Mountain View, CA

Who is this billionaire college dropout & Mountain View, CA resident?

Stephen L Dalton

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WhatsApp sitting on a pile of gold

Even though he is the founder and former CEO of WhatsApp, few people have heard of this Ukrainian immigrant. He grew up in a squalid home in the Ukraine while it was still part of the Soviet Union. The house had no hot water and only a small stove for heat.

He was 16-years-old when his mother and grandmother emigrated to Mountain View, CA, and away from communist oppression. His father was supposed to follow but never made it out.

From welfare to wealthy

Although they had help from a social support program, they lived in a small two-bedroom home and needed assistance from the local welfare office and food stamps to survive.

Jan worked at a local grocery store sweeping the floors and restocking the shelves for a meager wage after school. His mother took in kids to babysit while their parents work.

Jan developed a love for programming. He left Mountainview, CA, and took a job as a security tester with Ernst & Young while attending San Jose State University. He met and befriended Brian Acton, which proved to be a lasting relationship. They joined w00w00, a hacker’s group where they would meet Napster’s future founders.

Jan quit school to work full time as an infrastructure engineer. Jan and Brian worked together at Yahoo! for nearly a decade before taking two years off to travel South America. Upon their return, they both applied to Facebook but were rejected.

After purchasing an iPhone, Jan got the for a messaging app. He called it WhatsApp because it sounded like the greeting, "What's up?"

Facebook would not say no this time around.

Jan’s app didn’t take off initially as he expected until he could make the app “ping” its users when they had a message. His friend Brian had enough faith in it to invest $250,000, accept a partnership, and co-founder status.

Not long after, Facebook offered them $19 billion for WhatsApp. Yet, Jan waited to sign the contract until he could return to the welfare office he and his mother had relied on to sign it on their door. A simple show of symbolism that proved perseverance pays off.

Jan likes to say, “A lot of times, people start out with a lot of good ideas, but then they don't execute…”

How to Use WhatsApp - Beginner's Guide

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The Facebook years

During 2016, Jan would sell more than $2.4 billion worth of Facebook stock. There were rumors of a rift between him and other Facebook board members.

Brian left Facebook in 2017, upset over what he called its “invasive advertising” and other changes to the platform. He left about $850 million in stock shares that would have been his had he waited. He went so far as to start a #DeleteFacebook campaign

2018 proved “to be the straw that broke the camel’s back” for Jan. The original deal with Facebook only included $4 billion in cash, 184 million shares of Facebook common stock, and a promise of 46 million in company stock as long as he and Brian remained with Facebook.

Jan was upset about others making WhatsApp less secure with too many ads. There was speculation that he, too, lost nearly a billion in stock options. However, though he stepped down from the board of directors, he was still employed by Facebook, and he collected an additional $450 million.

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Jan Koum's Forbes Cover

Jan Koum, the college dropout billionaire

Jan Koum started buying California real estate in Northern California by purchasing 5.6-acres for $57 million and building a $20 million compound in Atherton, CA. His home there is a modest $8.8 million, 3,700 sq. ft. abode, which he still owns.

However, in 2019, he bought the $100 million, 14,400 sq. ft. clifftop home of Ron Meyer perched above Escondido Beach. He purchased the house next door, which belonged to Kenny Rogers, a modest 5-bedroom, $87 million Malibu, CA home.

This modest home sits on 3 acres of land, with a "funicular" that transports its riders to the beach. It’s an elevator that goes sideways. Additionally, it has a garden house, a guesthouse, and an oceanfront cabana that has a retractable ceiling.

He also bought Jeffrey Katzenberg's $125 million Beverly Hills mansion. All told, the former grocery stock boy now has about a half-billion dollars invested in CA real estate.

One of his favorite quotes is, “Do one thing and do it well.”

Final thoughts

Jan Koum, the former Mountainview, CA immigrant is now worth an estimated $12 billion.

“If you really go all in, you go all in. Keep trying. If your original idea isn’t working, use what you’ve built to pivot into something else. Keep trying to find a solution to people’s problems.” — Jan Koum

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Stephen Dalton is a retired US Army First Sergeant with a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Top Writer in Virtual Reality, Sports, Short Story, Design, and Creativity. I especially like writing about design and home improvements.

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