I have always considered Bob McNeel to be one of the few people in the CAD software industry who stands out from the crowd. His decision to not go down the path of most CAD vendors of locking customers using proprietary file formats is just one of reasons I admire the man.
On the second day of COFES 2009, in the middle of the Arizona dessert, I got the chance to sit with him and talk business over beer. I learnt a lot of stuff about him, his company and the way he views the CAD software industry. Bob is an accountant by profession. So I asked him how an accountant ended up where he is. What followed was one of the most interesting conversations that I ever had in a long time. A small disclaimer here. This was not an interview and I was not taking down notes. So it is perfectly possible that some of what I am going to say is factually incorrect. Moreover please remember that we were having beer and my brain does not do a very good job remembering things when alcohol is in close proximity.
Anyways, as it turns out, once upon a time, Bob McNeel was a practicing accountant. Along the way he started writing accounting software for himself and other people. Things started working out on the software front and he ended up with quite a few customers. A few years down the line, one of his customers asked him for some help which involved purchasing and installing a license of AutoCAD. So Bob picked up the phone and called Autodesk. They told him that if he signed up as a reseller and ordered a reseller kit (2 licenses of AutoCAD) he would get a 50% reseller discount. So Bob figured that he could break even since he could sell one of the licenses to his customer and would still be left with another license which he could sell to someone else. So Bob signed up as a reseller and purchased a reseller kit.
The thing with Autodesk is that they do not sell directly to end users. If they get a direct inquiry, Autodesk routes it through the reseller for that area. So through no effort of his, Bob started getting inquiries for AutoCAD and began selling it. Soon enough, reselling AutoCAD started becoming quite a profitable business and Bob expanded his operations to include HP plotters and all kinds of stuff that CAD users need.
The reseller business started taking up so much of his time and resources that he slowly let the accounting software business disappear. Bob started adding value added services to his AutoCAD customers which included writing plug-ins and scripts for AutoCAD. One thing led to another and he ended up developing plug-ins that he sold commercially. At one point McNeel became one of the largest AutoCAD reseller in the entire North America.
Somewhere along the way Bob McNeel hired Michael Gibson, the genius who now develops and sells Moment Of Inspiration (MoI). One of Michael’s first project was a toolbar plug-in for AutoCAD, the same kind of toolbars that Rhino has till date – the ones where something different happens when you left-click and right-click the mouse.
After a few requests from customers for more free-form modeling tools Bob decided to develop a NURBS modelling plug-in for AutoCAD. At that point, the architecture of AutoCAD offered poor support for integration of a Windows NURBS modeller and his programmers eventually realized that they were going to run into trouble. So Michael was entrusted with the job of developing a standalone NURBS modeller. The idea was to have the NURBS modelling happen in an external application and then transfer the model back and forth to AutoCAD.
Bob licensed the AGLib NURBS modelling kernel from Applied Geometry to do the actual NURBS modelling. Bob soon realized that the AutoCAD plug-in was not going anywhere and decided to stop going down that road. The codename for the standalone modeller that Michael was working on was “Rhinoceros”. When the product was ready, the name that Bob chose for the product ran into some trademark issued and he decided to stick to Rhinoceros. Bob released Rhinoceros 1.0 as an open beta, something which he still continues to do to this day. The response was phenomenal. He got flooded with bug reports and enhancement requests from people all over the world. McNeel programmers found it difficult to keep up with the users. Eventually after about three years, Rhinoceros was officially released and became an instant smash hit.
At this time McNeel was still using the AGLib modeling library. Alias bought Applied Geometry and there arose a conflict of interest. So Bob started developing his own NURBS modeling kernel.
All this time Bob remained a reseller of AutoCAD. He admits that profits from their AutoCAD plug-in products paid for the Rhinoceros development effort. The AutoCAD reseller relationship came to an end shortly after Autodesk bought Alias, which had a product that was in direct competition with Rhinoceros. McNeel still develops plug-ins for AutoCAD and Revit including AccuRender and DOSLib.
To this day, Bob feels that Alias Studio is one of Rhino’s main competitors, which does not seem apparent when you take the cost of both products into consideration. He tells me, “Actually they are competing with my product and not the other way around, if you know what I mean”.
So this is the story of how a practicing accountant became one of the most respectable and admired people in the CAD software industry.