IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

WhatsApp Founders Include Facebook Reject, Ukrainian Immigrant

<p>In 2009, former Yahoo employees Jan Koum and Brian Acton took a chance with WhatsApp. Now they are billionaires.</p>
Image: Jan Koum
Jan Koum, founder of messaging service WhatsApp, speaks at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich on Jan. 20.MARC MUELLER / EPA

WhatsApp co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton stand to be extremely wealthy men after a deal to sell their company to Facebook for a stunning $16 billion goes through.

It wasn’t always that way. Koum, who immigrated from Ukraine at 16, relied on food stamps as a teen, while Acton had applied for a job at Facebook in 2009 — and was rejected. That same year, Acton and Koum, both former Yahoo employees, decided to launch a messaging app that would forego ads for a modest $0.99 annual fee, and not store messages on WhatsApp’s servers.

“It’s a decidedly contrarian approach shaped by Jan’s experience growing up in a communist country with a secret police,” Jim Goetz of Sequoia Capital, a venture capital firm that invested heavily in WhatsApp, wrote in a blog post. “Jan’s childhood made him appreciate communication that was not bugged or taped.”

On Wednesday, Koum, 37, signed the $16 billion deal not in his office in Mountain View, Calif., but on the door of his old welfare office, located in the same city.

As for Acton, 42, he recorded his struggle to get a job in 2009 on Twitter, where, coincidentally, he also was not hired.

It's probably a good thing he didn't get the job. The company that he and Koum co-founded now has 450 million users located across the globe.

Outside of the tech press, the pair was relatively unknown. El Pais, the leading newspaper in Spain, where WhatsApp is tremendously popular, was the first media outlet to visit the company's office in 2012. They found Koum walking around barefoot, and Acton in flip-flops.

Koum will probably have to put on shoes and at least a hoodie when joining Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook's board. With a 45 percent stake in the company, according to estimates from Forbes, he could be worth around $6.8 billion when the deal closes, while Acton could be worth an estimated $3 billion.