From immigrant rags to billionaire riches

While his former schoolmates in Ukraine are perhaps involved in the social unrest engulfing the country, Jan Koum, an Ukrainian Jew in America for less than 20 years, became the newest tech multi billionaire thanks to Facebook's acquisition of the company he co founded, WhatsApp. 

Parmy Olson of Forbes relates the story of Koum's early years, the family's initial tough times here and how Koum's restlessness and creative intelligence plus persistence, formed WhatsApp. Indeed, linking past with present and future, Koum insisted on signing the agreement with Facebook in a former California social services office which dispensed the food stamps the family initially used upon their arrival.

Koum...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.

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."

Nevertheless, after dropping in and out of school, teaching himself computer networking and taking odd jobs in IT,  Koum made a few friends including Brian Acton, a former work colleague plus other Russian emigre techies.  With co founder Acton, Koum decided their app would not bother users with ads while collecting minimal information about them.

In an interview last month with Wired, Kaum reflected how his past is embedded in WhatsApp.  For instance registration is though phone number rather than personal password, messages are deleted from the main server once it is delivered and not collecting user personal information such as name, age, address or gender.

"I grew up in a country where advertising doesn't exist," he said. "We feel that putting advertising into an app that people use to communicate would be wrong. Ads don't belong there." (snip)

Living in poverty in the USSR - he was born in a village outside Kiev in Ukraine - and later in the US, where his family settled in 1992, also had a profound effect on Koum.

"There were a lot of negatives, of course, but there were positives to living a life unfettered by possessions," he said. "It gave us the chance to focus on education, which was very important in the Soviet Union." As an immigrant to the US, he added, education was what sustained him and propelled him to success.

That emphasis on education is also evidenced in the way the company is run. "We have about 50 employees, half of them engineers, and the others support staff who speak several languages, so we can communicate with users in their native language," said Koum.

A less positive, but no less important, component of Whatsapp is the privacy it has hitherto tried to provide users. "We don't store messages on our servers, and we encrypt the messages so they cannot be hijacked on their way to or from a users phone," he said.


The registration process is done via phone numbers, and Whatsapp obviously does not have access to the phone company's records to match accounts to the names of users. "Growing up in a place where the state monitors your conversations made us passionate about privacy." 


The immigrant experience also figured in Koum's choice of profession.

"When I was a kid trying to communicate with family in the Soviet Union, it was very difficult," he said. "You had to go through the long-distance phone companies like MCI, which were difficult to navigate and expensive to make calls through. We're very gratified to see that immigrants are using Whatsapp, and are able to communicate with family abroad. We want to make sure that people can communicate, no matter how far apart they are geographically," Koum said.

As a Jew in Russia, and later, as a poor immigrant in the US, Koum has been a perennial outsider, and this is reflected in the company's DNA. Few people venture into Whatsapp's small offices in an out-of-the-way area of Mountain View, Koum said, noting that he had never been pursued by reporters to the same extent that other, more publicity-happy Silicon Valley "captains of industry" are.

Certainly an instant 19 billion dollar company might be bait enough for some reporters to pursue them, ending the privacy of WhatsApp founders though.  But that shouldn't bother the privacy loving founders; if they can upend the business structure of other messaging services with an emphasis on privacy they can certainly shake off pesky reporters.

Ironically, four and a half years ago both Twitter and Facebook turned down opportunities to hire Brian Acton as he announced on Twitter then.