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The amazing success story of WhatsApp's founder Jan Koum

Last updated on: February 21, 2014 12:40 IST

Amazing rags-to-riches story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

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"Focus on simplicity, listen to your customers and iterate if you fail."
(Jan Koum said in an interview to The Recapp)

With Facebook acquiring WhatsApp, its co-founders - Jan Koum and Brian Acton - have become billionaires and stars of technology world.

It has been an incredible journey for Jan Koum who lived on food stamps as a teenager.

Koum has 45 per cent stake in the company, while Acton’s stake is 20 per cent, making them worth a whopping $6.8 billion and $3 billion respectively, according to Forbes.

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

Their company exemplifies the spirit of Silicon Valley… 

“WhatsApp is on a path to connect 1 billion people. The services that reach that milestone are all incredibly valuable,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement.

Click NEXT to read Jan Koum’s amazing success story…


Image: Jan Koum
Photographs: Hubert Burda Media/Creative Commons

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Amazing rags-to-riches story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

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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.

Expressing disappointment over the rejection, Brian Acton had then tweeted, “Facebook turned me down. It was a great opportunity to connect with some fantastic people. Looking forward to life's next adventure.”

It has indeed one of the biggest adventures in the tech world and a befitting reply to Facebook. Life has come a full circle for this duo with this billion dollar acquisition.

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Image: Jan Koum (L) and Brian Acton.
Photographs: Courtesy, Sequoia Capital

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Amazing rags-to-riches story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

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Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp was born in a small village near Kiev in Ukraine.

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

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Image: Jan Koum
Photographs: Hubert Burda Media/Creative Commons

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Amazing rags-to-riches story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

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However, Koum escaped from the trouble-torn place when he was just 16 years old, alongwith his mother.

They migrated to Mountain View and managed to get a two-bedroom apartment with the help of government support.

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Photographs: Courtesy, WhatsApp

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Amazing rags-to-riches story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

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Jan Koum used to do menial jobs like cleaning and mopping at a grocery store while his mother took up a baby sitting job. Life took a tragic turn when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

They lived on allowances from the government, according to Forbes.

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Photographs: Courtesy, WhatsApp
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Amazing rags-to-riches story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

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But life’s adversities only made Jan Koum stronger and resilient. By 18, he learnt computer networking all by himself with the help of manuals from a used book store, says Forbes.

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Photographs: Courtesy, WhatsApp
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Finally, he enrolled at San Jose State University worked at Ernst & Young as a security tester.

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

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Image: A note on Jan Koum's desk. Jan Koum (Inset)
Photographs: Courtesy, Sequoia Capital
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Amazing rags-to-riches story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

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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.

As savings started getting over, the duo started thinking about new start-up ideas. 

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Photographs: Courtesy, WhatsApp

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Amazing rags-to-riches story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

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Incidentally, in 2009, the seeds of this amazing innovation were sown.

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.

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Photographs: Courtesy, WhatsApp
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Amazing rags-to-riches story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

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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.

Koum had even thought of giving up the idea but Brian Acton convinced him to try it for a few months.  Initially, the messaging service was tried on phones of his Russian friends. 

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Photographs: Courtesy, WhatsApp

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Amazing rags-to-riches story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

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The response was encouraging. Koum released WhatsApp 2.0 with a messaging component and active users went up to 250,000. By 2011, WhatsApp found a place among the top 20 apps in the US app store, states Forbes.  

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Photographs: Reuters
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Two years later in 2013, WhatsApp’s user base had zoomed to 200 million active users.

Today WhatsApp has more than 450 million active users, and reached that number faster than any other company in history, points out Venture Capitalist Jim Goetz in a blog on Sequoia Capital website which has invested in the company.

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Photographs: Reuters

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Another fascinating aspect is, WhatsApp runs lean with just 32 engineers. One WhatsApp developer supports 14 million active users, a ratio unheard of in the industry, Jim Goetz explains in a blog on Sequoia Capital's website.

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Photographs: Courtesy, WhatsApp

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Amazing rags-to-riches story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum

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The most remarkable aspect of the company is that, “It doesn’t even employ a marketer or PR person. Yet like the world’s greatest brands, it’s created a strong emotional connection with consumers. All of WhatsApp’s growth has come from happy customers encouraging their friends to try the service,” says Jim Goetz in a blog on Sequoia Capital's website.

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Photographs: Reuters

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“WhatsApp is a simple, fast and reliable mobile messaging service that is used by over 450 million people on every major mobile platform. More than 1 million people sign up for WhatsApp every day. I've also known Jan for a long time, and I know that we both share the vision of making the world more open and connected. I'm particularly happy that Jan has agreed to join the Facebook board and partner with me to shape Facebook's future as well as WhatsApp's. Jan and the WhatsApp team have done some amazing work to connect almost half a billion people. I can’t wait for them to join Facebook and help us connect the rest of the world,” Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement issued after the acquisition.


Image: Mark Zuckerberg
Photographs: Reuters

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