Welcome back to “Archipreneur Insights”, the interview series with leaders who are responsible for some of the world’s most exciting and creatively disarming architecture. The series largely follows those who have an architectural degree but have since followed an entrepreneurial or alternative career path but also interviews other key players in the building and development community who have interesting angles on the current state of play in their own field.
This week’s interview is with Tian Deng and Qi Su, co-founders of the startup Modelo based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Tian and Qi developed a browser-based 3D design collaboration tool, which makes it easy to share and comment on digital 3D models. From his work in various architectural offices, Qi’s experience was that sharing a 3D model with a client for giving feedback could be difficult. The process was hardly optimized, involving converting the 3D model into a flat image, printing it out for the client, marking on the print, and then scanning it and updating the 3D model.
That pain point is what eventually led to Modelo, which Qi founded together with industrial designer Tian Deng in 2014. Their product is now in its beta development stage and the full commercial release is coming soon. The startup has raised more than $1 million in funding and has 12 employees. Way to go!
Keep reading to learn how the two founders managed to finance their startup, about their Software as a Service (SaaS) business model, and about the similarities of being an architect or software entrepreneur.
I hope you enjoy the interview!
What are your respective backgrounds and when did you partner up?
Qi Su: I was an architectural designer and had worked for several firms before I went to The Harvard Graduate School of Design. While there my major focus was on technology, so it’s fair to say that at that point I became half architect, half programmer.
Tian and I met through a mutual friend. At the time, I was mainly doing everything by myself, showing my prototype to friends. I still remember the first time Tian and I talked about potential collaboration; we actually did it on a model page of Modelo where we could both chat and rotate the 3D model together.
I think we shared the same vision for and interests regarding the solution we are offering to the industry, and so that’s why we decided to partner up.
Tian: I had worked as an industrial designer before, so the design disciplines were different for both of us. But our experiences gave us a great combination of perspectives to build our product.
What made you decide to found Modelo? Was there a particular moment that sealed the decision for you?
Qi Su: The first moment must have been when I first saw a 3D model get rendered in the browser using WegGL; that was back in 2012. My director at Harvard, Panagiotis Michalatos, showed it to me. I was so excited because finally our major digital production outcome, CAD models, could reside in a web browser and be shown to the others interactively, in 3D. As a result, I decided to do something with it.
How do you finance your startup? Any tips for our community on how you managed it?
Qi Su: We were supported by our friends (mainly architects) at the beginning and also got some funding from an accelerator program called BetaSpring. After that, we went on the same track like every other technology startup in the world: getting money from institutional VCs.
Regarding tips, I think you really have to think your business through, keep your mind open and learn as much and as fast as you can.
You developed a browser-based 3D design collaboration tool. Could you give us some examples of how the tool is used and how it helps architectural practices?
Tian: Modelo provides web-based communication and presentation tools for architects and people who use CAD as their production tool. The goal of Modelo is to help our users get things done faster: making presentations, rendering, giving design feedback, sharing files, getting clients’ approval or validating building issues with engineers and consultants. We’ve seen our customers extensively using Modelo for internal design feedback, file transfer and client-facing presentations.
We’ve heard from one of our customers that their design partner wouldn’t allow anyone to show him models that are NOT on Modelo; besides that, they use Modelo for most of their client presentations and the clients love it.
In what stage of development is your tool?
Tian: We are still in beta, but the product has been pretty stable and we already have many paying customers using it in their work. We will probably launch our full commercial release in the next couple of months; by that time, we will have released several very exciting functions.
What is your business model for your startup?
Tian: It is Software as a Service (SaaS) and subscription based. Users go to www.modelo.io, sign up, choose a plan, try it out, and then they get to decide whether they want to pay after a 14 day trial. We also have a free plan where people can sign up and try Modelo out by uploading models that are under a certain file size.
Click and drag to rotate the model above – Modelo
Qi Su, first you worked in an architectural office, now you are an entrepreneur. What do you find the most fulfilling about it?
Qi Su: I found both very interesting, and in some ways similar to each other. They are both about creating things for people to use and getting big projects done – but the pace is very different. As an entrepreneur you can probably (and have to) learn new things faster than as an architect.
Do you miss working as an architect?
Qi Su: Sometimes. I still love architecture very much. My family’s background is in architecture and civil engineering. So becoming an architect was my childhood dream – except during my teenage years when I tried to become a professional soccer player!
The building industry is known for being slow to adapt to new technologies. What is your experience with this?
Qi Su: We are dealing with buildings, not toothpaste. I think it is reasonable for the industry to be slow. It’s such a complex industry, and it involves many stakeholders.
The bigger problem I see is in architectural design education. I think it’s very broken; it’s rare that people coming out of it will know anything about how to run an architectural practice. I think we need to change that.
Do you have any advice for archipreneurs who want to start and build their own business?
Qi Su: Follow your heart and do what you love to do. However, if it’s business you want then you need to learn to take care not only of yourself but also your customers.
In which areas (outside of traditional practice) can you see major business opportunities for up and coming architects?
Qi Su: Wherever our skills can be sold and the Internet can help us in selling.
About Qi Su and Tian Deng
Qi Su is an architect who has worked for the architectural offices amphibianArc, MADAs.p.a.m. and Michael Sorkin Studio. He graduated from Harvard Graduate School of Design and is the only master’s student in school history who has won both the Peter Rice Prize for structural design invention and the Digital Design Prize for the innovative creation of digital tools.
Tian Deng worked as an industrial designer after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. He worked on several hardware design and interactive design projects before he joined Qi Su and start working on Modelo in 2014.
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