Brian Acton got his start in the high-tech world more than two decades ago as a computer whiz kid in Central Florida.
Now he is poised to become a billionaire. Acton is co-founder of WhatsApp, a Silicon Valley startup being sold to Facebook in a blockbuster deal potentially worth $19 billion.
At Lake Howell High School, he helped his school math and computer teams win statewide championships.
"Yes, I was a big math and computer geek, that's true," Acton, 42, said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel this week. "I was driven by the scholastic side of things. For me, it was all about what I could do with math and computers."
Amid his honors and awards, however, he showed little interest in the money side of technology and no hint of the business savvy that would eventually lead him to the tech center of the world.
Facebook's proposed buyout of WhatsApp — an advertising-free text-messaging company with 450 million users worldwide — has made the fiercely private Acton an overnight but reluctant celebrity. He co-founded the company with entrepreneur Jan Koum in 2009.
The attention — and pressure — has been dizzying, said Acton, who lives in Mountain View, Calif., with his wife and 13-month-old son.
He would not comment on specifics of the Facebook deal, which is pending regulatory approval. But media reports have suggested he could net as much as $3 billion from the deal.
"It certainly has been a whirlwind week," he said. "My colleague is still in Spain at the Mobile World Congress, while I got to stay home, hold down the fort and get everyone back to a normal state of working again."
The magnitude of Acton's good fortunes left Michael Bouch, his former Lake Howell math teacher, nearly speechless. He was the coach of Acton's competitive math team 24 years ago.
"He was definitively the leader of that team," said Bouch, now retired and living in Winter Springs. "You wonder in your career whether you'll ever touch the life of someone who goes on to make it really big. But this, uh, this is just beyond belief."
Much of the early media attention has focused on the rags-to-riches story of Koum, who grew up poor in a small village in Ukraine before his family immigrated to the United States. Acton grew up in a typical middle-class family in Oviedo, where his mother founded a small commercial-freight company, and his father helped operate it.
As a Lake Howell senior, he earned some dual-enrollment credits at the University of Central Florida and landed a full scholarship to study engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. After one year, he transferred to Stanford University to study computer science.
After stints with Adobe Systems and Apple, Acton joined the first wave of hires at Yahoo in 1995. It was there he met Koum, and they became friends.
As Yahoo's vice president of engineering in 2008, Acton said he "sort of retired to take some time off and decompress."
He later reconnected with Koum, and they began to develop the messaging technology behind WhatsApp. He was turned down for jobs at Facebook and Twitter — rejection that ultimately motivated him to become an entrepreneur.
In the early going of WhatsApp, Acton and Koum were bypassed by many venture capitalists, finally securing a deal with Sequoia Capital, which now stands to reap several billion dollars from its investment.
Facebook's deal for WhatsApp shocked the tech world because the text-messaging company has only 55 employees and annual estimated revenues of $20 million. The service, which is more popular abroad, charges users 99 cents a year after the first year of use, which is free.
Norma Acton, who now lives in northeast Florida. said her son's sudden success hasn't changed him from the down-to-earth, hardworking guy he has always been. Acton values his Central Florida roots: his teachers, friends, opportunities and education, she said.
"He wants to inspire other kids out there at Lake Howell — and anywhere, really — to see what can happen if you keep working hard and don't let rejection discourage you," she said.
Acton credited his mother with giving him the inspiration to help launch WhatsApp.
"My mom started an air-freight company; my grandmother built a golf course," he said. "I have a certain degree of entrepreneurial risk-taking in my family history. Maybe that eventually rubbed off on me a little bit."