Creation Engine: Autodesk Wants to Help Anyone, Anywhere, Make Anything

Carl Bass is president and CEO of Autodesk, a publicly traded software company worth $7 billion. But he’s also an amateur woodworker, and he takes his hobby seriously. Last fall, for example, when searching for just the right wood to…

Carl Bass is president and CEO of Autodesk, a publicly traded software company worth $7 billion. But he’s also an amateur woodworker, and he takes his hobby seriously. Last fall, for example, when searching for just the right wood to take back to his workshop, Bass and two fellow enthusiasts—his CTO, Jeff Kowalski, and a Berkeley, California-based carpenter named Gene Agress—flew to Portland, Oregon, to meet with one of the world’s most secretive dealers in rare timber. The dealer picked up the three men in an Audi SUV, then sped into the countryside, mentioning along the way that the vehicle was, in fact, bullet-resistant.

Inside an enormous climate-controlled metal building in the Oregon outback, the three browsed an astounding array of wood: rare finds like bird’s-eye maple, curly redwood, and 20-foot lengths of ebony. Speakers blasted jazz and classical music at the lumber, because the dealer believed it would make the wood resonate better when used in fine musical instruments. (The wood seller had some offbeat ideas, including a deep suspicion of the government—hence, perhaps, the armored car.) Bass picked out some striped curly redwood to take home with him. But the dealer was less impressed with his visitors than they were with his wood. After spending the afternoon with them and interrogating them on various subjects, he declined to sell them anything and packed them off in the SUV.
So, over the next four weeks, Bass mounted a campaign to show that he was worthy of the timber. He even sent pictures of boats he’d built professionally, during a year off from college (a period that grew to five years, before he returned to finish his math degree). The seller finally relented, set a fair price, and sent Bass a truckload of the wood he wanted.
For Bass, woodworking is a release from work, a firewall against the pressures of the job. Yet over the past few years, his hobby and his day job have become surprisingly aligned. What once was a refuge for the CEO has transformed into a strategic vision for Autodesk, one of the world’s leading makers of sophisticated 3-D design software for engineers, architects, and artists.
As interest in 3-D rendering has burst out of corporate design and engineering departments into the amateur realm, Bass has aggressively positioned Autodesk to cater to makers and garage entrepreneurs like himself. Now the company has launched four new products in its consumer-oriented 123D line, creating a suite of low-cost modeling apps for PCs and tablets. At the same time, Autodesk has also gone on a yearlong acquisition binge, buying Instructables (a design-sharing community), Pixlr (a photo-editing site), and Socialcam (an app for video editing and sharing on mobile devices).
Under Bass’ leadership, Autodesk has become the most prominent tech company so far to commit to a vision of the future in which makers—basement hobbyists, bootstrapped startups, boutique manufacturers—aren’t just a cultural force but a profit center too. Call it the Big Make: the pivot point when the maker movement, served for years by homely startups and open source projects, has grown large enough to catch the attention of serious and publicly traded players. “Some people see it as a niche market,” Bass says. “They claim that it can’t possibly scale. But this is a trend, not a fad—something seismic is going on.”
On paper, no firm is better positioned to take advantage of a maker-led future than Autodesk, whose 30 years of experience in computer-aided design give it unparalleled intelligence about the capabilities that designers want and need in their software. Despite some recent financial travails (in August, lower-than-expected earnings forced the layoff of some 500 employees), Autodesk’s core professional business affords it enviable leeway to pursue the consumer market without jeopardizing its solvency.
To pull off the Big Make, though, the design giant still needs to innovate its way past a pair of problems. The first is a design challenge of its own. It must streamline its industrial-strength tools into user-friendly apps—transform its Abrams tanks into bicycles, as it were. But the second, even more difficult challenge is cultural: Autodesk has to convince the most passionate members of the maker community, amateurs accustomed to dealing with small players more like themselves, that a multibillion-dollar public company has their best interests at heart. On both fronts, the question is: Can the kings of computer modeling learn how to remodel themselves?
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