AS WHATSAPP'S multi-billion dollar sale to Facebook was announced, its business head Neeraj Arora became an instant celebrity in India as well as Singapore where he started his career.
The company's vice-president for business development describes himself as "all things business at WhatsApp!" and was instrumental in pulling together its US$19 billion (S$24 billion) sale to Facebook.
The five-year-old, US-based company is an internet instant messaging service for smartphones, and now claims 450 million users around the world. By offering an alternative way to send text, images, video and audio, it helped users bypass paying mobile phone operators for texts or SMS, while staying away from ads.
Last week WhatsApp shocked the world when Facebook announced buying it for a staggering US$19 billion, involving US$4 billion in cash, US$12 billion stock and US$3 billion in restricted stock that vests in the next few years.
Of course, as a shareholder, the deal will make the 35-year-old Mr Arora wealthy. But when asked how much money it would mean for him, he told The Economic Times from the US, in an article published on Saturday: "I care more about making sure that we stay focused on our mission and keep delighting our users."
For Mr Arora, the road to fame and riches started in Singapore. After graduating as a mechanical engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi in 2000, he moved to Singapore to work as a software engineer with technology start-up Accellion, a mobile file-sharing firm.
Mr Arora describes his five years in Singapore on his LinkedIn profile as the time he became a "self-learnt hacker" and said it was where he "built pieces of the core technology" for Accellion.
After leaving Singapore, he returned to India where he did his masters in business administration at the Indian School of Business in Bangalore from 2005 to 2006. He joined the investments and corporate strategy team at Times Internet, a subsidiary of the Times of India Group and then Google in India in 2007 where he built up his reputation as a mergers and acquisitions specialist.
After four years with Google, first in India and then in the US, he surprised friends and colleagues by leaving the Internet giant and joining a relatively unknown start-up called WhatsApp in 2011. It had some two dozen employees.
"He was involved in big deals for Google. And then to go to a company which is not well known in the US, but is doing well at the global level means that you have the foresight to pick a player that is going to be big," said Mr Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of Medianama, a website that tracks digital and media businesses.
A profile on Mr Arora on MindTickle, a training software firm in the US where he is an investor and adviser, describes him as "an avid start-up enthusiast" with "a track record of helping tech ventures with mentorship, recruiting, financing, distributing products". It was he who travelled to different countries to strike deals with carriers to tie up with WhatsApp.
In India, where the service has more than 25 million users, he stitched together a successful partnership with Reliance Communications where for 16 rupees (S$0.32) a month, mobile phone users could send unlimited texts and messages.
Such stories of Indians making it big in foreign lands are followed closely back in India. Celebrations broke out in Hyderabad when Mr Satya Nadella took over as the third CEO of IT giant Microsoft early this month.
"It's a big deal whether it's Satya or Neeraj at WhatsApp. It gives Indians more impetus to focus on different opportunities in the tech space beyond that of programmer," said Mr Dhruv Gupta, an entrepreneur and founder of Fitho, an online wellness company.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 24, 2014
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