Following Facebook’s 19bn dollar takeover of mobile messaging service WhatsApp, we take a look at Jan Koum’s extraordinary rise to the top.
Jan Koum’s early life story does not shout future digital billionaire. He didn’t have a computer until he was 19, and was born in a rural village in Ukraine, in a house with no hot water.
At 16 he moved to the US with his mum and they settled in Silicon Valley, California. He swept floors at a local shop to help pay the bills and lived on benefits after his mum was diagnosed with cancer. At school, he learnt computer skills through second-hand books and then got a place at San Jose State University, while also working as a computer security tester for Ernst & Young.
He met his future business partner Brian Acton when the company sent him on a project at Yahoo. Jan was then offered a permanent job there and dropped out of his university course.
Nine years later, Jan and Brian left Yahoo and spent time travelling. They applied for – and were rejected from – roles at Facebook.
Fast forward to early 2009 and Jan was fed up. A fan of working out, he kept missing calls due to the mobile phone ban at his local gym, and WhatsApp was born. The original idea was to allow people to set statuses on their phones but after early problems, this was changed to an instant messaging service (SMS), which is when WhatsApp really took off .
Smoother and cheaper than SMS, the app is free to install, has no advertising and doesn’t store content so is very popular with people who want to keep messages private. On average more than 18 billion WhatsApp messages are sent every day.
Now 38, Jan is worth a reported 6.8bn dollars. And to top it all, he’s had the double satisfaction of signing his deal with Facebook – who turned him down for a job – at the place where he collected food stamps as a teenager.