With 1.5 billion monthly active users, Facebook has proven that it knows how to scale up a web business at least as well as any other company on the planet. But its sheer overwhelming enormity has a tendency to set the bar incredibly high for anything else it does.
That may be one reason why many of the company’s efforts to create new things, including apps such as Home, Paper, Poke, and Slingshot, tend to be instantly dismissed as tiny and insignificant. It also goes a long way toward explaining why Mark Zuckerberg was willing to invest billions to buy Instagram and WhatsApp—which, with 400 million and 900 million users, respectively, are big enough not to be completely overshadowed by Facebook itself, with room to grow further.
Starting last year, Facebook tried a new approach to business building that involved neither starting small nor buying something that was already big. It took its Messenger service, which already had 200 million monthly active users, and began to treat it less like a feature within Facebook and more like a startup within the company.
In the course of researching my Fast Company cover story on the future of Facebook, I talked with VP of messaging David Marcus, who joined the company in June 2014. He revealed what it’s been like to join the company, lead this effort, and begin to chart a new course for Messenger.
I’d first met Marcus when he was the CEO of Zong, a payments startup that was acquired by PayPal in 2011. He was named CEO of PayPal itself in 2012—a job that, on a number of levels, did not make him a particularly obvious candidate to run Facebook’s messaging business. So even though he had begun to formulate plans for what he might do in a post-PayPal phase of his career, he was surprised to hear from Zuckerberg.
“He invited me over for dinner,” Marcus recalls. “I knew Mark, but not that well. He said, ‘We think you should come and run this.’ At first I was like, ‘I’m not going to go back to another big company right now.’”
It took a few more conversations until Zuckerberg was able to close the deal. “The vision became more and more compelling,” Marcus says. “Why messaging is really the next frontier, and why it’s going to matter to billions of people, which is always a good number. Then, that combined with the ability to actually run this almost like a startup within Facebook, with product engineering, design, and all these things under one roof.”
Facebook had long realized that Messenger had the potential to be as indispensable to users as Facebook’s core social networking tools. Five years ago, it even tried to turn its messaging features into a Gmail rival by , a feature it turned out “nobody wanted,” according to Marcus. But the rise of WhatsApp, China’s WeChat, Japan’s Line, and other mobile messaging apps helped clarify how Messenger could become something more than a way to send private messages within Facebook.
To compete with stand-alone messaging apps–with its own features, philosophies, and business model–Messenger had to be a platform unto itself, not a feature within Facebook. A couple of months before Marcus arrived at the company, it had forced this issue by announcing that users of Facebook’s mobile apps would have to download a separate Messenger app to continue using it.
This disruption was not universally popular among Facebook users–I grumbled about it myself–and even within the company, it was controversial. (“We were all incredibly uncomfortable with that,” acknowledged one former Facebook executive who I spoke with for my Facebook feature.) But Messenger, unleashed from the mothership, grew at a remarkable pace. When Marcus began talking to Facebook about joining the company, there were 200 million active monthly Messenger users. A little over a year later, that figure had reached 700 million, putting it in the same close-to-a-billion ballpark as WhatsApp. The company even made it possible to sign up for Messenger without having a Facebook account at all.
“If you want to make a great messaging app, it needs to be a single-purpose app that is built for that and is actually doing that way better than in a very big app like Facebook,” Marcus says. “It’s hard to argue that the messaging experience in dedicated Messenger is not at least an order of magnitude better than what it was when it was inside of Facebook.”
2014 was the year when it became clear that Facebook was serious about treating Messenger as a self-contained entity. Starting this year, that way of thinking has resulted in tangible changes to the app beyond its functionality being removed from the core Facebook experience. They’ve included some relatively straightforward new features such as Skype-like video calling and the ability to send money to friends. The company has also been experimenting with M, a personal assistant that leverages a combination of human helpers and artificial intelligence and works within Messenger.
But Marcus announced the changes with the most potential to change how people use Messenger–and possibly boost Facebook’s bottom line in the process– onstage at Facebook’s F8 conference in March. They included Messenger Platform, which gives developers the ability to write apps that integrate with Messenger, and Business on Messenger, which lets companies communicate with their customers through the app. These capabilities give Messenger functionality that could make it more comparable to WeChat and Line, both of which are hubs for content and commerce of all kinds.
For now, Messenger Platform and Business on Messenger are just getting going. Dozens of Platform apps are available, but many don’t do much beyond letting you insert photos and GIFs–of everything from yourself to scenes of local weather to Disney characters–into your messages. It’s not hard to see how they could lead to more sophisticated apps, possibly including ones which people might be willing to pay for.
Business on Messenger, meanwhile, is still in beta testing, with e-commerce sites Everlane and Zulily using it for a conversational approach to customer service that might otherwise be conducted via a series of emails between company and customer.
“The question is really, can you build a new model where the relationship you have with a given business is actually inside a canonical thread where you have identity at all times, context at all times?” Marcus says. “The experiments that we’ve launched now with a bunch of brands and retailers are really magical experiences, because you buy something, and instead of receiving email, you start a new thread with that business on Messenger.”
“You get your receipt, you get your shipping notification in there,” he continues. “The shipping notification has a real-time updates as FedEx or UPS or USPS updates the status of your package. Then, if you want to order more stuff, you can go in that thread and say, “Hey, I really like that T-shirt. Can I have three more?” They know what T-shirt you’re talking about, they know your size, they know who you are, they have your payment credentials on file. It makes that experience really, really super efficient.”
If businesses can make more money by dealing with customers over Messenger, they might be willing to pay Facebook for the privilege. But wouldn’t they prefer to push consumers to their own apps rather than be overly dependent on Facebook? Marcus points to surveys that show that many people have stopped downloading new apps, and tells me of a recent meeting he had with an airline that wanted to revamp its mobile efforts.
“I asked them simple questions like, ‘What are your goals for this app? Let’s say on any given flight, you have 10% of the flyers who have your app installed, with push notifications enabled? They’re like, ‘Yeah. That would be awesome. It’s actually more than what our goal is.’ I said, ‘Okay, what if I tell you that I can give you that for 90% of the flyers on any flights today? You can build that same experience that you would build inside of that app inside of Messenger, and you don’t have to install anything. We can design it to look like your environment.'” That proposition will be appealing to many companies, he says.
Marcus told me that Facebook is in no rush to monetize the new, more ambitious version of Messenger that his team is building. And the fact that the company also owns WhatsApp, which continues to be run by cofounder Jan Koum–and which still has a stripped-down feel compared to the increasingly feature-rich Messenger–gives it a bigger global footprint than if it put all its eggs in the Messenger basket.
“It’s really funny, because WhatsApp is winning in markets like Latin America, a bunch of different markets where we’re not winning,” Marcus says. “We’re winning in markets where they’re not winning, like North America and most Western European countries except for Germany and Spain. It’s very complementary, actually. We don’t see them as competition. We compare notes on a bunch of things. We’ll continue sharing infrastructure and a bunch of different things that we build. Eventually, we’ll find a business model that works on both platforms and we’ll be all good.”
Marcus may be operating with a fair degree of autonomy, but he says that he and Zuckerberg talk frequently about Messenger. And the CEO’s overarching strategy for everything Facebook does–which stresses getting the user experience right over scrambling to make money from the get-go–gives the Messenger group enormous latitude to build something designed to fare well over the long haul.
“You generally have two types of people,” Marcus says. “Visionaries and people who are really amazing at short- to medium-term execution. You very, very rarely have the combination of both in one person, and Mark really has that. He has that very long-term vision, but he’s really good at executing short to medium term and getting the best out of people.”
“I’m trying to be objective, but I think that Messenger is the best messaging experience out there,” he adds. “But is it an order of magnitude better than what’s pre-installed [on smartphones]? Probably not yet, so we still have to work really, really hard to get that experience up to a point where when you’re having conversations on any other messaging platform, it feels like a fax from the 1970s or something. We still have a lot of work to do.”