HalloApp founders talk privacy and encryption after WhatsApp
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An app that promises to be the anti-Facebook focuses on real relationships rather than ads and brands. Of course, this has already been tried. There’s a whole digital graveyard littered with the corpses of apps that have tried and failed to offer a compelling alternative to the go-to social network. But maybe two former Facebook employees who were instrumental at WhatsApp know the secret to attracting users — and keeping them.
Neeraj Arora and Michael Donohue, who served as WhatsApp’s chief commercial officer and chief engineering officer respectively, launched HalloApp in late 2019, calling it “the first network for real relationships”. Arora helped negotiate the $22 billion sale of WhatsApp to Meta (then known as Facebook Inc.) in 2014. He realized after joining the social giant that the advertising-driven business model of Facebook was not serving its users and decided to create an alternative.
HalloApp has no ads. It also has no algorithmic feed and does not allow group chats with more than 50 people. The app only allows you to connect with registered users in your phone contacts. When you open the app, you’re greeted with refreshingly limited options: direct messages, group chats, and a home stream of messages only from your friends. Oh, and every message you send is encrypted, which Donohue said in a blog post is a “key step” in encrypting absolutely everything a user posts. HalloApp refused to release user numbers. According to Sensor Tower, the app has been downloaded 225,000 times on iOS and Android which it launched in November 2020. Obviously, it still has a long way to go to become ubiquitous.
Protocol spoke with Arora and Donohue about how working at Facebook informed their new company’s philosophy on social media, privacy and encryption, and their goal of making HalloApp as ubiquitous as WhatsApp. And, of course, we had to ask about the other CEO who wants to rid his social platform of ads – Elon Musk himself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Where did the idea for HalloApp come from?
Arora: As social products have evolved – Instagram, Snap, Facebook, TikTok – they have gone from connecting friends and family and people you know to following brands, to celebrities, to sports, to shopping . As if it had become a sort of huge shopping center where you sometimes hang out with your friends.
Donohue: I like the idea of building a social platform based on phone numbers…I really feel like when I was at WhatsApp, I felt like people weren’t exploring phones as much mechanisms based on phone numbers and contact lists as they might be. So that’s the part that interested me the most.
The market is currently saturated with tons of social media apps. What distinguishes HalloApp from others?
Donohue: We focus enough on privacy and encryption. There are many encrypted messaging apps. I don’t know of many social platforms that are encrypted the same way.
Arora: How we look at user data, how we look at privacy, how we look at encryption, when all these [legacy platforms] were built many years ago, have completely changed now. If you talk to users today, the expectations of a social product are completely different. And that’s why I think they’re all inherited and stuck with their way of doing things. Their business model is glued to advertisements.
We’re in that phase where we’re moving from this world of apps into a new era of apps, where the companies being built are all about subscriptions, no data collection, encryption and privacy. I think the draw is that we’re moving from the old way of doing things to a new way of doing things.
So if HalloApp doesn’t rely on ads, how does it make money?
Arora: We got a taste of it on WhatsApp in the days leading up to our Facebook integration. At first, it was a one-time paid app on iOS and Android for $1. It was free for a year and a dollar a year thereafter. And we have experimented with this model in five countries, I think in the United States and in four European countries. I think we got pretty decent traction in terms of people going from free to paid.
In the mindset of users, they don’t mind paying for products they like if they are nominal and meet their needs. We haven’t really pinpointed exactly how our subscriptions will work, but overall we’re looking at having one product that will be free for everyone, and then we’ll create a set of premium features on top of that, and you can upgrade to a subscription, a monthly subscription, and pay for it.
Let’s go back to your philosophy on privacy. What made you want to create an app that limits the number of people you can connect with?
Arora: We’re talking about real relationships or people you actually know in your life, which excludes everyone else. I don’t know any celebrities in life – I know who they are, but they’re not relationships. Same thing with brands or politicians or athletes. There are public platforms like Twitter that fill this need…but having your address book as a starting point limits that world to the people you actually know. If you’ve gone through the trouble of having to add someone’s phone number to your address book, that’s a really good signal that at some point you’ve crossed paths in your life and you know.
People also create all kinds of anonymous accounts. I think having a real person with a real phone number behind every account adds that feeling of knowing who that person is. You are not talking to an unknown anonymous bot. This limits your interactions to people you know, then removes all the other garbage you see widely on public platforms.
HalloApp looks like the exact opposite of a company like Twitter, which could become a very different kind of platform under Elon Musk. What do you think of Musk’s Twitter deal?
Arora: I really like his tweets. Over the years, I think if you look at all the technology leaders of big companies, they don’t talk, like they don’t express their true thoughts anywhere online. All the things they tweet or update are carefully crafted PR messages. They don’t behave like real humans. What Elon is doing is very refreshing. He says what he thinks. I’m not saying that I like what he says or that I don’t like what he says, but what I really like is that he says what he thinks. I would love to see more and more people drop their PR…really talking about issues. I think Twitter is going to be a better business under him.
Donohue: We are also on the side of freedom of expression. But I think the rules are different when you have 80 million followers versus 10 people in the room that you can actually talk to right now.
What lessons have you learned on WhatsApp and how are you applying them to HalloApp?
Donohue: Most importantly, you don’t have to start in the United States. WhatsApp to this day is somehow famous for being ubiquitous everywhere except the United States. So if you go almost anywhere except a few Asian countries, everyone uses WhatsApp for texting. The model we’re building is similar enough to WhatsApp that we feel WhatsApp users are a fairly large group of people who understand what we’re building. So we really expect our popularity to start outside the United States.
Arora: We want to stay pretty global from day one. The other lesson we’ve learned that we root quite strongly here too is around small teams. You can create a massive product with lots of scale and lots of complex technology with just a handful of people. You don’t need to hire hundreds of people to build something in this space.
How has HalloApp evolved in the two years since its launch?
Donohue: We started before the pandemic, and going remote was not our goal. So it’s been quite frustrating for the past few years. We have been back in the office since June of last year. We tried to get everyone back to the office, and I think most people come around three days a week. It was just a challenge to adapt remotely when that really wasn’t our plan.
Arora: I think in our space there has been a bit more activity. I think people are quick to try new things. As usual they say that once these big companies are integrated like Facebook there is not enough space, but I disagree. I think there is always room to do something new and different. And we are seeing this activity more and more.
What does the future look like for HalloApp? What are your short and long term goals?
Arora: One of the things that we have been pursuing since our WhatsApp days is to focus on creating an amazing product that is simple and very utility-oriented. Less is more is always the thing. In the short term, that’s the goal. We spend our entire days developing our products, fixing bugs, making our servers better and faster to ensure that our product provides great value to our users.
In the long term, we would like to evolve. We’re not doing this to serve a small group of users or make it a small startup. For us, scale matters. Our vision is that as many people as possible on this planet use this product.