Jan Koum picked a meaningful spot to sign the $19 billion deal to sell his company WhatsApp to Facebook earlier today. Koum, cofounder Brian Acton and venture capitalist Jim Goetz of Sequoia drove a few blocks from WhatsApp’s discreet headquarters in Mountain View to a disused white building across the railroad tracks, the former North County Social Services office where Koum, 37, once stood in line to collect food stamps. That’s where the three of them inked the agreement to sell their messaging phenom –which brought in a miniscule $20 million in revenue last year — to the world’s largest social network.
Koum, who Forbes believes owns 45% of WhatsApp and thus is suddenly worth $6.8 billion (net of taxes) — 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.”
Koum was a troublemaker at school but by 18 had also taught himself computer networking by purchasing manuals from a used book store and returning them when he was done. He joined a hacker group called w00w00 on the Efnet internet relay chat network, squirreled into the servers of Silicon Graphics and chatted with Napster co-founder Sean Fanning.