It's a Guy Thing

What’s Up WhatsApp

There once was a time when people used to SMS each other to say hello and catch up, now in 2020 the SMS culture is dead and reserved for advertising spam. The reason for the quick decline in SMS’ came down to one man, Jan Koum, the inventor of WhatsApp, arguably the most used messaging app in the world right now. But what inspired this young man to take on the dated SMS format and become fondly known as the father of WhatsApp and become a billionaire in the process.

Kyiv to California

Jan Koum was born on February 24, 1976, in Kyiv, Ukraine, a country that then still fell under the former Soviet Union, to Jewish parents as their only child. He lived a simple life in a small town that was disrupted by the chaotic political environment and anti-Semitism in the country. To escape the unfavorable conditions in their native land, the family decided to migrate to the United States. Jan, along with his mother and grandmother moved to the US in 1992, and his father planned to join the family later. However, his father fell ill in Ukraine and could not make it to the US. He died in 1997. Aged 16 at the time of the immigration, Jan faced considerable challenges in adjusting to the new country. His mother took up babysitting to earn money and Jan himself began working as a cleaner at a grocery store. He became interested in programming while at high school and discovered that he possessed an inherent knack for it. By the time he completed his schooling at 18, he was a skilled self-taught computer network engineer. He enrolled at the San Jose State University. While still a student he took up a job with global accountants Ernst & Young as a security tester to help pay for his studies.

From Acton to Action

On his job, Jan Kuom was assigned to the new search engine Yahoo to inspect security levels at the company’s advertising system. While working on this, he became acquainted with Brian Acton, one of Yahoo’s earliest employees. The two men shared many similarities and struck up an immediate rapport as both of them had a similar no-nonsense approach to working. After a few months, Koum joined Yahoo as an infrastructure engineer, while still attending San Jose State University. A few days after his joining Yahoo suffered a systems breakdown, and Koum—who was attending a class at that time—was immediately called to help with the problem. At this juncture, Koum realized that he would have to choose either the university or Yahoo, and he chose the latter. Koum and Acton worked together at Yahoo for nine years. During this time they not only became good friends but also realized their mutual interest in the fast-growing social media world. However, Yahoo did not offer them the opportunity to explore social media, so they quit their jobs in 2007 to explore newer avenues. Both Koum and Acton took a year off and traveled around South America. On their return to the US, both of them individually applied for jobs at Facebook and Twitter, and ironically both were rejected by both companies. 

iPhone to iBillionaire

In 2009, Koum bought a new iPhone. On visiting the then 8-month-old App Stores, he realized the potential offered by the market for iPhone compatible applications. This gave him the idea for an application for low-cost convenient communication. Excited with the idea, he started developing the initial stages of what would eventually become the biggest app in the world. Although it wasn’t smooth sailing and Koum knew he would need more investment to realize his dream. That’s when his good friend Acton stepped up and was able to secure a $250 000 investment. Koum immediately made Acton a co-founder and the two friends started up their first company, WhatsApp Inc. on Koum’s birthday in 2009. One of its fundamental principles was that their company would never accept any form of advertising revenue. The duo launched the WhatsApp Messenger in early 2010. The early messenger kept crashing and the men faced many challenges in promoting the application. Frustrated after a few months of trying, Koum was on the verge of giving up when Acton convinced him to give it some more time. Fortunes changed however when Apple initiated a featured that allowed apps to ping its users with notifications. This was a game-changer and Koum immediately implemented the new feature into his WhatsApp program. There were not many other instant messengers at that time, and gradually WhatsApp became popular with the users. The rising popularity of the app-enabled the founders to acquire additional venture capital. The user base of WhatsApp grew steadily over the months and by February 2013, it had around 200 million active users. The rising popularity of WhatsApp grabbed the attention of the social media giant Facebook which acquired WhatsApp for US$ 19 billion in 2014. By 2016 WhatsApp became the most popular messaging application with a user base of one billion.

As of May 2020, Jan Koum’s net worth is estimated to be more than $11 billion, of which a major portion comes from the sale of his company to Facebook. Koum’s salary and stock options as a member of the Facebook board also adds to his net worth. What Koum achieved at such a young age is still unmatched, a young struggling programmer went on to dominate the world by sheer determination and his computer programming expertise to produce a product that is used and loved by millions across the globe. His messenger WhatsApp created a communication revolution in instant messaging that not only worked but came with a minimal cost to the user. The unassuming and publicity-shy personality of Koum has endeared him to everyone around him and made him a household name in the App boom of the late 2010s.