Sramana Mitra: Tell us how the side project turned into a business.
Tom Walker: I’ll tell you a funny story along the way. We had some people join the organization as volunteers. A retired CIO from a large company came on board. We were trying to build something, but we didn’t know what it was. We called it DART – Drone-Assisted Response Team. We were going to launch on Monday.
I’ll never forget getting a phone call on Sunday morning from my CIO. He said, “Did you watch Shark Tank last night? Mark Cuban invested $250,000 into a drone company called Dart.” We can’t launch on Monday with DART. What are the odds that, in this tiny industry, there were going to be two companies with the same name? We all came in and scrambled around and started throwing names up. We came up with DroneUp.
Sramana Mitra: It’s a very nice name actually.
Tom Walker: It worked out. It could be a noun. It could be a verb. It turned out to be positive. I was being interviewed a few years ago. This guy asked me, “What do you call people in this industry? Do you call them pioneers or visionaries?” I said, “Honestly, I call us batshit crazy. Here’s why. We started a business in an industry not knowing what it was we were going to sell to customers who didn’t know what it was they were going to buy in an environment that the government has not figured out how to regulate.”
We started getting excited about not just using this to deploy drone operators for good, but for commercial purposes as well. Then suddenly, that’s when we started getting traction. That’s the first of so many times we ran out of money. If we were going to raise some capital to keep this going, we have to do something unusual.
That’s when we started looking into the types of services we can sell as a drone company. We accidentally had the platform because we had built it for volunteers. It turns out it works really well for commercial operators in response to commercial requirements.
Sramana Mitra: What was that business plan? What was the use case?
Tom Walker: Companies that needed to do inspections of roofs or large commercial properties, safety inspections, or progress monitoring. What drones brought was the ability to take cool sensors and make them affordable. For example, a thermal inspection of a large commercial building was typically done by a manned aircraft. It costs $25,000 to have that done. We could do it for $1,500. It proved to be a viable business opportunity. Around 2019, it started to grow significantly.
Sramana Mitra: You were still bootstrapped up to this point?
Tom Walker: I would say boot-scrapped. We were scraping money from every corner of the building that we could to keep the business going.
Sramana Mitra: Who were the first customers that adopted you?
Tom Walker: The first check is framed in my office. We got a phone call on Memorial Day weekend. There was a ship coming in with a unique cargo. The requirement for the transfer of that cargo requires that it had aerial surveillance of the entire process.
The port that hired us had a drone guy that normally did this. They found out that FAA required a license to do this and their guy didn’t. The ship was going to be here in less than 24 hours. They went online and found us. At 6 AM the next morning, we had a drone operator on the ground filming the entire operation. He was there all day and charged $700. We were happy as we can be, even though it cost us $1,500. It was not our best bargain deal.