The “second act” of Neeraj Arora (former WhatsApp CBO)
In May, a post by Neeraj Arora went viral on Twitter. In that thread, he told how he was duped by Mark Zuckerberg in 2014, when the then Facebook bought WhatsApp for USD 22 billion. Neeraj was the chief business officer of the messaging startup and was directly involved in the sale to Facebook.
The unfolding of that story is known by now: Zuckerberg violated some of the commitments he made in 2014 to WhatsApp’s founders, such as not cross-referencing WhatsApp users’ data with that of other properties, and the founders eventually left the company while WhatsApp continued to grow into one of humanity’s leading communication engines.
Neeraj hasn’t given up on his dream of creating a better app, however. In that Twitter thread, he said that WhatsApp has become “a shadow of the product we poured our hearts into, and wanted to build for the world.” Today, he is focused on HalloApp, a sort of “second act” — this time, proofed against multibillion-dollar takeovers by companies of questionable reputation.
HalloApp was launched in November 2020, almost a year after the startup was founded by Neeraj and Michael Donohue, another former WhatsApp employee.
The app is free and available for Android and iOS. Neeraj promises that it will never have ads, algorithms, bots, or influencers. (In his Twitter photo, he wears a T-shirt with a forbidden sign over the word “algorithm”.)
HalloApp defines itself as “the first real relationship network.” I asked, in an email interview, what that means — after all, it’s not like we’re talking (only) to robots, influencers, or the wall on Twitter or Instagram.
“HalloApp was built with the purpose of connecting you with people you actually know in your life — hence we used the phone’s address book to get started,” he explained. “On other social apps, you see ads, sponsored content, friend requests from people you don’t know, and other content you usually see in a magazine or TV.”
How does it work?
Using orange as its main color and a simple interface based on four tabs and a big button for posting content, HalloApp is really a mixture of WhatsApp and Instagram.
In the WhatsApp-like realm, there are one-on-one and group chats, standard and mandatory end-to-end encryption, audio and video calls and audio messages.
In the feed, the part that resembles Instagram, one can post photos, videos, text messages, audios and, a recent addition, “moments”, photos that disappear within 24 hours and can only be seen by contacts once.
Posts on the HalloApp feed expire after 30 days, when they go into an “archive” accessible only by the author.
Contacts? Only those in your phone’s address book — that’s the only kind of data HalloApp collects, Neeraj points out. “The world is moving towards a place where the users are surveillance free and are not tracked all the time to be able to target them ads”, he says.
The focus and incentives that are more aligned with the well being of users than advertisers are felt in the app. It is very light and has few settings, all of them clear and straightforward, a sharp contrast to the endless mazes that ad-dependent networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter call “settings”.
Overall, it’s a very nice experience, but what are the chances of something like this taking hold in 2022?
When I asked Neeraj this question, I mentioned HalloApp’s obvious rivals: WhatsApp and Instagram. He dismissed the issue, saying that “we didn’t create HalloApp to rival some other app. We just want to create an experience that is new, private and clutter free”.
The last part draws attention in light of the national elections across the world and the recurring and serious troubles other social platforms get involved regarding misinformation, hate speech, and other speech issues.
“We have some inherent benefits because of the way HalloApp is built”, says Neeraj after I ask if HalloApp is prepared for these challenges.
“We don’t have a concept of a public post that can be sent or viewed by millions of people. So this minimizes the chances of spreading misinformation. Secondly, we don’t allow for searching a profile and sending them friend requests, so this adds to the safety on the network. It is tough to prevent bad behaviour on any product, but we can always build products that are safe and responsible.”
We had our first conversation in February. At some point since then, HalloApp got a feature that allows you to expose content to third parties — a share with the outside world (example).
When I resumed my conversation with Neeraj at the end of July, Instagram was under heavy criticism due to its “tiktokzation” process. I then asked him if he saw this event as an opportunity to promote HalloApp.
Again, the answer was “no”: “We want to focus on our own values — that is to help you stay in touch with people that you care about in an authentic and private experience.”
Business model and global scale
Neeraj utters strong words when talking about Meta, the fate of WhatsApp, and the virtues of HalloApp, but is that enough to trust this new, cool app?
Despite the distinctions and the aspiration to become a global app, in business terms HalloApp is quite conventional: it’s funded by venture capital and its apps and server code are both proprietary.
Asked whether the absence of the apps’ source code availability might be a loophole in HalloApp promise of privacy, Neeraj confessed that he hadn’t thought about it, but didn’t rule out opening it up in the future.
As for the business model, HalloApp knows what it doesn’t want (ads) and what it does want — in this case, paid features.
The first trials should start in early 2023. In our conversation, Neeraj didn’t reveal details, but in an interview with Protocol in May, he referred to WhatsApp’s original business model as “a taste” of alternative methods to generate revenue in this space.
In case you don’t remember, WhatsApp used to charge a USD 1 annual fee from users in the United States and a few European countries. From the Protocol interview, Neeraj’s words:
In users’ mindset, they don’t mind paying for products that they love if it is nominal and it serves the needs they have. We haven’t really pinpointed exactly how our subscriptions will work, but broadly, we are thinking of having a product which will be free for everyone to use and then we will build a set of premium features on top and you can upgrade to a subscription, a monthly subscription, and pay for this.
It’s a model that other social networks and messaging apps, such as Snapchat, Twitter and Telegram, are already experimenting with.
Neeraj won’t give HalloApp’s numbers, only that there are 15 people working on the startup.
The goal is to gain scale and become a global app, such as WhatsApp already is, and although HalloApp is slowly but steadily releasing new features, it is hard to see it gaining traction anytime soon. According to consulting firm Sensortower, in July HalloApp had 100,000 downloads for Android and less than 5,000 for iOS.