Lessons learned – Architectural sims

Posted September 24th, 2017 by russfrazierwp and filed in Uncategorized
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In 2005 I created an LLC, Synthegenic, that was intended to be a vehicle for commercializing ideas. I had just completed an MBA and was certain that if I worked hard at applying all that business knowledge, I could achieve financial independence – the closest thing to true freedom that I can think of.

I spent a great deal of time developing software, writing business plans and doing a lot of government grant application research. Having gone through the NCSU HiTec program, I was experienced with working on the commercialization aspects of brand-new technology. At that stage of technology development, it isn’t clear whether a technology will ever make any money, or if it is even useful for anything at all.

I created a fuzzy-logic based expert system whereby I could screen ideas very quickly for economic potential. This sort of application is not unheard of in some organizations, as it’s well understood by management researchers that ideas fall like raindrops but only a very few end up being economically feasible. The more quickly an organization can screen the unworkable ideas from the workable ones the better.

Well, one of the ideas that got through my sieve was a sort of architectural design simulator. A 3D application and system that would allow architectural clients and designers to engage in self-directed walk-throughs of designs. Like a First Person Shooter (FPS) game or Second Life, the client would log in to the system, download the “map” and be able to walk or fly themselves around the site. However, unlike an FPS game or Second Life, the site would be limited to just the project design, would be updated as necessary continuously throughout the project design period, would be available to clients only and would have features to alter the design, accurate ephemeris data for sun and moon, lighting, shadows, weather and the surrounding ambient environment, including sound.

The vast bulk of configuration work would be behind the scenes.

I envisioned a technology-based service that would shift the tedious, time-consuming and frustrating computer software work away from architects and onto a dedicated team of Computer Aided Design (CAD) engineers. Architects would find this attractive because it would free them from work that wasn’t design-related and it would improve the way they communicated certain design ideas to their clients.

During the entire phase of a project, the virtual site would be available, first perhaps populated by a simple naked ground site, then with simple sketches and then with increasingly solid structures and landscaping as design elements became more certain. All that is quite possible with modern game development technology. My main development focus was building this application system.

The several people I discussed the idea with were more enthusiastic than I anticipated. Almost all of them thought it was a good idea. But, as indicated above, a good idea does not mean it can drive a viable business model. A lesson I learned in business school and took to hear

My thinking was that I could find a collaborative architectural partner who would be willing to help me work out things like:

  • How to quickly and systematically convey an abstract hand drawing to the CAD engineers so they could make it into an equivalent abstract foreground object for the simulation
  • How to convert Autocad drawings into a format the simulation system could use
  • What kinds of ideas are best conveyed in a simulated environment and which ones don’t carry over.

I badly needed to check the viability of the business model. I created a business plan for the project which included a model showing what the proposed prices would look like for an architectural firm that wanted to use the service. The way I saw it, architects would only be able to justify an additional cost like that if they could cut costs somewhere else. I had no idea if adding the service would result in reduced costs elsewhere for them. I was fairly certain that nobody in the architectural field would pay for an extra service without being able to cut something else out. They were already expensive and adding additional services would only eliminate more potential clients.

The other side of the business model was true cash flow from operations. I could squeeze out a one-digit IRR by increasing the number of projects and having personnel run multiple projects simultaneously. I used a reasonable cost of capital derived from proxy firms, but it was significantly higher than that IRR. I was not willing to assume outsourcing CAD work to a low-wage country or things like harsh and inexpensive work environments. That whole picture made it less and less compelling to investors who might want their 30% in five years.

One warning flag came when I was doing research into similar firms. I did find a software project that embodied the same ideas. It apparently didn’t take off and become a growing business concern. It didn’t look to me like it was ever sold as a stand-alone technology. So there was something going on with the business assumptions around the whole thing. And I was likely to make the same assumptions.

It was clear, after creating these business models, that

  1. The project would be operating on a thinner margin that I hoped and
  2. That there was no guarantee that the architectural firms would buy it.

Those were two key considerations.

Even after all that doubt, I had managed to set up a meeting with a local architect, just to get a reaction. Well, I got a reaction, but it wasn’t what I expected. She interrupted me before I could finish the entire presentation and declared the thing no different than SketchUp. SketchUp is for modeling. My technology is more like a customized FPS game where the modeling is done elsewhere and multiples users can log in…

Anyway, I was not prepared for a negative reaction like that, and did not even know how to respond. I had completely expected at least a courteous response, if not an encouraging one.

One takeaway that I can claim from that experience is that objective truth is no match for human bias. And that my salesmanship was poor. Sales people know that people might react in hostile ways and they know how to respond appropriately.

The other takeaway is related to overcoming barriers to entry. There are understood barriers when a competitive product or service enters an existing market. But when the product or service is brand new and unknown to the potential market, the barriers are completely different. The standard strategic considerations of economies of scale, differentiation, etc. don’t necessarily apply because there isn’t any historical record yet to base any of that on.

I think my initial instinct of finding a development partner within the customer community was correct. It is essential to develop a new unknown technology or service with guidance from the customers. And a brand new product or service that was already being used by an early adopter or thought leader within the customer market would make it easier for others to accept it. However, I overestimated my own ability to sell, my ability to be effective outside my field, and I underestimated human bias.

I did not trust my cost of capital estimate when I should have admitted that it looked prohibitive, given my requirements of fair compensation and realistic expenses.

Finally, my screening tool did not have the necessary additions required to estimate the barriers associated with introducing a novel product or service. It assumed acceptance associated with novelty, not rejection.

George

Posted July 15th, 2017 by russfrazierwp and filed in Uncategorized
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March 21, 2001–July 12, 2017

March 21, 2001–July 12, 2017

Our adopted dog George passed away recently. He had become lame in his hind legs and could no longer walk without dragging one or both feet behind him.

George loved chasing the soccer ball on the field at York Elementary. He would tear up the field no matter how tired and winded he was. When he got to the point of complete exhaustion, he would lie down and trap the ball between his paws and bark. I don’t know what he was saying, but he sure was happy.

He loved to sniff. Everything. Since he was never trained on a leash when he was younger, he would just try and pull as hard as he could on walks until he started using the Easy Walk harness. If he could sniff all the pee, poop, discarded food, grass, flowers and whatnot, we would never finish any walk. Before he was neutered, he would lift his leg and try to pee on everything he found the least bit interesting.

And that was what he loved the most, those walks. When I first started walking him, we would go for long walks – through the neighborhood, around the lakes, through the nature park. Eventually he figured out a trick to prolong the walks. When we got near the end of the walk, he would stall by walking slower and finding more things to investigate. In the end, he actually dragged himself to the gate because he wanted to go for a walk.

Going somewhere, anywhere.

Going somewhere, anywhere.

When he was still over at Elaine’s house, he could still hear very well. He would bark at damn near anything and howl. He would start howling at sirens before we could hear them. It was like a one-minute warning. The howls would start out soft and low and rise to a coyote-like pitch then trail off, finally stopping when the siren became too faint to hear.

If it weren’t for George, I would not have found Dude. To me, it was like a supernatural event, and to this day I wonder about how this happened and what it meant. It was just about two weeks after we had lost one of our beloved cats, and I was feeling very sad and empty. I was taking George through the nature park, and as we came over a ridge I saw a black and white streak run across the creek and disappear into the embankment. As it ran, it cried out several times. Well, it was Dude, and he was about 5 or 6 weeks old, abandoned or living there, in the park, hiding in a small, dirt cave. To make a long story short, we have Dude now.

In his second yard.

In his second yard.

George would come into the garage during particularly bad or extreme weather. I would call for Dude to come to the door leading from the kitchen to the garage, and then they would look at each other. They sniffed the air. One time they actually touched noses. George would not know what to do and stood there still as a statue, not wanting to look directly at the cat but slowly moving his head so as not to alarm him. His self-control was amazing.

Once we had a scare when we suddenly heard him calling out in pain. My wife and I both ran down to where he was under the porch to find him on his side, unable to get up and writhing on the ground. Thinking he had broken a hip or his back, we rushed him to the emergency hospital. We carried him in on a blanket and waited with dread for horrible news as the veterinarian treated George in the back room. Next thing, here he comes walking out like nothing happened. We were happy and incredulous. “He’s walking!” we cried with elation. “What was it?” we asked. “He had his foot caught in his collar.” We felt ridiculous.

He had some dogs come by from time to time when he lived in his first yard, but when I started walking with him in the nature park he made his best dog friend of all, Tramp. Tramp was a white mixed breed little guy about the size and build of a boxer. We would only see him and his person (a local filmmaker) by chance. When they got together, the dogs would thrash around and roll on the ground, tangling their leashes and embarrassing the people with their amorous antics.

In Elaine's yard.

In Elaine’s yard.

Daun would mow the back yard and find that George would frequently be standing exactly where she was about to be next. After a while, she realized that he was herding – predicting the future position of the thing being herded and standing in that spot.

He had always been a sweet dog and never lashed out at anyone or anything the whole time I knew him. The only time he growled was when off-leash aggressive dogs in the nature park spotted him from way off and came running up to him barking and growling. (I lost track of the times I had to tell people that their dogs were required to have a leash.)

There were so many other high points (starting regular walks), funny things (constant interruptions around people, when he could still hear) and low points (being attacked by a neighborhood dog) but I will remember him as a highly intelligent working dog who would look at us as we watched him through the window, his eyes saying, “When are you coming out?”

Welcome

Posted February 22nd, 2011 by russfrazierwp and filed in Uncategorized
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Welcome to my website! You’ll find information here about my professional experience, education and skills.