WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton, 46 talks about leaving Facebook for the first time.
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.
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.
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.
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