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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Retirement Coordinator - Financial Services

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: To provide a prompt, friendly and efficient se...

Recruitment Genius: Annuities / Pensions Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be the first point of contact for all...

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing