Ukrainian WhatsApp founder grew up poor, was rejected by Facebook but now worth billions

With a sprawling cliffside mansion in California and his app in everybody’s pockets, you’d be forgiven for assuming that WhatsApp founder Jan Koum came from a wealthy background.

However, from escaping the USSR to growing up on benefits, the billionaire tech entrepreneur’s life is a true rags-to-riches story.

Koum, who oversaw the sale of WhatsApp to Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook—aka Meta—in a multibillion pound deal in 2014 before leaving the company over privacy concerns, came to the US at a young age as an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.

Today, he’s seemingly retired, spending his time growing a huge and expensive California real estate empire while collecting cars and playing ultimate frisbee. But his roots were very humble.

Jan Koum now has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of real estate

Born and raised in a small village near Kyiv, Ukraine, Koum grew up in a house without hot water. His parents—a housewife and a construction manager—rarely let him talk on the phone in case it was being spied on by the government.

After facing antisemitic prejudice and a poor economic future, Koum and his mother emigrated to the US when he was 16, taking Soviet notebooks with them to save money on school supplies.

In the US, Koum cleaned the floor of a supermarket while his mum worked as a babysitter. She was eventually diagnosed with cancer and the two of them made ends meet with food stamps and her disability allowance.

SIPA USA via PA Images In this photo illustration the WhatsApp logo seen displayed on a smartphone.  (Photo by Rafael Henrique / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
WhatsApp was sold to Facebook for billions in 2014

Koum taught himself computer programming by the age of 18, joining hacker groups and eventually going to study at San Jose State University where he met WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton.

After his mother died the two of them began hanging out, traveling the world before getting jobs at Yahoo! and applying to work at Facebook.

Both of them were rejected, with Acton saying “we’re part of the Facebook reject club.”

Then, Koum decided to buy an iPhone in January 2009, just months after the launch of the app store.

The initial idea for WhatsApp was a chat app that would show statuses next to the names of users. After showing it to some friends, none of them liked it and it had some major technical issues such as crashing and battery draining.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 23, 2019 Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on
Zuckerberg made a wise decision investing in the encrypted messaging app

Koum almost gave up on the project, until Acton told him “you’d be an idiot to quit now. Give it a few more months.”

After some tweaks, WhatsApp really began to take off with WhatsApp 2.0, which let you log in with just a phone number and included the feature that lets you see if your message has been sent or read.

As it grew in popularity, WhatsApp was finally acquired in 2014 by Facebook—the company that turned down Koum and Acton all those years ago—for $19 billion making them both very rich men.

Eventually, the app went fully encrypted in 2016 before Koum’s exit in 2017, reportedly over Facebook’s approach to data privacy.

As he exited, Koum said: “I’m taking some time off to do things I enjoy outside of technology, such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee. And I’ll still cheer being WhatsApp on – just from the outside. Thanks to everyone who has made this journey possible.”


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