This big data company has Hollywood DNA
FORTUNE — Most big data companies don’t recruit Hollywood types, and most weren’t co-founded by executives with three Academy Awards under their belt.
Tableau Software (DATA), a Seattle-based provider of data visualization tools, is a little bit different. Founded by Pat Hanrahan, an early employee at Pixar Animation Studios, along with co-founders Christian Chabot and Chris Stolte, the company claims its know-how in technology used for moviemaking gives it an edge on turning data into meaningful stories.
“We’re not database people, we came from graphics,” says Hanrahan, who earlier this year picked up his latest award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work on lighting simulations. “We’re very different than most big data companies because we have this graphics DNA.”
Recently, Tableau expanded its genetic pool even more with a few new key hires from the entertainment industry. Dave Story, the former CTO of LucasFilm, was brought on as vice president of mobile and strategic growth at Tableau. (A Yoda figurine, a reminder of his past career, sits on his computer monitor at the big data company’s Menlo Park, Calif. offices.) Tableau also recently recruited Philip Hubbard, formerly of LucasFilm’s Industrial Light and Magic division, the group responsible for special effects on films like the Star Wars movies and Iron Man. Hubbard will help run the engineering team. (Like Hanrahan, he also recently collected a Science and Technical Achievements Award from the Academy for work he did at LucasFilm.)
“What’s interesting is that the moviemaking industry has become so much about the technology,” says Story, who used to oversee technology across LucasFilm’s various divisions. “When you think about the software industry you think about software, and when you think about the movie industry you should also think about software.”
According to Hanrahan, Tableau’s co-founder and chief scientist, the company doesn’t compete with other enterprise software companies when it comes to looking for talent. Rather, it seeks “superstars” (don’t they all?) who come from a variety of industries and backgrounds, including film. “We need great designers and people that can write really fast systems,” Hanrahan says.
But Tableau definitely competes with traditional enterprise software companies when it comes to customers. Large players like Microsoft (MSFT), IBM (IBM), and Oracle (ORCL) offer their own business intelligence and data visualization tools. And there are a growing number of smaller players in the market.
Still, customers tend to like Tableau for its user-friendly tools, which allow businesses to create beautiful, interactive graphics by dragging and dropping data sets into the software. Tableau says it has over 17,000 corporate customers, including Toyota and Goldman Sachs. The fast-growing company was one of the most successful IPOs in 2013 — its stock is up about 56% since it made its debut on the public market last year.
Whether or not Tableau’s film industry roots actually give its product an edge is hard to ascertain — not much light simulation goes into data visualization tools, at least not today — but it probably makes for a good story when recruiting. Tableau currently has around 1,200 employees, and while most have never won an Academy Award, working for someone who has is an experience they’re not going to get at most other enterprise software companies.