Graphisoft Celebrates Its 40th. What’s Next?

Company poised to take on Autodesk and Bentley

There are not that many software companies that have been around for this long,” says Huw Roberts, CEO of Graphisoft at his company’s 40th anniversary and Archicad 26 launch recently held in Budapest. 

It was on the banks of the Danube that Gábor Bojár founded Graphisoft in 1982. But he had a problem. Hungary’s communist government had made owning a personal computer illegal, a show stopper for software developers creating software on the PCs that had become quite the sensation. Gábor managed to get a computer and a booth in the CeBIT 1984 trade show in Germany and there caught the eye of Steve Jobs, who was at the time desperate to prove the Apple’s Lisa, the precursor to the Macintosh, was able to run professional graphics software as well as or better than the IBM PC. The IBM PC ran AutoCAD and was having a runaway success. Jobs made sure Graphisoft got computers and the relationship led to Archicad being sold through Apple’s distribution system. That was the little Hungarian company’s big break, the legend told in Graphisoft headquarters — and why a statue of Jobs towers outside the Graphisoft lobby. A statue of Bojár, however, is conspicuous in its absence.

Everybody Loves Archicad

Archicad may be the most beloved professional architectural CAD program in the world, says CEO Roberts. He would say that. But Martyn Day, 30 years a journalist on the AEC beat and unafraid of criticizing CAD programs of other companies, seems to concur.
“I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about Graphisoft products,” says Day.

Archicad’s following among architects is due, in large part, to Graphisoft’s focus. AutoCAD, another 40-year-old CAD program, is a general-purpose CAD program. AutoCAD’s lines and arcs can certainly resemble floor plans and elevations. A Jack of all trades, master of none, say ArchiCAD users, for whom an architectural design program that starts off with drawing walls and windows, instead of lines and arcs,  offers a clear advantage. 

Archicad, as its name suggests, was always about architecture. 

“Didn’t Graphisoft invent BIM?”, we wonder out loud.

Roberts is demure on this subject. 

“We’re Hungarian. We don’t brag.”

The Americanization of Graphisoft

Under Huw Roberts, Graphisoft appears to be undergoing somewhat of an Americanization.

Roberts, once vice-president at Bentley’s Exton headquarters, outside of Philadelphia, is a trained architect and as American as ice-hockey, a sport he loves. It’s not the first time Nemetschek (Graphisoft’s parent company) has installed an American in the top spot. Dominic Gallello, once the head of Autodesk’s mechanical division, ruled Graphisoft for 5 years until 2009.

Shesh Gorur, Chief Product Officer, GM - Global Enterprise Software (Picture courtesy of LinkedIn)

Shesh Gorur, Chief Product Officer, GM – Global Enterprise Software (Picture courtesy of LinkedIn)

The head of company product marketing for the last year and half has been Shesh Gorur. Gorur was born in India but has worked for American companies and has been in the Boston area for over 20 years and brings an international dimension to Graphisoft.

Amy Senew, hails from New York City. She has been Graphisoft’s Chief Revenue Officer for over a year.

Ron Close,VP of Marketing at Graphisoft (Picture courtesy of LinkedIn)

Ron Close,VP of Marketing at Graphisoft (Picture courtesy of LinkedIn)

Graphisoft now appears to be bringing American marketing magic into the company with Ron Close, who joined the company as VP of marketing in the beginning of the year. Close is a CAD industry veteran and has held senior marketing positions at DS SOLIDWORKS and Autodesk.  

One might wonder why Nemetschek may again be using MCAD company expats for Graphisoft’s executive positions. Nemetschek may have learned that, with few exceptions, Americans believe in American software and in order to sell into the American market, a company must at least look American. But nationalistic preference may be the norm around the globe, as Nemetschek should know. The German company’s own Allplan, is the favorite BIM application in Germany. Pockets of individual preference are everywhere. We are often briefed by companies that have the “the most popular [fill in the blank for product] in [country].” But of all of the countries, only the US has one language, common customs, monetary system, laws and regulations, specifications and standards – and a GDP that makes it the most lucrative market in the world.  

Huw Roberts had considerable experience with American style marketing and media relations with Bentley. Seeking out an American marketing veteran from SOLIDWORKS, a company whose success can be attributed to its marketing magic, made perfect sense. Plus, Close just happened to be living in Budapest, having moved there to do marketing for Shapr3D, a Budapest-based MCAD startup.
In just 7 months, Close has transitioned into a different industry and, despite learning little of the Hungarian language (“the hardest language in the world”), he does admirably well with introducing his Hungarian colleagues during the 40th Anniversary event.

Our satisfaction scores are the highest in the business, says Gorur. 

Autodesk Steals the Show

With so much value for architects in the product, it makes sense for a company, especially one from a country not known for design software, to try to get all the marketing it can muster. 

In 1987, Graphisoft came out with Archicad and the concept of building information modeling (BIM) but called it Virtual Building. The concept was gold but the name did not stick. Ten years later, BIM was the word on everyones’ lips. This was due in large part to Autodesk’s promotion of Revit as a BIM application. So great was the Autodesk effort in promoting Revit and the benefits of BIM that most in the AEC industry associate Autodesk with the creation of the building information modeling concept. 

Revit’s success was all but guaranteed. It was not for any express need of BIM, per se. Architects of the time could not even spell BIM. But Autodesk had millions of users of AutoCAD, all drawing floor plans and elevations in 2D. Here was Revit with 3D, a cutting edge application that spoke their language and understood walls and windows. Revit was a new code base, not an architectural add-on saddled on the aging back of AutoCAD as was the other AEC alternative Autodesk offered, the ill-fated Architectural Desktop.

Introduced in 2000, Revit was to spread like wildfire across the United States as architects and builders made the move to modern 3D vertical applications. If architectural users of AutoCAD had shopped around, they might have noticed Graphisoft’s Archicad. If they did, they might have dismissed it as a foreign product.  What could a European AEC software company know about how we made houses, shopping centers, high rises and sport stadiums? They don’t even play our football or baseball. Revit appeared to be the path of least resistance into modern AEC software. Already familiar with one Autodesk product, AutoCAD, here was another, Revit. Never mind that Revit was foreign in all but a national sense. It had a foreign interface, a foreign approach (it was parametric) and a foreign file structure (requiring translation). 
Graphisoft, lacking Autodesk’s influence, userbase and nationality, could only watch as Autodesk and BIM, now permanently linked, swept to the top of the AEC software market. 

International Marketing – or the Lack of It

Another company that saw its product and technology lead in AEC software vanish under waves of Autodesk’s marketing was Bentley Systems, although Bentley still maintains a lead in BIM for large building projects and infrastructure. 

Graphisoft, however, was never completely out of the picture. With Autodesk informing the media frequently with its market success, and Bentley doing it regularly with the Year in Infrastructure, Graphisoft took a couple of stabs at big media events. At one media event in Tokyo, we were surprised to learn that Graphisoft was the #1 BIM software in Japan. It’s #1 in most of Europe, too, except in Germany, we were told by then-CEO Viktor Várkonyi. We had no idea.

A market lead in Europe is a big deal and certainly worth bragging about – were Graphisoft a bragging company. The Eurozone economy is roughly on par with the United States economy. Still, we wondered, how secure is Graphisoft’s European leadership? Autodesk is as eager to establish itself in Europe as Graphisoft is to establish itself in the US. Each effort would require international marketing – hardly Graphisoft’s forte. 

Hungarian Roots, International Intention

How important is it to have a heritage or presence in the geography you are selling into? Success of American CAD companies in America would offer concrete proof of local importance: consider AutoCAD, MicroStation, SOLIDWORKS, PTC. Consider the difficulty of foreign companies, often with excellent technology, in getting a foothold. Chinese CAD companies, like Gstarsoft, Gstar, ZWSOFT, German companies, Belgian companies… The only foreign companies to have had success are those that manage to hide their origin or have a first mover advantage.  CATIA by Dassault Systèmes, for example. TurboCAD, a best selling consumer CAD product, comes from IMSI which has origins in South Africa.

It’s not Americanization as much as it is internationalization, say Gorur. Graphisoft found me after an international search, he adds. Still, Graphisoft’s Hungarian roots run deep.

“Half of our top executives are Hungarian,” says Gorur.

Zsolt Kerecsen, VP of Product Development at Graphisoft (Picture courtesy of LinkedIn)

Zsolt Kerecsen, VP of Product Development at Graphisoft (Picture courtesy of LinkedIn)

We meet one of them. Zsolt Kerecsen, who has been the head of development for almost 4 years, coming from LogMeIn, Hungary’s other international software success story. Zsolt clearly lays out the rearchitecting of Archicad, based on a “microkernel” on which “general BIM authoring” will rest and provide support for enough vertical applications to make Graphisoft a true building platform. 

Archicad as a Platform

Graphisoft appears to be undergoing a metamorphosis. Instead of being known by Archicad, an only-architecture application, it also wants to cross and incorporate other disciplines besides architecture.  Like structural design, mechanical, electrical and plumbing.

We want to help with everything that is in a building, says Roberts. 
We wondered how a product, singularly focused on architecture, its name an amalgam of architecture and CAD, could absorb multiple other disciplines.

It won’t have to, says Roberts. The discipline-specific applications will operate under the Graphisoft umbrella.

The rollout of Graphisoft as a platform is just starting. It will be up to Ron Close, head of marketing, to affect its acceptance. 
The expansion of Archicad, from just an architectural tool, by adding structural and MEP answers not only Autodesk competition but also Bentley competition. While Graphisoft has been honing Archicad as the architect’s CAD tool, proud of the architects among them (CEO Huw Roberts is a degreed architect), Autodesk and Bentley have assembled an ecosystem of architectural, building and construction tools. Both Autodesk and Bentley have industry-leading structural applications as well as applications for mechanical, electrical and plumbing, project management… and more. Hardly a month goes by without Autodesk or Bentley acquiring a company or technology that adds to their BIM toolbox. Both have expanded well beyond floor plans, elevations, details and dramatic visuals of building exteriors. They want to design the buildings and infrastructure, build them, monitor them (digital twins) and construction and beyond, even venturing into the once exclusive domain of FM (facilities management) software.

Graphisoft’s 40th anniversary was as much a celebration of the company’s longevity as it was a look into its future. We see CEO Roberts leading Graphisoft into a holistic BIM offering, building on top of what is arguably the best architectural design software, Archicad, adding a collection of technologies, home grown or acquired, for building design, simulation and construction. Graphisoft has been the 98-pound marketing weakling of recent years, but the company has been working out in the American gym of marketing and we expect it will soon start flexing its muscles.