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Facebook said Wednesday that it would acquire WhatsApp, a messaging startup, for $16 billion in cash and stock.

The eye-popping price is Facebook’s largest acquisition by far and represents a new height in the frenzy to acquire popular technology startups.

Facebook will pay $4 billion in cash and $12 billion worth of Facebook shares for WhatsApp. An additional $3 billion in restricted stock units will be granted to WhatsApp employees and founders. These units will vest over the next four years.

By any measure, Facebook is paying a steep price for a mobile application that is widely used internationally but less known in the United States. Including the restricted stock units, the acquisition total amounts to $345 million for every one of the company’s 55 employees.

WhatsApp has more than 450 million monthly users, with 70 percent of those active on a given day. By that measure, Facebook is paying about $40 per user.

“WhatsApp is on a path to connect 1 billion people. The services that reach that milestone are all incredibly valuable,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, said in a statement. “I’ve known Jan for a long time and I’m excited to partner with him and his team to make the world more open and connected,” he added, referring to Jan Koum, WhatsApp’s chief executive.

Koum and Brian Acton, two former Yahoo executives, founded WhatsApp in 2009.

Unlike traditional business leaders, the two founders spent most of their time throughout the day keeping the service running smoothly. Acton focused on the servers, while Koum looked at the overall product and made sure it looked and acted the same consistently across different devices.

Koum and Acton have said they want to make messaging accessible to anyone, regardless of what phone they own, where they live or how much money they make. They have also been adamant about refusing to sell advertising — they say that ads detract from intimate conversations.

WhatsApp received about $10 million in funding two years after the company was founded. It quickly became profitable.

Facebook, meanwhile, has struggled to gain traction in messaging.

Zuckerberg tried to acquire SnapChat last year for a reported $3 billion, but SnapChat turned down the offer.

While Facebook Messenger, the company’s chat platform, is popular with users, recent attempts to create its own direct messaging service have failed.

Facebook Poke, which was developed to try to compete with SnapChat, the ephemeral messaging platform where messages vanish after being viewed for up to 10 seconds, has seen little attention after users didn’t engage with the app.

Another new feature added to Instagram last year, called Instagram Direct, allows people to message each other on the service, but this seems to have gained little traction with users, too.