Jim Carroll

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WhatsApp and the future of work

The fact that WhatsApp’s 55 employees have built a $19 billion company has lessons for the Irish job market

The $19 billion men: WhatsApp founders WhatsApp founders Brian Acton (left) and Jan Koum. Photo: Peter DaSilva/New York Times

Mon, Feb 24, 2014, 09:31


As always happens on those occasions when a very large sum of money is spent by one company on acquiring another company, every single possible angle gets covered. You get pieces on what other tech go-getters will accept as their walk away money, how WhatsApp is actually not hot any more in southeast Asia, the effect of the $19 billion purchase on WhatsApp users’ privacy settings and how the purchase means the death of the text message.

Indeed, there’s probably also something out there to do with WhatsApp, Facebook and cats if you look hard enough. If you’re looking for the all-action piece which would make a good first draft for the film, here are the heads-up from Forbes and Wired.

There are also plenty of articles about how Facebook turned down one of the WhatsApp founders when he applied for a job with the company initially. Indeed, if it were not for that PFO letter, Brian Acton may not have joined forces with Jan Koum to form WhatsApp and set this story in motion. Yes, it would have been cheaper for Facebook to have hired them initially, but where’s the fun in that?

One angle to the story which deserves to be parsed a little more is the number of people employed at WhatsApp. There are just 55 employees making sure that the product is fit for purpose for its 450 million users. They’ve also not spent a cent on advertising, marketing or promotion (so we assume no hires in those areas), allowing word of mouth about the product and its simplicity to do all that for them. Of course, it will be interesting to see if this situation will change now that Facebook needs to make its cash back and what changes will come down the line to Facebookify the app and annoy the hell out of those who currently use it.

But the fact that the company has got to this stage with only 55 employees is a hugely interesting statistic in a world of work which is rapidly changing. They’ve one office in Mountain View and that’s really that. Their workforce is, per their own jobs page, 84 per cent engineers (“if you like writing code and hate office politics, talk to us”) so there has been no need to hire hundreds of non-engineers to grow the company. There has also been no need for an European office, no need for a roadshow at things like the Web Summit, no need for any of that palaver. 55 lads and lasses in an office in California putting together the nuts and bolts of a product used by 450 million people worldwide.

For the bucaneers and mavericks (and, yes, engineers and coders) in the audience, this is a hugely exciting development. Here’s proof of what they’ve been saying in meeting after meeting after meeting for years. You don’t need all those bells and whistles to build a company. You don’t need endless branding and marketing meetings. You build the damn thing and they will come. Of course, you could point to the fact that a success story like WhatsApp only comes along once in a blue 19 billion moon, but that won’t stop them pointing out that WhatsApp did indeed emerge from such a set-to so it can be done.

But for those tasked with ensuring that an economy like Ireland has plenty of future work for its jobseekers, a story like WhatsApp is a little unnerving. To date, there has been no need for WhatsApp to have a base outside Mountain View so that usual IDA thing of encouraging tech companies to be based here via attractive tax rates and the like does not wash. It’s unlikely too that WhatsApp, like so many of the multi-million and billion companies we’ve seen emerge in the last decade, will ever get into the making stuff in factories gig so there won’t be hundreds or thousands of jobs to come from that. The usual way of wringing jobs from a business just do not apply in this case.

What does apply, however, is a whole new approach whereby it’s about smaller, more nimble and agile enterprises beavering away on good ideas. This means a complete change in mindset about jobs and work for everyone involved in the sector. We know now that it’s no longer about big companies like Dell hiring thousands of people to put together stuff because that can be done much more cheaply elsewhere.

But WhatsApp shows that it also can’t be just about attracting big successful tech companies like Google and Facebook to set up shop here. Just as we have to wonder about what kind of economic recovery we’re after as the country lurches unsteadily out of recession, we also have to wonder about what the future of work will mean when a company like WhatsApp shows that everything we think we know about what it takes to build a successful company is wrong. The future of work here will increasingly have to be as much about hundreds of indigenous self-starters adhering to the WhatsApp model as the big, flash arrivals from abroad offering hundreds of jobs which could easily go elsewhere in the morning. The effect of this on an economy and society more accustomed to working for someone else than being your own boss will tell much about where we go from here.