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Jon Lech Johansen (a.k.a. 'DVD-Jon') on Starting Up as a Self-Taught Engineer

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If entrepreneurship is all about risk, who better to become one than "DVD-Jon"?

Oliver Ellingsvåg / Dagbladet
Jon Lech Johansen

The self-taught engineer turned entrepreneur whose real name is Jon Lech Johansen grew up in Norway where he became a household name in the tech world for his role in helping unlock protected DVDs in the late 1990s. While his work won him many fans, it also won him legal foes. On two separate occasions in the early 2000s Johansen would face legal proceedings for his work on engineering DeCSS, the DVD decryption code.

After being acquitted twice, the programmer moved to San Francisco and soon thereafter launched app maker doubleTwist. Since then, Johansen says his apps have been downloaded by more than 10 million users.

We asked Johansen about learning how to program, startup VISAs and whom he admires in the technology industry. Here's an edited version of that conversation:

Q: How can entrepreneurs get the most out of employees?

A: Establish a culture that’s passionate about making exceptional products, and make everyone feel proud about what they build.

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Q: How has your background as a hacker influenced your business efforts?

A: Hacking requires both being analytical and outside-the-box thinking -- qualities that serve you well when building a business in our fast changing industry.

Q: As a self-taught programmer, what key lessons do you think aspiring entrepreneurs should learn?

A: Startups are about constant learning and problem solving. No class can prepare you for the types of challenges you will face so being able to iterate fast in pursuit of the best solution is critical.

Q: What is the best source for learning how to program today?

A: Development tools for most platforms (Android, iOS, Mac, Windows) are available for free or very low cost. Google for tutorials for the platform you want to learn and then move on to books once you’ve learned everything you can learn from tutorials. Studying the code for an open source application is also a great way to learn.

Q: What do you consider the best thing about what you have accomplished?

A: There’s a graveyard full of companies that were too busy playing the lottery to build a real business. Building doubleTwist into a business that generates revenue from happy customers has enabled us to invest in creating new products as well as improving our existing products.

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Q: As a co-founder from Norway, what is your opinion on startup VISAs?

A: Any policy change that brings more entrepreneurs and technical talent to the U.S. benefits the startup community and the U.S. economy.

Q: Any suggestions for foreigners looking to launch a startup in the U.S.?

A: Find an American co-founder.

Q: Do you have to be in Silicon Valley, Boston or New York City to launch a successful startup?

A: No, but the sheer quantity and quality of talent and funding available is hard to match. Keep in mind though that talent tends to be more expensive in hot markets such as Silicon Valley. And when the market gets even hotter, retaining your current talent becomes more expensive. I recommend hiring talent wherever you can find it, whether that’s in the U.S., South America or Europe. For remote workers it’s a good idea to start off with a small contract to find out how well the candidate is able to work remotely. As always, communication is key.

Q: What was your biggest challenge in launching a U.S. company?

A: Bringing foreign talent to the U.S. continues to be very hard for startups. We have had problems in the past bringing H1B candidates.

Related: 3 Things You Need to Know About Your Tech Guy

Q: If you could be the student of anyone in technology living today, who would you choose and why?

A: Scott Forstall, SVP iOS at Apple, because he has overseen the development of two of the most popular operating systems of the last decade. And because I’d like to find out which one of us would win a staring contest.


Lyneka Little

Written By

Is a freelance writer in New York. She's written about personal finance and small business for such publications as The Wall Street Journal,,, People magazine. She also works as a freelance producer covering money at Little attended Howard University where she studied journalism. She loves drinking wine and tweeting, preferably at the same time. Follow Little on Twitter @Lyneka.