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 businesspeople.”) 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.”
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.”
Acton had proposed monetizing WhatsApp through a metered-user model, charging, say, a tenth of a penny after a certain large number of free messages were used up. “You build it once, it runs everywhere in every country,” Acton says. “You don’t need a sophisticated sales force. It’s a very simple business.”
Acton’s plan was shot down by Sandberg. “Her words were ‘It won’t scale.’ ”
“I called her out one time,” says Acton, who sensed there might be greed at play. “I was like, ‘No, you don’t mean that it won’t scale. You mean it won’t make as much money as . . . ,’ and she kind of hemmed and hawed a little. And we moved on. I think I made my point. . . . They are businesspeople, they are good businesspeople. They just represent a set of business practices, principles and ethics, and policies that I don’t necessarily agree with.”
It’s difficult to square all of that with Acton’s insistence that Facebook “isn’t the bad guy.”