An Interview with Robert McNeel, CEO of McNeel and Associates (Rhino 3D)

March 14, 2007 4 min read

Robert McNeel is the CEO of Robert McNeel & Associates, the company that makes the famous CAD modeling software Rhinoceros, simply known as Rhino 3D. Novedge has been a McNeel reseller since the opening of our online store. The recent release of Rhino 4.0 was a great opportunity to learn more about Robert and the success of Rhino. I invited Bob to participate in the following interview:

Bob, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company?

the worldwide Rhino user base is well over 150,000

Founded in 1980, McNeel & Associates is a privately held company, employee owned self-funded corporation. My background is public accounting. Originally, we were developing accounting software for consulting firms (accounting, architecture, engineering, etc.). Around 1985 many of our clients were asking for help with AutoCAD. We signed up as an Autodesk reseller in 1985 and over the next few years, we shifted our focus to providing AutoCAD and AutoCAD related hardware, software, training, and support. We also started doing development on AutoCAD. Our most popular AutoCAD based product is AccuRender (Also, the renderer in Revit).
We started the Rhino development in about 1992 as an AutoCAD plug-in to help a few of our marine design clients. We soon found that the AutoCAD user interface was not adequate for 3‑D free-form design, so we moved the development to a standalone Windows application. The rest is history.
Today, we are no longer an Autodesk reseller. The worldwide Rhino user base is well over 150,000. We are still based in Seattle with regional offices in Miami, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Rome, Tokyo, Taipei, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, and Shanghai. There are nearly 700 resellers around the world. Rhino is available in 11 languages. There are thousands of third-party developers using the Rhino SDK to develop both in-house custom applications and wide range of commercial 3-D applications.

Robert McNeel & Associates was able to create one of the most loyal online communities in the CAD field. Can you share with us the secret of your success in building the Rhino community?
We don’t really have any secrets, so if I had a good idea of why the online Rhino community is so successful, I’d be happy to share. My guess is that we were just lucky. When we started the Rhino development the Internet was new and we just happened catch the wave. I’m not sure it would easy or even possible to do today.

In the last few months, there has been a lot of talk in the CAD community about proprietary file formats and how companies protect them. I would like to know how a CAD system like Rhino was able to succeed with a file format that is open, documented, and free (OpenNURBS).
The CAD users need and want open high-fidelity data exchange.
Unfortunately, open file formats are not in the best interest of investors. Investors would rather bet on companies that have a protected proprietary market.
Unlike most CAD companies, we are not a public company nor are we venture capital funded with plans to be public. That means that our only customer (and source of income) is our users.

Rhino users had to wait a few years between Rhino 3.0 and the new Rhino 4.0. In the mean time, they enjoyed a continuous stream of improvements and bug fixes delivered to their PCs by the Rhino automatic updating system. Based on how well this system has worked, are you considering moving from a release-based system to some sort of subscription-based system?

we don’t pay any attention to what other CAD companies are doing

No. Again, those systems are usually in the best interest of the investors. Our users have the luxury of not having to buy upgrades until we provide something that is actually useful to them. In addition, all current users get to be involved in the development process are every stage, not just for a couple of months at the end. Since we don’t pay any attention to what other CAD companies are doing, we rely on the users to provide the direction for each new release.
We just started shipping Rhino 4.0 this month, but we started Rhino 5.0 development last month, and that development was been available to users for a few months now on RhinoLabs.

According to your website, Rhino 4.0 includes more than 800 improvements over Rhino 3.0. Explaining 800 improvements to an existing Rhino 3.0 user can be a challenging task. Can you give our users the two or three most important reasons to upgrade?
Not in general, but in many market segments there are three to five “must have” new tools. For example, if you own a laser cutter, the new 2D layout tools alone are worth the price of an update. Other tools, like those based on the UDT (Universal Deformation Technology) technology, are more general and are of interest to most users.
We tried to summarize the highlights in video clips that you can find on this link. We will continue to refine the videos as more users tell us what they think the highlights are.

We know that your engineers are running several experiments for new tools. Can you give us some insight on what we are going to see as new products or new features for existing products?
We are tracking about 3,000 feature requests from users. We prioritize the requests based on how quickly we can bring the most benefit to the most users. Typically, if there are good solutions available in other products, they don’t get the highest priority.
We are expecting to start getting Rhino 4.0 users involved in the 5.0 development process within the next month or two. Once the first 5.0 Work-in-Progress (WIP) version is in the hands of users for a few weeks, we will have a much better idea of what to focus on for 5.0. My guess is that 5.0 will be primarily enhancements to the major new features in 4.0. Of course, we never know for sure until the users tell us what is most important.

I would like to thank Robert McNeel for taking the time to speak with me today. All McNeel products mentioned in this interview are available online from the Novedge website. If you have any questions for Bob or for Novedge, just leave a comment below, and we will be glad to answer.

Franco Folini

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