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12:58 pm ET
Nov 10, 2014

China

Q&A: Chinese Drone Founder Explains Why Steve Jobs Is His Role Model

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  • Colum Murphy
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  • Olivia Geng

DJI CEO Frank Wang, creator of the Phantom drone, speaks about DJI’s start and the future of unmanned aircraft.

 

The rapid rise in demand for consumer drones has made China’s SZ DJI Technology Co. a global brand in short order. But this is only the beginning, says founder and Chief Executive Frank Wang, who foresees a decade of promise ahead for drones and for DJI.

Mr. Wang recently spoke with The Wall Street Journal at the company’s Shenzhen, China, headquarters. Edited excerpts:

WSJ: How did you get into model aircraft and what gave you the inkling to start a drone company?

Wang: This stuff has been my dream since childhood. At elementary school I saw my first model helicopter in a shop. It cost the equivalent of several months’ salary for average people. My family could not afford it. But finally, after I did a good job on my high-school finals, my parents rewarded me with a model helicopter. I assembled it but I wasn’t able to fly it properly because to do that needed months of practice. So when I did try to fly it, the helicopter immediately crashed. It was impossible for ordinary people to fly that machine.

Still, I imagined flying those kinds of things everywhere—following the trains and cars in which I rode, or when I climbed mountains with my father. I always imagined something flying beside us that could reach places we could not.

WSJ: Tell us about starting the company.

Wang: Before we started the company, I spent three months intensively working on the project. At that time I was still enrolled at the university, but I skipped all the courses and just went to my home in Shenzhen. I would wake up at 2 p.m. and then work until like 5 or 6 a.m. for days at a time.

One time, when I did go back to the university lab, I tried to use my ID card but it didn’t work. My heart sank a little bit, because I thought I was kicked out of college by my professor. But actually I had forgotten to pay my tuition.

At the beginning when we started the company four years ago, we made flight-control systems. We focused on the operating system for drones. But it was hard to use, the drones were complicated and the controllability was relatively poor. People couldn’t use it on a larger scale. We felt a multirotor drone should be very simple, very small, very reliable and very cheap. If people could use it the market will be larger. So slowly we went from making the flight-control systems to multirotor drones.

WSJ: How do you think DJI is different from other Chinese companies?

Wang: I think it’s not necessary for us to compare ourselves with other Chinese companies. Many Chinese companies manufacture cheaper versions of advanced foreign products. But we are proud to say that we have been leading the industry since we started—even now. We also can use a lot of manufacturing resources in China, which also gives us some cost advantages. Technology plus high-volume production allowed us to attain our recent position in international markets.

WSJ: Who is your role model?

Wang: Of course, it’s Steve Jobs. Personally, I was very aggressive. At college I took part in a team competition for robotics twice. The first time, I worked very hard and technically we did very well. But my teammates did not feel comfortable working with me. I was too aggressive. I just wanted to win. The second time, I was still aggressive, but I found the right team partner and the leadership was stronger, so that time we won. I realized that not being so easygoing is not such a good thing. But after I read about Steve Jobs and discovered he had the same type of personality, it encouraged me. I understood that staying aggressive is the right thing to do to build a company.

WSJ: DJI has brought drones to the masses. That, in turn, has created a lot of fallout, in both good ways and bad ways. How do you see DJI’s role in this new cultural phenomenon of having hovering cameras overhead?

Wang: People talk about privacy, but I think that will not be the issue. Because when the cellphone makers started installing cameras in cellphones, privacy concerns meant manufacturers were required to ensure there was a click sound when the photo was taken. But now people have become used to it so that limitation is no longer there.

Drones will also become like this. First people have some suspicion or worry but later they see it as a useful tool and finally they will accept.

WSJ: Are we seeing the emergence of a new breed of Chinese company such as DJI?

Wang: Chinese companies now are getting better; before, they lagged behind. Now, more and more Chinese companies are doing well world-wide, like Huawei, Tencent and Alibaba. I think, later, more Chinese companies will go global and their image will gradually change. I think the important thing is vision. Those companies have one that is in sync with the world.

WSJ: What’s the future of DJI?

Wang: I believe that the direction of our company is driven by our initial dream: to make a very easy-to-use product that can realize the human dream to fly. And to make it perform well so that everyone can enjoy it. In addition, we will develop our business in agricultural and industrial and all kinds of fields. The next five to 10 years will be a very exciting period for unmanned aircraft and I am looking forward to the future.

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