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WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum signs $24b deal with Facebook From food stamps to billions

He has signed an eye-popping US$19 billion (S$24b) deal with Facebook, making WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum's life a classic rags-to-riches tale.

WhatsApp is a fast-growing mobile messaging service with over 450 million users.

Mr Koum, 37, has become an overnight billionaire - he is estimated to be now worth US$6.8 billion.

But when he moved to the US from Ukraine at age 16, he needed food stamps to survive, business magazine Forbes reported.

He was raised in a rural community outside Kiev, Ukraine's capital, in a house with no hot water or electricity.

When he and his mother moved to Mountain View, California, she stuffed their suitcases with pens and a stack of 20 Soviet-issued notebooks to avoid paying for school supplies in the US.

Mr Koum's father, a construction manager, never managed to join them in the US and died in 1997.

His mother took up babysitting and he swept the floor of a grocery store to help make ends meet.

When she was diagnosed with cancer, they lived off her disability allowance. She died in 2000.

On Wednesday, his life changed forever when Facebook bought over his company.

Fittingly, he returned to the Mountain View welfare office, where he used to queue for food stamps, to sign the deal.

The offices for WhatsApp, which Mr Koum created with Mr Brian Acton in 2009, are only a few blocks from the welfare office.

SCHOOLBOY

Mr Koum was a troublemaker at school. Though he spoke English well enough, he disliked the casual, flighty nature of American high-school friendships. He said that in the Ukraine one went through 10 years with the same, small group of friends.

He said: "In Russia you really learn about a person."

By 18, he had taught himself computer networking by purchasing manuals from a used book store and returning them when he was done.

He joined a hacker group called w00w00, squirrelled into the servers of Silicon Graphics and chatted with Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning.

His humble beginnings appear to have instilled in him a strong work ethic and dislike for egotism.

WhatsApp may be a global phenomenon, but it has no sign at its office.

Mr Koum told Forbes: "I can't see a reason for there being a sign. It's an ego boost. We all know where we work."

Mr Koum and Mr Acton worked out of the Red Rock Cafe, a watering hole in Mountain View for start-up founders.

It took the two just a few years for the app to be worth billions of dollars.

FACEBOOK DEAL

It is Facebook's biggest acquisition and comes less than two years after Mark Zuckerberg's firm raised US$16 billion in the richest tech sector public stock offering, AFP reported.

The WhatsApp purchase includes US$12 billion in Facebook shares and US$4 billion cash.

It calls for an additional US$3 billion in restricted stock units to be granted to WhatsApp founders and employees that will be spread over four years.

Facebook said it will keep WhatsApp separate.

I can't see a reason for there being a sign. It's an ego boost. We all know where we work.

- Mr Jan Koum on not having a sign at the WhatsApp office