Jan Koum was born in Kyiv, Ukraine - in the Soviet Union.
Growing up in communist Ukraine left a bitter taste in Jan’s mouth - as everything you did was monitored.
People lived in fear in case they were unknowingly recorded, or worse, snitched on.
This upbringing solidified his zest for privacy protection.
Move to America
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jan and his mother decide to move to America, for a fresh start.
They settled in Mountain View, California in a 2 bedroom apartment.
Over the next couple of years, Jan developed an interest in computer programming.
He even joined a hacker group ‘w00w000’, where he received a hands-on education in cyber security.
Jan's college life
After graduating from school, Jan enrolled in San Jose State University for a Bachelor’s in computer science.
At night, he moonlit in Ernst & Young as a security tester.
However, Jan eventually dropped out of college a few years later to focus on his job full-time.
When Jan met Brian
Jan met his eventual Whatsapp cofounder Brian Acton years later.
Jan applied and got hired as an infrastructure engineer in Yahoo! where he met Brian, who was also working there.
Over the next 9 years, Jan and Brian developed a strong friendship as colleagues.
Taking some time off....🏖️
Around 2007, both Jan and Brian left Yahoo! a month apart.
They spent this time to relax, unwind, travel, and play ultimate frisbee!
During this period, both of them applied for jobs at Facebook (now Meta), and got rejected.
Jan buys an iPhone
2 years later, Jan decided to buy himself an iPhone, where he discovered the App Store. (The App Store was only 7 months old.)
He knew that the App Store was going to create a new wave of innovations - and he wanted to be one of first.
He began brainstorming an app idea with a friend.
Jan knew what he wanted to make: a more accessible tool for phone-based communications.
He registered WhatsApp, Inc - the app's name in California.
Jan built the back-end, and hired a freelance iOS developer to create the front-end.
The prototype was a simple app that displayed a user's 'status’.
Whatsapp's first versions
WhatsApp’s first version was a huge flop as people did not find much use for it.
But that changed when Apple introduced the push notification.
Jan updated Whatsapp such that every time you changed your status, everyone would get a notification.
Wait a Minute...
This new change became popular, as people began putting up custom statuses such as ‘On my way’ ‘Going to the gym’ ‘I woke up late’ to communicate with their friends
Jan realized he had created a free messaging service!
At that time, the only free mobile messaging service was BBM- Blackberry Messenger which was restricted to owners of a Blackberry
Jan realized his app was unique, as the login was only your phone number.
He quickly added a messaging component, and released Whatsapp 2.0.
With this change, the app gained a large following.
Jan also convinced the then unemployed Brian to join the company. He granted Brian co-founder status after Brian brought in $250,000 in seed funding.
WhatsApp is now a unicorn! 🦄
Whatsapp continued to blow up as the team expanded to around 50 staff members.
In a december blog post that year, WhatsApp claimed that it had 400 million active users who were using that service each month.
It also managed to get funding from Sequioa Capital in a Series B round which skyrocketed its valuation to $1.15 billion!
Facebook buys Whatsapp
Over the years many companies (most notably Google) had tried to buy WhatsApp.
However, only 1 company sealed the deal: Facebook.
In February 2014, it was announced that Facebook would be acquiring WhatsApp for a whopping $19 billion USD.
Jan and Brian =>Big privacy advocates.
Even after the sale of Whatsapp, the team strived to preserve the sanctity of the app.
- They added end-to-end encryption,
- did not share data with its parent company
- and even resisted calls from government agencies
Facebook wears WhatsApp down
But Facebook eventually wore Whatsapp down and made it change its terms of service.
Facebook leadership pushed for centralized profiles across different products
Reportedly, so that they could be used for data mining and ad targeting.
Jan steps down
According to reports, these changes did not sit well with Jan.
Koum took issue with Facebook’s approach toward data privacy and encryption
After multiple clashes, Jan announced he would be stepping down and resigning from the company.
Where's Jan now?
Jan, now retired and no longer obligated to be a public figure has retreated to his private life.
He indulges in his philanthropic ventures and rarely makes a public appearance.
Wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, we’re sure he’s living his best life.
With over 2 billion active users, Whatsapp continues to thrive worldwide.
It still stumbles into its fair share of controversy with regard to user data privacy, the company doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
However, there are small contenders such as Telegram, Signal who might give Whatsapp a run for their money someday