What got you interested in drones?
I always loved planes. When I was a kid, I used to play with the styrofoam gliders -- you know, the ones you pick up and toss in the air. This was my first experience with flight and I quickly moved on to paper planes, then model airplanes, and finally drones. I was a hobbyist before I was a commercial drone pilot. I then started flying around the world.
What do you like most about flying drones? Do you have a favorite experience?
One of my favorite experiences was actually a trip I did with my wife. We’re huge Princess Bride fans (in fact, our daughter’s name is Waverly after the child Princess Buttercup was supposed to have with Westley in part two, which unfortunately didn’t come out). One of the scenes from the movie is when the Andre the Giant climbs up the Cliffs of Insanity and there is the big fight scene at the top. The Cliffs of Insanity are actually the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, so we made a trip to see the cliffs and get some drone footage. It was kind of surreal to go to this place we know from the movie and capture our own footage from the drone.
What moved you from hobbyist to founder?
There are a number of reasons why I decided to start Up Sonder, but the main catalyst was actually a personal experience I had with my mother. My mom has a bad case of rheumatoid arthritis and one night she wasn’t able to get the medication she needed. I was visiting her at the time. She lives in a small town in Texas; the ranch is pretty remotely located. The pharmacy was too far to get to and they only had limited opening hours. I had to watch her suffer all night and there was nothing I could do but wait until the pharmacy opened the next day.
Having flown commercial drones, I knew that a drone could have helped my mother that night. This got me thinking about what else drones can do -- who else, besides my mom, could drones help. When I thought about it, there was a flurry of use cases. It became crystal clear to me that drones were the future, so I thought I could help lay the foundation for us to build towards that future.
How did you handle the risk involved with starting a new company?
I knew the company needed funding, so I took out a home equity loan for $100,000 to provide the startup capital for Up Sonder. Taking that loan was a risk, but a calculated one. I understood that the drone industry was growing and I knew it was the right one to get involved in. I knew the industry, which made me feel like it was less of a risk.
Besides commercial flying, did you have other work experience that you feel has prepared you to launch Up Sonder?
My background is in investment banking. After college, I lived in South Korea for two years teaching English. My time in Korea opened opportunities to build a career with the Korean
What are some of the greatest challenges you face growing the business?
Getting out there to raise money. I hate raising money. I almost feel like I’m a politician, like I’m raising money rather than governing and leading. Right now, a majority of my time is focused on fundraising, which is hard for me.
The education process. It was fairly easy to build up the supply side of drone pilots. We have over 2,000 pilots in 760 cities ready to serve. We’ve built the backbone of our marketplace, but now we need to focus on the demand side -- the clients. This often involves educating clients and the public about drones and how they operate.
What is your superpower?
Discipline. Just showing up and doing the work. It’s almost as simple as that. There’s a lot of ways you can spin your wheels when building a startup, and having the discipline and skill to focus is a superpower that most founders need.
What’s your kryptonite?
Eagerness to grow. I love thinking about all of the different use cases for our product. It can sometimes get really outlandish -- I’ll think way into the future, like 50-100 years from now. I always feel like new ideas and opportunities are pounding on the door and that I have to keep shutting the door and dialing it back. It’s a challenge to find that line between imagining the future and staying on track.
Is there anything unexpected you’ve learned while founding Up Sonder?
Personally, I’ve learned that my wife loves the hell out of me. She’s put up with so much and has supported me through it all. She’s my rock in all of this and she never complains. I’ve learned that about my marriage.
Professionally, I’ve learned that the drone world has a dirty little secret that we don’t like to talk about: energy and flight times. The general public may never notice because we tend to blind them to these issues or distract them with great videos, high resolution photos, and the amazing content we gather. But the drones can only stay up for about 25-30 minutes. It’s a crazy short flight time and a pain point we all share, but it’s sort of sweep under the rug. I was surprised that the industry never really talks about it.
Why did you decide to raise from the crowd?
I’m not going to lie, I was a bit skeptical at first. I then heard Jason Calacanis talk about Republic and I realized this was a legitimate way to raise funds. I then looked into the laws surrounding regulatory crowdfunding.
It blew my mind that for years the government allowed people to gamble their hard-earned money in Vegas, but would not allow Americans to invest in startups.
I had no idea that used to be the law! That really hit me a certain way, and I realized how great it is that the law has changed. This is not just about raising money; it can help our community as a whole. Now, with Republic, we can be the first drone services company that is owned by our members — the pilots. We want to offer this to our community as a way of thanking them. They are our backbone; they should be able to invest and own a piece of the company they are flying for. This is something we want them to be a part of.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
I wake up every morning at 4 am. There’s no way around it. I meditate, workout, start looking at emails, do industry emails, make my daughter breakfast, prep her lunch and take her to school. All that has to happen before 7:30 am.
I also only eat organic. I’m a crazy health nut when it comes to food. I would rather starve than eat something that’s been touched by pesticides. Some might think I take this to the extreme.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do?
I’ve started training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I used to train, but it’s been a while, so I’m starting back at square one. I also volunteer with local Alzheimer's associations and try to give back to the community when I can.
If I were to look at your phone right now, what would you say are the 3-5 most used apps? Any super new ones we should know about?
I love Jason Calacanis’ This Week in Startups podcast. It should be a go-to for any founders. I of course use Slack, and I love Reddit. I also use Instacart a lot. As a dad, Instacart is a much needed and grateful service.
What’s your favorite part of being a founder?
I love the blank canvas -- the ability to steer the ship and be creative. Some people can paint pictures, write poetry, play the guitar. I’m not creative in that way -- I don’t have those talents, but I love being creative in the way of business. I feel amazing having that blank canvas to create in a way that can make someone else’s life better.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice 5 years ago, what would it be?
Wake up at 3 am ;)
But really, I would let my younger self know that it’s going to be OK. That it will be stressful at times and that it will come with many doubts, but that it will be OK. I would also probably tell myself to not worry so much about the conversations across the table; just keep doing good work and you’ll make it. Control what you can control and just do the work.
Any advice you’d give aspiring founders?
Be relentless in your approach. I know many people don’t have $100K to start with. I didn’t either. I pulled it out of my home and made it happen. And if that wasn’t the case, I would have figured something out and would have been relentless about it. Just be relentless about your work and vision. It’s a key component that will help you succeed.