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“Reach out and build relationships.” With Mitch Russo & Jon Hirschtick

Learn what real SaaS is by using real SaaS systems. See and feel and use the SaaS advantages in your own work. Use Salesforce, Google Suite, Zendesk, Netsuite, Workday. Use a Chromebook. Use the browser version of Microsoft Outlook — not the installed version. As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To […]

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Learn what real SaaS is by using real SaaS systems. See and feel and use the SaaS advantages in your own work. Use Salesforce, Google Suite, Zendesk, Netsuite, Workday. Use a Chromebook. Use the browser version of Microsoft Outlook — not the installed version.


As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful SaaS Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Hirschtick, President of PTC’s SaaS business and founder of Onshape.

A technology pioneer and entrepreneur, Jon Hirschtick is passionate about empowering innovators so they can design products that positively impact society and the planet. Hirschtick launched Onshape — the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product development platform company, which was acquired in 2019 by PTC for $470 million. He is also the founder of SOLIDWORKS, the 3D CAD system used by millions of users worldwide, acquired by Dassault Systèmes for $310 million in 1997.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Ifounded three companies, all in Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. I founded SolidWorks in my home in 1993 to bring 3D CAD to the then-new Windows platform. I spent 18 years there, independently and then later as part of Dassault Systemes, growing a business that today generates revenue of approximately a $1 billion per year and is used by millions of users worldwide.

But SolidWorks is installed software that stores data in typically hundreds or thousands of files per project. It was time for a new generation of cloud-based, true Software As A Service (SaaS) for CAD and related tools like data management, collaboration, etc.

That’s why I founded Onshape, along with five other co-founders. We successfully built Onshape and last year we were acquired by PTC, where I am today Head of SaaS Business. We like it at PTC and have grown our team, the scope of our technology breadth, and most importantly, our user base.

My first entrepreneurial experience was as a child in Chicago, working with my father selling postage stamps to stamp collectors. I also worked as a professional magician, and as a professional blackjack player on the MIT Blackjack Team.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I visited customers, users of CAD and related tools, and could see the problems and the pain they had with installing and maintaining increasingly-complex software, and with sharing and collaborating with each other by trying to copy files.

I saw what was happening with cloud, web and mobile technology and how they were getting put to work so successfully by SaaS companies like Salesforce, Workday, Zendesk, Netsuite, Google — basically everybody besides product development and CAD. I saw clearly how we could solve so many problems people had with CAD — but we needed to start from scratch to build a true full-cloud SaaS CAD platform.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Each of the companies I’ve started — including Onshape and SolidWorks — faced big challenges getting started. Both companies were viewed as bad ideas by many of my friends and colleagues. It was very hard to raise money for SolidWorks. It was pretty easy by comparison to raise money for Onshape.

Both products were very challenging to build — CAD and data management are very big, complex application areas.

And both products were hard to market — CAD users do not switch very easily.

What kept me going, my North Star if you will, was my strong view of the future for these users. I knew they had to move and change.

Changes that seem impossible in foresight often seem so obvious in hindsight. See the future when your venture will be that obvious hindsight, someday, and use that vision to power you through.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Onshape is doing great — we have hundreds of thousands of users so far ranging from some of the coolest new products being designed by pros, to educators and students everywhere from elementary schools to leading universities.

Onshape is still, surprisingly, the only system in our industry that is truly full-cloud and SaaS. Of course all of our competitors have their own “cloud” solutions — but they all still rely on old installed software and file copies to get work done. So we have a pretty big technology lead.

The greatest success for us is seeing the products people build and story after story about how they work faster, collaborate better, and are more innovative and efficient with money and time than they ever could be with older systems. We love that!

Back in my days on the MIT Blackjack Team, I learned that just because lots of people tell you something cannot be done, that does not mean it cannot be done. If you believe in your vision stick with it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

It’s the classic mistake of under-estimating how long it will really take to build software. In my early days I think I thought I could build *anything* in six months. I’ve since learned the hard way :-).

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes Onshape special is our real culture of customer-first. Everyone on the Onshape team at PTC thinks first about what is best for the customer. Our cultural highest value is not merely selling our system, or even getting praise from users. It’s when the user develops a new product and has a better product and a better process than they did before. That’s what we celebrate most, and that is what makes us stand out.

It’s not a statement on a web page (literally — it is not actually written down anywhere), it’s a way we all live and the way we emotionally react and the way we make decisions at all levels and all departments of our team.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

If you feel you are still needed then your team is not strong enough. Look at your management team the way you would look at building your product. You want to build it well enough so you can step away a bit and have it run, and grow, just fine — all by itself without you personally and constantly making it work.

That can be really hard to do ego-wise, and control-wise. But it’s not only key to you not burning out, it’s key to your company being able to grow.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My father taught me that no matter what I would do in life, I must learn to deal with people. That business and life are all about people. So I’ve learned the tech industry, and the financial world are all about people — not technology and money.

When I was raising my first venture capital round in 1987, I received an offer of investment from a venture fund. I did not know whether I should take the offer, and I was getting a lot of conflicting advice.

I called my father and started to read him the terms — valuation, dilution, etc. He interrupted and said WHO is offering the investment — who are they, are they a good person? He said that was THE most important thing, and if I felt good about the people then the rest would probably work out.

He was so correct.

It’s advice I continue to give to other founders to this day.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

We have hundreds of thousands of Onshape users at thousands of companies and educational institutions all over the world. We’ve been successful for a bunch of reasons. One, we are still the only full-cloud, true SaaS system in our market. We’ve not only built a great product, but also had some pretty good marketing to go along with it. And now we are part of PTC, which has amped up our visibility even further.

And of course the COVID crisis has made people realize the power and value of SaaS and cloud even more.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

We are a subscription business, like almost all SaaS companies. We do annual-only, no monthly option, due to what we’ve learned about the commitment it takes for us and the user to become successful. We’d rather spend more time in a partnership with a prospective customer in a free trial (which we offer), than quickly grabbing a monthly fee and having them casually use us.

We do offer a free plan, but that’s for open-source, non-commercial work only.

And we have a very successful free offering for education, both K-12 and university level.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful SaaS business? Please share a story or an example for each.

Learn what real SaaS is by using real SaaS systems. See and feel and use the SaaS advantages in your own work. Use Salesforce, Google Suite, Zendesk, Netsuite, Workday. Use a Chromebook. Use the browser version of Microsoft Outlook — not the installed version.

Learn how people who build SaaS really build it. Don’t assume you know. Visit SaaS companies. Talk to the executives there.

Take a class on how to build SaaS Products. I did. And of course, do it online. I took the UC Berkeley edX class on SaaS (and, by the way, have the digital certificate to prove it!).

Find investors, employees and board members that think SaaS.

Raise more money than you would ever imagine you need. SaaS businesses are subscription-driven — so the money comes in slower than you think. Of course, over the long-term, these models become wonderfully profitable. But you will need more money than you think to get to the long-term.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d ask all of my fellow citizens to stop judging entire groups of people by our preconceived notions. Whether it is judging and biasing against people by their skin color, or breeding hatred for people based on their political affiliation, or their religion, or the job they do — stop.

Remember that our first relationship with each other is as fellow human beings. Not as white versus black, republican versus democrat, police versus citizen, Christian versus Muslim, China vs. USA, etc. Fellow human beings first. Treat each other well and assume the best first. Stop the biases and generalizations. Stop the violence.

Listen more, talk less.

Reach out and build relationships — not with the people who are most like you, but with the people who are least like you. Hear what they have to say. Feel what they feel. Remember that people’s feelings are always real — you can debate how they developed those feelings, and what to do about them — but, assuming people are being honest about how they feel, you cannot debate what their feelings are. I need to change myself. I feel I must personally reach out more right now to build more relationships with my black colleagues. So that when my colleagues’ brethren are the target of violent acts, I already have a relationship with my colleagues in place that I can use as a basis to be of support to them — and not try to build a relationship with my colleagues only in the aftermath of and in reaction to violence.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonhirschtick/

Twitter: @jhirschtick

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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