From Ukrainian village to Silicon Valley billionaire

Jan Koum’s birthday was Feb. 24, but he received his big gift early.

Jan Koum photo/jta-getty images-david ramos

The Ukraine-born CEO and founder of WhatsApp has catapulted from relative unknown to a poster boy for rags-to-riches immigrant triumph since his rapidly growing messaging company was sold last week to Facebook for a record-breaking $19 billion —the largest buyout deal ever for a venture-backed company.

Koum, who just turned 38, grew up in a village near Kiev and immigrated to the United States as a teen, part of the exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the aftermath of its collapse.

According to Forbes, which has published the most detailed profile of him so far, Koum grew up in a home without hot water, and his parents “rarely talked on the phone in case it was tapped by the state.”

Koum first settled in Mountain View with his mother when he was 16. To make ends meet, his mother — who apparently brought over pens and notebooks in order to avoid paying for school supplies in the U.S. — worked as a babysitter while he swept a grocery store.

In an interview with Wired at the Digital Life-Design conference in Munich last month, Koum said his interest in WhatsApp was partially inspired by his memories of how difficult and costly it had been as a new immigrant to stay in touch with relatives back in Ukraine.

WhatsApp enables people to send free text, photo or video messages to their contacts all over the world. Reportedly used by 450 million people globally, the service is simple, and it bypasses text messaging charges and other fees from wireless carriers.

In his interview with Wired, the Russian-accented Koum noted that his early years in an environment lacking the “clutter” of advertising he encountered in the United States shaped his commitment to keeping WhatsApp free of ads.

“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.”

Given the recent turmoil in Kiev, it’s hard not to notice the stark contrast between Koum’s current and childhood homes.

Just hours before violence in Kiev’s Independence Square left dozens dead last week, in sunny, tranquil Mountain View, Koum and WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, a 42-year-old Michigan native, signed the deal with Facebook, standing right outside the government office where Koum and his mother once stood on line to get food stamps.

The money changing hands in the WhatsApp-Facebook deal that day is a sum equal to more than 10 percent of Ukraine’s entire GDP.

“We’re the most atypical Silicon Valley company you’ll come across,” Acton told Wired. “We were founded by 30-somethings; we focused on business sustainability and revenue rather than getting big fast; we’ve been incognito almost all the time; we’re mobile first; and we’re global first.”

The pair started WhatsApp in 2009, two years after they left their jobs at Yahoo Inc. and five years after Facebook got its start in Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room.

Much like Zuckerberg did during Facebook’s early years, WhatsApp’s founders shun ads. But unlike Facebook, which now relies on advertisements for the bulk of its revenue, WhatsApp remains ad-free.

Users who download WhatsApp on their phones (99 cents per year after a free first year) are greeted with a link that reads “Why we don’t sell ads.” The link leads to a note from Koum.

“These days companies know literally everything about you, your friends, your interests, and they use it all to sell ads,” Koum writes. “No one wakes up excited to see more advertising, no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they’ll see tomorrow. We know people go to sleep excited about who they chatted with that day (and disappointed about who they didn’t). We want WhatsApp to be the product that keeps you awake.”

Koum told Wired of growing up in a communist country, where “everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on.” That’s another, more personal reason for his insistence on not collecting information about users. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.