Ukrainian American entrepreneur and computer programmer Jan Koum who cofounded the world’s largest mobile messaging service WhatsApp, is a unique story on inspiration, rising from poverty to become one of the world’s richest men.
Koum is of Jewish origin. Born February 24, 1976, in Kiev, Soviet Union, he grew up in Fastiv, outside Kiev.
At age 16, Koum, his mother and grandmother left the Fastiv to Mountain View, California in 1992. While there, a social support program helped the family to get a small two-bedroom apartment. His father who had initially intended to join them couldn’t make it after all. Koum’s mother had to work as a babysitter, while Koum worked as a cleaner at a grocery store in order to survive. His father would later kick the bucket in 1997.
Koum enrolled at San Jose State University when he was 18, where he learnt programming while working at Ernst & Young as a security tester to fund his education.
By the age of 18 Koum became interested in programming. He enrolled at San Jose State University and simultaneously worked at Ernst & Young as a security tester. He became a member of w00w00, a group of hackers that began in 1996 and there he met Shawn Fanning and Jordan Ritter, the future founders of Napster.
In February 1996, after an ex-girlfriend detailed incidents in which she said Koum verbally and physically threatened her, a restraining order was granted against Koum in state court in San Jose, California.
In 1997, Koum met Brian Acton while working at Ernst & Young as a security tester.
Later in 1997, Koum was hired by Yahoo as an infrastructure engineer. He quit school shortly thereafter. Over the next nine years, Koum and Acton worked there together. In September 2007 they both left Yahoo and took a year off, traveling around South America and playing ultimate frisbee. Both applied to work at Facebook, and both were rejected.
Eighteen years later, Koum in October 2014, admitted he was ashamed of the way he acted towards his girlfriend and how his behavior caused her to take legal action against him.
Koum bought an iPhone in January 2009, and realized that the then-seven-month-old App Store was about to spawn a whole new industry of apps. After a visit to his friend Alex Fishman and some talk about Koum’s idea for an app over tea at Fishman’s kitchen counter. Koum toyed with the idea of the name WhatsApp because it sounded like “what’s up”, and a week later on his birthday, February 24, 2009, he incorporated WhatsApp Inc. in California.
WhatsApp was initially unpopular, but its fortunes began to turn after Apple added push notification ability to apps in June 2009. Koum changed WhatsApp to “ping” users when they received a message, and soon afterwards he and Fishman’s Russian friends in the area began to use WhatsApp as a messaging tool, in place of SMS. The app gained a large user base, and Koum convinced Acton, who was then still unemployed, to join the company. Koum granted Acton co-founder status after Acton managed to bring in $250,000 in seed funding.
On February 9, 2014 Zuckerberg asked Koum to have dinner at his home, and formally proposed Koum a deal to join the Facebook board. 10 days later Facebook announced that it was acquiring WhatsApp for US$19 billion.
Over the first half of 2016, Koum sold more than $2.4 billion worth of Facebook stock, which was about a half of his total holdings. He is estimated to still own another $2.4 billion in Facebook stock.
On April 30, 2018, Koum announced that he was leaving WhatsApp and stepping down from Facebook’s board of directors due to disputes with Facebook, forfeiting unvested stock, worth almost $1 billion.
WhatsApp, which was purchased by Facebook for $22 billion in February 2014.
In 2014, he entered the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans at position 62, with an estimated worth of more than $7.5 billion. He was the highest-ranked newcomer to the list that year.