How WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum Epitomizes The New American Dream
When WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum used the door of his old welfare office to sign the deal with Facebook that would instantly make him a billionaire, he might as well have been rewriting the narrative of the American Dream, which for years has been in desperate need of revision.
With all the distrust and cynicism that has come with an embarrassingly inefficient government, talk of the 99 percent and the growing feeling of being powerless in a system that seems set up to makes things tougher on the common man and easier on the wealthy, the news of Koum and partner Brian Acton selling their messaging service for $16 billion came with impeccable timing.
Koum's story reads like a fairytale. Raised in a village outside of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, which was then under the communist Soviet Union, grew up in a home without electricity and went to a school that did not have a bathroom inside its facility.
"Imagine the Ukrainian winter, -20°C (-4°F), where little kids have to stroll across the parking lot to use the bathroom," Koum told Wired. "Society was extremely closed off: you can read "1984," but living there was experiencing it."
In 1992, Koum along with his mother moved to the US and settled in California. Back then, his mother took up babysitting while young Koum worked at a grocery store to help out. Now, 21 years later, Koum is celebrating a victory that was sealed after signing the dotted line at the site where he used to collect food stamps.
The CEO's story indeed has the power to restore faith in the idea that anyone can make it. But the 38-year-old's success is far from the traditional American Dream, the ideal that might have seen Koum work hard, go to school, get a good job under a good boss and provide for his family.
Koum's story is the new American dream, one that's fit for a digitized world. Koum, a San Jose State dropout but talented engineer, eventually found his way at Yahoo! before quitting on the same day as Acton in 2007.
After leaving Yahoo!, he says his friends suggested that he get a "real job." After being rejected, along with Acton, by Facebook, he founded WhatsApp.
The rest, as they say, is history. And the result is a record breaking $19 billion deal with Facebook, the largest fee for a venture capital-backed startup, that has made Koum a multibillionaire.
He hasn't simply achieved the type of success that sets up a good life. Jan Koum has earned the type of wealth that can take care of his family for generations to come.
What's more is that he's done it in his own way, living out a story seemingly with nothing to hate and everything to like.
At a time during which Silicon Valley is becoming known for its big ego and backstabbing, an entrepreneur can tend to have too much of a look-at-me mentality, the aura of humility with which WhatsApp has gone about its business is hard to find. In fact, the actual business is hard to find itself.
The fact that the company is headquartered in Mountainview, California has notably flown under the radar, with WhatsApp cofounders being notoriously reluctant to attract attention, even to the point of refusing to place a sign outside of their office building.
"I can't see a reason for there being a sign. It's an ego boost," Koum told Forbes. "We all know where we work."
Inside the walls of WhatsApp's incognito office, Koum leads with a philosophy that brings the best of the US and communist Russia, as he was raised in a land where the concept of advertisements did not exist.
"Even though we did not have that great of a political system and we had thousands of other problems as a country, the joy of growing up in a very uncluttered lifestyle was really good," Koum said as he spoke at Munich's DLD conference last month.
So Koum and Acton devote much of their time towards keeping the clutter out of their users' experience. Unlike what has become the status quo for unpaid apps, WhatsApp has never featured advertisements, while the company itself does not collect any data from their users.
The company has been happy to use a small fee for longtime users to generate revenue (they made $20 million in 2013) while keeping obsessive focus on providing a great product for their customers. And they, in turn, have responded, helping fuel the growth of the app through word of mouth, for which Koum is grateful.
"Thank you to everybody in this audience who've gotten your friends and your family members to use WhatsApp," he said at DLD. "It's all you guys, seriously, telling all your friends about it."
A Ukrainian immigrant, college dropout and all around contrarian in one, Jan Koum is taking WhatsApp to the top and rewriting the American Dream in the process.
Top Photo Courtesy: Twitter