Founder Story: Steve DiBartolomeo of Artwork Conversion Software

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in EDA, First Office, Founder Story, skmurphy

Steve DiBartolomeo is co-founder of Artwork Conversion Software, Inc., an EDA software firm headquartered  in Santa Cruz CA with a development office in Manhattan Beach, CA. Founded in 1989, the company develops CAD translation programs, CAD viewers, plotting software and IC packaging software.  Artwork has over 5000 customers worldwide including Alcatel, AMD, Applied Materials, Agere, Bosch, KLA Tencor, Motorola, Ericsson, General Electric, Hewlett Packard, Hitachi, Lockheed Martin, Photronics, Siemens, Seagate, Sony, TRW..

Q: Can you talk a little about your background and how you came to found Artwork Conversion Services?

I have a BS/MS in Electrical Engineering from UCLA (1978). My founding partner, Antonio Morawski, has a BS from Loyola and a MS from UCLA from around the same time period. I cut my teeth at TRW Semiconductor in Southern Calif starting in 1976 as a student. When I graduated I continued on there until 1980 as an RF design engineer, as did Antonio–we met at TRW.

I took a year and a half off of work and went back to college (UCSB) until I ran out of money and then in 1982 joined Avantek in Santa Clara as an international sales engineer. In 1984 my boss asked me to join a startup, Step Electronics, that would specialize in high tech import/export selling microwave and RF components and subassemblies. One of our first clients was a small software start up, EEsof, which pioneered microwave EDA on PCs. (Prior to that microwave design software ran on a $250K VAX and cost $50K – EEsof’s ran on a $5K PC and cost $7500.) I spent much of the next years selling EEsof tools in Europe (where I lived for a year in 1986) and then later in Asia.

In 1986 I needed a translator for a pattern generator in order to close a large EEsof sale in Germany. EEsof could not do it. I mentioned this to Antonio and he said he knew how to write such a translator. We took the order and delivered it 6 months later.

In 1987 I returned back to the US and tried to sell more pattern generator translators in Silicon Valley. The companies that I contacted were not interested in our translator but had lots of suggestions as to what they did need — so we slowly developed new products (on a part time basis) based on their feedback. At that time (between 87 and 89) Antonio was employed as a consultant at TRW and as a professor at Loyola. He did the programming out of a corner of his small garage.

Finally in 1989 we decided to do this full time. I left Step (which had really been an excellent apprenticeship for learning how to run a small, lean operation) and Antonio left Loyola after completing his teaching contract.

Our primary reason for starting the company was to be “masters of our own destiny” and to work on stuff that was interesting. We really only wanted to make enough money to cover our mortgages and live a reasonably comfortable life.

Q: So what were the early days like?

Between us we put up $10K each and started with that (and two years of experience and a few customers and orders in the pipeline). As mentioned, our largest initial purchase was two fax machines (at $1500 each) and a copy machine ($3000). I worked out of a 500 sq foot office in Santa Cruz and Antonio continued to work out of his garage in Manhattan Beach. We broke even from day one even if the monthly salary was small. Eventually we added a secretary and a programmer and Antonio moved from his one car garage to his father’s two car garage.

I handled all the sales which were almost 100% from Silicon Valley. I basically drove into the valley several times a week and installed and demonstrated the software. I also did tech support, marketing, technical writing … basically everything except programming.

We added employees one at a time and grew slowly but surely.

At the time we started (end of 89), the business we knew best — RF and Microwave components and design — was taking a tremendous hit; the giant build up of the early and mid 80’s (due to Reagan’s military budget) was over and an enormous consolidation was occurring. I’d call an engineer on a Monday to make an appointment and by Friday he’d be gone.

There was not yet any Internet and even cell phones were a tiny market. Things looked especially grim because no one could envision what was going to drive new designs. But somehow we ground through the first couple of years — not making much money but not losing any either and slowly adding a few products every year.

By 1995 we grew to a peak of 14 people – 8 programmers, 1 sales guy, 1 boss (me) and 3 office people. Our maximum revenues peaked at about $3 million dollars in the late 90’s.

Business took a major downturn in 2001 what with the dot-com crash which killed a whole bunch of network and chip startups that were buying our tools as well as hurting just about everybody in the tech business. I recall our shipments dropped 40% one month and stayed down for 18 months before slowly building back up again. By 2004 business was excellent again. Things stayed pretty buoyant until 2007; from that point on it seemed to drift down gradually and, of course, at the end of 2008 the downward drift became disturbingly steep. Most of 2009 was pretty awful and it was not until early 2010 that we saw the green shoots of a recovery.

Q:  Where are you today?

Today we are 10 people (7 programmers, 1 sales guy, 1 boss and 1 office person – the internet nature of business no longer requires production of software other than a click).  Our goals are not high growth but rather a good profit margin. As a software company we have zero cost-of-goods and the great majority of our expenses is salary. So once you are past “break even” everything after that is profit.

Q: When you look back over the last two decades or so what are the accomplishments that you are most proud of ?

We are very proud of having kept the company going for over 20 years completely on our own. We didn’t borrow a penny and every quarter we showed an operating profit.

We  made several major market and technology shifts during those 20 years that kept us going:

  • We started by building software for RF and Microwave designers.
  • We branched into software directed at PCB designers.
  • We branched into software directed at IC designers (back end).
  • We moved from translators to display software (viewers).
  • We moved from direct sales to end users to OEM sales to other EDA companies.

We have seen many other EDA and technology firms try to change direction, usually in response to major changes in technology or the market that either died or were badly injured in the process.

We were early Internet and web adopters and this enabled us to expand our market from just Silicon Valley to worldwide without a large sales force.

Q: What’s been the biggest surprise?

I think it was more of a gradual realization: most EDA entrepreneurs start as EDA users, run into problems doing their job, come up with a clever solution and are suddenly find themselves an EDA supplier. The surprise comes some years after you are an EDA supplier–you have stopped designing stuff and find that you no longer really understand the “problem” side of the equation and have to pester people to tell you about what problems they need solving. However this reliance on others for your critical input is never as reliable as your own (past) understanding of the problems that need solving.

Q: What were the significant changes in the environment you have had to respond to?

The internet changed everything. We jumped on it early and have benefited from our ability to be everywhere in the world from our desks in Santa Cruz. Nowadays I think WEBEX (and the other screen sharing apps) is one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

We realized that we needed to change from direct sales to OEM partnerships in the late 90’s because the big kahunas–Cadence, Mentor and Synopsys–started sucking the air out of the EDA markets. They each wanted to be all things to the customer and cut the kind of deals (we call them all-you-can-eat) that would cut off any other vendor.  So we changed our focus to selling into the big EDA companies with small modules that enhanced their products.

Q: What’s the current challenge you are wrestling with?
Design is following manufacturing offshore. We’ve seen this accelerate since after the dot-com crash. It’s a lot harder for a small  US based company to cover Taiwan, China, India and Singapore. The big guys set up design and application center’s in these countries.

Q: Any suggestions for other entrepreneurs who want to bootstrap a software business?

If you want to run a company you can make a living from–in other words you are not writing a business plan where the exit strategy is on the first page–then I think I can make a couple of suggestions.

  • Start with a small team with common values and complementing skills – in our case Antonio was the programming guy and I was the sales/applications guy.
  • Don’t take any more money–none if possible–from outsiders than absolutely required.
  • Create something small and simple and quickly get it out there. You’ll get much better and faster feedback than if you try to go around asking people what they want.
  • Refine it based on feedback. Document it. Do it again.
  • Grow slowly. Fast growth is very inefficient since you will then have a lot of people on board that have not figured out their job.
  • Staff or employee turnover has a high hidden cost since the replacements have to start over.
  • Cash is king. Save some of your profits as a cushion against a rainy day.
  • Spend a lot of time listening to your customer’s problems. Not every problem is one you can or should solve, but the aggregation of their issues gives you a solid base for making seat-of-the-pants decisions. You’ll never have enough information to make a MBA-style decision on new products or directions. But if you’ve listened to enough customers you’ll have a good “feel” and make better decisions.
  • Beware of business plans. Have a look at some business plans that are 3-5 years old of both successful and unsuccessful companies. You’ll have a good laugh at both. The main difference between the successful companies and the dead/dying ones is how they reacted when their assumptions blew up.

Finally and most importantly: people can say one thing and do another. Only act on what people tell you if you see that their behavior is consistent with their talk. People are much better at telling you what they don’t like than at what they want. When we are developing a new product we try to get something into their hands quickly and then listen to them criticize it. The criticisms are usually much more specific and useful to defining a product.

Q: Steve thanks very much for your time.

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