Learning from Software Purchasing Mistakes

Woodworkers, designers, and shop owners discuss the lessons learned from sinking money (and time) into the "wrong" CAD program. October 15, 2009

I have read many times in this forum that people feel they made a bad decision in choosing software. I am curious why. This may be helpful for others looking for a software solution. What software did you buy, why did you choose it, and what about it made you feel that you made a bad decision?

Forum Responses
(CAD Forum)
From contributor J:
Great question. I'm 46 and I've been in the industry since I remember. A family thing. I learned laying out a project full scale on the floor. Software started to come into the picture and we all got excited. The people who make software, for the most part, are programmers with little knowledge of woodworking, yet I was buying into the sales pitch so we could be faster and more efficient.

I'm now a freelance draftsman, but I was a bench woodworker and project manager from the 80's until 2000. I love woodwork and always sought challenging projects. While the software I worked with was fine for some more straightforward and simple projects, I could not use it for the more challenging ones. I felt frustrated because I invested the money and could not fully utilize the software. I know that great improvements keep being done, yet as long as they stay in the parametric system, it only makes the software more sophisticated and hard to implement as an overall solution and very expensive, in particular for the smaller shop.

Then the learning curve has to be added to the already high cost. Training, add-ons, and replacing the people we trained at our cost any time they got a better offer now that they know the programs.

Also, I find that many companies, including one that I was working for, bought into very expensive software just to find out that it was not a worthy investment considering cost versus the use we were going to get out of it. Unfortunately, most people only find out after they bought into it. I also find that many times other shops are reluctant to admit they made a mistake, so they say it has been working fine but don't tell how long and how much and what percentage of work cannot be done with it.

In my years in the industry, I've found that these parametric programs work fine for companies that do mostly mass-production casework or semi-custom work, meaning they use standard cabinetry and then just dress it with mouldings and accessories.

In sum, after all these years, I find that AutoCAD is still the program that fits every need and every budget. Back in my father's time, everything was done by hand. AutoCAD came and moved the drafting board to the computer, which made the engineering process much faster. For me, the solution has been to keep improving AutoCAD skills instead of spending the money on parametric software.

I now can do 3D casework very fast because along the years I've created a library of assemblies and parts. I pull them out to a new drawing and stretch or shrink them in 3D. For the one of a kind challenging project, I build it in 3D to work out all the issues and then use a third party inexpensive software for the cut lists.

Bottom line, there is no way around the hard work as there are no get rich quick opportunities. Like in every industry, I find that these software companies feed on people's desire to have it easier and faster and as long as they see that market, they keep promising the ultimate dream software. And everyone has the best.

My advice is to be very cautious when buying. Don't ever buy into the sales pitch. First, establish what your goals and needs are. Then find some shops that use the software you seek and spend some time studying their operation. Determine if you will be the one working with the software or if you need to hire someone, now or in the future. Will there be a great demand for people who work the software? How difficult and costly will it be to replace this person?

From contributor D:
Terminating conventional cutlisting/drafting because software can do it blazing fast is the #1 reason that most purchases of the wrong software occur...

From contributor M:
I don't even want to get into all the reasons why I have a $31,000.00 software program sitting on the shelf. After six months of honest effort, it was a painful decision to make, to stop the bleeding of time and money and say "this is not a good fit for us."

I'd like to prevent others from making the same mistake… In the end, the mistake was not only the program, but doing business with the sellers and the software company itself. Be careful who you do business with. We went down all the proper avenues of doing a return, and being promised verbally, in writing, as well as publicly in a Webinar, that we could get our money back, but we have not. The woodworking industry is a small world, and I have been contacted by others that have had the same experience. Be careful, not everyone is ethical.

From contributor B:
This forum is a great place to start. Here you get the advantage of communicating with many highly skilled and experienced end users. Get them to show you some things that aren't part of their canned demo. Make them earn your confidence before you decide. It's a lot of money, so spend wisely. Doing your homework is always worth the time.

From contributor D:
Large businesses with 10-12 times the expertise a small business has can have a difficult time grooming the business they do with the software they are using. Consider who you have working with you and your knowledge of software when making a purchase. Generally a custom shop is strictly a prototyping business. Consider how much use you will get from a stock cabinet library. Will you honestly want to "library" a particular cool looking product? This kind of thinking should be setting precedent to the votes that decide what software to purchase.

From contributor V:
If the software you purchased is wrong for you and you fail to put it down and find a better solution, only then was the original purchase wrong. It is education, plain and simple and it does cost money and time.

If you make several purchases of different software and eventually find one that works well with what you do, it will eventually pay for all the products that you shelved and turn a great profit too. Failing to find a better solution after spending time and money is a reproof that your current system is the best for you and you can work your numbers from there.

Every software package out there has something to offer. Many companies copy the innovations of others and put those features in their own products. A cabinet company finding a software solution is bound to be using some techniques in their software that were developed by one of their software company's competitors.

It is education plain and simple. If you bought something that did not work out, then you learned. As your education increases, you will make better decisions. Spending $200,000.00 on software that you do not use and then finding a new software product that reduces $100,000.00 in workload wages annually is a good buy.

Look, I can go on forever about the complexity of software, but the realities are where you are (your education) and what you do (what you build). If you do not know how to use Windows completely and start looking for software, you will have quite a bit to learn and software may not be a viable solution for your shop at this time.

Your failure to do your own due diligence in researching software and becoming educated and then making a purchase that does not work out points the finger at you alone. You may be refused software at a company if you come to them with a prima donna attitude, bad communication skills, or a lack of due diligence. So be careful. Your company may use many different software packages and the best solution for you may depend on a software product that has unique features (only they do it) that you require. If they say no to helping you, you may not be as competitive as your competition using the same product. All software is not the same and solutions that actually work for our industry are not a dime a dozen.

From contributor D:
Contributor V, perhaps because money and time is scarce, stating our experiences will help a small business make a good decision concerning software solutions and help them stave-off some unnecessary spending by explaining pitfalls associated with purchasing Product A.

From contributor J:
Above all, we are woodworkers, either as a shop man, draftsman, estimator, etc. If we are spending our time and resources researching and buying software, who's doing the work? We need something that helps us, not a new career as a software guru.

A custom prototype shop has different needs and resources than a 10M or 20M commercial millwork outfit. Don't try to compete with those big outfits. I've worked for a few of them and even they have a hard time with software. The difference is, they can afford to shelf expensive hardware if they need to. I've yet to see a big custom millwork outfit, at least in the NY area, that does not go back to the roots of drafting using AutoCAD after wandering the software world.

Contributor V, you sound like a software salesman. Don't you realize most shops cannot afford to spend that kind of money researching software and hoping it pays later? They have a business and family to support!

From contributor M:
In response to the comment about pointing the finger at ourselves for the failure… The point is, don't tell us what you will do for us, or what is possible, if things don't work out, and then not honor it. I guess it's our fault for trusting what we were promised.

From contributor D:
I suggest making business purchases of this nature - that is, woodwork engineering software purchases - require that the product be backed by solid reputation. Perhaps we should be looking for the right logo and persons attached to it. Contemplating this may bring Product B back into the picture...

From contributor K:
Going along with what contributors J and D have said, us 1 - 5 man shops (+ or -) also can't afford the time it takes for us to get skilled at a program to the point we know if we made a good or bad purchase. I need to have a 95% level of comfort I made the right choice. I think that we the users of the many different brands out there are the best judge of what works and what doesn't and should step up to help those asking "what's the right software for me?" by explaining how ours really works for us, pros and cons. Not leaving it to the sales rep to sell them.

I'm still an idiot when it comes to computers and I don't have the time or the desire to become an expert. I just want my program to do for me what I'm told it can and can't do. I'm willing to put the commitment in once I buy it, but none of us want to do it, then find out it's not what we needed, then have someone just say, oh well, just buy a different one and take it for a spin!

I'm happy with my choice of software for the most part and intend to stay with it to the end.

From contributor D:
I rocked with Cabinetware in a 30-man shop for years. It would have worked perfect in my stepfather’s 10-man shop. But believe me, every soft app out there has its place.

From contributor D:
California unions broke into the millwork business in the late '70s, and leaders then taught me very important business street smarts... For instance, a production manager said "indecision will break a company." Make a decision even if it's wrong. I have had to use this philosophy many times. It's cost me money, and it's made me very educated about the millwork industry...

From contributor N:
I would suggest trying a free solution to get your feet wet. See Blender.org. While it is not geared toward woodworking, I manage to use it for most tasks here in our wood shop for our 3.5 axis machine. For a free CAM solution, look no further than pycam. These two packages together can accomplish what most CAD/CAM packages costing thousands of dollars can. Cheers!