Chris Anderson – From a Writer to CEO of 3DRobotics

“I left my job to follow my heart.” ~ Chris Anderson

You might recognize Chris Anderson as a world renowned journalist. Former editor-in-chief at Wired, author of The Long Tail, and recent author of Makers, he has traded in his pen to become CEO of 3D Robotics, a manufacturer of unnmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

So when I saw he was speaking at the annual Hardware Innovation Workshop, I was intrigued. Just how does someone go from being an editor to CEO of a robotics company? I knew he was an awesome writer, but seriously, a CEO?

Chris’s story starts five years before he quit his job at Wired. Passionate about hardware, Chris was spending his weekends building products with his kids, hoping they would gain his same affinity for science and technology. Like any Dad he wanted to impress his kids, but unfortunately most of his projects ended with them saying, “Is that all it can do?”

Wanting to step up his game, Chris decided it was time to build a robot that could fly!

Using legos and off the shelf parts, Chris and his kids built a hacked together drone. It turns out his kids still weren’t impressed, especially when his flying robot looked nothing like the Transformers they remembered in the movies. Although failing to inspire his kids, the project did leave Chris with two profound realizations.

First, he realized it should not be possible for children to build flying drones. Amazed he could buy sensors and parts that were previously reserved for the military, Chris realized that the commoditization of smart phones had brought the cost of sensors down to a surprisingly affordable level. Second, it made him realize that although Legos may not have been the right platform there were now endless possibilities of what people could build.

Fast forward a few months and Chris met another hacker by the name of Jordi Munoz. Just 19 years old at the time, Jordi was already famous in the hacker community for self publishing details about the drones he was building including the PCB layouts, schematics, and code. Before long Chris and Jordi started hacking together.

Initially publishing their work to help fellow hackers, they quickly learned people would rather buy their completed drones than follow their DIY path. And so they had a decision to make. Should they continue their hobby or begin selling products?

They started selling. Even convincing family members to help assemble the units, Chris and Jordi quickly learned a lot of lessons, including how to source parts, build product, and deliver a quality customer experience. Hard to do when building on the kitchen table, they also learned that putting a six year old in charge of quality control wasn’t the best idea.

Despite their hand build methods, the customer demand continued. Chris pointed out, “the only thing worse than failure, is success.” Because success means you need to make more.

So while Chris had a full time job at Wired, Jordi quietly moved the business forward over the years. Slowly scaling the operations from the kitchen table, to the garage, to a warehouse in san diego, to eventually their own factory in Tijuana.

At this point in the story you can’t help but ask yourself, how do you go from making drones in a garage to a full blown factory in Tijuana?!! I mean, you’re talking about a writer and a 21 year old kid building a hardware and manufacturing business when neither of them have any experience.

As Chris so eloquently said in his talk, “the 20th century format of finding co-founders never would have paired us together.” Luck would have it that the pairing has worked and as Chris reflected in front of the audience, he has learned three important things from his young co-founder.

…”open hardware is not about the right technology, but instead about the right community.” ~ Chris Anderson

First, he learned that “open hardware is not about the right technology, but instead about the right community.” Second he learned about manufacturing and how software has made it much more accessible. Third he learned that Tijuana is not only the Shenzhen of North America, but that Mexico graduates more engineers than the US.

Fast forward to today and the company has 75 people with factories in both San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. They have reached $5M in annual revenue and recently raised a $5M round so they could scale the company.

Expecting the story to end here, Chris throws the audience a curve ball. Although their DIY community and initial customer base enabled them to this point, they need to pivot their products to satisfy the mass market, a group I like to personally call the “do it for me” world. Chris is finding that the number of people who want to buy a finished drone is much larger than the number of people who want to hack it.

Recognizing that his community has enabled the company to have the smartest people in the world improving the platform for free, Chris is now risking everything to shift the company to the massive population of people who simply want a single button to push.

As Chris justifies his new strategy, “If we want to change the world, putting drones everywhere, we are going to have to take the complexity out.”

Chris’s story is amazing. Starting as a weekend project, he is now running a multi-million dollar business with offices in three different cities, building some of the most advanced consumer friendly drones in the world.

But will pivoting their business to the Apple-like consumer work?

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