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Yes, this is yet another rags-to-riches story but of a different kind, I am sure. It traverses one continent to another; from a constricted and shadowed life in one country to a freer, enterprising, and braver life in another country; from absolute penury to becoming one of the richest in the world. The Jan Koum saga is one worth extolling by one and all - those who have had their luck and share of success and as well as, primarily, those who aspire to succeed in life – mind you, not just professionally but in totality, brushing with destiny (fortune and misfortune) and giving a different perspective to people and shaping the lives of many along the way.

His creation, apparently the result of years of anguish at the state-driven paranoia, robbing people of their freedom in day-to-day life, privacy and choice – is a testimony of the fact that courage of conviction, more than anything else, is what matters when you are pushed to the wall by circumstances. Genius has the knack of creating opportunity out of adversity, and this is an indirect yet great example of it. Read on.

Childhood and early days Ukraine

Koum was born on 24th February, 1976 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The date assumes significance as it was on this very day three decades later (in 2009), WhatsApp was launched. It is people like Koum who inspire us to keep going amidst extreme adversities and phases of hopelessness in our lives. For, if he and his mother had given in to the trying situation the family was in, in a Communist country back in the day, then there perhaps would not have arisen the need for Koum to migrate to the U.S., to pursue a scare-free life, much less a dream.

Imagine ones predicament if people were questioned for airing views, and younger ones questioned for holding a certain point of view, and even phones were tapped so you could communicate with you near and dear ones and indulge in small-talk even. Thus, lie was difficult in certain way for young Koum and his family and it decided to migrate to America. Initially, only the mother and son did, the father was to follow suit but couldn’t until the end. So, the background was all there for Koum to think of an application, when it came to creating one based on his new-found love for technology and computers. So, his creation, which facilitates an easy way to send messages across borders and between different brands of mobile devices was built on three basic guidelines or principals or tenets –call them what you want: no adds, no games, and no password as it connected by phone number and gave a gimmickless, reliable, friction-free user experience.

Humble Beginnings – from the Beginning!

Right from the day Koum and his mother moved to the land of dreams when young Jan was all of just 16, it was a mighty struggle for existence. It could have been worse for them had it not been for the Social Support Program which allowed them to get a two-bedroom apartment. However, trying circumstances didn’t cease as they had to rely on the food coupons for subsistence, inspite of Koum’s mother worked as a baby-sitter and he as a cleaner at a grocery store.

While the industrious nature was always there, however, by the time he became eighteen, Koum started taking special interest in computers and programming, and thus, enrolled at San Jose and simultaneously worked at Ernst & Young as a security tester.

Turn of events

But things turned for the worse when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Although it did provide them some financial support by way of her disability, it compounded the young man’s emotional crisis further, resulted earlier by the passing away of his father (who could not migrate to the US for some reason) few years after they came to the U.S.

When life deals a cruel blow, the toughest come up trumps more often than not. And, so it was with Koum. After he met Brian Acton (the co-founder of WhatsApp) during his stint with E&Y, he decided to join Yahoo!, which did after prodding by one of the company’s founders, in its infrastructure engineering department and served there for almost nine years from 1998 to 2007.

The Facebook snub, the break and what followed…

Both Koum and Acton were rejected by Facebook; both of them quit Yahoo! on the same day (October 31, 2007), and both took a break for a couple years, and went on a vacation, played ultimate Frisbee, and just whiled away their time – but with a purpose – to innovate the next big thing in technology! Koum came up with the idea and went ahead and incorporated the name of the company, which would also be the name of the application. It would be the world’s first ad-free, non-intrusive, no data-security – yes- you heard it right, it would not be required as there are no passwords, the messages get deleted from the servers after being posted (although they remain on the mobile phone of the sender/recipient), and absolutely no trickery whatsoever. As he says, his service would defiantly not carry advertising, an experience absent from his Soviet upbringing; it would not store messages and thus imperil individual citizens' privacy.

Like mentioned above, the company that would produce the application was started in an almost run-down place, obviously for want of funds and also since there didn’t arise any absolute necessity. The office was like a car dealership with no cars inside and hardly any furniture. The office contained a handful of desks atop a stained wall-to-wall carpet and many of the engineers worked remotely.

Initial days of WhatsApp

Up until three months after the app was developed and released, it didn’t exactly set the apps world on fire. But one month later, when Apple introduced push notifications in iOS 3.0, it did the trick for him, as it allowed developers to ping users when they were not using the app. Thus, in a way, making it an instant messaging app which caught on with users by hundreds initially, and then when went to add multi-fold as it was the best free texting app (the next or only other free one was BBM but it worked only among BlackBerrys) – and how it scored over others? Unlike others, on didn’t require to login every time one wanted to use it – ones phone was the login? That was the clincher.

It catches on……

When WhatsApp user swelled to 250,000, Koum went again to his friend Acton, who hadn’t been on-board earlier (was sceptical, hadn’t decided what to do). This time though Acton was more than convinced and since he also believed in the no-ads, no-gimmickry, and no invasion of users’ privacy, he now put all his power and resources behind Koum’s app. and brought in a basic-annual subscription fee model in some countries. But that did not deter users from handing on to it.

By November 2011, the app had well and truly caught on - it was the No. 1 paid social app in the App Store and had logged 10 million downloads on Android. In the course of the next couple of years, the user-base would swell exponentially to 450 million – a whopping figure that would catch anyone’s attention; especially ad sellers. But, since it would not work, there had to be someone who valued the world’s best messenger without worrying about revenues. And it was none other than that sensational whiz-kid Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, who assessed the potential of WhatsApp (not monetarily) but as a worthy addition to its stable, and acquired it for a whopping $19 Billion and the rest is history.

 'Being able to reach somebody half way across the world instantly, on a device that is always with you, was powerful.
 WhatsApp Messenger. Made in USA. Land of the free and the home of the brave.
 People need to differentiate us from companies like Yahoo! and Facebook that collect your data and have it sitting on their servers." – Before the acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook
 Marketing and press kicks up dust. It gets in your eye, and then you’re not focusing on the product.
 I can’t see a reason for there being a sign. It’s an ego boost. We all know where we work.” – About not having a sing-board for WhatsApp’s office.
 I want to do one thing, and do it well.
 Before [the acquisition] we experimented with monetization, we tried to charge in some countries. We didn’t have the long-term financial support of Facebook
 For a bit, we can focus on growth only and not have to do any kind of experimentation with monetization.
 It’s depressing and disappointing. It’s something that happened a long time ago. It’s also a little bit of an indication of how Silicon Valley has become a little bit more like Hollywood where people are just a little too gossipy and not really focused on necessarily the product or building a company or innovating.
 When government gets in the way, consumers and freedom to communicate suffers..
 When advertising is involved, you the user are the product. You think you free but you are slave to the funds, baby.
 Comparing total registered users and active users is like comparing Ferrari 250 GTO with a skateboard.
 There's nothing more personal to you than communicating with friends and family, and interrupting that with advertising is not the right solution. And we don't have to know a lot about our users. To target advertisements well, companies need to know where you are, what you might be doing, who you might be with, what you might like or not like. That's an insane amount of data. Besides, I grew up in a world with no advertising. There was none in the Communist Soviet Union.
 Over the years, I have thought a lot about that difficult period of my life. I have many regrets and things I wish I could go back and change, but I have also worked hard and tried to improve myself.
 It was so run-down that our school didn't even have an inside bathroom. Imagine the Ukrainian winter, -20°C, where little kids have to stroll across the parking lot to use the bathroom. Society was extremely closed off: you can read 1984, but living there was experiencing it. I didn't have a computer until I was 19 -- but I did have an abacus.

Hope viewers caught up the spark…