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Social Media: WhatsApp Co-founder Brian Acton Gives The Inside Story On #DeleteFacebook And Why He Left $850 Million Behind

Key Speakers At The WSJDLive Global Technology Conference
WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton, 46, sits in a cafe of the glitzy Four Seasons Hotel in Palo Alto, California, and the only way you’d guess he might be worth $3.6 billion is the $20 tip he briskly leaves for his coffee. Sturdily built and wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt from a WhatsApp corporate event, he’s determined to avoid the trappings of wealth and runs his own errands, including dropping off his minivan for maintenance earlier that day. An SMS has just come in from his local Honda dealer saying “payment received.” He points to it on his phone.
“This is what I wanted people to do with WhatsApp,” he says of the world’s biggest messaging service, which is used by more than 1.5 billion people and provides ad-free, encrypted messaging as a core feature. “This was informational, and useful."

The past tense and wistfulness hang in the air. More than four years ago, Acton and his cofounder, Jan Koum, sold WhatsApp, which had relatively insignificant revenue, to Facebook for $22 billion, one of the most stunning acquisitions of the century. Ten months ago he left Facebook, saying he wanted to focus on a nonprofit. Then in March, as details of the Cambridge Analytica scandal oozed out, he sent a Tweet that quickly went viral and shocked his former employers, who had made him a billionaire many times over: “It is time. #deletefacebook.” No explanation followed. He hasn’t sent another Tweet since.
Whatsapp cofounders Brian Acton and Jan Koum.
Whatsapp cofounders Brian Acton and Jan Koum. ROBERT GALLAGHER
Now he’s talking publicly for the first time. Under pressure from Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg to monetize WhatsApp, he pushed back as Facebook questioned the encryption he'd helped build and laid the groundwork to show targeted ads and facilitate commercial messaging. Acton also walked away from Facebook a year before his final tranche of stock grants vested. “It was like, okay, well, you want to do these things I don’t want to do,” Acton says. “It’s better if I get out of your way. And I did.” It was perhaps the most expensive moral stand in history. Acton took a screenshot of the stock price on his way out the door—the decision cost him $850 million.
He’s following a similar moral code now. He clearly doesn’t relish the spotlight this story will bring and is quick to underscore that Facebook “isn’t the bad guy.” (“I think of them as just very good business people.”) But he paid dearly for the right to speak his mind. “As part of a proposed settlement at the end, [Facebook management] tried to put a nondisclosure agreement in place,” Acton says. “That was part of the reason that I got sort of cold feet in terms of trying to settle with these guys.”
Within a year of the Whatsapp founders’ resignations, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has this week lost the leaders of one of his most successful businesses, Instagram. “I couldn’t tell you much about the guy,” Acton says of Zuckerberg.
Within a year of the Whatsapp founders’ resignations, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has this week lost the leaders of one of his most successful businesses, Instagram. “I couldn’t tell you much about the guy,” Acton says of Zuckerberg. ALAIN JOCARD
Facebook is probably the most scrutinized company on the planet, while simultaneously controlling its image and internal information with a Kremlin-like ferocity. “Thanks to the team’s relentless focus on building valuable features, WhatsApp is now an important part of over a billion people’s lives, and we’re excited about what the future holds,” says a Facebook spokesperson. That kind of answer masks the kind of issues that just prompted Instagram’s founders to abruptly quit. Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger reportedly chafed at Facebook and Zuckerberg’s heavy hand. Acton’s account of what happened at WhatsApp—and Facebook’s plans for it—provides a rare founder’s-level window into a company that’s at once the global arbiter of privacy standards and the gatekeeper of facts, while also increasingly straying from its entrepreneurial roots.
It’s also a story any idealistic entrepreneur can identify with: What happens when you build something incredible and then sell it to someone with far different plans for your baby? “At the end of the day, I sold my company,” Acton says. “I sold my users’ privacy to a larger benefit. I made a choice and a compromise. And I live with that every day.” Read further here............
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