When Jan Koum and his mother migrated from their native Kiev, Ukraine in the 1980’s, they started their lives in the U.S. with meager means. After becoming a Silicon Valley rock star in the tech industry, however, Koum is now one of the newest of the world’s billionaires.
Koum is the co-founder of WhatsApp, an instant messaging service that improves on traditional SMS. WhatsApp offers premium messaging service that bypasses mobile carriers’ data usage fees. The app costs subscribers 99 cents per year after a free-year trial period. What’s more, the service carries no advertising.
Formed in 2009, the WhatsApp model is rooted in Koum’s childhood in a communist country. Because secret police activity was commonplace, Koum grew up with an appreciation for unmonitored communication. To this end, WhatsApp users only provide their phone number to use the service—no name, address, age or gender identification required.
After gaining political asylum status in the U.S., Koum and his family relied on food stamps to survive. Before coming to the U.S., Koum and his family lived in a rural Kiev community with no hot water or electricity.
The stark nature of Koum’s reality for much of his life could well be at the core of his inclination toward rolling up his sleeves and getting down to work, regardless of the setting. And although flash and cash are perpetual temptations in Silicon Valley, WhatsApp grew its service to more than 450 million users in only five years. It didn’t use advertising or public relations efforts at all.
Just as much as having a reputation as a very good programmer with a solid head for business, Silicon Valley knows Koum as virtually ego-less. For much of its existence, stained carpets in the WhatsApp offices and the lack of the company name on its front door show Koum’s disinterest in material trappings.
In February, Facebook Inc. CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg announced the company’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp and Koum’s addition to Facebook’s board of directors. Koum played the irony of his story to the fullest when he signed paperwork for the deal in front of the welfare office where he collected food stamps not so long ago.