A Long Conversation With Ron Fritz

On the sidelines of Spatial’s 3D Insider’s Summit in Westminster, Colarado, I had the chance to sit with Ron Fritz, Co-founder and CEO of Tech Soft 3D and learn more about him. This is how the conversation went.

Deelip: Tell me more about yourself and the origins of your company.

Ron: Tech Soft 3D’s main product is HOOPS, the graphics technology. It came out of the CAD lab at Cornell University in about 1985. Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, Jeff Kowalski, Brian Mathews and others were the original developers of HOOPS. The problem that the students in the lab were having was that they needed to write different graphics languages to work on different hardware and the HOOPS project was initiated to solve that problem. I was at studying at Cornell at the same time but I wasn’t part of that lab. In fact I only knew people in that lab because I worked at a restaurant with one of the guys that worked at that lab. So I got a chance to know some of the early HOOPS people who became Ithaca Software, which was later bought by Autodesk in 1993.  Tech Soft 3D spun the HOOPS technology back out of Autodesk 14 years ago now, in 1996.

Deelip: Hold on a second. So what exactly does your Cornell Degree state?

Ron: Business Administration. I actually studied at Cornell’s Hotel and Restaurant Administration School and was not part of that CAD lab whatsoever.

Deelip: So how did a person running restaurants get to become the CEO of a graphics component vendor?

Ron: So like I said, I knew those people. I worked in the Hospitality industry and moved to California. And just by chance Ithaca Software was bought by Autodesk and they all moved to California as well. So I continued to stay in touch with them.

Deelip: So if I have understood this correctly, these people at the Cornell CAD lab go ahead and form a company, get bought by Autodesk, get absorbed by the company and all this time you are running restaurants.

Ron: Yes. For about seven years I managed hotels and restaurants. It’s not as different as one might think. If you take the time to understand your customer’s needs and what they are really buying from you, then all business is somewhat similar. It all centers around knowing your customer and caring about them. I like to believe that my high service orientation was helpful to us, since I don’t think that is particularly prevalent in the technology industry in general.

Deelip: Excellent! Please carry on.

Ron: (Laughs) Yeah, I know. It sounds a bit crazy. So anyways, my understanding of why Autodesk bought Ithaca Software was that they wanted to take HOOPS and put pieces of it into AutoCAD. As a result, HOOPS wasn’t really strategic to them as a component technology like how RealDWG is today. They took the pieces they wanted but didn’t intend to push it as a component. So, a team of basically former Ithaca Software people got in touch with me because I had a business, marketing and sales background and we negotiated with Autodesk to spin the technology away to be an independent company. Actually as I was negotiating with Autodesk I read the “3D with HOOPS” book a few of times to understand what it was. My only experience with programming was back in school with Basic. So I figured out what a compiler was and tried a few sample programs.

Deelip: So what made you leave the Hospitality industry and enter into graphics components?

Ron: It’s simple, the Hospitality industry is that the hours are long and the pay stinks (laughs). But seriously, I was actively exploring the possibility of making the move to the technology industry because it was exploding at that time in the Bay area. So when it became clear that there was an opportunity to spin the HOOPS technology from Autodesk I jumped at the opportunity.

Deelip: So did you need to get funding to do the spin off?

Ron: No, HOOPS already had a customer base because of the companies who had integrated HOOPS into their applications. So we just boot strapped it along the way and were able to get it off the ground without external funding. We started with four people and now there are 52 people.

Deelip: So what’s the story behind the Tech Soft 3D logo tattoo on your arm? I remember you mentioned having a difference of opinion with some of people in the company which made you make that statement of having the company logo as a tattoo on your arm. (See YouTube video “Commitment is more than skin deep“)

Ron: Basically, HOOPS was a technology that had got a lot of attention when it was part of Ithaca Software. HOOPS was quite successful at landing some early customers like ComputerVision for CADDS5. But once the technology was inside of Autodesk, it wasn’t really being actively promoted. In fact, when we spun away from Autodesk 14 years ago and I started calling potential customers the thing I heard most was “HOOPS? I thought that was dead”. So that was the kind of environment that we were having a discussion about whether we want to really continue to invest in HOOPS and build the future of our business around that technology.

Deelip: But besides HOOPS what else did you have?

Ron: We had nothing else. Our other options would be to use HOOPS like a cash cow and use the money to go in some other direction, which was a very reasonable strategy to consider at the time. However, after a lot of debate we decided to invest in HOOPS and take it forward. We decided the core architecture was excellent, and with software that means everything in terms of longevity and scalability. We also just loved the product, and still do. We decided that if we made smart decision with product direction that there was plenty of life left in HOOPS and happily we were correct.

Deelip: You mentioned that the people who thought otherwise were not working at the company anymore. Were they the founders?

Ron: No, they were a couple of early programmers that we had. You know how programmers are about code. They don’t want to rework existing code. They want to work on something new. So we carried on improving HOOPS and each success that we had gave us more confidence that we had taken the right decision. When SolidWorks decided us to use HOOPS for eDrawings, that was a big boost to us because they had done an extensive study on graphics technologies and decided that HOOPS was the best on out there. And then Autodesk chose HOOPS for Design Review. It’s been very satisfying to see adoption grow so steadily.

Deelip: Actually, this is something I find a bit weird. You just named Autodesk and SolidWorks, two huge companies that have developed their own high end graphics technologies for use in their flagship products. So why is it that they license HOOPS for their other products. I mean, what’s the point of paying you royalties for HOOPS when they already have the technology they need. Especially for software like eDrawings and Design Review which is given away for free.

Ron: We have a standing NDA with all of our customers, so I can’t get into the specifics of why those two decided to choose HOOPS in those particular situations, but you’re right that both of these companies have already invested heavily in developing their own graphics technology, and that technology is quite good.  I can tell you that generally it is difficult for companies to productize their code used in a particular application into a well documented component which can be then used repeatedly in other products. You almost really never start out with that idea. So the graphics tend to not be cleanly separated from the other elements of the application. So if you don’t start out with the idea of creating a component, it can be hard to later retrofit. It can be done, but it can sometimes be a difficult thing to do.

Deelip: I guess now you have started to diversify. I mean you not only offer HOOPS but you do other stuff as well. Things like Adobe’s translators and PDF library, AutoCAD OEM. So is HOOPS still your main thing?

Ron: Absolutely. HOOPS is still about 85% of our revenue. It’s funny. People know HOOPS more than they know Tech Soft 3D. We are often referred as the HOOPS guys.

Deelip: So what does HOOPS stand for?

Ron: The acronym came about in it early days and it stood for Hierarchical Object Oriented Picture System.

Deelip: Picture System?

Ron: (Laughs) Yeah, that has its own story which is a long one.

Deelip: So how did you get into licensing other people’s technologies?

Ron: Around 1999 we did an integration between HOOPS with Parasolid. The reason for doing that was that we found a lot of customers who were using HOOPS for graphics and Parasolid as their modeling kernel and all of those companies were building their own connectors between HOOPS and Parasolid. Some of them were doing it well. Others weren’t doing it so well. So we began to expand the idea of what our responsibilities were towards our customers. We decided that anything that helps them get a great product to market faster should be part of our responsibility. So we built a bridge to Parasolid and started co-marketing Parasolid. Immediately we had customers asking if they could get both the technologies from one source. So we talked to UG and became a reseller of Parasolid. At the same time we also built a bridge with ACIS. So that’s how we started getting into reselling other technologies. Since then our mission has been to help software companies build better software faster. And we basically changed from a graphics company to a toolkit company. Basically, our goal that we would like to get to is that when someone wants to build a piece of Engineering software, they should want to talk to us and see what we might have that will be useful. We won’t have solutions for everything or everyone, but we want to get the point that we have a good offering of multiple components that solve multiple problems. Our portfolio now includes a modeling kernel, a graphics engine, CAD translators, 3D PDF publishing technology and some other stuff.

Deelip: You have AutoCAD OEM as well.

Ron: Yes. The thing is HOOPS is a pretty low level component. That’s great for certain applications where you may have most of the application infrastructure in place, but need a strong graphics engine. However, if someone wants to create a CAD application from scratch and use HOOPS as a graphics engine, they have a lot of work to do and would need a lot of expertise in other areas to build a complete product. For some of those people, AutoCAD OEM maybe perfect since they can strip out whatever they don’t need, add their stuff and they are good to go. Interestingly, we are also finding HOOPS opportunities among AutoCAD OEM customers. Some of them want to build their main design application using AutoCAD OEM and then build other smaller utilities using HOOPS.

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OK, so here is a trivia question for my readers. What was the first name of the company that came out of the Cornel lab? That’s before it was renamed to Ithaca Software. I shall update this post with the answer tomorrow. If you know the answer leave a comment. The first person who submits the right answer gets to decide what tattoo Ron will put on his right arm this weekend. 😉