Waterloo Maple: It really is rocket science

Marketing advanced mathematical software may not sound sexy, but one Canadian company has quietly carved out a sizeable chunk of the worldwide market doing just that from its funky digs, a former Seagram barrel warehouse, in Waterloo, Ont.

Marketing advanced mathematical software may not sound sexy, but one Canadian company has quietly carved out a sizeable chunk of the worldwide market doing just that from its funky digs, a former Seagram barrel warehouse, in Waterloo, Ont.

Waterloo Maple was established in 1988 to develop software for rocket scientists and professionals in a myriad of other fields where advanced mathematics is used.

The mathematical problem-solving and programming software comes in a ‘vanilla flavour,’ says VP marketing Tom Lee, like a common spreadsheet, that is then adapted by the user for specific applications. The software is priced at US$1,695 for single user commercial licence.

The tech was conceived in 1980 by University of Waterloo professors for their own use, as a research project. Word got out and the company was formed to meet the growing demand.

Now there are over a million users worldwide, in industry, government and virtually every university in the world. Over 400 third-party books have been written about the Maple system.

Worldwide, the firm is number two in size after Illinois-based Wolfram Research but number one when it comes to penetration of the academic market. It closed its fiscal 2002 with the strongest sales results in company history.

Lee says marketing to techies at this level demands an understanding of the nuances and subtleties of the academic world where the customer is a professor as well as a scientist with externally funded research contracts. Likewise with other customers.

‘If you go to the research department at Ontario Hydro, the Ph.D. scientists there behave more like scientists at a university than [like the] other professionals at Hydro,’ he says. ‘We’re finding by positioning ourselves as a product born out of a university and willing to support university efforts works to our benefit.’

Lee has a Ph.D. in engineering, which he says is crucial when it comes to marketing a complicated product to a complicated user base. (Interestingly, the company’s VP of research and development has an English degree.)

He says Maple software is sold primarily by resellers around the world, such as consulting specialists with engineers and scientists on staff.

There are many challenges when it comes to marketing to such a specialized, multi-cultural, horizontal market and Lee says Waterloo Maple has primarily had to develop its own communications vehicles rather than using magazines and other media common to more traditional software companies. Creative is handled in-house.

Outside of launches of new product versions, Waterloo Maple has been focusing on image-building for nearly three years with its current theme line, ‘Command the brilliance of a thousand mathematicians.’ Most communications material is one-on-one or direct.

Collateral material is clear and concise so it can be easily translated into the many languages needed by resellers. The company also has a newsletter and other direct mail material.

Its most significant marketing tool, though, says Lee, is its Web site (www.maplesoft.com) which gets more than eight million hits per month. He says the site is a real point of difference between Maple and its competition. Maple has utilized mathematicians’ propensity to share, with work from Maple users around the world posted for reference. Users can download thousands of applications developed by other Maple users, free. Those involved in astrophysics, for example, can download Satellite Motion in a Multipolar Gravitational Field or, for quantum mechanics, there’s The Decay of Alpha Particles or Homonuclear AZMX one-dimensional spectrum.

‘People are eager to share their experiences. If you can capture that kind of energy through a marketing tool, that ultimately is going to work the best,’ says Lee. ‘[We] show them how it can fundamentally change someone’s life. And in some weird way, this is the way our market likes to communicate.’

Before launching the Web site, Lee says the company went ‘crazy trying to figure out how to create separate collateral’ for its consumers, who span hundreds of different categories.

‘Once we figured out the formula on the Web site, we were able to quickly accumulate what is essentially the best possible presale mechanism you can imagine.’