Safe Software Shares Lessons Learned from 15 Years in Geospatial

By Directions Staff

To help celebrate Safe Software's crystal anniversary (press release), Directions Magazine asked Don Murray, president and co-founder, and Dale Lutz, vice president of Software Development and co-founder, some questions about business advice, the past and the future.

Directions Magazine (DM): What single piece of advice would you give geo start ups today?

Don Murray and Dale Lutz in earlier days, presenting on the SAIF format.
Don Murray and Dale Lutz (DM/DL):
This is a very tough question. Looking back, we'd probably say passion, focus and an ounce of luck were key factors in Safe's success.

We started Safe at a time when the interest in data sharing was just beginning. The move of mapping systems to PCs meant GIS systems were being introduced and used by people who wanted to do new and different things. These users also needed a way to share data between applications. We just happened to start Safe at a time when there were very few companies focused on solving this rapidly growing problem of moving data between applications.

Having a passion for what you do is also critical for success. We started Safe because we enjoy and are motivated by solving hard problems for users. We absolutely love what we do and are constantly looking for new ways our technology can be used to solve spatial data access problems for new markets.

It is also very important to stay focused as every company will face a myriad of distractions. It is essential to stay committed to what you do well as there will always be temptation to do more or different things. At Safe, we're committed to doing exactly what we started doing 15 years ago - that is, moving data. Even today, our goal is to be able to move any type of spatial data out there and that's why we're continually looking to expand the types of data that we can move.

DM: What is the best decision you made regarding the company? The worst?

FME User International Conference 2008, attended by FME users from all over the world.

The single best decision we made early on was to become an organization driven by user requests and feedback. We learned in our early days as consultants that by listening to our users we could better deliver the functionality in FME that our users cared about the most. To this day, we still follow this same approach and it has proven to be very valuable for us. We've also built a test suite of thousands of tests that we run daily. This, coupled with our daily beta cycle, has enabled us to be highly responsive by delivering fixes while they are still relevant to our users.

We also recognized that to be relevant in the industry we must "complement" software from other vendors. As a result, we always look to see how we can add value to the products offered by major vendors such as Autodesk, Bentley, ESRI, Google, Intergraph, Microsoft and others. Whether it isFME on the desktop or the server, the goal is always the same: to leverage our technology in a way that complements the great work of these other organizations.

Of course, we've also made some decisions that hindsight has shown us weren't always the best. For example, we should have ramped up sales and marketing sooner than we did. Initially we believed that if we made a great product and had a good website, people would somehow hear about us and find us. While this is true to some extent, word of mouth is definitely a harder way to grow.

DM: How are you dealing with the shifting economy today? Did you gain insight from past downturns?

We've been fortunate enough to have had our sales grow every year since our inception and every indication is that this is going to continue through this year. In our 15 years, we've gone through several business cycles and there were a few times early on when we relied heavily on one customer or customer segment to get us through a slowdown. As you can imagine, this approach can be very risky. So we've made a conscious effort to diversify our customer base across both geographic and vertical markets to better position ourselves to ride out any storms. So far, this strategy seems to be paying off.

DM: What's the biggest change you've seen in the industry in the last 15 years?

The move of geospatial to the Web has been the biggest change. The arrival of Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth (and others) has increased the demand for and understanding of all things spatial. Now, it's easy for anyone to put their data on a globe and see it in context with base information of great detail. The Web is now also bringing us more geospatially referenced Web services than ever before. We are only at the beginning of this next phase in the geospatial industry and already it is hugely exciting.

DM: Where do you think you'll be in 30 years? What will the company and product look like?

When Safe turns 30, we both expect to still be active in the organization and continuing to have fun solving hard data problems for users. As to what the company will look like, we won't hazard a guess at that because if you had asked us 15 years ago, we would have been wrong. But there are some things we can predict with certainty - that we will continue to be a cohesive team that produces excellent results, that we will continue to innovate and make our customers more productive and happy and that we as a company and a user community will continue to have fun all the while. This is what has gotten us where we are today and is what will continue to sustain us in the years ahead. As for FME, we believe the advances in user interface technology and techniques powered by amazing changes in hardware will result in almost unrecognizable ways of interacting. We also fully expect the number of formats FME supports to grow in a linear fashion as the need and desire for the universe to create new data formats will not subside but only continue.

DM: Where do you think the geospatial industry will be in 15 years?

We'll likely find the newness of 3D/BIM/GIS integration to largely be behind us and users will take immersive 3D geo-referenced worlds for granted, much as we take "globes" such as Google Earth for granted today.

Based on Moore's law, we'll also find that 15 years from now, processors will be about 150 times faster than they are today. Network bandwidth will be measured in gigabits per second rather than megabits per second, causing the barrier between local and remote to vanish. In fact, we are already starting to see the divide between desktop and Web applications getting fuzzier every day. Right now, applications cannot assume that they're always connected to the Internet; the Web in its current state is an "occasional" connected network. As the "connectedness" of the Web gets greater and greater and as bandwidth increases, the volume of data that will be required for applications will also exponentially increase. We're already seeing the amount of data that is available today growing by leaps and bounds along with the number of sources for these data. Enabling the growing number of applications to be able to leverage these data will continue to be a priority for Safe.

The entire idea of "cloud computing” is now in its infancy. Although in 15 years it may be called something different, it will most likely be one of the more popular deployment models. Selling applications by the box or seat will still exist but will not be the most common model. Users will instead pay for applications like we currently pay for phone or electricity - that is, pay for services based on usage.

We'll also see everything ultimately being delivered as "Web services." Even now, we're seeing the proliferation of Web services as more organizations work to provide services to the world. The applications that are successful will be those that enable users and organizations to most easily leverage the power of Web services.

To be perfectly honest, we can't think of a more exciting industry to be in and it is only going to be more important and more ubiquitous as time goes on. We definitely look forward to seeing where the industry will take us in the next 15 years.

Published Friday, December 19th, 2008

Written by Directions Staff

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