Oren Jacob, former CTO of Pixar, explains why he left to do a startup

Oren JacobWhen Oren Jacob started his career at Pixar, the company had under 50 employees. They were a pack of artists in pursuit of their first big hit. When Oren left last Spring, over 20 years later, Pixar, now with over 1500 employees, had firmly cemented its reputation as the world’s premiere producer of animated feature films. Toy Story 1-3, The Incredibles, Wall-E…the hits are too many to list.

Over his 20+ year career there, Oren was many things to Pixar, including its CTO. Before he left, he led the design and implementation of the technical tools Pixar animators now use to make their magic. But things change. After 20+ years at a single company, Oren heard the siren call of the startup: he is now an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at August Capital, hard at work on a secret project.

In advance of his keynote at the upcoming Twilio <Conference>, I sat down with Oren to talk about life at Pixar and the startup itch that made him leave.

Oren Jacob: The Twilio Q&A

Dan Kaplan: You were at Pixar for more than 20 years. Why did you finally leave?
Oren Jacob: I loved Pixar, and I still do. If you want to work in the feature film animation business, there is simply no better place to be. But if you want to do something outside of that.. I had to go somewhere else.  Pixar makes CG animated feature films. I did it for 20 & 3/4 years, which is a long time to work in any industry. My EIR gig at August Capital gives me the time and freedom to develop the company I want to start and I get to work with people like David (Hornik) and Howard (Hartenbaum) and the rest of the partnership there too, which has been phenomenal.

DK: 20.75 years is a long time to stay anywhere, even Pixar. What kept you there so long?
Oren: Pixar gave me a completely different job about every 4 years plus or minus, so my job and life flipped around (in a good way) every Olympics or so. Any good company finds a way to celebrate and reward its high-performing employees, and Pixar does a fantastic job at this. For people wondering what they should do with their careers over the next 20 years, a good question to ask yourself is “how can I kick ass and take names at the position I have now?” Kicking ass and taking names at what you do right now is the best way to open doors in the future, especially in a growing company. Then hopefully, your company gives you room to evolve.

DK: Pixar grew from under 50 to over 1500 employees while you were there. What is the key to doing that right?
Oren: One key, which Pixar realizes, is to acknowledge off the bat that cultures never stay the same. People often get nostalgic for the way things were when the company was small, but it’s like “Dude. Life happens!” Looking retroactively at your culture is the wrong way to do things. Do enjoy it from a nostalgic point of view, but you have to accept that things will change and ask yourself how we can nudge and adjust the changes that inevitably occur so that you end up with the culture you want to have. You have to ask yourself: what do I do now since we can’t fit our whole company at a single dinner table? Pixar was smart enough to do Pixarpalooza. 1000 people can’t sit at dinner together. But they can go to a big rock show.

DK: What attracts you to entrepreneurship?
Oren: Mostly, I want to do something different than what I’ve done before. And Pixar is a film studio, arguably the best in the world at that. But I wanted to explore outside of film in my career, and that’s simply outside the standard business areas that Pixar operates in.  So I could go knocking on some other company’s door, but they’d probably just be like “uh, you work in animation, and that’s cool, but you want to do what? That’s not in our product line.” Once I got out of Pixar and started really thinking about what I might do, going to some big company and trying to bend them to my will didn’t seem like an efficient way to go about it. Or do I go do my own thing? Seems like a clear call.

DK: On that topic, tell us about your startup.
Oren: Let’s just say it will be at the intersection of mobile and family entertainment.

DK: Last question: What’s it been like to raise funds as a first-time entrepreneur?
Oren: You’ll have to wait till the Twilio Conference to hear me talk about that.  Maybe.  <laughs>

Dan Kaplan is Twilio’s Product Marketing Manager. Oren Jacob, EIR at August Capital, will be a keynote speaker at the Twilio <Conference>, September 21-22. Get your tickets now.