WhatsApp Founder Jan Koum's Jewish Rags-to-Riches Tale

Silicon Valley Mogul Was Broke Ukraine Immigrant

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By Reuters

Published February 20, 2014.
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WhatsApp grew up in Silicon Valley, but its founder’s Jewish background in Eastern Europe gave it its DNA.

The messaging company bought by Facebook for $19 billion in a deal announced on Wednesday has become a global force, with 450 million customers who find it an easy way to send messages across borders and between different brands of mobile devices.

Founder and Chief Executive Officer Jan Koum, 37, grew up mostly in the Ukraine, and moved to Mountain View, California, as a teenager, an immigrant path reminiscent of other Silicon Valley successes such as Max Levchin, the Ukrainian-born co-founder of Paypal, and Google’s Russian-born co-founder, Sergey Brin.

Like technology titans Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, Koum dropped out of college, but in his case, it was San Jose State rather than Harvard.

Koum’s eastern European background was key to WhatsApp’s creation, according to Jim Goetz, the partner at Sequoia Capital who backed the company.

Unlike companies such as Google and Facebook, which try to learn as much as possible about each user, WhatsApp does not collect personal information such as name, gender, or age, Goetz wrote in a blog post, and messages are deleted from servers once delivered.

“It’s a decidedly contrarian approach shaped by Jan’s experience growing up in a communist country with a secret police,” Goetz wrote. “Jan’s childhood made him appreciate communication that was not bugged or taped.”

Similarly, Brin’s early childhood in Russia contributed to its “Don’t Be Evil” motto.

Koum’s view was evident in a tweet he wrote last year about Iran and Turkmenistan blocking WhatsApp.

“When government gets in the way, consumers and freedom to communicate suffers,” he wrote.

He also sees advertising as an imposition.

“When advertising is involved, you the user are the product,” Koum wrote in a 2012 blog post, disparaging the effort other companies make to collect personal data. That same year, he quoted singer Kanye West in a tweet, writing, “You think you free but you a slave to the funds, baby.”

WhatsApp charges 99 cents a year, and that bargain-basement approach extends to the WhatsApp’s original office, according to Yoav Leitersdorf of YL Ventures, who visited in 2010 in an attempt to invest in the young company. He’s still impressed by both the founders and what he saw.

“It was like a car dealership with no cars inside and hardly any furniture at all for that matter,” Leitersdorf recalled. “I remember parking my car and walking around the building for about five minutes or more, looking for the office door.” The office contained a handful of desks atop a stained wall-to-wall carpet, he said.

At the time, Koum mentioned that many of the engineers worked remotely; today he provides recommendations for some on his LinkedIn page.

Last month, as the crisis in his home country of Ukraine escalated, Koum posted photos of revolutionaries and tweeted “praying for peace and quick resolution to the crisis #ukraine #freedom.”

He also has given a shout-out or two to his adopted country. “WhatsApp Messenger,” he tweeted last year. “Made in USA. Land of the free and the home of the brave.”


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