HERE AND THERE, you’ll come upon a real-world story that is at-once inspiring, improbable, crazy, ironic, incredible – and that almost didn’t work out in the perfect way that it did. It’s not just rare, it’s Donald Trump good hair day rare. It’s me being told by my partner to pick up three things at the corner store and not forgetting two of them rare.
This, my friend, is the story of Jan Koum, inventor of WhatsApp.
What, you may ask, is WhatsApp? I only just found out about it myself, and I’m no expert, but I gather it’s a smart phone application that allows you to text messages, photos and audio for free. One crazy part of the story is that Koum was not trying to invent a messaging app at all. He wanted some way to see status updates next to the names of people in his phone’s contacts application. Things like ‘at the gym’ or ‘chillin’ or ‘don’t bother me, I’m writing’ (that would be me) – or even bits of useful information like charge status, so you won’t call your friend only to be cut off by a dead battery.
Jan Koum was born in a village near Kiev, Ukraine. He’s Jewish, which is a tricky thing to be in that part of the world. His family was poor, and when they moved to America to escape anti-Semitism (leaving Koum’s father, who died shortly thereafter, behind) they lived on social assistance. Jan Koum signed the papers for his $19-billion deal with Facebook in the social assistance office where he used to queue for food stamps.
An overnight, rags-to-riches transformation, right? No, of course not. If that were the case, his story wouldn’t have much inspirational value. Koum would be like someone who gets hit by lightning or who wins the lottery, which are things that happen but that you wouldn’t call life lessons. Let me show you what I mean: here’s the inspirational article about a guy who goes from rags to riches overnight by winning the lottery:
“Life Lessons from Lottery Winner”
Buy a lottery ticket. Good luck with that.
Koum got a job at Yahoo! while he was still in school and he hated it. The money was great, but he wasn’t passionate about his work, which had something to do with managing Yahoos! online ads. According to a Forbes magazine article, this is what he wrote on his Facebook page: “No one wakes up excited to see more advertising, no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they’ll see tomorrow.” I think we all know something about meaningless work, and it’s obvious from this comment that Koum was the sort of person who had to do something that he felt strongly about. So in 2007 he quit his job, along with his Yahoo! co-worker and mentor Brian Acton. The pair went on a year-long vacation to South America with nothing but the shirts on their backs and the half-million-or-so dollars each they had saved up being Silicon Valley supernerds. They played extreme frisbee (because moderate frisbee is for the weak) and poked about, wondering what to do next.
Next came in 2009, when Jan Koum bought an iPhone and realized that apps were going to be a huge deal. He set up a company and immersed himself in the writing of code for his contact book status update application, which he called WhatsApp as in – you guessed it – What’s Up? For months he wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. He encountered snag after surprise after snafu. Working out all the bugs was a slog, and eventually he decided it was time to be a realistic, responsible adult and find a real job. So he applied to Facebook.
If you’d met Koum in early 2009, you might have concluded he was just another dreamer on the road to failure, not an entreprenuer about to create one of the most successful high-tech start-ups of all time. At his lowest point he probably would have told you that he’d wasted his savings and his time building a kind-of sort-of cool contact book app that was great in theory but crappy in reality. I imagine people around him were saying, “it’s great to have dreams and to follow your passions, and you’ve had a swell time with your little fantasy, Jan, but … um … when do you think you might come back to planet reality?”
Let me stop the narrative here and tell you something I think you need to know. I’m not just writing this piece because it’s “inspirational.” The truth is, I think inspirational is bullshit. I don’t read inspirational books, and I can’t stand motivational speakers. I avoid a lot of places on the Internet, as well as in the real world, because I know when I get there I’ll find people with upbeat, simplistic messages about how “you can do it” and “just think positive.” I’m not against these messages: what I object to is the omission of all the pain and fear and failure that you absolutely will experience if you try anything unconventional. Like starting up a tech business, for example. In summary: if you’re the kind of person who jumps up and down and says life is rainbows with pots of gold at the end, when we’re at the same cocktail party look for the guy in the chair as far from you as possible. No, next chair over, a bit further away. Hi!!
The other thing I think I should tell you is that only weeks ago I was 2009 Jan Koum. Both of the books I’m writing and planning to have out this year ran into serious snafus. One of my publishers unexpectedly dumped my book months into the project. The other publisher had a change of personnel. The editor I was working with left the company, without telling me, and I found out that he’d done nothing with my manuscript for months – which is a critical setback. I wasn’t picking up new clients, and I could look down the road and clearly see the black hole I was heading into. It freaked me out. What the hell was I going to do? How was I going to support my family? I couldn’t sleep, and all I could think about was how stupid and selfish and unrealistic I was being. A living as a writer and entrepreneur? Sure. Keep dreaming.
Fortunately for Koum (and this is true for me also) he had people around him who were supportive – not just of his ideas but of who he was, deep down, as a human being. Brian Acton convinced him to keep pushing forward, because he knew that a day job would suffocate everything good in his friend. He’d seen it happen at Yahoo! A breakthrough came when Apple introduced the ability of apps to “ping” in the background. One day Koum was testing his app by “pinging” his friends, who then responded with clever status messages. Koum realized that he had just created a messaging app, and he ran with it.
The company which had refused to give Acton and Koum a job in 2009 would pay $19 billion for their messaging app five years later. It’s not an overnight success, rags-to-riches story; it’s a work your ass off, fail, adjust, work your ass off more, fail again, get shit scared, work even harder, seize opportunity story. Except for the ending, where I become a billionaire, I’ve lived this story. I’m living it now, and maybe you are too. If so, Koum’s story is a lesson we both should heed.
The WhatsApp business model is the exact opposite of the Facebook model: Koum hates advertising and marketing. Unlike Mark Zuckerberg, Koum seems to me like a highly principled guy. (Zuckerberg created Facebook as a “hot or not” drinking game, by stealing personal student data from the Harvard University servers. Does that seem ethical to you?) He’s against collecting personal data to market WhatsApp users to advertisers. The deal he struck with Facebook recognizes and respects the very different principles, vision and values which drive WhatsApp. All of Koum’s effort has gone into creating the best messaging product possible, for the best user experience, and he’s passionate about this labour. You can see the results. People have taken to the application in extraordinary numbers: 450 million monthly users send over 10 billion messages a day. The fact is that Facebook bought WhatsApp because they were terrified of it, and so they should be.
Jan Koum worked extremely hard and stuck to his vision and principles. He believed in his product, but like anyone who takes risks and follows a dream, he experienced many failures. This is where his wise selections of business partners made the difference. He had people near him who understood and supported his vision, and who would offer wise counsel at critical times. We writers tend to be loner types, and a good support network is definitely something we tend not to have.
You might think Koum was lucky, but I don’t. Yes, luck matters, but only if you’ve readied yourself to take advantage of it when it arrives. That means a ton of hard preparation. When the chance opportunity for a breakthrough arrived, he saw it and was poised to take advantage; and when he perceived an unforseen potential for his work, he had the courage and quickness to plot a new course. That’s the creative process. It is not linear and predictable – it is littered with surprise, discovery, changes of course, sudden stops and bursts, and massive fuck-ups. It’s a journey for the bold, and for those determined to create their own good fortune by leaping into the terrifying, but exciting, battle with the unknown, rather than waiting for something to happen.