Nowadays, WhatsApp has become a meme on YouTube due to all of the bitcoin and crypto scammers in the comment section that tell you to contact them through WhatsApp.
Given this poor association and the relative unpopularity of WhatsApp within the US, a lot of Americans likely write off the app as just a gateway for scammers. But, outside the US, WhatsApp is a lot more than just that.In fact, in many developing countries and Europe, WhatsApp is often the primary form of communication. Instead of using traditional SMS and calls, WhatsApp uses the internet to facilitate these communications which is extremely convenient and cheap, especially for international communication. In other words, WhatsApp is basically the iMessage and Facetime of non-Americans. Considering this, I don’t think you’d be surprised to hear that WhatsApp is the world’s most popular messaging app with a total of 2 billion active monthly users. Despite WhatsApp’s explosive success, both of WhatsApp’s founders left the company in 2018 citing privacy and monetization concerns. So, here’s what happened to the founders of the most popular messaging app in the world.
Taking a look back, the story of WhatsApp circles back to two men named Jan Koum and Brian Acton. Jan was born on February 24, 1976, in Kyiv, Ukraine to a Jewish family. Jan was an only child, so his parents gave him extra love and attention, but no amount of care was able to cover up the reality of their living situation.
Jan’s house didn’t even have running water, and it wasn’t much better at school. Jan says that his school didn’t have a bathroom inside the building. So kids had to run across the parking lot to just use the bathroom which was especially painful when the temperature was -20 degrees Celsius. Aside from poor living conditions, Jan saysthat the social life wasn’t that much better due to all the discrimination against Jews.
Jan’s family had put up with this for decades, but when Jan turned 16, they decided to immigrate to Mountain View, California. This move eliminated a lot of the outright discrimination they experienced and the lack of opportunities that accompanied socialism. But, life in the US was still quite difficult because they had no money and had trouble communicating. To make ends meet, Jan’s mother had to start babysitting and Jan had to become a cleaner at a grocery store. The family also had to use welfare checks and food stamps. In terms of school, Jan admits that he wasn’t the best of students and that he barely got through high school, but this didn’t mean that he hated learning. He enjoyed reading books about computer science and teaching himself coding. Apparently, he would buy coding books from a local book store, read them really fast, and then return them to save money.
Anyway, moving onto college, Jan would attend San Jose State University and he would pick up a side job as a security tester at Ernst and Young to pay for his education. But, this job would end up being a lot more valuable than just helping pay for college. You see, Jan would meet an early Yahoo employee named Brain Acton while completing a project for Ernst & Young. 6 months later, Brian would help Jan get a job at Yahoo, and that marked the beginning of the partnership that would eventually turn into WhatsApp.
Taking a look back at Brian’s past, it’s a lot different than Jan’s past. Brian was born on February 17, 1972, in Michigan. His mother ran a freight shipping business, and she was the one that really inspired Brian to pursue entrepreneurship. Ironically, Jan actually hates this word and doesn’t like it when people call him an entrepreneur.
He feels that the main goal of traditional entrepreneurs is to make money while his main goal is to make useful products. Anyway, going back to Brian, it looks like he was a star student at school. He would attend Lake Howell High School in central Florida and would earn a full scholarship to study engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He only stuck around at UPenn for a year though before he switched over to Stanford to get a computer science degree. With such a rich educational background, it was easy for Brian to enter the workforce and switch from one job to another until he found his calling.
In 1992, he started off as a systems administrator at Rockwell International. After that, he became a product tester at Apple before becoming a product tester at Adobe. While Brian didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do in the early days, he soon found himself looking back at his childhood and his mother and decided that he wanted to give entrepreneurship a shot. So, in 1996, he joined Yahoo as their 44th employee and this is when he would meet Jan Koum.
For the next decade, Brian and Jan would stick around at Yahoo, and just consistently save up their money. While their professional lives were progressing pretty smoothly, the same could not be said about their personal lives. In February of 1996, Jan would verbally and physically threaten an ex-girlfriend after they broke up, and the girlfriend would end up filing a restraining order against him. Jan has since expressed that he’s extremely embarrassed and ashamed of his behavior.
In the meantime, Brian was having a great time in the late 1990s. He was investing heavily in dot-com companies which made him a multi-millionaire. But, once the dot-com bubble burst, he would lose most of it. While I’m sure he was fine financially thanks to his job and savings, this was likely an extremely painful event. Nonetheless, the duo got through these events and would eventually leave Yahoo in 2007. Soon after, they both tried to get jobs at Facebook, but both of them would be rejected. I don’t think Jan nor Brian really cared that much though. With over a decade of experience within the tech field, they had already made plenty of money. So, they decided to take it easy and go on a one-year vacation to South America and play ultimate frisbee. When they came back, Jan would buy an iPhone in January of 2009, and this was the beginning of WhatsApp.
As soon as Jan got an iPhone, he knew that the App store was going to be huge. So, he started talking with Brian and another friend named Alex Fishman about potential apps that they could launch. One month later, on Jan’s 33rd birthday, he would incorporate the company WhatsApp.
The name is of course a reference to the popular saying What’s Up. Despite incorporating the company, Jan didn’t really know what they wanted to create. He knew they wanted to do something relating to social media, hence the name, but initially, he was actually leaning towards status updates. It wasn’t until August of 2009 that he incorporated a messaging aspect into the app, and this is what really accelerated the adoption of the app. At this point, Jan did most of the work and owned the entirety of the company. In the meantime, Brian was still unemployed and looking for potential employment.
So, Jan offered to make Brian a cofounder if he could raise the company some money. Fortunately for Brian, this was rather easy. He hit up a couple of his friends from Yahoo and was able to raise a total of $250,000 for WhatsApp. And with that, Brian and Jan were able to go all-in on WhatsApp. From the very beginning, one of the duo’s top priorities was privacy.
Jan says quote, “We want to know as little about our users as possible… We’re not advertisement-driven so we don’t need personal databases.” You could say these were some famous last words. Anyway, WhatsApp quickly started to gain popularity, especially within developing countries where
WhatsApp was the best internet-based mobile messaging service available. Hundreds of thousands of users turned into millions of users and millions of users turned into tens of millions of users. Despite the popularity of the app, the duo didn’t really have a smart way to monetize the app. So, they were burning money left right trying to keep operations afloat. Fortunately, in 2011, they would successfully raise $8 million from Sequoia Capital, but both of them knew that with how fast WhatsApp was growing, it was just a matter of time until this money would run out. Thankfully, Mark would reach out just in time.
HITTING IT BIG:
WhatsApp caught the attention of Mark Zuckerberg very early on, and Mark would quickly start building up a relationship with Jan and Brian. In 2012, Mark called Jan and the two would get some coffee and go on a hike. Over the next two years, the two would stay in contact, and eventually, in February of 2014, Mark would invite Jan over for dinner, and during dinner, Mark made Jan an offer he couldn’t refuse. He offered to buy the money-losing company with little revenue for a whopping $19 billion.
WhatsApp was definitely not worth anywhere near $19 billion at the time, but Mark could see the long-term potential of the company. Meanwhile, Jan likely knew that WhatsApp could eventually grow well past $19 billion naturally. But, that would be a long and tough journey filled with risk, so, taking the buyout was a no-brainer. Soon after, Jan would sign the acquisition papers on the door of his old welfare office, and with that Jan and Brian were officially billionaires. With the backing of Facebook, Jan and Brian were able to test and implement new features faster than ever before.
One of the first features they implemented after the acquisition was voice calls. And by June of 2016, more than 100 million voice calls were being placed on WhatsApp on a daily basis. Soon after they launched video calls, two-step verification, and WhatsApp Business. Aside from introducing new features, WhatsApp could relax their monetization effort thanks to Facebook. So, in January of 2016, they would remove their annual $1 fee which made WhatsApp more accessible than ever before.
Despite all these advantages, there were also a few notable disadvantages namely a reduction in user privacy. During the summer of 2016, WhatsApp would begin sharing user info with Facebook for targeted ads. Neither Brian nor Jan were big fans of this decision, and they would both leave Facebook soon after, but not before securing their full stock compensations.
Brian would be the first to leave Facebook in September of 2017, and Jan would leave Facebook 7 months later in April of 2018. Ironically, both of them would start trashing Facebook as soon as they left. Jan has expressed his grievances about Facebook to the media on several occasions. Meanwhile, Brian straight up advocates for people to delete Facebook. Clearly, money hasn’t bought their loyalty. But anyway, Jan has more or less just retired ever since he left Facebook, and we don’t really hear from him that much.
The only time his name comes up in the media nowadays is whenever he makes another large donation. One of his largest donations was $556 million to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Jan says that Facebook barely changed his life and that he still lives in the same house, hangs out with the same friends, and more or less does the same things. He just has a lot more money in his bank account. Brian, on the other hand, is more active than ever before with the Signal Foundation. One of the first things Brian did after leaving Facebook was founding a competing messaging platform called Signal. Signal is a non-profit messaging platform that focuses on collecting as little data as possible.
Everything on the app is encrypted and so far Brian has funded it with $100 million of his own money. Signal has actually become quite popular growing an active user base of 40 million users as of the start of 2021. And given the virtuous goals of Signal and how much funding they have, I can’t see why the app won’t just become even more popular within the coming years. Eventually, they may even be able to give Telegram and WhatsApp a run for their money which is the goal. So, Brian may end up being known for founding, not one but two game-changing messaging platforms, one for himself and one for the people. Do you guys think Signal can replace WhatsApp? Comment that down below. Also, drop a like if you’re glad that Brian is standing up to Facebook. And of course, consider checking out our international channels to watch our videos in other languages