Jan Koum is the founder of WhatsApp, which he sold to Facebook for $22 billion in 2014. He taught himself to code using a bunch of used books, and overcame enormous personal odds before he ever started WhatsApp. His story, which began on the outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine, is a truly “rags-to-riches” tale.
Over one billion people use the free mobile messaging app worldwide; it is particularly popular across Europe, South America and Africa. To put the WhatsApp’s monumental success into context, Snapchat only has 300+ million monthly active users.
Behind The Scene
Jan was born in the rural areas of Kiev, Ukraine. This was during the Soviet Era, so being a Jewish and living in a rural area was definitely not easy. He lived in a house that did not have electricity and being in a country that mostly had a temperature below 0 degree; they didn’t even have hot water. His parents also denied the usage of phones because they were often tapped by the govt.
In 1992, Jan immigrated with his mother and grandmother to Mountain View, California. He was 16 at the time, and the family stayed in a government-sponsored two-bedroom apartment. Today, Mountain View is a booming tech center, but in those days housing was still low-cost and somewhat abundant.
To put together enough money to survive, Jan’s mother babysat and Jan swept supermarket floors. It was a hard life in a new country, but things would get even more difficult from there.
When Things Are Going Worse
His father planned to join Jan and his mother once they were settled, but he got sick and died five years later, unable to be reunited with his family. Jan’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, to which she would succumb just three years after Jan’s father passed away.
Schools Are Designed For Fools
Perhaps not surprisingly given the adversity in his life, Jan acted out in school and got into trouble. He disliked school and what he found to be the shallow relationships of high school students.
He barely graduated, but during his teen years in the US, Jan began to teach himself. He became interested in computers and networks and bought books and manuals on these topics at a nearby used bookstore, returning them when finished to get his money back.
Diving Into A Nine-To-Five
After spending only a short time with Jan, their team was so impressed by him that they too offered him a job. Before he knew it, he was working with, among other Yahoo stars, Brian Acton, one of Yahoo’s earliest employees.
Jan worked at Yahoo for nine years, through the enormous rise and then through the slow, stuttering fall of the internet giant. Eventually in 2007, he took a year off and traveled through South America and Central America. During this time, he applied for jobs with Facebook and Twitter. He was rejected both times.
Teamwork Makes The Dream Work
Two years later Jan bought an iPhone. He saw the potential of the App Store world and began working on code to create a new application that would streamline communication and conversation.
So he used about $400,000 in savings from Yahoo to start a new project: a messaging app that he called WhatsApp. He chose the name because he believed it was similar to the popular greeting, “What’s up!”
He visited Alex Fishman, a Russian friend who would invite the local Russian community to his place in West San Jose for weekly pizza. Two of them stood for hours talking about Koum’s idea for an app. Jan could do the backend, but he needed an iPhone developer, so Fishman introduced Jan to Igor Solomennikov, a developer that he’d found on RentACoder.com.
The Turning Point
The app hadn’t even been written yet. Jan 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.
Now as the work progressed, they figured that WhatsApp kept crashing or getting stuck at a particular point. This went on for a long time, which built up a great amount of frustration. Jan at one point, even lost hope and felt like giving up and looking for a new job.
And finally a few months down the line, help came from Apple. They launched their push notifications which used to allow the developers to ping their 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.
Make It Fly
Soon, the second version called WhatsApp 2.0 was also released. This was turned WhatsApp into Instant Messenger because it also had a messaging component. And just within a blink of an eye, they had 250,000 active users.
He went to see Brian Acton, who was still unemployed and dabbling in another startup idea that wasn’t going anywhere. It is not disclosed but, Jan is said to have a larger share, since it was his idea originally and he had been into it since nine months before.
With Jan and Brian working for free for the first few years, their biggest early cost was sending verification texts to users. But fortunately the best part was that WhatsApp was gradually bringing in revenue by charging customers a minimal charge to use the service, roughly $5000 / month (as of 2010) which then was enough to cover the costs.
The app received tremendous success in a very less time. By 2011, it was listed amongst the top 20 of all apps in Apple’s U.S. App Store. This was also because the app was made such that the users found it pretty easy to use and they didn’t have to register on it to use it as well.
And within a span of two years i.e. by 2013, WhatsApp had reached to a user base of more than 200 million and a staffing of 50 employees.
Between 2009 and 2015, WhatsApp went from being nonexistent to having over 900 million active users, and is becoming the largest messaging app in the world. Additionally, it sold to Facebook for $22 billion in 2014.
He was still at San Jose State University when two weeks into his job at Yahoo, one of the company’s servers broke. Yahoo co-founder 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.
Nurture Your Own Culture
What is the secret ingredient that helped Whatsapp become the largest messaging platform in the world?
Keep It Simple
First of all, WhatsApp is simple, secure, and fast. It does not ask you to spend time building up a new graph of your relationships; instead, it taps the one that’s already there.
Founder’s decisions are fueled by a desire to let people communicate with no interference. Both founders share a passion for hating advertisement and Jan even has a note from Brian on his desk saying “No Ads! No Games! No Gimmicks”. It makes sure that the WhatsApp keeps it focus on its core functionality, messaging.
Most important, it’s easy to see how WhatsApp’s dedication to focus is expressed in the app itself, which made its name as a free, approachable alternative to paying a wireless carrier for text messages and has added only a handful of new features—such as voice and video calling—since.
”The culture of the company comes from the product we’re building,” says Jan, a focused guy himself who only occasionally takes time out of his schedule to talk to members of the media.
WhatsApp is a product that is simple, utilitarian, really efficient, doesn’t use a lot of bandwidth, doesn’t use a lot of battery on your phone.
Never Give Up
The story of Jan is one of a lot hardship and let downs, Brian lost a fortune in the dotcom bubble and got rejected by multiple companies, but both men came out on top through hard work and perseverance.
Building a multi-platform app was insanely hard for Jan. He said the code took months of back breaking and testing the code to get in place and functioning fully. He even thought of giving up the idea and the application but Brian convinced him to try some more time.
Don't Eat Alone
Make sure your co-founder is the yin to your yang. You can really see in this case how important it is that the person you work with fills the gaps that you are missing.
Your co-founder should have all the qualities you don’t have. Brian and Jan had a clear vision of what their product was going to be. They both were on the same page and understood exactly what their product is and more important, what is was going to be.
Having a common interest is also a key to success. One might argue that if there was no ultimate frisbee, there would be no Whatsapp. These men became friends on the workfloor, but stayed in contact through their love for the sport. And it was at one of these matches Brian told Jan that he shouldn’t give up.
When Jan signed the papers that would make him one of the richest men in the world, he didn’t do it in the Four Seasons or at Facebook Headquarters, and he didn’t have camera lights glaring. Instead, he returned to the nondescript building where he once stood for hours waiting with his mother for food stamps.
Today, five years after, WhatsApp is always listed amongst the world’s most popular and profitable phone apps.
Note that all of the hardships Jan faced, they made him even stronger and resilient. He was rejected, was low on resources but whatever the circumstances were he was focused and determined that yes, I have to do something great.
It is this desire that made him go miles on his way. Now as we all know, Whatsapp is used daily by millions of people but at that time he didn’t knew that his product will be a hit or a miss. What he did for sure was to work upon himself and that is what drives his passion now as well.
Despite his wealth, Jan has maintained a low profile throughout his career. He claims that selling WhatsApp to Facebook only changed 10% of his life, and that he still lives in the same house and has the same friends.
Digital Dandy. Hacker From Heart. Workaholic. Coding Artist. Self-made.