A college drop out who started WhatsApp. Inspiring story of Jan Koum

Jan Koum

Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp was born in a small village near Kiev in Ukraine. He was the only child of a housewife and a construction manager who built hospitals and schools.

His house did not even have electricity.He led a life full of hardships as his family struggled hard to meet ends meet.

Jan Koum was so poor as a teenager that he used to save his old Soviet notebooks for school and queued with his mom for food stamps. Koum’s mother brought with her a cache of pens and Soviet-issued notebooks to save money on school supplies.He used to do menial jobs like cleaning and mopping at a grocery store while his mother took up a baby-sitting job. They lived on allowances from the government.

Life took a tragic turn when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.After his mother was diagnosed with cancer, they survived with the help of disability payments received from government.

At 16, Koum and his mother immigrated to Mountain View, a result of the troubling political and anti-Semitic environment, and got a small two-bedroom apartment though government assistance. His father did not make it to the United States, where the family sought to escape anti-Semitism and oppressive tactics of secret police.

Koum was a troublemaker at school but by 18 had also taught himself computer networking by purchasing manuals from a used book store and returning them when he was done. He joined a hacker group called w00w00 on the Efnet internet relay chat network, squirreled into the servers of Silicon Graphics and chatted with Napster co-founder Sean Fanning.

He enrolled at San Jose State University and worked at Ernst & Young as a security tester.

In 1997, he found himself sitting across a desk from Acton, Yahoo employee, to inspect the company’s advertising system. Within a year, Koum was working as an engineer at Yahoo and the pair was on their way to being close friends.

Little did he realize that this was the beginning of an illustrious career. Meeting Brian Acton was a turning point in his life.

When Koum’s mother died of cancer in 2000 the young Ukrainian was suddenly alone; his father had died in 1997. But life’s adversities only made Jan Koum stronger and resilient. He credits Acton with reaching out and offering support.

Acton, meanwhile, reportedly lost millions investing during the famous dot-com boom that ended with an infamous dot-com bust. Koum later got a job at Yahoo as an infrastructure engineer. Soon he dropped out of college. However, Koum did not stay on the job for long. In September 2007, Koum and Acton bid farewell to Yahoo and decided to unwind and travel around.

Acton and Koum left Yahoo in 2007 and took a year off, exploring South America and playing the sport of Ultimate Frisbee, according to Forbes.

The most interesting part of their journey is that both Jan Koum and Brian Acton applied for a job in Facebook and were rejected in 2009. The Daily Mail reports that Brian Acton, Jan Koum’sWhatsApp co-founder, was rejected from both Twitter and Facebook.The Mail adds:

“In a tweet on his Twitter account at the time, he had posted: ‘Facebook turned me down. It was a great opportunity to connect with some fantastic people. Looking forward to life’s next adventure.”

As savings started getting over, the duo started thinking about new start-up ideas. Incidentally, in 2009, the seeds of this amazing innovation were sown.

Jan’s childhood made him appreciate communication that was not bugged or taped,” Sequoia Capital partner Jim Goetz said in an online post. “When he arrived in the US as a 16-year-old immigrant living on food stamps, he had the extra incentive of wanting to stay in touch with his family in Russia and the Ukraine.”
“Jan was showing me his address book,” recalls Fishman. “His thinking was it would be really cool to have statuses next to individual names of the people.” The statuses would show if you were on a call, your battery was low, or you were at the gym.

Koum could do the backend, but he needed an iPhone developer, so Fishman introduced Koum to Igor Solomennikov, a developer in Russia that he’d found on

Koum bought an iPhone and figured out that apps would be the next big thing. He thought creating a hassle-free and instant messaging service would work wonders across the globe if it had mobile users as base.

The idea was to get people across the world to network on a single platform effortlessly.It took him months of back-breaking work and testing to get the code in place.There were several trying times when things would not fall in place.

WhatsApp was formed in 2009 by Jan Koum and Brian Acton, two former long-time Yahoo employees. WhatsApp is a messaging service that uses the data connection of your mobile phone to transmit messages, similar to the service offered by Apple under iMessage, or the popular BlackBerry Messenger.

Jan Koum who dislikes any kind of publicity, has even refused to put up a sign board outside their WhatsApp office.

WhatsApp has experienced a similar growth phenomenon to fellow Silicon Valley startup Instagram. Despite having a team of fewer than 50 engineers, the user base of WhatsApp has grown to over 500 million active users, 700 million photos and 100 million videos are shared each day, and the messaging system handles more than 10 billion messages each day.

The application has taken off internationally, with Europe and South America leading the way in adoption. The highly efficient engineering team is also supporting a high volume of messages over the app, which peaks at over 1 billion a day.

On February 19, 2014, Facebook Inc. announced it is acquiring WhatsApp Inc. for US$19 billion. Facebook will pay $4 billion in cash, $12 billion in Facebook shares and $3 billion in restricted stock units to be granted to WhatsApp founders and employees that will vest over four years.

Koum signed the Facebook takeover contract at the unused building where he and his mother once queued for food stamps in the Silicon Valley city of Mountain View, where WhatsApp is located.

It is inspiring to know how a college dropout who was rejected by Facebook for employment, went on to create a global internet company Whats App.

What do you think?

Written by Deepthi


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