Why We Started From Scratch (Again) in the CAD Business

Jon Hirschtick
Onshape News
Published in
5 min readJan 7, 2015


This post originally appeared on the Onshape blog.

Jon Hirschtick, founder of SolidWorks and Onshape.

As the founder of SolidWorks, people often ask me, “What was it like in the early days, what was it like when you were first getting started?” I always answer the same way.

Today is still the beginning. Today, we’re still just getting started.

Although people have been developing CAD for a half century — and I’ve personally been at it for more than 30 years — I don’t feel like we’re done. Onshape is just the next chapter in a larger story for me.

There’s no problem in CAD that’s been completely solved yet. CAD systems still aren’t fast enough, they’re not easy enough, they’re not robust enough or reliable enough. All of the core issues in CAD are still there — and I think as an industry, maybe we’re halfway done.

I recently heard an inspiring talk from author Jim Collins, who wrote Good to Great and Built to Last. Collins has devoted much of his career researching the characteristics and culture of companies that transform themselves from “good” to “great” and what makes them soar above the competition.

Comparing building a company to driving a bus, he says the first instinct is usually to “decide where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.” However, Collins argues that exceptional companies don’t start with the “where,” they start with the “who.”

They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats,” he writes. “And they stick with that discipline — first the people, then the direction — no matter how dire the circumstances.”

- Jim Collins, Good to Great

In the “who” part of his presentation, Collins talked about creators and founders and observed that they all shared an inner drive to create that never stops. That’s how I feel. SolidWorks wasn’t the first CAD system I helped build. I previously built a system called DesignView when I was with Premise. SolidWorks later became the best job in the world and I could have stayed there forever. But over the past few years, I’ve had a lot of creativity building up and nowhere for it to go. Onshape is the place where it can go.

A startup is the perfect environment for creating something extraordinary and unprecedented — and for attracting the top talent necessary to pull it off. That’s why I started Onshape.

After leaving SolidWorks, many wonder why I am not golfing seven days a week or sipping drinks on a tropical island. Rest assured, I’m not ready to retire. I want to be part of the future of CAD, which requires a clean slate approach, not only from the technology side, but from the business model side as well.

So I’m starting from scratch again for five reasons:

  1. The Design World Has Changed — The way that design and manufacturing teams work together has dramatically changed. Teams that used to be under one roof are now fragmented and globally distributed. And teams are also changing faster, with people coming on and off projects all the time. Traditional CAD was never built for this new model of distributed design — we know because we’re the ones who built it.
  2. The Computing World Has Changed — We are in the midst of the biggest change ever in computing platform technology, from the old world of desktop PCs to the new world of cloud, web and mobile computing. Younger people have grown up in a post-desktop world and have different expectations about computers. They don’t even think about having “a computer.” They walk in with their laptops and their tablets and their mobile phones. They expect computing to be modern and available anywhere, anytime on any device. Cloud, web and mobile technologies are our exciting new raw materials for creating CAD — they are like carbon fiber is to Boeing or battery chemistry is to Tesla. And if used properly, they have tremendous potential to solve many of the problems faced by today’s CAD users.
  3. I feel an Obligation to My Customers — I feel a strong connection to the countless designers and engineers who have bought CAD systems that I’ve helped build. I can’t walk away from them now. I’m an engineer, too. At Onshape, we truly think we have an obligation to try to improve the way our fellow engineers design products. Personally, I’ve also dreamed of eliminating the everyday hassles of traditional CAD. I just love the idea of not having to install software and never having to worry about backing up my stuff.
  4. Nobody Else is Meeting the Challenge — We’re not alone in realizing it’s time to move CAD to the cloud. Others in the CAD industry are now enhancing their file-based installed software with some kind of cloud storage. This is a step in the right direction, but it is not really a complete cloud solution. You cannot fully take advantage of the latest cloud, web and mobile technologies unless you architect your CAD system from scratch specifically for the cloud, web and mobile. That’s what we are doing here at Onshape. The cloud is not an afterthought — it’s our primary thought.
  5. I want to Make CAD Fun Again — I visit CAD users all the time. Years ago, we’d talk about all the fun stuff in CAD: how to design cool shapes, cool products, cool machines. But recently, users mostly tell me about the hassles of sharing files and using different versions of CAD, the prohibitive cost of software licenses, and the challenges of PDM. Sigh.

I love being an engineer. Scientists pursue knowledge, mathematicians prove theorems, but engineers build things that people use. Onshape CEO John McEleney calls it our “emotional paycheck.” There is no greater thrill than seeing customers build great products with our system.

Forgive me for momentarily sounding like a kid being exposed to his first video game, but I also think the technology itself is really cool. The idea of modeling something in 3D on your computer is still amazing to me — especially when you model things in the full fidelity and detail that we do in CAD.

But we’re not in the business of creating software for its own sake; we’re in the business of helping you build exceptional products.

We cannot wait to see what you build with Onshape.

If you want to be one of the first to use a pre-production version of Onshape, please tell us here.



Jon Hirschtick
Onshape News

CAD software entrepreneur and busy dad. A Founder of @Onshape and SolidWorks. Also former member of MIT Blackjack Team.