Brian Acton, a founder of WhatsApp, which he (along with the other founder) sold to Facebook for $19 billion four years ago, has grown tired of the social juggernaut. He left the company a year ago, and earlier this year, he surprised many when he tweeted “#DeleteFacebook”, offering his support to what many described as a movement. He had started despising working at Facebook so much, that he left the company abruptly, leaving a cool $850M in unvested stock. He has also invested $50 million in encrypted chat app Signal. In an interview with Forbes, published Wednesday, Acton talked about his rationale behind leaving the company and what he thinks of Facebook now. From the story: 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.
He’s following a similar moral code now. 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.”
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.”
Facebook, Acton says, had decided to pursue two ways of making money from WhatsApp. First, by showing targeted ads in WhatsApp’s new Status feature, which Acton felt broke a social compact with its users. “Targeted advertising is what makes me unhappy,” he says. His motto at WhatsApp had been “No ads, no games, no gimmicks” — a direct contrast with a parent company that derived 98% of its revenue from advertising. Another motto had been “Take the time to get it right,” a stark contrast to “Move fast and break things.”
Elsewhere in the story, Acton has also suggested he was used by Facebook to help get its 2014 acquisition of WhatsApp past EU regulators that had been concerned it might be able to link accounts — as it subsequently did.