The story of WhatsApp founder Jan Koum, a Ukrainian-American who turned the tables of his inevitable misfortune and created a legendary rags to riches story, is a prime example of what one can do when he has nothing to lose.
It also is a slap on the faces of those who go on making excuses on why they are unable to succeed and are, therefore, destined to die in penury.
While Jan was growing up in Ukraine in utter poverty and having little connection to the outside world, his Jewish family lived in constant fear of a growing antisemitic feelings in the region. They were even afraid to make calls fearing they might be detected by the secret police.
In 1992, when he was 16, Jan immigrated along with his mother and grandmother to California and started living in a government-sponsored apartment.
To support their expenses in the new country, Jan took the job of sweeping the floors of a supermarket while his mother started babysitting.
Jan’s father, who was supposed to join the family at a later stage, fell ill while staying in Ukraine and eventually died in 1997. Subsequently, his mother was also diagnosed with cancer and died in 2000.
Having lost both his parents within a span of 4 years, Jan had no money and was completely dependent on government support for survival. He and his grandmother were forced to rely on US government-sponsored program which provided food to low-income or no-income groups.
When he was in High School, Jan decided to take charge of his life and started his attempt to escape poverty. He began buying used books and taught himself network engineering. When he would complete a book, he would return it to the bookstore and get refunds.
He taught himself incredibly without the help of anyone except those used books. Subsequently, he landed himself a job at Ernst & Young as a security tester.
One of the first clients of the company at that time was a budding but soon-to-be internet giant Yahoo. Jan was to take care of Yahoo’s advertising system.
Jan, unlike other employees, was a blunt speaker in the midst of impressive flowery talkers who knew how to convince a customer. Jan was straightforward and had no time for bullshit.
While working on the project, the Yahoo team was so impressed by Jan that they offered him a job. Soon, he was working for Yahoo where he met Brain Acton who was going to be the co-founder of WhatsApp years later.
Yahoo went on from becoming an internet giant to a complete disaster before Jan’s very eyes. In 2007, he left Yahoo and applied for jobs at Facebook. He was rejected (fortunately).
He had about $400 thousand in savings from his job at Yahoo which he poured into a new project called WhatsApp. The name he chose was because he found it similar to popular greeting ‘What’s up’.
It started slow, but then went viral. After it crossed 250,000 active users, Jan asked old friend Acton to join him and he became the co-founder of the soon-to-be revolutionary platform.
Together they turned their fortunes upside down and created one of the most fascinating startup stories ever.
Between 2009 and 2015, WhatsApp went from 0 to 900 million users and became the largest messaging app in the world without spending a dime on marketing, PR or user acquisition. It proved that if you have a good product, you don’t need marketing and people are more than happy to recommend your product to their friends and relatives.
One of the reasons WhatsApp has been the first choice for messaging is the fact that it sells no advertisements or gimmicks. Jan and Brain hate advertisement but that also means they were earning nothing from the app other than the yearly fee. Later on, they discontinued the fee too.
The rise of the app was noticed by other internet giants including Google and Facebook who wanted to acquire it and made proposals that Jan would never have imagined in his wildest dreams.
On February 19, 2014, Acton, Jan and Jim Goetz of Sequoia Capital, who invested $8 million into the project, signed the deal with Facebook to sell the app for $19 billion. And do you know that the deal wasn’t signed inside the Facebook Headquarters? Yes, they signed it outside the door of the same old white building where Jan used to stand in long queues to get the food he received from the government to survive.
It was the moment for Jan Koum: From teaching himself skills using old books, getting rejected by a company that later came back to him and made a humongous offer, and becoming one of the richest persons in the world from a young man trying to make ends meet.
Jan had turned the tables on life itself.