The Inspiring Story of WhatsApp Co-founder Jan Koum

Photo: Barcelona, Spain, February 24, 2014. Mobile World Congress. Image by Dan Taylor for tech.eu. www.tech.eu

by Arabella Walton

Co-founder of WhatsApp, Jan Koum might be worth over $10 billion now, but life wasn’t always so easy for Koum.

Early Years 

Jan Koum was born in 1976 in Kiev, Ukraine, which was then a part of the former Soviet Union. Koum was raised in a town just outside of Kiev for most of his young life until 1992 when he and his mother emigrated to the United States. The family spent the rest of his childhood in a humble 2 bedroom apartment in Mountain View, California which they obtained through a government-run support program.

As a teenager, Koum worked as a cleaner at the local grocery store to support himself and his mother while they struggled financially, living off food stamps and government support. At 18, Koum discovered his passion for technology and taught himself computer networking through the study of manuals. Koum didn’t have the money to pay for new manuals so he bought them from a used book shop and returned them after he had read them to save money.

After a few years of fine-tuning his skills, Koum joined a hacker group called w00w00 in 1996 where he advanced his computer skills and networked with the future founder of Napster, Sean Fanning. 

Although self-taught in computer programing, Koum went on to higher education and studied at San Jose State University. While studying he worked part-time as a security tester at Ernst & Young, where he met WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton in 1997. 

By the time Jan was in his mid 20’s both his mother and father had passed away and he was living alone. He leant on his good friend Acton for support and together they left Ernst & Young to work at Yahoo!. In 1997 Koum dropped out of university so he could focus his attention on his work as an infrastructure engineer. Jan worked at Yahoo! for approximately 9 years before leaving and later starting his own company alongside Acton. 

Business Success

Jan Koum went on to have significant business success within the tech sector, creating popular messaging app WhatsApp. Although he is considered one of the most successful entrepreneurs today, he dislikes this label as he believes entrepreneurs strive for money while he works only to build great products. 

WhatsApp 

Jan Koum Whatsapp Founder

After evaluating the app store on his new iPhone in 2009, Koum discovered there was a space for messaging app. Jan connected with Igor Solomennikov, a Russia mobile developer, and begin development on the mobile app. Koum named the app WhatApp due to its similarity with the phrase ‘what’s up’ and released it in May 2009. 

Instant success didn’t come for Jan Koum. When WhatsApp was first released to the public, it was very unpopular. The product had a very limited number of users and was crashing constantly. Jan was ready to give up and find another job but thanks to the motivation and encouragement from Acton he chose to not give up on his dream. 

However, Koum’s luck seemed to turn around when Apple released push notifications which allowed WhatsApp to notify users once they had received a message. The app was adapted to become an instant messager app where users would message contacts globally without any cost. The SMS like feature gained attention and WhatsApp’s popularity and userbase began to grow. 

Since 2009 WhatsApp has continued to grow and over the past 10 years, the success of the app has skyrocketed, boasting 1.5 billion active users, 1 million new registrations daily and 300 million daily users as of 2019. The app is used in 180 countries and is the largest of all messaging networks. 

Facebook 

In 2014 Mark Zuckerberg acquired WhatsApp from Koum and Acton for the price of $19 billion. Interestingly, 7 years before Facebook bought WhatsApp and 2 years before they founded the app in 2009, both Koum and Acton had applied for jobs at Facebook in 2007 but were rejected. Koum sat on the board of directors at Facebook for 4 years until stepping down in 2018 due to disputes with Facebook over their data-stealing scandal. 

Later Life and Charity Work 

Jan Koum’s experience of starting from the bottom and working this way up the financial ladder taught him the importance of giving back. Jan’s charity work focuses on providing for different communities as well as supporting technological development. In 2014 he donated almost $556 million dollars to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and approximately $1.5 million to The FreeBSD Foundation from 2014 – 2016. 

This story is a part of Bookipi’s new series about inspiring entrepreneurs. We hope this series will help motivate you to achieve your dreams like the successful entrepreneurs in this series.

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