Callan Carpenter interview 3 – the cost of complexity

Callan Carpenter interview 3 – the cost of complexity

Part 3 of 5 in this series.

SJ: In one of my blog posts, I was pretty cynical about one of the phrases used in the press release: “the streamlining of upgrade pricing based on feedback from customers and resellers”. Was I wrong to be cynical about that? Did your customers really ask for upgrade prices to be increased to some nice round number?

CC: What our customers have asked for is simplified purchasing. We have a very complex price book and it leads to thousands of prices items, maybe tens of thousands when you have all the permutations across all the different geographies in which we sell software. A lot of that complexity came from having multiple-step upgrades, multiple-step crossgrades. There is a cost to maintaining that kind of a system. So our resellers certainly were asking for simplification and streamlining explicitly. Our customers were asking to find ways to make it easier to do business with Autodesk; can it be less expensive? One of the costs of doing business is maintaining a very complex pricing scheme as we have in the past. So while we may not have a customer say, “Gosh, I wish you would simplify your upgrade pricing” explicitly, it is implicit in trying to offer an easier path to buying and less cost in the long run because we’re not maintaining a very complex system that only serves a very small percentage of our customer base.

SJ: So there’s a real cost associated with this. Can you put a number on that as a percentage of the cost of the upgrade? Is it 1%? 10%? Is a big amount that customers need to be worried about?

CC: You know, I’ve never tried to put it as a percentage of the cost of an upgrade and tried to figure it out. Some of these things are a little difficult to untangle, but you can look at the complexity of your back office software, the staff that it takes to maintain it, the cost of the releases; our customers are simply aware of our releases of our software products, but they’re not aware of the fact that of course we have numerous releases of our internal systems for tracking and matching assets, price books, things like this. All of those have a cost associated with them. People, software, systems and so on. I haven’t ever tried to calculate that as a percentage of the cost of an upgrade, but it’s certainly a real cost nonetheless.

SJ: So let’s say it was costing people 5%. Why didn’t you reduce the prices by 5% instead of trebling them?

CC: Well, we didn’t really treble the prices. What we did was we said, remember for 3 or more versions back, the price is essentially unchanged. It may be a couple of hundred dollars more expensive or less expensive depending on the product and the market for the third version back. The big change was really in 1 or 2 back, a very small percentage of our customer base, less than 2% of our customer base that was buying those upgrades. It didn’t really make sense to us to maintain the complexity for that small percentage of our customer base.

I think that it’s an interesting point that we’re in because if you go back far enough in time, and you don’t have to go back that far, about 8 or 9 years I guess, with Subscription we could have been arguing the other extreme. We could have been arguing that, “My goodness, why are you making me pay for upgrades?”, and this Subscription thing either didn’t exist or it was very, very expensive. And then we designed Subscription to actually be very cost-effective, to be the most cost-effective to get access to this technology. So it’s an interesting inversion. I think it would be an interesting mind-experiment to wonder what would happen if we took away our Subscription pricing tomorrow, which is typically somewhere between 10% and 18% of list price of the product, depending on the product and the market. If we took that option away tomorrow, I think we actually would create tremendous havoc in the marketplace, because that’s really where the majority of our customers are today in terms of buying our software.

SJ: There are people who do still want to buy upgrades, those who want to have that choice. Do you understand the mindset of people who say, “I want to see what the product is before I pay for it”?

CC: I can appreciate that sentiment. I’d like to believe that our 25+ years of history has generally shown that our pace of advancement is generally up and to the right. Certainly there have been hiccups along the way; some releases have more functionality than others, but generally it’s up and to the right. But the customers who wish to do that, I certainly can appreciate that and that’s as good a reason as any for why we’ve kept upgrade and Subscription pricing as opposed to one or the other, because it gives customers a choice. For those customers who tend to want to wait and see, again the vast majority of them are doing it 3 or more versions back. If they’re doing it less than that, they’re on Subscription, by and large. So they still have that option. Even with the simplified upgrade pricing, I think it’s important to point out that we announced it over a year ago, and even today, if a customer goes off Subscription, they have up to a year to retroactively attach it. So the hope is with that timeframe, questions of, “Is the economy going to turn back up?”, those sort of things will be answered. If it takes 2 years for those questions to be answered, well then you’re back to 3 versions back pricing or more, and that has hardly changed, if at all. So I think that those kind of customers that want to wait and see what the product is going to be before they buy it, they have that option.

You have to also realise that there are also other benefits that come from Subscription in addition to the upgrade. Access to our product support teams, access to prior version usage, home use licenses, the prerequisite to global floating network licenses and other types of benefits, those are a very significant proportion of the value.

See also
Callan Carpenter interview 1 – Autodesk and social media
Callan Carpenter interview 2 – upgrades a tiny minority


  1. Mike

    ADSK has always been greedy in respect to its customers. Every upgrade is met with complaints over pricing. Not least the increase the EU has had to put up with, with no accountability.

    After reading around, it seems, that blatantly ADSK does not care if users get burned over the price upgrades or sub fees, in conjunction to their ever changing rules, and as ever they always try to ‘spin’ the numbers.

    I’d also suggest that they do have a new policy where unless you are a large company with many seats they just don’t care about individuals nor small seat installations.

    For years the policy has always punished independents and small seat installations. There is good reason for the many alternative products to ADSK’s offerings, and ADSK allowed, nay, made the environment for them all to thrive and succeed.

    Their stock prices somewhat reflect this if you look at the long term, their ratios are significantly lower, again over the long term, than many others in comparable software based industries.

    If sooner or later they don’t cotton on to the fact they are the creators of their own erosion, and had better serve customers, irrespective of size, the future is clear it’s Neutral or SELL.

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