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
Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
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

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Data Scientist (SQL, PHP, RSPSS, CPLEX, SARS, AI) - London

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...

Financial Technical Consultant (C++, C#, Finance, MSc, PhD)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Financial Technical Consultant (C++, C#, F...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone