The Arcol Roadmap. Part 1: Why “Figma for BIM” was important

Paul O'Carroll
6 min readSep 7, 2022

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What “Figma for BIM” Means to Us

“Figma for BIM” — what does that phrase mean to you? It’s been a sort of tagline for Arcol since the beginning. Lately we’ve been very excited to see other companies contribute to this narrative and for it to gain attention in media outside of typical AEC sources (e.g. HackerNews). We are lucky to be backed by some key people at Figma → Dylan, John and Lauren.

AEC deserves better design tools. In the Arcol team’s mind it is clear why having a Figma-like tool is important, but we understand that some explanation is required. We’d like to spend the next two posts explaining what Figma for BIM means to us and how we’re evolving our narrative while trying to answer some of the frustrations in our industry over the next 10+ years.

🤷‍♀️ Why we chose “Figma for BIM”

In our manifesto I talked about how I grew up watching my dad draw buildings. I’d go on construction sites and take it all in; it was mesmerising to me, and I thought it was the coolest thing possible (Later when I started working in an architect’s office the cool factor was slightly overshadowed by the tools being used and the lack of “wow” within them).

Fast forward a few years. I learned programming, got into game development, built a solid freelancing career, and spun that into a digital design studio. While running that company we adopted a tool called Figma. I remember the first time I opened Figma — the UI designer on the project was using Sketch at the time and she sent me a Figma link. She was sitting no more than 10 feet away from me, and when I opened file and saw her cursor I immediately ran over to her computer to see if my cursor showed up too. At that moment it was clear to me that this is how all design should be done.

This aha moment got me thinking back to my time spent in architecture offices years earlier. I had kept relatively up-to-date with tools/tech in AEC as I’d been building some cool in-house design tools for our clients, and I started to think “what if AEC had a Figma-like tool?” I had previously had a similar idea while working in an architect’s office but at the time it was “what if AEC had a Google Docs-like tool?”. It wasn’t clear to me at the time how well that form of collaboration would translate into a design-focused sector. Figma did exactly that.

I decided that this was what I wanted to spend time creating. This was important. So important that I turned down an acquisition offer for my design-studio that I decided to go all-in on Arcol instead.

I started talking to as many AEC folks as I could. I initially cold emailed ~200 architects fully expecting to hear back from maybe 5 or 10 people, but to my surprise almost all of them got back to me! Next I created a waitlist link that just said “Figma for BIM” (that’s literally all the site said). BAM! Within a matter of weeks there were 1,000+ people on there. It was evident that I was not the only one excited by the prospect of a new AEC design tool, and I discovered that there was a frustrated audience who felt the same way I (now we — the Arcol team) did about the industry’s incumbent.

X for Y Narrative

Flickr for video (YouTube). Ebay for space (AirBnb). “X for Y” is a common way for startups to communicate their ideas in a simplified way (Y Combinator advocates doing this in the “Matter of a Fact Answers” section here, and Andrew Chen wrote this piece about the value of X for Y’s.). X provides context and imagination for what the product might do in terms of features, while Y provides the area or industry that you plan to disrupt with those features.

In my opinion this narrative works best when X is a huge company that has been very successful at capturing a large share of their market and Y is an equally massive industry. I found this to be most useful for getting in the door with investors — people knew what Figma was and how big the construction industry is. “If you can do what Figma did but in construction, then I’m in” is what I was hoping to hear.

There are plenty of situations where X for Y comparisons don’t work and actually end up hurting your pitch. It can be so broad that it doesn’t make sense, and it’s extremely important to make it clear what part of X you’re talking about. Andrew Chen wrote this other great piece about when X for Y’s don’t work — specifically the case of Uber for Y. We wrote this article to address this potential issue head-on. We’ve seen various interpretations of Figma for BIM in recent months, and we’d like to very clearly state what we mean when we use that phrase.

When Mike started at Arcol we decided to start probing the waitlist about our X for Y. We sent out a Google Form including the question “What does the phrase “Figma for BIM” mean to you?”. Some answers were less clear, but many answers were exactly what we had been thinking, or similar:

  • “Affordable, accessible, cloud-based software that’s easy to use for process of designing space”
  • “Collaborative, real-time editing & review; shared components”
  • “Arcol helps creating and iterating design concepts, provide rapid testing and prototyping, and build a bridge to code-free innovative tools for AEC professionals”
  • “Seamless collaboration, flawless UI, final result that feels effortless”

🔫 The Bullet List

So without further ado — here is a list of what we at Arcol mean when we use the phrase “Figma for BIM”

  • Natively web-based → we’ll cover more why this matters so much in the next post. (For the record, we think having a desktop app is also important and offline capability is a must whether using the web or desktop app).
  • Real-time collaboration → asynchronous collaboration is just as important, but real-time collaboration is where creativity comes to life. We talked more in-depth about this in a previous post.
  • Easy to learn, but still powerful → you shouldn’t need a two-week training course to get started in Arcol, but you should be able to do things more powerfully or efficiently as you continue to learn the tool.
  • Performance → Figma has been obsessed with performance since its inception (eg. using WebAssembly early on). They’ve set the bar for performance in design tools, and we intend to maintain it.
  • Fun → this one is less tangible, but designing buildings is fun! Your design tool shouldn’t diminish that in any way. In fact, it should make designing more fun and should be a natural extension of your creativity.

But don’t take our word for it! Here’s what some of our awesome supporters think of “Figma for BIM”:

“Figma made it exceptionally obvious that every industry will move, very quickly, towards a focus on collaboration, both real-time and asynchronous. Figma has changed the world of design completely, and I’ve been lucky to be involved there as an investor since nearly the beginning. I see the same kind of promise with what Paul & Co are building at Arcol for AEC specifically, and really designing buildings overall.” → John Lilly, Investor at Figma, ex-CEO of Mozilla.

“I’m thrilled to support Paul and the Arcol team as they build the next generation of tooling for the AEC industry.” Lauren Martin, Head of Corporate Development & Strategy at Figma

So where do we go from here?

Figma for BIM was a very useful narrative in the earliest stages of Arcol, but our goal is to continually get more specific in the way we describe what we’re working on and to show some actual product (we’re not quite ready yet, but check back in a few months!). In our next post we want to address the growing frustration with the lack of development in the incumbent tools, where the industry is going, and our roadmap to get us there.

We’d love to hear what you think of all of this as well as any topics you’d like us to address in the future. If you want to give Arcol a whirl when it’s ready then sign up to our waitlist — join over 12,000 people and help us make Arcol amazing. You can also follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn!

Cheers,

Arcol Squad

Thank you Daniel for giving me amazing feedback, as always!

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