Creation/Evolution     Before Autodesk

Ten Years After

Well, that's it, then. We close the book on the continuing story of Autodesk as 1993 draws to an end. Ten years before, at the end of 1983, Autodesk was wrapping up its first full year of operations, confident that in AutoCAD we had a winner on our hands. AutoCAD, which a year before had been only dimly perceived as Autodesk's primary product, had generated more than a million dollars in revenue, rendered the company profitable, appeared on the front page of leading PC magazines, and created an operating company with offices, payroll, dealers, and almost a thousand customers.

Ten years later, a million dollars in sales is hardly worth noting; Autodesk sells more than that, on average, every day of the year. AutoCAD, then so ill-defined even in the minds of the programmers who were writing it, has become the global standard for computer aided design, with more than a million users and billions of drawings created with it.

Autodesk, the company so weird that no venture capitalist could screw up the courage to fund, is now part of the Standard and Poor's 500 average, the very benchmark of U.S. industry. The company that Business Week called, in 1985, a “high-flyer that may not fly” was named, by that same publication, the Number One Hot Growth Company in America in 1986 and 1987.

Success is what comes at the end of a sufficiently long sequence of failures. Success is no guarantor of continued success. Often it is merely a punctuation mark in the series of small failures that are the day to day reality of building a business and creating new markets.

How perverse, yet strangely equitable reality is. One must fail repeatedly in order to succeed, but one can fail, on the grand scale, only after having first succeeded. The history of Autodesk is the history of many failures and a few great successes; so it is with any business that succeeds at all. It is the groping of fallible humans, with incomplete and often inaccurate information, toward uncertain decisions which will ultimately be judged by a market whose preferences are unknowable in advance and evolve with every product introduced. It is perverse, indeed, that success conditions us to avoid risk, when unwarranted risk-aversion leads directly to the bullseye of failure.

In reading this book you've seen Autodesk grow from the point where one sale of our product for $1000 increased the company's bank balance by more than 5% to where it's “lost in the round-off” amongst revenue of a million dollars a day. You've seen the hopes and dreams of a few individuals grow into a company which has made the likes of IBM, Computervision, and Intergraph tremble and redefine their own mission. And you've seen the problems that success can bring which, albeit unpleasant to experience, are surely preferable to the problems of failure.

You've seen individuals grow when confronted with increasing challenges, and you've seen individuals, myself among them, decide that the challenges before the company required they consign its destiny to those better equipped to manage it. You've seen the consequences of decisions made, confronted by an unforgiving marketplace, yet constrained by Wall Street expectations totally at odds with developing a successful business amidst a technological revolution.

And yet, it didn't come out all that bad, ten years on, did it? If our naïve dreams of owning the software business didn't come true, our more realistic hopes of controlling one of the major application areas surely have. As that area matures and approaches its inevitable point of saturation, the challenge before Autodesk is to mobilise the same creativity and energy that created AutoCAD in 1982 and 1983, but on a 1990's scale, to create the products and build the markets which will define the personal computer industry in this decade and beyond.

If Autodesk rises to this challenge, the Autodesk story will not end with this chapter.

Creation/Evolution     Before Autodesk