From poverty in Ukraine to billions in Silicon Valley: The co-founder of WhatsApp is suddenly worth $6.8bn

Tim Walker reports on Jan Koum's low-key pursuit of the American dream

On Wednesday, as he announced Facebook’s record-breaking $19bn (£11.4bn) acquisition of the mobile messaging service WhatsApp, Mark Zuckerberg reflected that he had known WhatsApp’s chief executive, Jan Koum, “for a long time”. It is possible the pair met shortly before WhatsApp’s creation in 2009, when Mr Koum and his company’s co-founder Brian Acton both applied for jobs at Facebook – and were rejected.

That historical footnote must surely enhance Mr Koum’s satisfaction at selling his creation to Facebook

The deal is for $4bn in cash and $12bn in Facebook shares, as well as an additional $3bn in restricted stock units that will vest over the next four years. Forbes reports that Mr Koum owns 45 per cent of WhatsApp, meaning he is now worth about $6.8bn.

Yet an unsuccessful job interview is far from the only obstacle to success that Mr Koum has overcome in his 38 years. He was born an only child in Ukraine, in a rough rural village outside Kiev, in a house with no hot water. His parents – a construction worker and a housewife – feared talking on the phone in case it was being tapped by the Soviet government. “Society was extremely closed off,” Mr Koum recently told Wired. “You can read 1984, but living there was experiencing it. I didn’t have a computer until I was 19 – but I did have an abacus.”

When he was 16, Mr Koum and his mother emigrated to California, where they settled in a small apartment in Mountain View, in the heart of Silicon Valley. He swept floors at a local shop to help pay the bills. Later, after his mother was diagnosed with cancer, the pair lived on disability benefits. This week, Mr Koum chose to sign his $19bn deal with Facebook at the site of the Social Services office where he collected food stamps as a teenager – the building is a short walk from WhatsApp’s HQ.

At school, Mr Koum taught himself computer skills with books he bought second-hand and returned as soon as he had read them. He won a place at San Jose State University, while also working as a computer security tester for the accounting firm Ernst & Young. In 1997, the company assigned him to a job at Yahoo, where he was given the desk opposite Mr Acton. The two hit it off, and within a year Mr Koum took a permanent job at Yahoo and dropped out of university.

WhatsApp's Facebook page WhatsApp's Facebook page (Reuters) Mr Koum and Mr Acton became especially close after Koum’s mother died of cancer in 2000. Over the years they became increasingly disillusioned with their work at Yahoo, and particularly with the company’s reliance on advertising for revenue. They both left in 2007, and not long after made their unsuccessful applications to work for Facebook.

In early 2009, Mr Koum became frustrated with his local gym’s ban on using mobile phones, because he kept missing calls as he was working out. He had been trying to come up with an iPhone app, and his initial idea was to allow people to set statuses on their phones, so that their contacts could see what they were up to at any given moment: for instance, “Can’t talk, at the gym.”

He christened his creation WhatsApp, a bastardisation of What’s up?, and incorporated the company in February 2009. When the app’s early versions proved buggy and Mr Koum considered giving up, it was Mr Acton who offered encouragement, telling his friend he should give himself a few more months to perfect the product.

A few months later, Mr Koum switched WhatsApp’s focus to instant messaging, and it became a hit: smoother than traditional SMS, not to mention cheaper – especially when contacting friends abroad. Today, WhatsApp remains free to install. It also remains true to Mr Koum’s early insistence that it would carry no advertising, and that it would not store messages and thus endanger users’ privacy. (How those principles align with Facebook’s remains to be seen.)

In contrast to many Silicon Valley chief executives, Mr Koum has maintained a low profile, even as WhatsApp exploded in popularity. According to Forbes, at a staff lunch in 2011 one co-worker asked him why he so rarely spoke to the media about the app’s success. “Marketing and press kicks up dust,” Mr Koum supposedly replied. “It gets in your eye, and then you’re not focusing on the product.”

The lack of previous press attention seems to have done his business no harm. WhatsApp now claims 450 million active users each month, 320 million of whom use the service daily. In January, more than 18 billion WhatsApp messages were sent, on average, every day.

WhatsApp in numbers

$6.8bn Reported worth of Jan Koum, who owns 45 per cent of WhatsApp, after the sale to Facebook.

450 million Active monthly users.

18 billion Messages sent on the service every day in January.

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

Technical Support Analyst (C++, Windows, Linux, Perl, Graduate)

£30000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global leader in trading platforms and e...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice