An unexpected chat with WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

Things were getting pretty quiet in the speaker / press lounge backstage at the 4YFN conference in Barcelona. I was there earlier this week for attending that event, the Mobile World Congress and many other side events and startup pitching competitions and meet-ups and parties and whatnot.

Not long before, things weren’t as calm. The Crown Prince of Spain had made an appearance backstage, with quite the entourage, to meet with WhatsApp founder and CEO Jan Koum and well-known entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky, who would go on to interview Koum on stage.


After that, Koum spent the afternoon in the press lounge, meeting one member of the press after the other. I spent a few hours there as well, meeting people and getting some work done, doing my best not to bother the man as he was interviewed and asked the same questions over and over again.

By the time I packed my stuff to head to a meeting at another venue, Koum was sitting by himself glancing at his (feature) phone. Since there was no one else around, I figured I should go say a quick hello to the man of the hour.

>> Update: Koum has clarified that his Nokia E5 can not be called a feature phone, under any circumstances. I hereby upgrade it to a featurephone with smartphone capabilities. I totally dig that phone and would like to apologize profusely to it and Koum for referring to it as anything other than a smartphone.

Moving on …

"Hi, my name is Robin Wauters, and I'm …"

Before I could finish, Koum looked up, warily shook my hand and proclaimed: "Oh, I know who you are."

Curious, I asked if that was because I wrote one of the first articles on WhatsApp ever, back in 2011. It was.

"Do you know how much damage you have done to me and our company by doing that?", Koum inquired, rhetorically. "Do you even realize how much hassle that caused me?"

I was taken aback a bit and sat down.

In April 2011, almost three years ago, a source emailed me to let me know in confidence that he had direct knowledge of WhatsApp raising a $8 million round from Sequoia Capital as it was growing fast (I looked it up, the person said WhatsApp had around 17 million users by that time).

I diligently checked a few things and decided to go ahead and publish the news on TechCrunch, my then-employer.

I had taken an interest because the mobile messaging space was heating up fast, and LinkedIn and other online sources were kind enough to inform me that there were a few ex-Yahoo folks working on the product.

And, of course, not every startup raises that big a round from an investor like Sequoia in such an early stage (and while flying largely under the radar, which the company has tried to continue to do over the years).

I reached out to Koum and someone else at WhatsApp for confirmation but never heard back. I had enough information to go on, though, and ultimately nailed that story.

Clearly, Koum wasn’t too impressed.


As I sat down next to him in the 4YFN press lounge this week, he told me he hadn’t yet told his employees, and that there were still a few signatures that needed to be taken care of, and that he had to spend two days running around – not focusing on product – as a result of me breaking the news before they could.

I posited that this wasn’t such a big deal, considering the outcome, but that only annoyed Koum more.

“It’s that kind of attitude that makes this so wrong,” he said as he looked me sternly in the eyes. “Reporters like you make life very difficult for me and my peers.”

I tried to explain that I was just doing my job, and that technically whoever leaked the story was mostly responsible for any ‘damage’ that was caused by the publication of my story, but he wouldn’t have it.

The discussion didn’t last long, as a PR representative working with Koum intervened and said the man was on a tight schedule. I got up and left, end of story. Tweeted something minor about it, which amusingly led to me getting called by a Bloomberg business reporter on Friday (who, I assume, is working on a story on Koum).

For the record, in no way am I trying to make Jan Koum look bad by publishing this story (if anything, it’s mostly for posterity’s sake). In fact, I genuinely appreciated his sincerity and frankness – a thousand times better than being a hypocrite as far as I’m concerned, and it’s something I try to teach my kid as well.

The man has every right to voice his opinions, and the whole thing is worth a constant debate either way.

What surprised me the most about the whole thing was that:

a) Koum actually knew who I was before I introduced myself
b) he remembered the 2011 story and seemingly every detail about it
c) he still cared enough about it to scold me

Here’s a freshly minted multi-billionaire who just wrote business history by selling his company to Facebook for a dazzlingly high price, and joining the social network giant’s board to boot. Everybody now wants a piece of him, and here he is taking a few minutes to let me know how unhappy about he was (and is) about that funding story posted three years prior. Not quite what I had expected to happen that day.

And FWIW, the folks over at WhatsApp haven’t been keen on working with TechCrunch ever since.

— The photos above can be found on the Flickr stream (free to use, but some rights reserved), taken by Dan Taylor from Heisenberg Media. —