows away from the limelight. When my inquisitiveness took the better of me, I asked Jan on why they weren’t PR friendly to say the least, to which he replied without batting an eyelid, that being in the public eye all the time made one lose their product focus!
3. Evangelize the Product
In the first 30 minutes, I figured out that Jan was living what I call ‘the WhatsApp Life’. He surprised me when he pointed to my Blackberry lying on the conference table (which only dinosaurs seem to carry these days) and told me that he used the same phone. So here is this man, I thought, who uses a phone that is known for its BBM messenger, the very service WhatsApp is set out to kill. Little did he know, he would kill even the good old SMS and ultimately also create a force 450 million strong and processing 50 billion messages every day!!
Jan told us that all forms of internal communication – pure work related to everyday team lunch venue scouting (yes they have sponsored lunch-outs everyday!) – happened through WhatsApp. The only thing he wanted to talk about in those 60 minutes was how he could better the user’s experience on WhatsApp. It hardly mattered what we wanted to talk about.
It’s not every day you come across folks like him. When he’s in the room, the only agenda is WhatsApp and how it could be made better. Period. And his overnight success was also a few years in the making. For those who would peep into those years would know why it is so remarkable and, for others you can keep kicking yourself at how lucky he is, and how miserable your life is.
There is much to learn from his razor-sharp focus and the WhatsApp way of life. I just hope he decides to allow a few folks to peep into that life & learn from it.