Wednesday, March 11, 2015

You go, greybeards!

When I read yet another article about a start-up, I’m always struck by how young the start-uppers are.
Why this continues to surprise me, I don’t know. When I was first in the “tech sector”, coming on 35 years ago, we were pretty young, too. (Even if we weren’t a grand and glorious, ingenious, well-funded, all-gonna-be-rich outfit, we were tech, we were on the edge. Of course, the edge back then was a dumb terminal (VT 131) tethered to a mainframe. But nonetheless…) And we even had some of the hip/happenin’ office things: video games in the kitchen (or were they pinball machines?); Friday party with beer and wine (and, I’ll admit it, joints); and a couple of office ties that the head guys would put on when a client came for a visit.

We also had a greybeard.

I don’t think Dick was all that much older than the rest of us – ten or twelve years. But he had grey hair. And a grey beard. So he was our eminence gris. He was both senior in age, and senior in demeanor. Whether he needed to be there  or not, he was brought in on any of those client meetings to lend an air of gravitas. Especially if one of the clients was over forty. Those pre-Baby Boomers must have had the same feeling about us as we do about the Millennials. Sometimes you just want to see a familiar set of wrinkles.

(D was also my manager’s manager, and when he was coming to a meeting, he would not enter the room until everyone else was there. He stick his head in, figure out who wasn’t there yet, then wander around with his coffee cup until we were all in our places with bright shining faces. Then and only then would he take his seat. We called his wandering around “creeping Dick-ism”.)
Ah, the good old days.

Anyway, given all the focus these days on “the kids”, it was refreshing to read an article in The Boston Globe the other day about Onshape, a startup – and a decently-funded one at that ($64M) – that’s headed by a bunch of greybeards. The average age of the founders is 50+. And they’ve put away their childish things:
…no foosball or ping-pong table in evidence, no scooters leaning against desks…
But they still talk like 20-something disruptors. Onshape’s founders contend the world of CAD software, long dominated by big players like PTC of Needham, California-based Autodesk, and Dassault Systemes, the French software maker with a major campus in Waltham, has grown stagnant. What a new generation of designers and engineers desire, they say, is powerful software that doesn’t have to be installed on your own machine — think Google Docs -- and can be accessed with any device, even a smartphone. (Source: Scott Kirsner in The Boston Globe)
Computer Aided Design used to be the province of automotive and aerospace engineers and the like. But with 3-D printing taking off, hey, we’re all product designers. (Note to self: stop in at the 3-D printing place on Newbury Street, that, when I walked by last week, was seasonally decked up: the window sills were full of hideous little leprechaun statues.)

Unlike the entrepreneurs who are inventing things (or, more often than not) as they go along, creating new stuff that we never knew we had a need for – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – OnShape is an extension of what found Jon Hirschtick has been doing all along.  An earlier CAD company Hirschtick had founded was bought out by Dassault, and the product that came with it enjoys a remarkable 62% market share among designers and engineers.

What OnShape is doing is shape-shifting: moving the deployment and pricing model:
The mission was to build a CAD system that wouldn’t entail installing software — and one that could basically sell itself, with a free trial for casual users and a $100-per-month model for those who want to use it regularly…
The demo is impressive. As a user, you can watch live as someone on your team makes changes to a fan blade -- even if she does it on a phone or laptop a continent away. Onshape keeps track of who changes what; it can allow several different versions of the fan blade to be designed in parallel.
Okay, the Onshape guys may be Baby Boomer tail-enders. They may even be Gen X-ers. They may not actually have greybeards. But I will be rooting for them. I actually think it would be fun to do some work for them. I’ve been around long enough. Surely, I know someone who knows someone on this crew.

Sure, youth must be served and all that, but I just like the idea that not every good idea, not every breakthrough, not every startup belongs to the young folks.

Go, greybeards!

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