Some people would say that Jan Koum's experience growing up in communist Ukraine made him a bit paranoid. And Koum, billionaire creator of WhatsApp wouldn’t deny this because he simply left a country where phones were tapped on a daily basis and privacy wasn’t sacred. He struggled with poverty but accepted what that could do to a man with a big dream and small bank account.
Jan Koum believed in many things in life and chief among them is to create an application that valued your personal information by not asking people for it. He developed a product that embodied his beliefs and his experience and called it WhatsApp – a smart application that didn’t require the user’s name, gender, age or address to enjoy the service. In his mind, this would take away ads, games and all the twiddly bits you didn’t need in your day to day life. He was right. He became a billionaire because of it.
Jan Koum was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1976 but migrated to Mountain View, California in 1992 with his mother and grandmother. They began their life socially supported by the U.S. Government through a program that helped immigrants find a footing in American soil. At 16, Koum lived in a two-bedroom apartment and relied on food stamps to get by each day.
Living on social support made him realize that an American dream is a disillusion suffered by the unlucky. But those who pay their dues and work hard can see a solid future. Despite the food rations, he helped his mother work for very little money as a grocery cleaner. At age 18, he finally enrolled in San Jose State University where he trained in programming and then went on to work at Ernst & Young as a security tester.
He met his business partner, Brian Acton while working at Yahoo for nine years. Together, they left and then applied at Facebook where they were unsuccessful. They didn’t venture into becoming billionaires until Koum thought of an app idea for the iPhone. The rest as they say is history.
At present, WhatsApp is now owned by Facebook in a deal that would make business partners Brian Acton and Jan Koum into Billionaires. Pre-Facebook, however, WhatsApp was already enjoying 450 million users with billions of messages sent by iPhone users each day. Koum believes that their no-ads, no-games policy helped pulled their users in.
It was a contrarian approach, as Koum said because he never really enjoyed looking at a dozen ads every time he opened an app. Users could now enjoy a messaging service that didn’t need any personal information to activate; they only had to submit their phone numbers. That was it. And it was the best decision had ever made.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg came into the picture after realizing that WhatsApp amassed a very large customer base. And after bonding with Koum and Acton over dinners and coffee, a $19 Billion dollar deal was signed and sealed making them members of Facebook board of directors as well as maintaining their seats as CEO and founders. It was a success worth every food stamp.
There is much to be learned from these guys.