The story of WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum

Posted Feb 20, 2014

Jan Koum’s company WhatsApp was just acquired for $19 billion. Jan had to struggle his whole life, but he is now living the American dream. This is his story.

Koum was raised in a small village outside Kiev, Ukraine in a house that did not have any hot water. His parents rarely used phones because they feared the government was listening. This is one of the reasons why Koum was protective of user privacy and did not want to integrate ads into WhatsApp.

“It was so run-down that our school didn’t even have an inside bathroom,” said Koum in an interview with Wired. “Imagine the Ukrainian winter, -20°C, where little kids have to stroll across the parking lot to use the bathroom. Society was extremely closed off: you can read 1984, but living there was experiencing it.”

Due to increasing anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Koum’s mother moved to the family to Mountain View, California when the family was 16. Koum’s father died in 1997 so it was just the two of them. The two of them stayed in a two-bedroom on government assistance. Koum’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and so they lived off her disability payments. His mother died in 2000.

Koum did not have a computer until age 19. He taught himself computer network from a manual that he bought from a used bookstore and returned it later on. Koum attend San Jose State University and worked part-time as a security tester for accounting company Ernst & Young. Some of his work involved the inspection of Yahoo!’s advertising system. Koum met with Brian Acton, employee number 44 at Yahoo! during that time. Acton was a computer science grad from Stanford University that grew up playing golf in Florida. His mother founded an air freight business as well.

Koum worked with Yahoo! for nine years. When he saved up about $400,000 in October 2007, he decided to take some time off and traveled around South American to play ultimate frisbee with Acton. Acton left Yahoo! on the same day as him. In 2009, Koum bought an iPhone and became frustrated with the no-cellphone call policy at the gym. He also grew frustrated with Skype because he kept forgetting his password. This is why he wanted to develop an app that works seamlessly on an iPhone by using a phone number for identification.

Koum persuaded Acton to join him to work on WhatsApp. Around that time, both of them were turned down offers from Facebook. Acton was also refused a job at Twitter. This is when the two of them got a group of former Yahoo! employees to chip in $250,000 in seed funding. This is when they leased a job at the same building as Evernote. Evernote took over the whole building and kicked out the WhatsApp team.

Around 2010, WhatsApp started to generate about $5,000 per month and then things really surged in 2011 when the service hit the top 20 in the Apple App Store.

According to Forbes, Koum is no worth $6.8 billion. When he signed the deal with Facebook, he chose a specific location for it to happen. He wanted the deal to be signed with Facebook at the former North County Social Services building where Koum used to stand in lines for food stamps.