Immigrant founder’s past a major part of Whatsapp’s DNA

Immigrant founder’s past a major part of Whatsapp’s DNA

In a recent interview, Jan Koum, a Ukrainian-born Jew, explained how his experiences figured in the app that Facebook bought for $19b.

Jan Koum, the entrepreneur who sold his company, WhatsApp, to Facebook for a staggering $19 billion, isn’t your run-of-the-mill Silicon Valley geek genius. Koum is an outsider in more ways than one: He represents a generation of Jewish immigrants who came to the US after the fall of the Soviet Union; and his experiences growing up in the Soviet Union, and arriving in the US as a penniless immigrant, figure in many of the features his the app and his company.

At the DLD Munich conference in January (one of several Digital-Life-Design meets that are held around the world, including in Tel Aviv), which brings together thought leaders in the areas of technology, art, design, and other creative disciplines, Koum, 38, had an in-depth conversation with David Rowan of Wired Magazine UK. Koum naturally talked about his app — but also about how he and his mother and grandmother came to the US, where they initially lived on welfare and food stamps.

“A lot of what I experienced growing up in the USSR and coming to the US as an immigrant actually reflects itself in Whatsapp,” he said. “Experiences from our youth shape what we do later in life.”

Facebook announced on Wednesday that it was shelling out $12 billion stock and $4 billion in cash for Whatsapp, plus an additional $3 billion in restricted stock that will vest in four years. With close to 500 million users, 450 million of whom are said to be active, the cross-platform Whatsapp is one of the most popular mobile apps around, processing about 50 billion messages a day, Koum said.

During the interview Koum discussed several aspects of the app — for example, the fact that it does not contain advertising. “I grew up in a country where advertising doesn’t exist,” he said. “We feel that putting advertising into an app that people use to communicate would be wrong. Ads don’t belong there.” Personally, Koum continued, he didn’t care much for advertising, which was “just a lot of clutter.” Facebook would likely beg to differ.

Living in poverty in the USSR — he was born in a village outside Kiev in Ukraine — and later in the US, where his family settled in 1992, also had a profound effect on Koum.

“There were a lot of negatives, of course, but there were positives to living a life unfettered by possessions,” he said. “It gave us the chance to focus on education, which was very important in the Soviet Union.” As an immigrant to the US, he added, education was what sustained him and propelled him to success.

That emphasis on education is also evidenced in the way the company is run. “We have about 50 employees, half of them engineers, and the others support staff who speak several languages, so we can communicate with users in their native language,” said Koum.

A less positive, but no less important, component of Whatsapp is the privacy it has hitherto tried to provide users. “We don’t store messages on our servers, and we encrypt the messages so they cannot be hijacked on their way to or from a users phone,” he said.

Jan Koum (R.) talks to David Rowan at DLD Munich 2014 (screen capture: YouTube)
Jan Koum (R.) talks to David Rowan at DLD Munich 2014 (screen capture: YouTube)

For the time being, Whatsapp also does not require registration information — no names or addresses, email or otherwise. The registration process is done via phone numbers, and Whatsapp obviously does not have access to the phone company’s records to match accounts to the names of users. “Growing up in a place where the state monitors your conversations made us passionate about privacy.” (Needless to say, some users have expressed concern that the anonymity long-afforded by Whatsapp would be compromised by a merger with a company whose very business model encourages oversharing.)

The immigrant experience also figured in Koum’s choice of profession.

“When I was a kid trying to communicate with family in the Soviet Union, it was very difficult,” he said. “You had to go through the long-distance phone companies like MCI, which were difficult to navigate and expensive to make calls through. We’re very gratified to see that immigrants are using Whatsapp, and are able to communicate with family abroad. We want to make sure that people can communicate, no matter how far apart they are geographically,” Koum said.

As a Jew in Russia, and later, as a poor immigrant in the US, Koum has been a perennial outsider, and this is reflected in the company’s DNA. Few people venture into Whatsapp’s small offices in an out-of-the-way area of Mountain View, Koum said, noting that he had never been pursued by reporters to the same extent that other, more publicity-happy Silicon Valley “captains of industry” are.

That suited him just fine, he said.

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