The West has long marveled at the business empire built by Tencent, whose ubiquitous everything-app, WeChat, undergirds so much of daily life in China.
And why not marvel? Between Jan. 21, 2011, when Tencent debuted WeChat—a sort of conglomeration of Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, and Uber services wrapped up in a messaging app—and Dec. 1 of this year, it gained more than 1 billion daily active users and shares in Tencent have blasted off more than 1,400% to $75 per share.
No one is paying closer attention to Tencent’s spectacular rise than Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook chief executive openly lamented last year that he should have heeded the wisdom of Jessica Lessin, founder of The Information, a tech news outlet, who penned an op-ed instructing him to learn from WeChat as early as 2015. “If only I’d listened to your advice four years ago,” Zuckerberg wrote.
The period of study is over, and Facebook is now taking action. Facebook is building WhatsApp, the nearest western WeChat equivalent and its fastest-growing media property, into a global super-app in its own right. WhatsApp’s prospects are particularly promising in emerging markets; in places such as India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico, the app has already built massive followings as Internet access and smartphone adoption grow.
Will Cathcart, WhatsApp’s leader, told me in an interview at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference on Tuesday that the pandemic has boosted his unit, as it has so many other tech businesses. In February, even before the world woke to the coming devastation of the coronavirus, WhatsApp revealed it reached 2 billion total users, up from 1.5 billion at the end of 2017.
“We’ve seen tremendous growth in the number of users since then throughout the year,” Cathcart said, declining to reveal a new total user figure, but adding “People who were using it before quite a lot are now using it really for everything.”
A day before our interview, Facebook acquired Kustomer, a service that manages business-to-customer interactions, especially over chats. The deal caps off a slew of new business offerings and payments functionalities that are speedily transitioning WhatsApp from an intimate connector of family members and friends into a mega-marketplace. “We just put out a stat that we have 175 million people each day who message a business account. That’s kind of pretty tremendous growth,” Cathcart said.
It’s not just Facebook; Google wants in too. The search giant recently redesigned its Google Pay app, a highly popular form of payment in India, Singapore, and elsewhere, to put “relationships’—between people and business—at its center.
The point of all this is “stickiness.” If Facebook and Google and Tencent can keep people hooked on their products—by making commerce more convenient, for instance—they can figure out ways to turn popularity into profit. “Everywhere around the world, there’s still billions more people to come online,” Cathcart said. More people “getting access to economic opportunity is a really exciting story for the next decade.”
It’s easy to miss broader Internet trends when our gaze is fixed on the U.S. market, but looking abroad reveals how much progress WhatsApp is making in its quest to do for the world what WeChat did for China.