A is for American
The flight home from Bricsys conference in Amsterdam is barely over the North American continent. I’ve secured a lie-flat seat, but I feel the vexation of Bricsys, and other CAD contenders. I cannot sleep. Autodesk’s lock on the market – what can explain it? But I may be looking down at the answer. America.
Even before the conference, I saw two other great CAD programs. I see a lot of demos. But this was a program I had long since given up on, though when I first saw it 15 years ago, I would have bet the house on it. It was dazzling -- fun, even. Yet, somehow been sidelined, almost to obscurity. Somehow, it had hung on. Two of its best and brightest caught me up with a demo of the latest release. Again, I was dazzled. Why are people not buying this? What I was seeing on the screen was sometimes awesome. I was focusing really hard, too, because the presenters were heavily accented. The English was very good but through the accent…Only then did I realize what challenge the company really had.
They weren’t from America.
Another company showed me a PowerPoint demo. Their software was packed with features. Guaranteed to be compatible, both with data and interface, to AutoCAD. Cheaper than AutoCAD –by far. They had over 300,000 users in their country. Who knew? Who cares?
They weren’t American.
How long did it take Americans to trust foreign cars? Toyota began selling cars in the US in 1957. It took until 1997 for the Toyota Camry to become the #1 car in America. Toyota had the time and the patience. Does Bricsys have that kind of time?
Well, you can’t change your birthplace. But you can change your appearance, the way you present yourself, the people you lead with, your accent.
Is it a cultural bias? Perhaps. We may have finally accepted foreign cars, but American CAD is still the best. Like American doctors, our universities…umm…there’s more, right? AutoCAD was invented here. So was SolidWorks. And MicroStation, ANSYS...The leading CAD and CAE software is American.
To attempt to analyze our bias towards America would probably just get me in trouble but it’s safe to say people relate and are comfortable with others like themselves. We resent any intrusion. We don’t let other countries into our “World” Series. Hey, the French hate it when Americans win their Tour de France.
But some reasons are more practical than cultural. What would a Chinese CAD company know about our architectural standards? Or UNF threads? Or GDT (wasn’t that invented by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers?).
Again, let us take a lesson from SolidWorks, the one and only company born during the Autodesk reign that thrived. SolidWorks was a quintessential American success story. Founder Jon Hirschtick and John McEleney were one of us. Engineers. Buddies. You could walk up to them at SolidWorks World and chat them up like it was a barbeque. Have a beer. They were cowboys. One earned a fortune playing blackjack. One was a running back. They were like us. They knew us. You knew, somehow, that their software would be also familiar, comfortable, that nice attention to detail, your details… no surprises, no metric system (unless you wanted it), no help files in Kanji characters, that if you got into real trouble you could call either of them personally…okay, that last part may have been beer-induced.
I had the pleasure of getting to know Erik de Keyser at the Bricsys conference. Energetic, magnetic, captivating, quite possibly brilliant. American, no. Erik and Bricsys are from Ghent, Belgium. Erik is impressive how he can talk to anyone at any level: a developer about the programming, the press about company goals, a user about features. I’m sure Bricsys is popular in Belgium, its headquarters. Belgians would find comfort in Bricsys. But this would be too confining for Erik, whose Napoleonic plans extend beyond Belgium, beyond Europe. He looks over the Atlantic towards America.
In a perfect world, this shouldn’t be a problem. We should look at products on their merits. We should pick our CAD program based on its capability, not the accent of its CEO. I know this is not a problem for readers of this fine blog. I mean the others, the unenlightened, the millions.
So what should a company do? How vexing to have a great product but to be ignored by the major world markets?
One reason for the success of Toyota was to become American. Not by giving up its name, or trying to change its DNA. At some point they must have realized also that Americans like to buy American. They started making cars in the US. Toyota now vies for the #1 spot in the US market.
What can a software company do to Americanize? Some quick thoughts:
- Create an American subsidiary, a real office, not a front
- Address the customers in American
- Emphasize the existing American customers to potential customers
- Get American CAD experts to pick up your products and review it
- Downplay your origin origin (except if you are offering vacations)
- Comb through the program and help find and remove any vestige of foreignness.