As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing John McEleney, Corporate Vice President of Strategy at PTC and co-founder of Onshape.
Entrepreneur and industry luminary, John McEleney has spent his career transforming businesses, driving corporate strategy and forecasting what’s next in product development and manufacturing. With more than 30 years of experience in mechanical design and software, McEleney understands the innovation challenges customers face in today’s hyper-connected world, and helps them navigate the digital era.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
I’m a mechanical engineer. I went to the University of Rochester and studied mechanical engineering. During my junior and senior years, I interned at the laboratory for laser energetics. I worked for the lead mechanical designer who realized quickly that I was better at computers than at design. This was right around the time of the advent of the PC, and he asked me if I could find him a computer aided design (CAD) system and help organize the thousands of drawings they had. I found a CAD system, helped physically add labels and numbers to the drawings and helped organize all that, with a PC-based product called dBASE and also built a drawing retrieval system. Here I am, 40 years later, helping people find a CAD system, organize their information, their data, and be able to improve their processes. My background has been in and around the product design process, literally since I began my studies.
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?
I was going to Russia to give a talk, flying through London. When I landed in London, it was very early morning, and I had a 10:00 am flight to Moscow. As they finally started to board, I went up with this official-looking letter that was in Russian, and got ready to board. The gate agent looked at the document and said, “You can’t board, this is the invitation letter. This is not a visa. You need a visa from the embassy and it takes 48 to 72 hours to get one.” I asked him to book me on the next flight, which was at 4:00 pm. I ran out of the airport, took a cab and headed to the Russian embassy. It was rush hour in London. At the embassy, I convinced someone to let me get to the side of the line so I could talk to an official. In addition to my questions, I got the individual emotionally involved in helping solve my problem, which was to get a visa. He then told me that I’ll need a picture and gave me direction to the nearest picture place was. My cab driver drove me there, I got my picture taken and returned to the embassy. The guy saw me in line, pulled me to the front and took my paperwork. After I paid the fees, he told me it’ll take two hours to get the visa processed. So, my cab driver and I went to lunch. When we got back, my visa was ready. The driver drove me back to Heathrow. I rushed through security and boarded the 4:00 pm flight to Moscow, with the visa in my hand.
Let’s just be really clear. It would have been massively embarrassing if I had not made that flight. I should have had somebody look at that document ahead of time and know it was an invitation letter, not a visa.
First lesson learned: There’s always a way. You just need to have the desire to make it happen.
Second: you can’t do it alone. In this case, I needed that cab driver, the embassy team, and the photographer to solve the problem.
And third: you have to remain optimistic. In the entrepreneurial world, there’s all kinds of ups and downs and bumps. But you just got to keep pushing forward.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I love Ben Horowitz. He is the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz and author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. Ben also has a terrific blog that covers lots of great topics. His post called The Struggle is one every entrepreneur should read because it discusses the gut-wrenching challenges and moments that you have when you start a business — the ups and downs, the persistence and the whole notion of the struggle. I think he clearly articulates the entrepreneurial journey and I found inspiration with that blog post as well as many others.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I couldn’t agree more. At our prior company, SolidWorks, Jon Hirschtick, myself and several others who later formed the leadership team at Onshape made it our mission to bring 3D to the masses. It was about democratizing 3D, bringing great products and using a different business model and distribution channel to bring 3D to the world. With Onshape, we realized that the geometric design was not the only challenge. Really it is about communication, collaboration, and sharing across the globe. Our whole goal was to make it frictionless for anybody to be able to share Onshape documents with someone else, even if they don’t have Onshape. We’ve made it available on any device, whether it’s a mobile device, a tablet, your laptop, or through a browser. Plus we made it affordable and easy. Our business and our purpose focused on removing the headaches and hassles in order to allow people to work together in a frictionless environment. The key thing we did was to make sure that you didn’t have to have any kind of downloadable plugin which eliminated worries about what version of the application you’re using. That was a founding principle and it’s carried through all of our applications and devices that we’ve used.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Just like in football or in golf, you’ve got to be focused on the larger objective. In golf, you need to pick out where you want to hit the ball and then focus, line up and hit your shot. In business, it’s the same thing. You’ve got to keep focused on the long-term objectives of what you’re trying to achieve as a business, not just on the short-term wins that can feel good. There will be lots of short-term losses, too, that make it a challenge but it’s through those ups and downs that you’ve got to make sure you maintain focus on making progress on your key objectives. In the case of Onshape, it was about production usage of our product and having the product get more capable and spark more users to tell others. That’s how we would get the viral growth that we’re looking for. By having more people aware and using Onshape, we made it easier for others to get onboard because there was more knowledge in the industry at large. Through it all, we kept to that vision: to remove the hassles of different versions and different applications and making our solution seamless to users no matter where or what device they use.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The COVID pandemic has affected all of us, how we live our lives and how we work. As for my personal family situation, we’ve been very fortunate. Although my parents passed away years ago, my wife’s father is 96 and her mother is 89, and we’ve been able to keep them secure and remote where they live in Columbia. We’ve been very careful about protocols and masks and, unfortunately, my wife has not been able to travel to see them but hopes to visit soon. We’re being very mindful and deliberate about our interactions with others.
My sister, her husband and their children are all nurses who have direct experience with the challenges presented by COVID. My sister, who runs a network of 40 nursing homes, has lost residents and staff due to the virus. Despite the risk, she keeps the focus on the longer-term vision to provide healthcare to those who need it, especially the vulnerable. These nurses and other medical professionals on the front lines are heroes and deserve our thanks.
What I’ve learned from my sister regarding COVID is that it’s about putting discipline and practice and processes in place. Many of us can work remotely but there are many who can’t work remotely, like my sister, her family and other in the healthcare industry, as well those who are essential personnel. We have to be appreciative and respectful of them., and we need to provide them with tools and protective equipment to allow them to be able to manage COVID, do their jobs and stay safe. To that end, that’s what we’re trying to do.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Inherently our platform Onshape is about collaboration and sharing in real time, and we’ve been working for many years with people in remote locations. We’ve learned how to share information and we use collaborative tools ourselves. We’ve been fortunate that COVID hasn’t impacted us as much as most traditional industries. We’re able to get stuff done, continue to be productive and to support our customers remotely. We don’t think offices will go away — many companies and employees look forward to returning to their offices — but we recognize that remote work will continue in some way, after COVID. We’ve gathered insight from how our customers and employees are able to work under conditions no one expected in Jan. 2020. Yet it’s important to note that the growing worldwide demand to work remotely was not caused by the pandemic but accelerated by it. Working from home was already in process because technology made it possible and employees tend to be happier, more productive when they achieve a better work-life balance, with flexible work schedules and flexible locations. The right tools let them thrive anywhere.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
One of the things I’ve been trying to do is to reach out to four to six employees each week to check in. My wife often can ask people very disarming questions to spark a real conversation. For these check-in calls, I tell employees, “Look, I have no agenda. I just want to see how you’re doing.” When you open the door for people, and let them speak while lending an empathetic ear, that relieves their stress, and they open up. I’ve heard lots of stories, including people who have had COVID. It’s important to be sensitive to the fact that isolation is challenging for people. These calls have been a good way to connect.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time. One of the things that we’re going to see is a new conception of space, whether on planes and airports to offices and so-called cube farms since current layouts do not meet the criteria for social distancing. As we start to work together again, getting people to go to restaurants, being inside offices and working together will be a challenge. So much about business is about formal and informal networking, meeting for coffee, talking in the hallway when you see a colleague. We’re going to have to figure out how we let people interact. At the same time, we will continue to have to let people work remotely. A lot of remote work can be done where people are doing transactional things but there are times when face-to-face is important, and a team needs to be together, with a whiteboard in a room. We may have to wait until there’s a vaccine and until we have the numbers down to where people are comfortable. I’m not a healthcare expert, but I think we have to be able to do daily testing, then you can create COVID-free zones that allow people to operate in a protective bubble. If people test positive, you can do another test to make sure. Deploying rapid tests will help knowing that we have a safe environment for people.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
In the short term, COVID is going to continue to impact us such as density in cities, offices, etc. It will take time, at least a year or 18 months, before people feel comfortable being in a movie theater or restaurants on a generalized basis. At that point, the vaccine should be available. We’re going to have some challenges and need masks just in case. But longer term, after 9/11 some said people would never return to cities but New York City showed us that people want to be in cities and the same in Boston. The idea of an exodus from the cities is a short-term phenomenon. Longer term, people will move back into cities and work together simply because of the efficiency of cities and access to live, in-person culture.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
The nature of how people now work and collaborate, remotely presents a strong opportunity for us. We build tools that facilitate remote work with teams needing access to the same documents, iterate on the same ideas. We think that COVID accelerated the tipping point to work remotely. And that tipping point will ultimately help make more companies operate more efficiently.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
People need to figure out their real value add. Independent of COVID, businesses that offer extreme value will persevere.
In terms of manufacturing businesses, you’ve got to look at the supply chains and realize there’s an area where we may have gone a little too extreme prior to COVID. Let me explain. Prior to COVID, businesses were all about contract manufacturing and optimizing the supply chain, which took capital out of inventory, putting it to work for other parts of the business. The problem was COVID broke true Just-in-Time supply chains. We’re going to see a shift to Just-In-Case supply chains in which companies will go through and focus on their critical suppliers, the critical path needs of critical elements, whether it’s raw materials or sub-components or sub-assemblies. They’re going to have to build resiliency back in the supply chain.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two. My first is “Events force actions.” For example, with our tax code, people pay their taxes on April 15, not on the 16th because it’s going be a lot more expensive for you in terms of penalties if you pay on April 16. Events force actions when you’re running your business or running a project or a schedule. You want to have deadlines and you want to create events that force people to respond and recognize a date and ultimately make decisions that otherwise would be convenient to put off.
The second one for leaders is to “Understand what your business is and understand that it’s not just about making money but about the emotional paycheck.” For me, when I see people using our product to build great products themselves, when I see those products on store shelves, or videos of customers’ products that were build using Onshape, that’s the emotional paycheck that continues to inspire me. That’s a really critical thing because that gets the emotional buy-in from your employees. It’s often overlooked yet it’s vitally important to morale and productivity.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can follow me on Twitter, read our blogs at Onshape because I often contribute there. You can also check out how our SaaS product development platform was used to create life-saving products: https://www.onshape.com/covid-19-support.