Interview with Ukraine’s Anton Borzov: working at WhatsApp, being an angel investor, and launching a $100M investment company

The Ukrainian Anton Borzov was one of the first employees at WhatsApp. He and his colleagues from Dnipro in Ukraine were responsible for the product’s design from its earliest days, even before the messenger app gained popularity.

Anton moved to the United States right after the company was acquired by Facebook, but he maintained close ties to Ukraine. Among other things, he became an angel investor for many Ukrainian companies, including Petcube. Today, Borzov is working on launching a $100 million venture capital investment company in the Valley and plans to continue supporting Ukrainian startups.

In an interview with AIN.Capital, Anton spoke about his time at WhatsApp, why he decided to leave the company to work at the search engine startup Neeva, how he switched from design to venture capital, and what startups he will invest in.

Anton Borzov. All photos in this interview were provided by the interviewee

You have studied physics. How did you become a designer and get to WhatsApp?

My way to becoming a software engineer began in my school. At the university, I studied physics and informatics. But there were mostly physics in the studying program. The director of the Solid-State Physics department and I were friends, so my first experience with Internet use happened there. The engineers worked there during the day, and at night came we the students and worked on our projects. We literally spent nights at those computers! One of our first biotech startups arose in this solid-state physics department.

As a student (and after), I worked in the first design studio in Dnipro, New Damage/ELRO. Later, I established my own studio. For example, we made toys and other interactive things for Yahoo! It was excellent cooperation. That’s how I met Jan Koum. I was recommended to him after he left Yahoo! Then, I started to develop my mobile app.

Initially, it wasn’t a messenger but an app to replace native call apps where you could see your status next to your name, e.g., “My battery is low.” It became a messenger after Apple introduced push notifications.

The first thing Jan asked me to do was an icon. That’s how it all started. After that, I developed a website and internal tools. With push notifications, we launched the messenger function. Later, a group chat function came. And the project rapidly expanded.

After Facebook acquired WhatsApp, our whole team moved to the Valley and became the core of the future Product Design department. I handed over the ongoing projects of our agency to my friend, who left before the acquisition deal, and he continued to work in Dnipro.

How did you feel at WhatsApp? What changes came with the acquisition?

WhatsApp had a fantastic team and atmosphere. The situation was different before and after the deal.  We stayed in our office and did not move to the Facebook campus for a while, so there was no quick culture change. The shift was gradual. And I think it was good. We hadn’t faced such a confrontation as in Twitter, for example, after Elon Musk purchased the company. So yes, there were both positive and negative changes guys weren’t ready for.

You know, these values that we’ve built at WhatsApp — I’m talking about privacy and encryption, user trust, approaches to product development — I think they’ve had a significant impact on Mark and the further development of Facebook in general.

He saw the trust in product development and its influence on user retention. In my opinion, Zuckerberg tried to implement that experience in other products of Meta, Messenger or Instagram, where he also wanted to create an end-to-end encrypted messenger.

I believe it doesn’t matter which one of the products would embody your ideas. The idea lifecycle goes on. Once you get inspired with the idea that works perfectly, you want to take it in your product, but others also mention that wonderfully working idea and realize it in their products. The ideas live independently from the product they once rose.

Nokia, BlackBerry, ICQ, Skype, etc., all influenced products we use. Just look at the story of emojis that first appeared in Japanese cellphones as monochrome 8×8 pictures, and what are they now! Once it comes with one product, the other products better it. I have fun watching innovations spreading.

Did you get any financial benefits from the deal? Options or bonuses?

I can’t share this information, but I can say that everything worked out pretty well for us.

Tell us how things turned out for your colleagues from Dnipro who moved to the US with you to work at WhatsApp?

There were three of us, and all of us have already left WhatsApp. Alisa is now in New York — she continues to work in a startup of engineers and BizDevs who left WhatsApp. The startup is called HalloApp/Katchup. And Taras is now starting a career as an artist. He is studying at college in this field.

Tell us how things turned out for your colleagues from Dnipro who moved to the US with you to work at WhatsApp?

There were three of us, and all of us have already left WhatsApp. Alisa is now in New York — she continues to work in a startup of engineers and BizDevs who left WhatsApp. The startup is called HalloApp/Katchup. And Taras is now starting a career as an artist. He is studying at college in this field.

You worked at WhatsApp for ten years and then left to become Head of Design at Neeva. Why did you decide to leave corporate work for a startup?

I’ve always been more used to working at small companies. And for a long time, WhatsApp was not a large company for me but a startup. So when WhatsApp became so big, I thought I could build something new.

Neeva is a private ad-free search engine. Now they have added AI search to the regular search. It’s like ChatGPT, but your own one where you can see sources, etc.

Neeva’s office was very close to Red Rock, the cafe where WhatsApp started before the first office. I came there, just like in WhatsApp — also a startup, at a similar stage. I worked there for three years and left to move on.

How did you start as an investor?

After moving [to the USA], I wanted to support founders in Ukraine and made my first angel investment in Petcube. It was my first angel check.

I met Alex Neskin, co-founder of Petcube, long before Petcube existed. In those days of Flash and VR, we both were interested in technologies and discussed them in our studio in Dnipro. Then, they opened an office in San Francisco, and our communication organically resulted in this partnership.

The investments went on, and at the moment, I have a solid portfolio with 15+ Ukrainian (3DLOOK,, Pawa, Fuel Finance, Propertymate, Workee, Nutrisense) plus foreign companies. The Ukrainian enterprises got $50,000 checks and above, and the American ones might get more.

I collaborate closely with the companies in my portfolio; I advise them on design, product, product market fit, etc. When you support several founders, you can transfer all the knowledge from different areas from one company to another. I love this.

Nowadays, my WhatsApp colleague, Summer Kim, and I have created a venture fund that will support the idea of joining UX and AI. The first STRATMINDS fund was created in 2018, and now we are fundraising for two new STRATMINDS funds worth $100 million. We already have the first commits; then we will do the first closing, after which we will do the deployment.

Investors make money on exits or cashouts. Does your current business allow you to be financially independent?

You can’t have a continuous cash flow when you are just an angel investor, but the fund is a different story. Funds do not work like angels — they have management costs, part of which are spent on partners’ salaries.

What is the ticket size of your company, and at what stage does it invest?

From pre-seed to Series A. Depending on the company we invest in, from $250,000 to $500,000, in some cases — up to $1 million.

Will you invest in the US or in Ukraine too?

Mostly the US. However, I won’t stop my personal angel activity. I still follow Ukrainian stories, Ukrainian founders who come to TechCrunch or Startup Grind, and other events.

Is this more like help to Ukrainians or a business where you focused on the investment returns?

In the case of Ukraine, the financial component plays a minor role. But it’s different with a fund where you manage not your but the LPs’ money. So the approach is different too.

I like to find founders with whom I have a common background and who share the same interest in products. I don’t want to waste my energy and help if I don’t believe in a success story. But there is always a chance your investment won’t pay. Later, you pay attention to how people acquire the unit economy.

When was the last time you were in Ukraine, and what activities, besides startups, are related to your homeland?

The last time my family and I were in Ukraine was in the summer of 2021 for a month. We spent a lot of time in Dnipro and Kyiv and even on the shores of the Azov Sea, which is now occupied. Also, we were in Melitopol. We used to come every year, and we want to start coming again.

A year ago, my friends and I, with whom I moved to work at WhatsApp, started a charitable foundation called Sunflower Fund. We have been helping with protective and medical equipment, first-aid kits, etc. And we continue to do it until now, although not on the same scale as it was at the beginning of the full-scale war.

It was so important for me. When everything started, it was impossible to sit idly by. Somehow we became more involved, and in the first months, we volunteered even at night. I slept in a separate room so as not to wake my wife. We tried to deliver everything needed when supplies were not yet properly organized.

Osnovy Publishing, with Dana Pavlychko on the top, and I also published books in Ukrainian in the last few years. I came up with books worth to be published and helped with art direction and editing. We have translated and published two books so far: The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander and the second about Zen called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. It was one of Steve Jobs’ 10 favorite books, written by a Japanese monk who moved to San Francisco and founded the Zen Center here. I have practiced Zen for four years, grown fond of it, and have friends who like it.

Why did Zen become one of your interests?

I had a free week between two jobs (WhatsApp and Neeva) to refresh myself. I was lucky to visit the San Francisco Zen Center functioning for the last 40 years, when a week meditation retreat started. I came there and spent the whole week on this practice.

On the one hand, it was occasional, but on the other hand, not because I found what I really needed. Working on products and Zen are organically united because I think everything we do is about people, their lives, and how to improve them.

As an investor, you can see the whole picture. The more projects you see, the better perspective you have.

And it makes fun, especially now, if we followed the command line in the computer industry 50 years ago that changed with innovations to iPhone and mobile industry and compared it with ChatGPT, which is a command-line interface that can turn into something.

What experience would become essential, and how would the world change? What would grow, and what would disappear?