Story of Jan Koum: The man behind ‘WhatsApp’

WhatsApp has become an integral part of our life. The messaging app has turned out to be the perfect social channel which keeps us connected with our friends and family via mobile phones. Founded by Jan Koum and Brian Acton, WhatsApp has over one and a half billion users, making it the world’s most popular messaging platform. Read this amazing entrepreneurial journey of Jan Koum in creating this billion-dollar company.

Early Life

Born in Ukraine, Jan didn’t have a pleasant childhood. At 16, he immigrated to the USA along with his mother as a result of the political tension in the Soviet Union. The family faced financial difficulty in the state and Koum used to sweep the floor at a grocery store to help make ends meet.

By the age of 18, Koum taught himself computer networking and programming by purchasing manuals from the bookstore and returning them when done. Soon he enrolled himself in San Jose State University and at the same time joined Ernest and Young as a security tester.

In 1997, Jan landed a job in Yahoo as an infrastructure engineer and had to drop out of school thereafter. At Yahoo, he met Brian Acton and the two continued to work there for 10 years. Thereafter they left the job and took a year off to explore opportunities in the field of social media.

The Genesis of the Idea

The big break for Koum came in 2009 when he bought an iPhone and saw a huge potential in the app world. He decided to build an app that would notify its user whether a person they are contacting is available or not. “It started with me buying an iPhone. I got annoyed that I was missing calls when I went to the gym.”, Koum said in an interview. He chose the name ‘WhatsApp’ for the app, which sounded like ‘whats up’ and launched the company WhatsApp Inc on 24th February 2009 in California.

Jan (left) with Brian

Initially, the app didn’t get much recognition. But with the push notification feature added by Apple, Jan upgraded WhatsApp to ping users whenever they receive a message. He converted the app into a full, cross-platform messenger platform that would use the phone’s contacts folder as a prebuilt social network. Jan and some of his friends begin to use WhatsApp as a messaging tool, in place of SMS. The app slowly started gaining popularity and soon gained a large user base. Sooner Jan asked Acton to join the company. Koum granted Acton co-founder status after Acton managed to bring in $250,000 in seed funding.

Revenues

Jan never liked the idea of generating revenues of the company from advertisements. “There’s nothing more personal to you than communicating with friends and family, and interrupting that with advertising is not the right solution,” he said in an interview. They used to make money by charging iPhone users on first-time installation and android users annually. Eventually, the company got the second round of funding and raised $50 million at a valuation of whopping $1.5 billion from Sequoia.

The Facebook Deal

The user base of WhatsApp continued to grow over the years and by 2013, the company had around 400 million active users. The increasing popularity of the app caught the attention of social media giant Facebook, which eventually acquired WhatsApp in 2014 for US$19 billion.

In 2018, there was an announcement that Koum would be leaving WhatsApp and will step down from Facebook’s board of directors. However, a few months later it was discovered that he was still formally employed by Facebook, earning a reported $450 million in stocks from the company through a method called “rest and vest.” Jan Koum has an estimated net worth of US$9.7 billion.