Kakao Talk CEO Sirgoo Lee.
WhatsApp may be the messaging app of the moment following Facebook's surprise $19 billion purchase, but it's not the only massively popular platform in the space.
One of them is Kakao Talk, the top messaging app in Korea with 133 million registered users, and it's prepping a $2 billion IPO backed by Morgan Stanley and Samsung Securities, according to The Wall Street Journal.
But how can Kakao Talk hope to compete with WhatsApp, which has hundreds of millions of more users and Facebook's deep pockets behind it?
The company's CEO, Sirgoo Lee, told Business Insider in an interview that he sees Kakao Talk as more of a social network than a messaging and communications app like WhatsApp. The core functionality of the app may be sending text messages to your friends, but Kakao Talk has several other features built in to differentiate itself.
There's a gaming feature that lets you download games and compete against your friends. You can also buy physical gifts within the app (there are 68,000 to choose from) and have them sent to your friends, a feature Facebook tried too but ultimately killed last year.
Also like Facebook, brands can join Kakao Talk and interact with customers through messages that contain coupon codes and other goodies. Samsung, McDonald's, Burger King, and Uniqlo already use Kakao Talk.
"We are going in different directions from WhatsApp," Lee said. "If you want a pure messaging service, WhatsApp is for you. There's more to offer than just texting, like games and mobile commerce."
Sirgoo Lee with WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum at Mobile World Congress 2014
And Lee isn't necessarily trying to take over the world with Kakao Talk. Instead, the company is concentrating on markets where it thinks it can become the number one messaging app and expanding from there. Right now, that's Indonesia, which Lee says is the company's primary battleground. (Competition is pretty fierce there already. BlackBerry's BBM is already wildly popular in southeast Asia.)
The strategy seems to be to pick off regions where there isn't a leader yet one by one. WhatsApp and others may dominate many Western countries, but Lee is targeting the rest of the world.
"Can there be one winner? I think based on the nature of the service, it's regional," Lee said. "You are going to text and message the people around you. As long as you have most of your friends in that locale, you're going to see apps popular in certain regions. The rest of the world is content with [traditional] text messaging for the time being. Line or WeChat or us will have an advantage eventually."
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