Why SOLIDWORKS was popular.

I’m sharing a story of a failed attempt at marketing that will reinforce the following concepts: Smallest Viable Audience, Network Effects, and Product-Marketing Integration.

SOLIDWORKS was released in 1995. It was a 3D CAD tool, making it easier to visualize product designs. The software had huge implications down the supply chain, making engineers lives easier when designing the tools (molds, dies, etc,) to produce the physical goods people consume. SOLIDWORKS’ smallest viable audience, mechanical engineers (not civil, not structural, not electrical) rejoiced. SOLIDWORKS would go on to sell over 5,000,000 licenses worldwide, becoming the world’s most adopted 3D CAD program. 

The success of SOLIDWORKS was due to affordability, a widely available platform (Windows instead of Unix), and a network effect. If an automotive company like Ford used it to design cars, their suppliers benefitted from adoption by being able to open the Ford models. It made everyone’s lives easier. Since everyone loves easy, SOLIDWORKS grew rapidly in capability and the network effect lead to continually rising adoption rates.

After 15 years, SOLIDWORKS started seeing a ceiling. The upper bound was becoming visible, adoption rates tapered. SOLIDWORKS turned to acquisitions, buying related products to integrate. They bought products for: 

  • data management and revision control. 
  • simulating product prototypes without having to build them. 
  • analyzing injection molds. 
  • technical documentation. 

Only the data management tool, SOLIDWORKS PDM, was even close. It is the Github of SOLIDWORKS, successful because it had an identical audience to the CAD tool. Not every mechanical engineer could benefit from the other tools, and while PDM is popular, adoption hasn’t been as fast as SOLIDWORKS because PDM doesn’t have a network effect, vendors don’t share their vaults for security purposes. 

The other 3 products all served different audiences and have no network effects, in terms of dollars, they are blips in comparison to the CAD product and it’s associated data management. They are financial failures. Network effects and audience continuity are important.

At GSC, a SOLIDWORKS reseller, where I’ve worked the last 7 years, we’re tasked with marketing all of these tools, and it’s a challenge. Our marketing is slashed up, segmented by product, then audience, and also use case. It’s reached a state where it’s near impossible to create any specific content with the goal of adding to the bottom line of the business. The marketing has to be done in-person via face-to-face interaction, with a custom message crafted for each sale. Pretty traditional outside sales stuff, though we can also do some events. This is what I consider a marketing failure. 

The less popular softwares SOLIDWORKS produces also suffer from not having product-marketing integration. Working at a reseller, I can go to 10 companies who all say, “The product seems okay, but we really need a certain feature to buy it.” Passing that information on, and it goes into the product development void, never knowing when that will be implemented, if ever. The lack of product-marketing integration creates lost sales, and lackluster products. 

This story is meant to reinforce the concept of network effects, product-marketing integration, and smallest viable audience. Without nailing those, your product is sunk before it begins.