Brain Acton, one of the co-founders of the Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp, has broken his silence about his contentious relationship with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook and his departure from WhatsApp, a move that reportedly cost him $850 million in stock grants.
In a recent interview with Forbes, Acton discussed the tension between the WhatsApp founders and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg as they attempted to push for further implementation of ads within WhatsApp. Acton left the company in 2017, three years after WhatsApp was acquired by the Silicon Valley giant for $16 billion. WhatsApp’s other founder, Jan Koum, left in 2018 also citing issues with Zuckerberg’s push for ads and collection of user data as his reason for leaving.
Facebook’s $16 billion acquisition of WhatsApp was comprised of $4 billion in cash and $12 billion in company stock, if Zuckerberg introduced ads to WhatsApp against the founders’ wishes, the founders could take their $12 billion in Facebook stock before a previously agreed upon four-year waiting period. But shortly after the acquisition, Acton and Koum were brought before Zuckerberg and Facebook’s lawyers to discuss ways to monetize WhatsApp. Facebook has monetized most of its products using advertisements — exactly what WhatsApp didn’t want to resort to. Acton’s eventual decision to leave cost him the last portion of the stock grant, which was reportedly worth $850 million.
Facebook’s lawyers didn’t believe that discussing monetization and ads broke their agreement with the WhatsApp founders. Acton stated that during the meeting Mark Zuckerberg told him: “This is probably the last time you’ll ever talk to me.” Zuckerberg wasn’t exactly wrong, Acton reportedly had little contact with Zuckerberg in his three years at Facebook, Acton stated: “I couldn’t tell you much about the guy.” Zuckerberg reportedly told Acton that WhatsApp, which had quite a level of independence even after being purchased by Facebook and even operated out of its own offices for some time, was still “a product group to him, like Instagram.”
Acton even claims he was “coached” by Facebook on how to discuss the merger with Facebook in front of strict E.U. regulators, saying in the interview: “I was coached to explain that it would be really difficult to merge or blend data between the two systems.”
Acton’s opinions always seemed at odds with how Facebook operated, his general disdain for advertisements directly contradicted Facebook’s entire business model. “Targeted advertising is what makes me unhappy,” said Acton who’s motto at WhatsApp had been “No ads, no games, no gimmicks,” once again, the opposite of Facebook.
While Acton was one of the first founders of a company acquired by Facebook to leave, he wasn’t the last. Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger have resigned from the Facebook-owned company and will be leaving within the coming weeks. Systrom served as the chief executive of Instagram and Kriger server as the company’s Chief Technical Officer, the two co-founders notified Instagram’s leadership team and Facebook on Monday of this week that they were resigning from the company.
The two co-founders did not provide a reason for their sudden departure from the company, although tensions with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are widely considered to be behind the move. Both said that they planned to take some time off after leaving.