Stop me if you've heard this one before: An app that promises to be the anti-Facebook is focusing on real connections instead of ads and brands. Of course, this has been tried before. There’s an entire digital graveyard littered with the corpses of apps that tried and failed to offer a compelling alternative to the inescapable social network. But maybe two former Facebook employees who were instrumental at WhatsApp know the secret to drawing in users — and keeping them.
Neeraj Arora and Michael Donohue, who served as WhatsApp’s chief business officer and engineering director, respectively, started HalloApp in late 2019, dubbing it the “first real-relationship network.” Arora helped negotiate WhatsApp’s $22 billion sale to Meta (then known as Facebook Inc.) in 2014. He realized after joining the social giant that Facebook’s advertising-focused business model wasn’t serving its users and set out to create an alternative.
HalloApp has no ads. It also has no algorithmic feed and doesn’t allow group chats with more than 50 people. The app only allows you to connect with users who are stored in your phone’s contacts. When you open the app, you’re greeted with refreshingly limited options: direct messages, group chats and a home feed of posts only from your friends. Oh, and every message you send is encrypted, which Donohue said in a blog post is a “key milestone” in encrypting absolutely everything a user posts. HalloApp has declined to release user numbers. According to Sensor Tower, the app has been downloaded 225,000 times across the iOS and Android it launched in November 2020. Obviously it has a long way to go toward becoming ubiquitous.
Protocol spoke with Arora and Donohue about how working at Facebook informed their new venture’s philosophy on social media, privacy and encryption, and their goal to make 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 more from connecting friends and family and people who you know to following brands, celebrities, sports people, shopping. Like it just has become this huge sort of shopping mall where you hang out with your friends sometimes.
Donohue: I like the idea of building a social platform built on phone numbers … I really feel like when I was at WhatsApp I got the sense that people didn't explore phone number and contact list-based mechanisms as much as they could be explored. So that's the part that I was very interested in.
The market is currently saturated with tons of social media apps. What sets HalloApp apart from the others?
Donohue: We have a pretty strong focus on privacy and encryption. There's plenty of messaging apps that are encrypted. I'm not aware of many social platforms that are encrypted in 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] got built many years back, have completely changed now. If you talk to users today, what the expectations are from a social product are completely different. And that's why I think all of them are legacy and they are stuck with their way of doing things. Their business model is stuck to ads.
We are in this phase where we are switching from that world of apps to a new age of apps, where companies getting built right now focus on subscriptions, on not collecting data, on encryption and privacy. I think the draw is that we are 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 at WhatsApp back in the days before we became part of Facebook. When it started, it was a one-time paid app on iOS and Android for $1. It was free for one year and a dollar per year after that. And we experimented with this model in five countries, I think in the U.S. and four European countries. I think we got a pretty decent traction in terms of people converting from free to paid.
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.
Let’s go back to your philosophy on privacy. What made you want to build an app that limits the number of people you can connect with?
Arora: We talk about real relationships or people who you actually know in your life, so that cuts out all the others. I don't know celebrities in life — I know who they are, but they're not relationships. Same with brands or politicians or sports people. There are public platforms like Twitter which serve that need … but having your address book as your starting point limits that world to people who you actually know. If you have taken the pain of having to add somebody's phone number in your address book, that's a very good signal that at some point you've crossed paths in your life and you know each other.
People also create all kinds of anonymous accounts. Having a real person with a real phone number behind every account I think adds that sense of knowing who this person is. You’re not talking to some unknown anonymous bot. It limits your interactions to people who you know, and then it cuts away all the other garbage that you see broadly on public platforms.
HalloApp sounds like the exact opposite of a company like Twitter, which may become a very different type of platform under Elon Musk. What are your thoughts on Musk's Twitter deal?
Arora: I like his tweets a lot. Over the years I think if you look at all the tech leaders at significant companies, they don't speak up, like they don't voice their real thoughts online anywhere. All the things that they tweet or update are carefully crafted PR messages. They don't behave like real humans. What Elon is doing is very refreshing. He speaks his mind. I'm not saying I like what he says or I dislike what he says, but what I really like is that he speaks his mind. I would love to see more and more folks dropping their PR … really talking about issues. I think Twitter is gonna become a better company under him.
Donohue: We're also on the free speech side of things. But I think the rules are different when you've got 80 million followers versus 10 people in the room that you can actually talk to right now.
What lessons did you learn at WhatsApp, and how are you applying them to HalloApp?
Donohue: The biggest one is you don't have to start in the United States. WhatsApp to this day is sort of famous for being ubiquitous everywhere but the United States. So if you go almost anywhere except a few Asian countries, everyone uses WhatsApp for texting. The model that we're building is similar enough to WhatsApp that we feel like WhatsApp users are a pretty prime set of people who understand what we're building. So we're really expecting our popularity to start outside the United States.
Arora: We want to stay pretty global from day one. The other lesson we learned which we ingrain pretty strongly here as well is small teams. You can build a massive product with a lot of scale and a lot of complex technology with only a handful of people. You don't have to hire hundreds of people to build something in this space.
How has HalloApp evolved in the two years since launching?
Donohue: We started before the pandemic, and going remote was not our goal. So that's been pretty frustrating for the past few years. We have been back in the office since June of last year. We've been trying to get everyone back in the office, and I think we have most people coming in about three days a week. It’s just been a challenge to adapt to remote when that … really wasn't our plan.
Arora: I think in our space, there has been some more activity. I think people are not shying away from trying new things. Like usually they say that once you have these big companies getting built in like Facebook, there's not enough space, but I disagree. I think there's always space to do something new and different. And we're seeing more and more of that activity.
What does the future look like for HalloApp? What are your short- and long-term goals?
Arora: One of the things we carry forward from our WhatsApp days is to focus on building an amazing product that is simple and very utility-focused. Less is more is always the thing. Short term, that's the focus. We spend our whole days building our products, fixing the bugs, making our servers better and faster to make sure our product delivers great value to our users.
Long-term we'd like to scale. We're not doing this to serve a small set of users, or make it a boutique small startup. For us, scale matters. Our vision is to have as many people as possible on this planet use this product.