The Reason WhatsApp does not advertise
on Friday June 16th, 2017, By Rishi Upadhyaya

Almost everyone in the world knows about WhatsApp and all have used it at some point of time. WhatsApp has a huge presence in the instant messaging scenario and its co-founder Jan Koum has a net worth in billions! Sounds great right? But do you know that the story of Jan Koum did not start as pleasant as it seems?

Koum was born in Ukraine in 1976 in a household with no running water. Imagine, winters in Ukraine where temperatures dropped to -20 degrees celsius and no hot water for use. While he was growing up in Ukraine in utter poverty and was having little connection to the outside world, his Jewish family lived in constant fear of the growing antisemitic feelings in the region. Their family rarely made calls fearing they might be detected by the secret police. (One of the reasons WhatsApp makes the privacy of the users as its priority!)

Afterwards, in 1992, when Jan was 16 years old he immigrated along with his mother and grandmother to California. His dad never made it over. They were able to get a government sponsored apartment. To support his family, Jan was forced to work at a supermarket where he swept floors while his mother had taken up a babysitting job. They survived off food stamps from a welfare office, only a couple of blocks away from the company’s future office. Unfortunately his mother was diagnosed with cancer and died in 2000. Having lost both his parents and having no money for survival, Jan was completely dependant on US government sponsored programs for his living.

Jan  was a troublemaker at school, but by the time he was 18 years old, he had taught himself network engineering by renting used books and returning them once he was done. He taught himself without the help of anyone. Subsequently, he was able to get a job as a Security Tester at Ernst and Young where things started to look a little bright for him.

(Fun fact : Around the same time Jan joined a hacker group called w00w00 where he chatted with the Napster Co-founder Sean Fanning)

Brain Acton and Jan Koum

One of the very first customers of Ernst and Young were Yahoo, and Jan was told to handle Yahoo’s advertising systems. There he met one of Yahoo’s employee Brain Acton who turned out to be his co-founder of whatsapp. Acton noted that Jan was a blunt speaker who did not like to sugercoat stuff and spoke always on point. He also liked Acton’s no-nonsense style. “None of us have an ability to do bullshit”, says Jan.

Impressed by Jan’s work, Yahoo offered him a job. Eager to work at Yahoo, he dropped out of San Jose State University. Acton also helped Jan a lot after the death of his mother. Over the next few years, they saw Yahoo go up and down, and finally in 2007 both Jan and Acton left Yahoo to take a one year vacation after being stressed beyond a limit dealing with advertisements. (One of the reasons WhatsApp never advertises!)

(Fun Fact : In his LinkedIn profile, Koum unenthusiastically describes his last three years at Yahoo with the words, “Did some work.”‎)

Both of them then decided to apply at Facebook where unfortunately (or fortunately :P) both of them were rejected.

He then poured all of his savings from his job at Yahoo (Around $400k) into a new project which he called WhatsApp. As evident, the name was selected because of its similarity with What’s Up?(

(Fun Fact : WhatsApp didn’t start off as a messaging app but as a platform where people can view each other’s status and was available only on Apple devices).

He got a decent amount of users in the initial stage but what really pushed WhatsApp into the market was the introduction of Push notifications (pun intended) in Iphone.

Nine months down the line he roped in Acton into the project. Soon both of them started brainstorming over the idea and started expanding WhatsApp. They received a Seed Funding of $250k with the help of Acton’s contacts and then WhatsApp’s popularity soar to a new high. They were able to lease an office in the building where Evernote had its headquarters. They soon started to expand to other platforms and started recruiting employees. When employees were called in for interviews there was still no sign outside the office for WhatsApp and the instructions given to them was ‘Find the Evernote building. Go round the back. Find the unmarked door. Knock.’

Read: The story of an Indian working at Tesla

Between 2009 and 2017, WhatsApp went from 0 to 1.2 billion users without any sort of advertising or PR, for which both Co-founders were heavily against.

On 2014, WhatsApp signed the legendary deal with Facebook wherein Facebook acquired the app for 19 billion USD! Ironically the deal was signed outside the same welfare office from where Jan and his mother used to get foodstamps.  After the deal, Jan Koum’s net worth reached billions.

Jan Koum signing the deal outside the welfare office

Jan Koum’s current networth is 9.7 billion USD. He donated around 556 million USD to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in 2014. One thing that Koum loves the most are Porsches. He has said that his desire to get a Porsche was one of the reason which drove him ahead. From being a boy who used to sweep floors and survive on foodstamps to being a billionaire whose company was acquired by the same company which rejected him, Jan Koum’s story is an inspiration to everyone which shows that even if all the walls are closed, you should go through the roof.

“I want to do one thing and do it well.” – Jan Koum

Rishi Upadhyaya

Hail sithis!

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