How Beluga Metamorphosed Into Facebook Messenger

Beluga                                             Facebook Messenger

Yesterday’s launch of a standalone Facebook messaging app was the culmination of five months of work, which turned a fledgling app from a team of three former Google engineers and turned it into one that could interface with the daily messaging needs of the social network’s 750 million users.

We talked with Lucy Zhang, who co-founded the startup Facebook acquired to build Messenger, about how she took their original app Beluga and turned it into one that could handle messaging volume for a much larger user base. Messenger has become iOS’ top free app overnight through word-of-mouth.

Earlier this year, Zhang and her co-founders Ben Davenport and Jon Perlow launched a group messaging client called Beluga that seamlessly interlaced chat over push notifications and SMS on Android and iOS. It had thoughtfully designed hooks into the Facebook platform that helped it grow virally on the social network — which is difficult for a mobile app to do considering that there aren’t really effective viral channels on iOS.

Facebook snapped up the team in March before they could seriously consider a Series A round and the Beluga team set out to build a standalone counterpart for the social network.

That’s unusual because Facebook typically picks up a small team of engineers or product managers, puts them through engineering bootcamp and then does some matchmaking to pair them internally with a product team that fits their interests and skills. This often means the acquired company has to abandon whatever they were working on before as an independent startup.

In Beluga’s case, the three co-founders had pretty strong feelings about what they wanted from the get go. From what it sounds like, the decision to go with a standalone Facebook Messenger app was not as top-down as many of the company’s product choices are.

“When we talked to Facebook about the acquisition, one of the things we made clear was that we thought it was very important to create a fast messaging client that was dedicated to messaging,” Zhang said. “It happened that they were very aligned with what we wanted. Mark Zuckerberg wanted to make this a reality.”

>> Read on Inside Mobile Apps.

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