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 owns 45% of WhatsApp and thus is suddenly worth $6.8 billion 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. SEE MORE AFTER CUT>>>>>>>
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.