diagonal arrow
MVP Development
Digital Strategy
Interface Design
Get started
arrow back icon

How Unicorns are Launched: WhatsApp

calendar icon
July 5, 2023
read time icon
min read

In our digital age, WhatsApp has become a household name, revolutionising the way we communicate. But have you ever wondered how this everyday app transformed from a simple idea into a billion-dollar unicorn? In our series "How Unicorns are Launched", we delve into the captivating journey of WhatsApp. We'll explore its early days, its leap of faith from a status sharing app to an international messaging platform, and how it harnessed the power of agile development, lean start-up principles, and rapid MVP launch to achieve phenomenal success. This is more than just a success story – it's a testament to the power of launching early, iterating fast, and finding a product-market fit. So, join us as we unravel the gripping tale of WhatsApp's rise to global dominance.


WhatsApp, one of the most popular instant messaging applications in the world, was founded by Brian Acton and Jan Koum in 2009. With over 2 billion users worldwide, it's a fantastic example of a startup becoming a unicorn – a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion.


Hailing from Ukraine, Jan Koum was an immigrant who possessed deep technical knowledge and exceptional coding skills. From Michigan, Brian Acton was a product tester with a keen eye for design and usability. They crossed paths while working at Yahoo, where their unique skill sets complemented each other perfectly. Koum's prowess in programming paired with Acton's practical insights into product testing created a dynamic duo that was hard to beat. Although they were both highly accomplished in their fields, they shared a mutual dissatisfaction with the pervasive nature of advertising in the tech industry. This shared perspective greatly influenced the core principles of WhatsApp, creating an app that valued user privacy and simplicity above all.


Frustrated with missing calls and messages while at the gym, Koum envisioned an app to show 'statuses' next to individual names in the user's network, hence the name 'WhatsApp'. This idea evolved into the globally-renowned messaging platform we know today.


Launched in 2009, WhatsApp's MVP was a simple status update application built in a few weeks. Its unique approach was to create a user-friendly, ad-free environment that stood apart from bloated, ad-ridden social networking sites. The MVP was a moderate success, but the founders soon realised the true potential lay in messaging.


WhatsApp's growth didn't occur overnight, but was a result of multiple iterations and learning from user feedback.

Pioneering Instant Messaging: A Paradigm Shift

The first major iteration came with the introduction of the messaging feature. Initially, WhatsApp was designed as a status updating tool, but the founders soon recognised the potential for instant messaging. Their hypothesis was simple: users would value a direct, uncluttered channel of communication with their contacts. This pivot towards messaging proved to be a game-changer, significantly increasing user engagement and growth.

The Global Address Book: Revolutionizing User Connections

Another key hypothesis was the impact of a global address book. Unlike other messaging apps at the time, WhatsApp automatically connected users with all their phone contacts who were also using the app. This feature was tested and rolled out in late 2009. It was a successful move, as it removed the need for manual friend requests, simplifying the user experience and speeding up the adoption rate.

Real-Time Status Updates: Transforming into a Chat Platform

WhatsApp also hypothesised that a shift to real-time status would increase user engagement. Initially, statuses took some time to update, but with advancements in Apple's push notification technology, they transitioned to real-time status updates in 2009. This enabled users to engage in ongoing conversations, effectively transforming the app into a chat platform. This was a successful iteration that led to a significant increase in daily active users.

The Freemium Flop: Learning from User Preference

A less successful iteration was the brief experiment with a "Freemium" model. The team believed users might be willing to pay $1 for a premium version of the service. However, this led to a slowdown in user acquisition, demonstrating that the app's user base valued the free service. This experiment was quickly discontinued, but it taught the team valuable lessons about their users' preferences.

Through these iterations, WhatsApp learned to focus on simplicity, real-time communication, and user experience, all of which would become key to their eventual success.

Finding Market Fit

WhatsApp raised its Series A funding in April 2011, amassing $8 million at an undisclosed valuation. They found their market fit by catering to the global need for a simple, reliable, and ad-free messaging platform. User base skyrocketed from 200 million in April 2013 to 400 million by December the same year.


Today, WhatsApp is valued at around $50 billion, with over 2 billion users globally. Their success story is an inspiration for early-stage startups and testament to the power of launching early, iterating fast, and adapting to user needs. Their focus remains on providing a reliable, user-friendly, and ad-free communication platform.

In summary, WhatsApp's journey from a simple status update app to a global messaging giant shows the power of lean startup principles, agile product management, and quick MVP development. It underscores the importance of launching early, iterating fast, and the need for software and web development to be customer-centric. Ultimately, WhatsApp's success hinged on finding their product market fit and adapting to the changing market dynamics.