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

Silicon Valley Mogul Was Broke Ukraine Immigrant

youtube

By Reuters

Published February 20, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.