Jan Koum – From Living On Food Stamps To A Billionaire

This is one amazing story proving that anything is possible in America. This is the amazing story of Jan Koum, who yesterday closed a $19 billion deal selling WhatsApp to the social networking giant Facebook. Jan, who just a few years ago was hardly making the ends meet, became one of the richest people in the world. He is believed to have around 45% of WhatsApp, which sets his net worth to $6.8 billion.

Who Jan Koum Is

Jan Koum was born in a small village in Ukraine 37 years ago. Was the only child in the family. His father was working in the construction industry, building schools and hospitals. His mother was a housewife, who was taking care of the young Jan. The family was not very well-fixed, they didn’t have hot water in the house and had constantly struggled to cover even basic living expenses. Even though they were not rich, Koum was a happy kid and liked the life he had. Money is not everything, and it was ever so for him.

The logo of WhatsApp

The logo of WhatsApp

Koum lived in Ukraine till he was 16 years old. At that age, he escaped to the USA, because of the anti-Semitic moods and the policy as a whole in his country. This was one of the main reasons for Sergey Brin to come to America, too. Google could have been a Russian company if some circumstances were different… Koum and his mother managed to get a small apartment in Mountain View with the help of the government.

Life in the United States didn’t start easily for Koum. His mom worked as a babysitter, which was not the highest paid job. The young Jan worked as a part-time cleaner to help with the bills. But destiny had prepared another bad surprise for the family. Soon, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t work. They were lucky, that the government there had a disability allowance program and the family lived off it. When he was 18, Koum found a new hobby – computers. He purchased some second-hand books and began reading about programming, software, and hardware. As so0on as he finished the book, he sold them back. His self-education was improving and soon he joined a group of hackers called WOOWOO.

When he finished high school, he was accepted in the Saint Jose State University, but in less than a year he dropped out to dedicate his time to his new job in Yahoo. In the year 2000, Koum lost his mother, who had been fighting cancer for the last several years. He was alone. That was the time when he and Brian Acton became friends. A friendship, that would later make them both billionaires. They worked at Yahoo for the next 9 years but didn’t really enjoy their job. In 2007, they both left the company and indulged in having some free time.

In 2009 Koum bought an iPhone. This was the most significant purchase he ever made because it would actually lead him to develop WhatsApp. During that time, the App Store was just several months old, but it was already booming. Jan realized it had a big potential. He had an idea for an app, that was a simple address book, showing statuses next to each name. He decided to make it and give it a shot. He contacted the coder Igor Solomennikov and hired him to write it.

On the 24th of February, 2009 not only Koum had a birthday, this was the date when the new company WhatsApp Inc. was born. Soon, the first version of the mobile application was released. It was full of bugs and hardly worked. Nobody was interested in it, and his money was running out. Koum was disappointed and even wanted to give up the project, but his friend Brian Acton persuaded him not to do it. So, the work continued. In a few months, Apple introduced the push notifications. Jan implemented them in his app and every time when someone changed his status, all of his friends were pinged. This is how WhatsApp actually evolved in an instant messaging app. And then the expansion began…

WhatsApp 2.0

WhatsApp 2.0 was the new version, which had expanded and improved messaging functions. Soon, more than 250 000 people had the application installed on their phones. Koum’s friend Acton began helping him with the work of improving the app. The two of them spent many days working from a cafe called ‘Red Rock Cafe’, which was a den for other struggling startup founders. In October 2009, Acton persuaded some friends of his to invest $250 000 in the business and this is how he actually came on board. He got a stake in the company for the help and became an official partner of Koum. They found an old building on Evelyn Ave and set up their office there. It was an old warehouse, the half of which was taken over by Evernote.

In 2011, WhatsApp became one of the top apps in the App Store. It was spreading like a plague. And all of this without any marketing and advertising expenses. Koum never liked advertising and actually never used it. WhatsApp was probably the only company in the USA, that had no marketing budget. But this was not a problem at all… In that year the young company was noticed by Sequoia Capital, the venture fund that earlier financed Google, Facebook, Linked in and other big names. They got a stake here, too, for $8 million.

Cashing Out

On 19th of February, 2014, Facebook announced it was purchasing WhatsApp for the astonishing $19 billion. The instant messaging application had only $20 million in revenue, but its active users were approaching 500 million. Probably Zuckerberg has big plans for his new purchase, having in mind the incredible amount of money he paid.