WhatsApp today is a global behemoth, and is the biggest messaging service on the internet. But less than a decade ago, it was yet another app on the App store, and was struggling to stand out.
That was when Jan Koum, WhatsApp’s cofounder, took to FlyersTalk to promote the app his team had recently developed. In October 2007, Koum posted on FlyerTalk’s message board.
Under the username jkb76, Koum started off with an apologetic “I hate the self promotion, but..”. He then went on the describe his new creation – WhatsApp. Back then, WhatsApp wasn’t a messaging service – it was just an app that let you set a status, and your friends who also had the app could see it. “I spent a couple of months and developed a little tool called WhatsApp – it can let you set a status like “On the flight to munich, send email instead of calling me” or “In Japan for two weeks, my cell there is +81 829 282718,” his message said. He ended his message asking users for feedback.
His post didn’t do so well. Clearly the FlyerTalk forum didn’t think much of Koum’s idea. There was no activity on the post for two long years, until when someone replied – “It appears that this requires the other party to also have the app installed, right?”
Koum replied to this message, and to perhaps bump up the post, talked about WhatsApp’s new Blackberry app that had just come out. (Yes, this was a long time ago.)
The post remained dormant for a whole three years after that. Finally in September 2013, a whole six years after Koum’s initial message, he somehow got back to the post, and updated the message. “I think some of you might be using WhatsApp now :)”
By this time, WhatsApp had pivoted to become a messaging service, and was fast gaining popularity. FlyerTalk’s users finally realized the significance of the six year old thread. They were astounded to find out that an app they used daily was made by a member of their forum, and congratulations began pouring in for Koum.
“I love, love, love the app,” wrote one user. “Hey, jkb’s company is valued at several billion dollars now,” wrote another. The thread became a magnet for all things WhatsApp – people threw in product ideas, and even suggested improvements. And finally, on 19th February 2014, someone posted “Congratulations on the $19 billion acquisition by Facebook.”
A whole seven years after the first post on the now legendary thread, WhatsApp had finally arrived.
The thread has since continued to grow, and now has hundreds of congratulatory messages. But Koum’s experience with his post on the forum is typical for many great products – people don’t have to immediately realize the potential of something that’s pathbreaking. And founders don’t get to bask in the appreciation of the public until their startups officially hit it big.