Exclusive: The Rags-To-Riches Tale Of How Jan Koum Built WhatsApp Into Facebook's New $19 Billion Baby
Jan Koum picked a meaningful spot to sign the $19 billion deal to sell his company WhatsApp to Facebook earlier today. Koum, cofounder Brian Acton and venture capitalist Jim Goetz of Sequoia drove a few blocks from WhatsApp's discreet headquarters in Mountain View to a disused white building across the railroad tracks, the former North County Social Services office where Koum, 37, once stood in line to collect food stamps. That's where the three of them inked the agreement to sell their messaging phenom –which brought in a miniscule $20 million in revenue last year — to the world's largest social network.
Koum, who Forbes believes owns 45% of WhatsApp and thus is suddenly worth $6.8 billion (net of taxes) — was born and raised in a small village outside of Kiev, Ukraine, the only child of a housewife and a construction manager who built hospitals and schools. His house had no hot water, and his parents rarely talked on the phone in case it was tapped by the state. It sounds bad, but Koum still pines for the rural life he once lived, and it's one of the main reasons he's so vehemently against the hurly-burly of advertising.
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 dad never made it over. Koum's mother had stuffed their suitcases with pens and a stack of 20 Soviet-issued notebooks to avoid paying for school supplies in the U.S. She took up babysitting and Koum swept the floor of a grocery store to help make ends meet. When his mother was diagnosed with cancer, they lived off her disability allowance. Koum spoke English well enough but disliked the casual, flighty nature of American high-school friendships; in Ukraine you went through ten years with the same, small group of friends at school. "In Russia you really learn about a person."
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 moonlighted at Ernst & Young as a security tester. In 1997, he found himself sitting across a desk from Acton, Yahoo employee 44, to inspect the company's advertising system. "You could tell he was a bit different," recalls Acton. "He was very no-nonsense, like 'What are your policies here; What are you doing here?'" Other Ernst & Young people were using "touchy-feely" tactics like gifting bottles of wine. "Whatever," says Acton. "Let's cut to the chase."
It turned out Koum liked Acton's no-nonsense style too: "Neither of us has an ability to bullshit," says Koum. Six months later Koum interviewed at Yahoo and got a job as an infrastructure engineer. He was still at San Jose State University when two weeks into his job at Yahoo, one of the company's servers broke. Yahoo cofounder David Filo called his mobile for help. "I'm in class," Koum answered discreetly. "What the fuck are you doing in class?" Filo said. "Get your ass into the office." Filo had a small team of server engineers and needed all the help he could get. "I hated school anyway," Koum says. He dropped out.
When Koum's mother died of cancer in 2000 the young Ukrainian was suddenly alone; his father had died in 1997. He credits Acton with reaching out and offering support. "He would invite me to his house," Koum remembers. The two went skiing and played soccer and ultimate Frisbee.
Over the next nine years the pair also watched Yahoo go through multiple ups and downs. Acton invested in the dotcom boom, and lost millions in the 2000 bust. For all of his distaste for advertising now he was also deep in it back then, getting pulled in to help launch Yahoo's important and much-delayed advertising platform Project Panama in 2006. "Dealing with ads is depressing," he says now. "You don't make anyone's life better by making advertisements work better." He was emotionally drained. "I could see it on him in the hallways," says Koum, who wasn't enjoying things either. In his LinkedIn profile, Koum unenthusiastically describes his last three years at Yahoo with the words, "Did some work."
In September 2007 Koum and Acton finally left Yahoo and took a year to decompress, traveling around South America and playing ultimate frisbee. Both applied, and failed, to work at Facebook. "We're part of the Facebook reject club," Acton says. Koum was eating into his $400,000 in savings from Yahoo, and drifting. Then in January 2009, he bought an iPhone and realized that the seven-month old App Store was about to spawn a whole new industry of apps. He visited the home of Alex Fishman, a Russian friend who would invite the local Russian community to his place in West San Jose for weekly pizza and movie nights. Up to 40 people sometimes showed up. The two of them stood for hours talking about Koum's idea for an app over tea at Fishman's kitchen counter.
Jan Koum signs the $19 billion Facebook deal paperwork on the door of his old welfare office in Mountain View, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Jan Koum)
Koum almost immediately chose the name WhatsApp because it sounded like "what's up," and a week later on his birthday, Feb. 24, 2009, he incorporated WhatsApp Inc. in California. "He's very thorough," says Fishman. The app hadn't even been written yet. Koum spent days creating the backend code to synch his app with any phone number in the world, poring over a Wikipedia entry that listed international dialing prefixes — he would spend many infuriating months updating it for the hundreds of regional nuances.
Early WhatsApp kept crashing or getting stuck, and when Fishman installed it on his phone, only a handful of the hundreds numbers on his address book – mostly local Russian friends – had also downloaded it. Over ribs at Tony Roma's in San Jose, Fishman went over the problems and Koum took notes in one of the Soviet-era notebooks he'd brought over years before and saved for important projects.
The following month after a game of ultimate frisbee with Acton, Koum grudgingly admitted he should probably fold up and start looking for a job. Acton balked. "You'd be an idiot to quit now," he said. "Give it a few more months."
Help came from Apple when it launched push notifications in June 2009, letting developers ping users when they weren't using an app. Jan updated WhatsApp so that each time you changed your status — "Can't talk, I'm at the gym" — it would ping everyone in your network. Fishman's Russian friends started using it to ping each other with jokey custom statuses like, "I woke up late," or "I'm on my way."
"At some point it sort of became instant messaging," says Fishman. "We started using it as 'Hey how are you?' And then someone would reply." Jan watched the changing statuses on a Mac Mini at his town house in Santa Clara, and realized he'd inadvertently created a messaging service. "Being able to reach somebody half way across the world instantly, on a device that is always with you, was powerful," says Koum.
The only other free texting service around at the time was BlackBerry's BBM, but that only worked among BlackBerries. There was Google's G-Talk and Skype, but WhatsApp was unique in that the login was your own phone number. Koum released WhatsApp 2.0 with a messaging component and watched his active users suddenly swell to 250,000. He went to see Acton, who was still unemployed and dabbling in another startup idea that wasn't going anywhere.