From zero to a billion: Jan Koum and WhatsApp

Not so long ago WhatsApp was one of the most popular messengers.

Now because of its analogs, it is no longer in such demand, but still, hundreds of thousands of users send messages in this application. And he created it an ordinary entrepreneur from Ukraine, who had a simple idea but managed to implement it, so he became a billionaire. The success story of Jan Koum and his application WhatsApp.

The difficult childhood of the future billionaire Jan Koum – the future creator of WhatsApp – was born into a poor working family in the city of Fastov near Kyiv. As Jan remembers, money was often not enough to even for the most necessary things and he had to work at school to help his parents somehow.

The unstable political situation during perestroika, anti-Semitic sentiment and the death of his father, forced Jan Koum and his mother to emigrate to California in the early 90s. However, the situation here was not much better, there was still not enough money, as before we had to work part-time, combining work with the school. True in the U.S. the boy had the opportunity to get a good education and study literature on programming, which he did in his spare time from school and work.

In the same period, Jan Koum, whose biography is not bright enough as it is, gets another stroke of fate – his mother found a malignant tumor. In the following years, the family lives on a disability allowance, renting a small apartment on the outskirts of town.


First steps in business

Self-education and development in programming allowed Jan Koum in 19 to join the W00w00 hacker group. Later, Yahoo! offered him the opportunity to apply his skills to test their advertising platform, and six months later he was hired as a permanent member of the advertising department.

The year 2000 can be considered a turning point in Koum’s life. First, his mother dies of cancer, then he realizes that he no longer wants to work for Yahoo! and quits. The programmer’s financial situation at the time allowed him to travel with Brian Akton (future co-founder of WhatsApp and a colleague in the advertising department, to South America. This was followed by an attempt to get a job on Facebook, which, despite his experience at Yahoo, was a failure.

Where did the WhatsApp idea come from?

Opinions differed what made Jan Koum think about the idea of WhatsApp. Here are the three most popular versions:

  1. According to Jim Goetz from Sequoia Capital, due to his difficult financial situation, young Jan Koum sought to maintain relations with relatives in Russia and Ukraine, which later developed into the idea of creating an application for free communication around the world. However, given the original concept of WhatsApp, this version raises many questions.
  2. Some journalists claim that the history of the WhatsApp chat started with the ban on using a mobile phone in the room where Jan Koum was working. Because of this, he missed important calls during the training and therefore thought about creating a mobile program that would automatically display the status of the subscriber and tell him why he can’t pick up the phone.
  3. The third version is almost identical to the second one, with the only exception that Jan Koum missed calls not in the gym, but during his university studies.

Anyway, it’s the beginning of the project. In the following years, WhatsApp developed as a startup with an initial team of 10 people and gradually managed to earn the respect of world-famous companies.

“Do what’s useful, not profitable.”

As Jan Koum says, WhatsApp was not originally a tool to make money. The idea was to create a quality product that was in demand and easy to use. Often, Jan Koum is offended when he is called an entrepreneur, because he believes that the company initially provides for income, which the project team has never sought.

Even the sale of the Facebook messenger for a record $ 19 billion Jan Koum (the state, which after the deal rose to 6.8 billion) argues that the corporation has the necessary administrative resources and technological developments that can provide WhatsApp further development and allow him not to be distracted by organizational activities.

The billionaire and the developer are sure that if you make a product useful for people, the money will come by itself.

The secret of WhatsApp success

Not all at once.

Although the development took several years, WhatsApp did not initially generate much interest among users. The application could only change its status and send a text message, which did not stand out from the already popular Skype or ICQ.

The messenger really “shot” after the appearance of the pop-up notification function in Apple mobile OS, which immediately made WhatsApp times more convenient, the number of downloads increased to 250 000. The audience of 1.3 billion people managed to get it by adding the ability to share files, photo videos, end-to-end encryption of correspondence, photo statuses and further refinement of the application, which is carried out taking into account the wishes of users.

Everything ingenious is simple.

The popularity of WhatsApp is largely due to its ease of use, the “user-friendly” interface and the presence of only the necessary functions. Nothing superfluous is the cornerstone of WhatsApp. Jan Koum has always adhered to this principle and even when Facebook allowed its users to play online games, he said that people run the messenger not to play, but to communicate.

WhatsApp infrastructure allows 1 programmer to serve 14 million users and keep the number of employees within three hundred. As a result, the cost of maintaining the staff is much lower than on the same Facebook or Twitter.

“No” to advertising!

“Organic growth” is another principle of Jan Koum. Neither before nor after the release of the application has invested a dollar in its promotion and promotion. Moreover, the “taboo” on advertising also works in the application itself, which is also liked by users: no pop-up windows, watching videos and flash banners.

It should be noted that initially, Akton planned to add context advertising to the messenger based on user preferences, but this idea was quickly abandoned, as it did not fit into the concept of Jan Koum. If we take into account that at that time the team was earning only from user subscriptions ($1 per year) and could barely compensate for the costs, we can say that Jan has steel principles.

Jan Koum’s success story shows that any entrepreneur willing to work on himself and his idea can become a billionaire.

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