YBF Success Stories: Drawboard carries engineers into the digital age

Photo Credit: Drawboard

Drawboard’s success has been astronomical, belying their humble Melbourne beginnings as a two-man team in the York Butter Factory community.

Developing a product that catches the eye of the world’s largest software maker is, for many entrepreneurs, a dream that is chased throughout a lifelong career. For Melbourne-born Drawboard, this dream has become a reality; their application is preinstalled on Microsoft’s hugely successful Surface Pro line as the default pdf annotation platform. Founded by Alistair Michener, Drawboard has gone from strength to strength in the past three years. Microsoft’s Surface Studio ad showcased Drawboard PDF in use on the new hardware, and the technology giant also featured Drawboard PDF in the launch for the Surface Dial. September of this year saw Drawboard take the next step in document markup towards collaborative annotations with the launch of Bullclip. At the time of writing this, the app is the most popular paid app on the Windows Store.

Wooing a Giant

Alistair attributes part of Drawboard’s success to their first mover advantage as a pdf annotations app built explicitly for Windows’ Surface pro, a product that was premiered at around the same time as Drawboard was born. Designing an app for a product that had little market share at the time was a calculated risk for the Drawboard founder. “When I first started out, a lot of people were really amazed that we chose Windows as a platform”, he comments.

But Michener says that it was more than just a gut instinct that the Surface would gain market share in a way that Microsoft’s Zune, for instance, was not able to. He says that he had taken into careful consideration Microsoft’s enormous presence in the design and construction industries, alongside clues about the direction in which Microsoft was heading with investments in pen technology. Thinking about what such a device could do to the industry, Alistair felt confident basing Drawboard PDF on the Windows platform, despite trends that indicated otherwise.

It is exactly this type of gamble that is crucial to creating a successful company. Michener noted that his choice to buck the trend and pursue an opportunity that most hadn’t yet considered was vital in giving Drawboard over a year’s head start on the competition, garnering hundreds of thousands of downloads in the process.

While the decision to make an app for Microsoft’s Surface platform was a considered and calculated risk, Alistair notes that their place among Windows’ preinstalled apps was partly due to luck. While in the US, he sent a cold email to a Senior Corporate Vice President at Microsoft, who arranged a “freak meeting” with Alistair. Drawboard’s vision resonated, and it was this meeting that set the ball rolling for Drawboard to be a mainstay on the Surface.

Engineering in the Digital Age

Their choice to back Microsoft’s fledgling tablet was also informed by engineering backgrounds of both Alistair and Rowan, Drawboard’s product manager. The excruciating inefficiency of physically marking up engineering designs by printing, photocopying and scanning documents gave Alistair the spark to leave his project management position and bring Drawboard to life. “I probably thought about the problem more than my actual project work”, Michener admits with a laugh. “The opportunity was so tantalising to crack!”

This is unsurprising when you consider the one million hard copy prints Alistair says were created for each project. He says the time spent just on processing the markups through photocopying and printing was “just ridiculous”. Apart from saving time and paper, the digitisation of the markup process means that engineering plans can be securely stored and shared, as opposed to having single master sets that could be lost and damaged. Alistair’s vision of a digitised document markup system led him to create Drawboard PDF, make the first hires and embark on the journey to the top of the paid Windows Store app ranking.

Growing the Drawboard team

A crucial aspect of growing a company from one to many is making the right hiring choices. Adding one person to a two person team can significantly change the company culture, which is often in a state of flux in the early stages of a start-up’s evolution. For Michener, it’s not only about establishing whether they will be a good fit for the company; talent retention is just as important as acquisition. “You want talented people to stay around”, he notes. He makes a point of asking questions to figure out whether candidates resonate with the problem, and if they engage with the product and the company.

Growing from four to 14 employees in 18 months isn’t just a challenge in choosing the right team members. Managing the workloads of the expanded Drawboard team was a challenge for Alistair. As start-ups grow, so does the workload for the founder. Delegation is crucial, as the founder can’t be a direct manager to all the employees as would be the case in a team of three or four. Alistair found that the process was made easier by identifying leaders within the team, who could provide leadership to other employees. This freed up his workload to better manage Drawboard’s strategic growth, and to engineer new projects such as Bullclip.

Bullclip: A Platform for Collaboration

Seeing the impact that Drawboard had through the Surface, and the increasing market share of the tablet, inspired Alistair to embark on another venture with Bullclip. Launched in September of this year, Bullclip is a web and mobile application that enables document markup, but unlike Drawboard PDF, is built for the needs of teams rather than single users. Markups appear in real time for group collaboration, and a document management system organises work behind the scenes for streamlined operations. While Drawboard PDF is built for Microsoft’s Surface Pro and Studio, Bullclip will also be available on iOS. It will be released early next year, permitting Mac users to use iPads for document markup. As Bullclip is rolled out in 2017, Drawboard will be building on its hundreds of thousands of users to cement its position in the design and construction industries.

This is by no means an outlier in the Australian tech ecosystem, which tends to downplay its achievements. Drawboard’s story has been one that we at YBF have followed with immense pride, and we are excited to kick off this series of articles on the Australian tech entrepreneurs leaving a global footprint.