WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton, 46, sits in the cafe at the glitzy Four Seasons Hotel in Palo Alto, California, and the only way you’d guess he might be worth $3.6 billion is the $20 tip he briskly leaves for his coffee. Sturdily built and wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt from a WhatsApp corporate event, he’s determined to avoid the trappings of wealth and runs his own errands, including dropping off his minivan for maintenance earlier that day. An SMS has just come in from his local Honda dealer saying “payment received.” He points to it on his phone.
“This is what I wanted people to do with WhatsApp,” he says of the world’s biggest messaging service, which is used by more than 1.5 billion people and provides ad-free, encrypted messaging as a core feature. “This was informational, and useful.”
The past tense and wistfulness hang in the air. More than four years ago, Acton and his cofounder, Jan Koum, sold WhatsApp, which had relatively insignificant revenue, to Facebook for $22 billion, one of the most stunning acquisitions of the century. A year ago he left Facebook, saying he wanted to focus on a nonprofit. Then in March, as details of the Cambridge Analytica scandal oozed out, he sent a Tweet that quickly went viral and shocked his former employers, who had made him a billionaire many times over: “It is time. #deletefacebook.” No explanation followed. He hasn’t sent another Tweet since.