“We have become the victims of security forces` violence”.
Interview with the head of Viber, who left Belarus.
The partly Belarusian company Viber has decided to close its office in Belarus. Forbes has spoken with Jamel Agaua, CEO of the service owner, Rakuten Viber, about why they made such a decision, whether they are going to continue investing in the Belarusian market, how safe Viber is and why it was blocked in Belarus.
At least a four-day blocking of the Internet in Belarus against the backdrop of protests by those who disagreed with the results of the presidential elections in the country pushed local IT specialists to reconsider the business model in this country. The Viber messenger, one of the most well-known international IT projects included in the number of the Belarusian Hi-Tech Park residents, and owned by the Japanese corporation Rakuten, also encountered disruptions in work. On August 10, the CEO of the service, Jamel Agaua, expressed concern about the fact that the application was blocked in the country. In an interview with Forbes, Agaua told how the company survived the Internet shutdown and what he thinks about business development in the country.
“Viber was affected by the brutality we saw”.
- How is the situation in the Viber office in Minsk? How does it work now?
- Everything is very difficult, our office has been affected by this situation, as it is very close to the protest site. It’s right in the city center, on the main street. Last week we learned that some of the offices of companies such as Uber and another one, I don’t remember the name, were taken over by armed men.
- Yes, Yandex. Yandex and Uber. We immediately decided to close our office. It was open, but only about 15–20% of the usual number of people were working in the office due to the coronavirus. And we decided to close our office in Minsk immediately and ask people to work remotely.
- Because our office is very close to the offices of Uber and Yandex. We are afraid that some employees will not be able to get into the office.
- How is your situation related to Uber and Yandex?
- They are not related. We just didn’t know why these people took over the offices of these companies. And we decided to evacuate our office for safety. Because we didn’t know why these people took over the offices, we didn’t know if it was political. We had no information.
We made our decision based on the information we had. And at that time it was very difficult to get reliable information. Obviously now we have an explanation why those offices were taken over.
So the decision we made was for the safety of our employees. Because two of our employees were arrested. The father of one of our employees was also arrested. All three were arrested for no apparent reason. Now our lawyers are working with these people, so far it is impossible to understand why they were arrested. They weren’t even protesting. One was just near the place where the others were arrested and he was taken with the others. Another was an observer at a polling station. He asked several questions to the authorities of the polling station, and 20 minutes after he was arrested. And while living in fear, it is quite difficult to make the right decision in order to understand what is happening.
Last week there was no internet, and it was even more difficult to get reliable information from people, to check if they were safe. That was the reason why we decided to close our office last week for some time and make sure our people work remotely and they don’t have to travel from home to office. They can work from home now. And this is a very difficult situation.
Of course, we have already worked from home due to coronavirus, but this is a little bit different. The employees’ emotional state is affected by the arrest of two of their colleagues. These are two members of our family. One was released over the weekend, we are very grateful for that, he is ok, although he does not understand why he was arrested. The second one is in the hospital with serious injuries. He is still under arrest by law.
- How many employees have worked in the office before closing?
- 120 employees in Minsk, but due to coronavirus, the office was open only for those who really wanted to work in the office, so there were only 20 people there.
- How did this affect your work in the country? Do you see any changes in your market share?
- 76% — three quarters of the country’s population — are active Viber users. Such events do not affect us as most of the users on the market are Viber users. MAU (monthly active users. — Forbes) is about 95%, or about 6.5 million people.
We saw peak Viber usage a day before we got blocked when the internet was shut down. For about three to four days, Viber was turned on and off due to the blockage by authorities. We’ve also worked on a VPN to allow people to use Viber despite being blocked.
- What do you expect from the situation in Belarus? Do you think Lukashenko will be removed from the office? Will there be new elections?
- We do not do politics at Viber. We are waiting for the violence to end. People are protesting peacefully. And the right to protest peacefully is vital. If you cannot say that you do not agree, then you have no freedom. People should be able to express their disagreement peacefully. We are against any form of violence. People in Belarus must decide their future.
I don’t have to express my opinion about the president, the authorities, the political situation, because I am not an expert. But Viber was affected by the brutality we saw. We are victims of this violence. Again, one of our staff is at the hospital. We care about him because he was not violent, he didn’t cause danger to anyone when he was arrested. The only thing we want is an end to the violence. And we want a normal dialogue between people and authorities, this is the only thing we want for the people of Belarus.
- Could you give us some information about the employees who were injured? Who is in the hospital, who is detained, what are their names, what are their positions?
- They are engineers in our company, but I would not like to give their names to the public. I do not think it’s a good idea. I just want to say that we do not look at these events from the outside. They affected us, and we think of these people from Belarus as a part of our family. This affected our family. We are all hurt.
“We cannot invest in a country where people live in fear”
- Belarus is one of the largest technology centers in Eastern Europe, where offices of international companies such as EPAM, Viber, etc. are located. Do you know anything about the atmosphere in the IT sector, what other companies will do in this situation? Maybe they are thinking about leaving this market?
- I’ve heard about the official statements signed by the CEOs of IT companies who announced that they were leaving the country. And of course, we were asked to sign this document. The problem was the way it was written. I don’t want my employees to think that we are leaving them. Two of our employees are in prison, we will not abandon them. (After the interview, a Viber representative specified that one employee was released. — Forbes.) We will support them until the very end. We have excellent employees in Belarus, we will not leave them, we want to help them.
Maybe, if the situation does not improve, we will not invest more in Belarus. This may happen as we cannot invest in a country where people live in fear. It’s impossible. But to sign the paper, which says that if nothing changes, then we will simply close our office and leave … And what will happen to the employees? How will it help them if they lose their jobs?
- What can you say about the company’s investments in this region? How much did you invest in Minsk last year?
- We have an office in Minsk that can accommodate twice as many engineers as we have today. We want to double our staff in Belarus. We have people in Minsk and we also have a small office in Brest. And this is a great team. And we are ready to invest in the country twice as much as in our office in Minsk.
- Didn’t you say that you would change your investment strategy and would invest less in the country if this regime persists?
-No, I said, if people … Once again, don’t ask me to talk about politics, because we don’t do politics, I’m sorry. We do not vote in Belarus, we do not engage in politics. But we are against cruelty and against fear. We don’t want our people to live in fear. I have already said this, but I repeated it because I do not want you to drag me into politics. We are incompetent in this matter. We cannot invest in a country where people live in fear. It’s impossible.
- Can you explain why Viber blocked the message about the Golos platform, which is an alternative system for evaluating the results of the presidential election? There was information in the media that Viber blocked this information.
- I do not know. Anna, do you know what he’s talking about? (To Anna Znamenskaya, Global Development Director, Rakuten Viber. — Forbes.)
Anna Znamenskaya: It was a person who had been blocked by the support service. Firstly, this platform exists, you can find it on Viber. There are 217,000 users today. We had one person who filed a complaint to the Belarusian media that he was blocked not because of the Golos platform, but because he had sent a lot of messages, and it was identified as spam. The spam system has certain algorithms, and if a user behaves in a suspicious way, then he can be automatically blocked. And there were a lot of messages sent that were identified as spam, and coincidentally, some of them were about the “Golos” platform. But “Golos” works great, and we have many users there, you can see it yourself. We had no desire to block anyone in particular.
Jamel Agaua: We don’t do that. We are not blocking anyone. We are for free communication, wherever. There was a reason why Viber was blocked. Because it is safe. And nobody can access the content. This was the reason why Viber was blocked in Belarus, Iran, China. The reason is that it is so secure that no one can access the contents of the chats.
“A lot of clients decided to freeze their expenses”
- At the end of June you told me that Viber’s revenue target for the year is 25%, and in fact the growth will be 20–25%, possibly slightly below the plan. How much revenue growth can you forecast in 2020?
- We see that in July and August many companies decided to start a new investment communication with users. When the coronavirus crisis hit, companies just dropped everything. And at the end of June, we set a goal to increase investment communication through the messenger. Now we have very good revenues for the third quarter, we expect 22–25% growth compared to the last year. We live in a world where it is difficult to predict the future. Two months ago, we didn’t know what was going on. And since the end of June the prospects have improved. We should achieve 22–25% growth this year.
- How long will such a high growth rate persist?
- Viber has increased its annual revenue fivefold over the past four years. We grew by 25% last year and this year we want to see the same growth, which would be great given the coronavirus crisis. This is our goal to achieve more than 20% revenue growth per year. And so that our audience will grow by 10–15% every year. This is what we have been doing for the last three years.
- What about the growth in Russia? Can you assess trends in indicators?
- Growth in the Russian market is more about daily usage and getting new users. Because we have a large number of users in Russia. We want to achieve more frequent usage. We want to add more services to everyday life for Russian users, which would convince them that Viber is a great way to communicate with friends, family, and convenient for business. What concerns Russia, the goal is to increase not active monthly usage, but to increase daily active usage.
- But will the annual revenue in Russia be lower or greater compared to the previous year?
- Annual revenue in Russia should be 10–15% higher.
- Will it grow slower than in the rest of the world?
- Yes, because in the second quarter we had a strong income decline in Russia. Many of our clients which communicated with users decided to freeze their expenses. Now everything has resumed, income is growing, but at a slower pace than in other countries.
- In October 2019, Viber and partners announced the Moneytou project for the money transfer between users of the messenger in Hungary and other Eastern European countries. MasterCard, Neopay, and the WireCard processing company, later accused of false reporting, had been working on it. What is the future of this project? Do you have any complaints about WireCard?
- Viber has no direct contractual relationship with WireCard. We are successfully expanding payment services in Eastern Europe, especially Hungary and Romania, and are discussing the possibilities of our expansion to Bulgaria and Serbia. Our main partners in this service are the Hungarian company NeoPay and MasterCard. In Romania, NeoPay works with Libra Bank, which uses the Romcard payment processing center. This center is owned by WireCard and at the same time operates as an independent organization serving most of the major banks in Romania. We are aware of the media reports that have been in the news about WireCard, but we do not expect them to have any impact on our services as part of our partnership with NeoPay.