WhatsApp: unlikely duo behind $19bn sale

They’re both over 30 years of age, shun publicity, hate advertising and don’t like being called entrepreneurs

WhatsApp founders Brian Acton (left) and Jan Koum at company headquarters in Mountain View, California, lst year. PHOTOGRAPH: PETER DASILVA/NEW YORK TIMES

WhatsApp founders Brian Acton (left) and Jan Koum at company headquarters in Mountain View, California, lst year. PHOTOGRAPH: PETER DASILVA/NEW YORK TIMES

Fri, Feb 21, 2014, 01:15

WhatsApp Messenger’s sale to Facebook for up to $19 billion on Wednesday may sound like a classic Silicon Valley success story. Yet Jan Koum and Brian Acton, the five-year-old app’s creators, are not your typical Silicon Valley founders.

Both were well over 30 years old when they launched their messaging app in 2009. They hate the advertising that funds most consumer technology businesses, and have paid for almost no marketing to attract their 450 million regular monthly users.

They charged for their service, rather than giving it away for free, tacking on a business plan only after attracting millions of users. And when WhatsApp raised a new funding round of $50 million last year, they kept it a secret rather than shouting about it from the rooftops.

“They are contrarians, they are mavericks,” says Jim Goetz, the Sequoia Capital partner who funded WhatsApp and was its only external board member. “They shunned publicity and took a very deliberate approach.”

In this tech hothouse, hyping your start-up in the press, hustling to sell out to Yahoo or Google and preaching entrepreneurial “wisdom” are all daily habits for many Mark Zuckerberg wannabes. Not so for Koum, Whatsapp’s chief executive, who pulled no punches in a series of tweets during 2012.

“People starting companies for a quick sale are a disgrace to the Valley,” he tweeted. “If you run a start-up and your goal is to get on techcrunch [the tech blog], you are doing it wrong . . . Next person to call me an entrepreneur is getting punched in the face by my bodyguard. Seriously.”

Rags to riches
Yet many of his Silicon Valley peers were not even aware that the world’s pre-eminent messaging app – twice as big as Twitter by user numbers, far larger than the much-hyped Snapchat – was based in an unmarked office just down the road in Mountain View.

The Facebook deal certainly changed that. Forbes estimates that Koum netted some $6.8 billion from the deal, including earn-outs if he stays with Facebook.

His is a true “rags to riches” tale. Koum, now in his late 30s, arrived in Mountain View aged 16, when he and his mother emigrated from then-Communist Ukraine. Learning technical skills from second-hand textbooks, living on food stamps and far from home, he longed for a cheap and easy way to keep in touch with his family back in eastern Europe – including his father, who died before he could move to the US.

Koum also developed his dislike for advertising from his home country, epitomised in a handwritten note from Acton pinned to his desk that reads: “No ads! No games! No gimmicks!”

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