Lessons From Successful Entrepreneurs — WhatsApp Co-founder Jan Koum

WhatsApp Co-Founder Jan Koum

Entrepreneurship is the bedrock of every advanced nation.  It has always been the driver of innovation, productivity, job creation, and a source of economic growth in all sectors.

To be termed a successful entrepreneur, one must be considered a creative thinker and risk-taker. Successful entrepreneurs are resilient; they never give in to setbacks or challenges. Also, they are people who are committed to turning their dreams into reality and making a lasting impact on the populace. 

Given the need to encourage emerging entrepreneurs and those whose journeys are experiencing setbacks, this article discusses a successful entrepreneur named Jan Koum, highlighting key takeaways from his story. 

Jan Koum Success Story

Born on February 24, 1976, Jan Koum is a Ukrainian-American billionaire, businessman and computer programmer. According to Forbes, he has a net worth of about US$15.5 billion as of January 2024.

He is popularly known as the co-founder of the world’s biggest mobile messaging service, WhatsApp.  Notably, he co-founded WhatsApp with Brian Acton in 2009. In 2014, WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook Inc. for US$19 billion. However, he resigned as WhatsApp CEO in April 2018. Koum worked at Yahoo for about 9 years before he co-founded WhatsApp. 

How it Started

Koum came to the United States as a Ukrainian immigrant who escaped the U.S.S.R. with his mother but was met with extreme poverty. After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, his mother decided that the family should move to start a new chapter in America. Although his father was to join them later, he never did.

Not long after they arrived in Mountain View, California, Koum’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. They barely survived on federal government food stamps and government housing, with little support from his income from working as a janitor at a grocery store.

The Learning Phase

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding Koum, he was a smart kid and a quick learner who believed in hard work. Two years later, Koum taught himself computer programming and also received a hands-on education in cybersecurity by joining an elite hacking group, w00w00. He later went to San Jose State University, where he worked with the security team at Ernest & Young in his first year. 

It was during this time that he met his WhatsApp partner, Brian Acton, who was working on a project at Yahoo. Months later, Koum applied for a job with Yahoo and was employed. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it to the graduation because he dropped out after his first year following the demands of his job at Yahoo. He worked there for almost a decade.

Both Koum and Brian quit Yahoo on Halloween in 2007 and went to South America for a year-long adventure. During this time, they both applied for jobs at Facebook but weren’t considered. Unknown to them, one day, the billion-dollar company would come knocking on their door for a business deal.

Jan Koum Births WhatsApp Idea

Koum’s journey to wealth started when he had the idea of WhatsApp. After they returned to the U.S. from their adventure, they considered joining another company or starting their individual company. With the emergence of new communication technologies such as Skype, Koum started conceiving ideas on how to improve users’ experience. 

His idea for WhatsApp was influenced by his personal experiences. As a teenager, communicating with his family was challenging because it was extremely expensive. He wanted to proffer solutions to reduce communication costs.

On one of his birthdays, Koum encountered Brian again during their favourite pastime activity — Ultimate Frisbee. He shared his idea with Brian, and there and then, the business was legally established as WhatsApp Inc. 

The Launch and Scaling of WhatsApp 

WhatsApp was launched on May 3, 2009. Notably, it failed at first but after re-strategizing, a new version was released in September 2009, which proved to be a success. The rapid growth experience gave room for experimentation with various business models.

With the success of the new launch, the company began to look for investors who could help scale the business. In October 2009, Brian got several of their former colleagues at Yahoo to invest US$250,000 in the business. 

WhatsApp Acquisition by Facebook

The co-founders of WhatsApp received a mouth-watering offer of US$19 billion from Facebook in 2014. This led to the acquisition of WhatsApp. Nonetheless, Koum and Brian still had a partnership with Facebook for some years before they finally left due to issues regarding advertising and users’ privacy protection. Brian left first because of some misunderstandings, which led him to participate in the #DeleteFacebook movement. Meanwhile, Koum’s exit was friendly.

Key Lessons for Jan Koum

Koum’s story serves as a great source of inspiration to entrepreneurs and business leaders. First, we saw a mind that was determined to rewrite his family history. Despite coming from a poor and miserable background, Koum did not allow where he came from to deter his dream for the future. He was hardworking, dedicated, focused, and diligent in his duties.

Second, we saw someone who had a growth mindset. On migrating to the U.S., Koum did not just fold his arms to depend solely on government food stamp support. As tender as he was, he worked as a janitor at a grocery store to support his mother and her ailing condition. 

He went further to teach himself computer programming before being privileged to learn cybersecurity from the group called w00w00. This laid the foundation that gave him the privilege to work with Yahoo.

Third, Jan Koum was conscious of strategic relationships. It was his relationship with Brian that paved the way for him to join him at Yahoo. Even during their business days, it was strategic relationships that brought in investors that helped scale the business. 

Furthermore, we saw someone who was principled and never compromised on his integrity. Koum’s background instilled in him the consciousness of privacy protection.  This was why he never wanted anything to do with advertising on WhatsApp because it was a violation of the privacy of his users/customers. 

Most importantly, his story points to the reality that, wealth is created through problem-solving. Koum’s interest in building a user-friendly messaging app emerged from his desire to make communication less expensive and seamless. By solving this problem, he was able to create great wealth. 

You too can be successful if you are determined, resilient and principled, while having a growth mindset and being intentional in building strategic relationships. 

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