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How an Open-Source Evangelist Started a Tech Company in Silicon Valley

How an Open-Source Evangelist  Started a Tech Company in Silicon Valley  Credit: Kazuki Ohta

Since 2009, I have transitioned from being the founder of the world's largest Hadoop user group in Japan to becoming the co-founder and CTO of a Treasure Data in the U.S. Along the way, I learned that other open-source champions – or really anyone – can build a successful tech company. Here's how I found success in my journey.

As founder of the Hadoop user group, I was in constant communication with CTOs and data managers from all over. For several years, I learned about their problems building and maintaining big-data management systems.

This information was valuable market research: first, in sparking the initial idea for a company based on open-source software; and second, in designing a solution that could meet a clear market need for solving issues related to managing and deriving value from big data.

When we were searching for funding, we would have been happy to take money from just about any investor. When we did get funding, it was from someone who'd been a company founder himself.

Such an investor will be more inclined to stick with you than an investor with a background in corporate finance who's never personally experienced the rollercoaster ride of a start-up. They will also be familiar with the transformation from a generalist into a manager, and will have the big-picture perspective necessary to stay focused on long-term goals.

After we came up with an idea for our company, wrote a business plan, and got our first investor, we needed to hire employees. We found that the best employees are individuals who aren't discouraged by setbacks; rather, they see them as problems to be solved.

We resolved to finding individuals who have a positive outlook – on their work, their colleagues and even their life. Hiring smart engineers is essential, sure; but you need to hire people who can stay energized and committed, because they'll continue to get things done even in tough times. A positive attitude in the workplace can be contagious.

One advantage we had as Japanese entrepreneurs was a pipeline to software engineers in our home country who are hard-working, precise and loyal to the company that hires them. We hired them to work here or in Japan and get excellent value from them – a benefit for any startup trying to operate as frugally as possible.

As we began selling our company and products, we often felt at a disadvantage when competing with Americans who are much more comfortable promoting themselves and their companies. Humility as a personal quality is highly valued in Japan, and there's an upside to being humble: If you avoid overselling your products and capabilities, you gain credibility and earn trust. My co-founder and I did not want to jeopardize our culturally ingrained preference for humility.

I'm a software engineer and, frankly, am more comfortable with computers than with people. But as a founder, you need to be a generalist. So, I learned to pitch an investor, respond to an alert coming from our system and fix it, answer a question from a VC, and handle an employee-related issue.

But as our company grew to nearly 150 employees, each area became more specialized; and there was no way I could be as good in any one area as someone who specialized in it. You must realize that you will be most valuable by hiring people who are better than you are at specific tasks and instead spend your time managing.

I'm sharing these lessons in accordance with the philosophy behind open source: If others can use them and build on them, everyone benefits.

About the author: Kazuki Ohta is the co-founder and CTO of Treasure Data.

Edited for brevity and clarity by Sammi Caramela.