Learnings from WhatsApp, Why Creating Mobile Apps Can Earn You Money

whatsappIt was a fairy-tale in a modern, smartphone-obsessed world: two nobodies who lost their jobs at a tech giant turned to two other tech giants for jobs. They were turned down. Instead of being disheartened, they turned their hands to building a tech giant of their own—and succeeded.

We are, of course, talking about former Yahoo employees Jan Koum and Brian Acton, co-founders of mobile messenger WhatsApp. Last week, in a status update that sent tremors throughout the tech world, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that his company was acquiring the hugely popular app for a staggering $19 billion.

The irony is that just a few years ago, both Koum and Acton applied for jobs at Twitter and Facebook and were turned down. It would turn out to be a very costly mistake.

All’s well that ends well, however: Facebook and WhatsApp are now allies, and were recently spotted partying together at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona with Korean pop superstar Psy.

If you need more reason to start building your own mobile app, read on.

 Stick to your guns

Acton and Koum started out in an environment already saturated by messaging apps, and surrounded by skeptics who didn’t believe they would make it.

The two, however, believed they had a good idea on their hands and stayed dedicated to building a clean, lightning-fast, and uncomplicated messenger. In short, it was something that just works. This philosophy is reflected in that piece of paper taped to Koum’s desk: a note from Acton that said, “No Ads! No Games! No Gimmicks!” The app is free to download, and after one year of free service, users are only required to pay $0.99 for a whole year. That’s it.

Their integrity in keeping the messaging experience pure was what earned them that 450 million-user base that Facebook prised so highly. In the currency of mobile technology, a huge and engaged user base is everything.

 Stay relevant

It’s been said time and again: the Internet has shifted to mobile. This is evidenced by WhatsApp’s 450 million-strong user base, 70% of which is active daily. That’s already 60% of Facebook’s 550-million daily user count.

Changes in how users utilise texts, photos, and other media are potential threats to Facebook’s relevancy.

Big companies will often try and search for solutions within the organisation instead of looking at the market, which is a huge mistake. Consumers will tell you what they need from you. This is what you need to stay relevant to your users.

Kudos goes out to Zuckerberg for riding the trend and bringing the current leaders into the fold.

Marketing isn’t everything

As if their story wasn’t already impressive enough, we also know that WhatsApp spent literally zero dollars on marketing efforts. According to a Forbes report, WhatsApp has had fewer than 200 mentions in the press before news of the acquisition broke.

Instead of trying to get coverage, WhatsApp focused its lean team of around 50 (32 of which were engineers) into delivering the very best experience you could have with a mobile messenger. Their product was compelling enough to gain traction and spread like wildfire through word of mouth.

 Mobile is the way to go

Yes, we’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again because it’s worth mentioning: the Internet has gone mobile. It’s not only WhatsApp’s success that demonstrates this: consider the case of mobile commerce, which is now arguably one of the hottest business trends in Asia.

Singapore-based mobile startup Carousell, only two years old, already has 50,000-100,000 installations on Android smartphones and tablets. The shop also lists over 500,000 products for sale.

The growth of mobile commerce in Hong Kong is even more astounding: the number of mobile shoppers has grown exponentially from 376,000 in 2011 to over 1.1 million in 2012. At the same time, sales exploded from HKD 1.5 billion to over four times that, at HKD 6.4 billion. This is expected to reach HKD 17.8 by next year.

What does this mean for WhatsApp? Let’s go back to that massive user base again. It’s a captive audience that they can take advantage of, which is exactly what Line, another massively popular app, has done. Its developers have released Line Mall, a standalone shopping app, which has so far proven successful. Flash sales in Thailand for cosmetics and iPhone cases and have been well received.

The best credit card companies are also scrambling to ride the wave. At the World Mobile Congress, MasterCard announced the release of a new in-app functionality that will make mobile transactions easier for consumers. Credit card details will only have to be entered once, saving users the hassle of typing long strings of numbers and other details like addresses over and over on a tiny screen.

Convinced yet? So if you want to be the next Silicon Valley fairytale, you better get cracking on developing your mobile app.

This article is contributed by MoneyHero, Hong Kong’s leading financial comparison website. You can compare a broad range of financial products for free, from credit cards to medical insurance plans.