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A hobby that has become a $ 10 billion business. The story of the founder of DJI Frank Van

Very many people want to learn how to fly. Someone manages to do this in a dream, others conquer the heavens, sitting at the helm of the plane, others launch kites, watching as they, planning and rushing in the air, stretch out into the sky. But “paper pilotage” will not be able to carry away for very long. Need to do something!


  • Schoolboy Frank and his fairy
  • I wanted to become an engineer, but I studied so-so
  • Grant, help from relatives and friends of the family
  • Internal conflicts, dangerous drones
  • American dream
  • Take-off DJI. Without falling

Schoolboy Frank

Frank Van, whose name is much less known than his offspring, was born in 1980 in Hangzhou to the family of a former teacher who decided to start his own business. It was a small business with no intention of “conquering the world”, but the earnings, apparently, were enough to support the family, and sometimes to give vent to desires.

Frank, as history claims, from his youth was interested in the topic of miniature aircraft, and everything began with a caustic-red helicopter in one of the comic books. He spends his free time reading books about airplanes, he tried to get as much information about modern aircraft as he did, like many boys, on prefabricated aircraft models. And I dreamed of a device that you will not surprise anyone today: a drone with a video camera. He called it “fairy”. Or maybe in the boy’s imagination it really was a fairy with a camera?

Of course, the image of that time hardly had anything in common with the current quadrocopters and other representatives of the “family”, but Frank needed a gadget that shoots the video and follows his master. Something similar was only for the military, and mere mortals could only dream of them (if at all they knew about the existence of menacing “birds” under the clouds).

Finally, at the age of 16, the future founder of DJI received his first radio-controlled helicopter (for good marks on the results of school examinations). And he broke it, not having time to practice properly. Long months of waiting for spare parts followed, but in the end the machine was repaired by Frank.

I wanted to become an engineer, but I studied so-so

The future was not yet connected with the sky and flights, and Frank could not become an engineer on the move for quite a trivial reason: no one called him a diligent student. A short trip to the technological elite was closed, as were the doors of the same MIT. Higher education is necessary, so the guy sent his foot to the East China Normal University, where he began to study psychology. Humanitarian, and only. This was the first step, followed by the second, and in 2003, Frank was at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Maybe I tightened my knowledge.

Academic education was given to the Chinese with great difficulty, the young man was more an enthusiastic practitioner, like his father-engineer. He could pick up the next model of the aircraft for hours, trying to bring it to perfection. How would the future fate of Frank, do not pay attention to him university teacher, you can only guess.

As a project, he chose the development of a helicopter flight control system. Further it was to be formed as in the movie about a successful student, who despite all had realized an ambitious plan at the last moment, having received a grant for millions of dollars. In reality, everything was completely different. Despite the help of a professor who saw almost a genius in his pupil, Frank Van did not have time to finish what he started, and the system he designed gave him a failure before the planned demonstration of the work.

Grant, help from relatives and friends of the family

He completed the project later, having received in 2005 a targeted grant for the development of a drone. Amount? Funny by the standards of the current hungry start-ups – some $ 2.3 thousand This did not stop Frank, and in 2006, without leaving the room in the university dormitory, he organized his company – DJI. In the same year he, by the way, took the third place in the RoboCon competition, where he demonstrated the skills of an engineer.

Wang did not act alone – almost every success story mentions friends and like-minded people, the team that made the dream a reality. The history of singles is a rarity.

Either Frank had an extraordinary charisma, or the idea was really contagious, but those who decided to join him, made serious sacrifices. One was forced to pay an impressive penalty for the early termination of the contract on the previous work, the other went on the road with virtually no money in his pocket.

The young business started off the bat – it was necessary to pay the office (albeit small, but still), issue salaries and develop. With the office, however, Uncle Frank helped him – the company was located in the warehouse of his store. Although the “warehouse” sounds loud. In fact, it was a room of 20 square meters, where the same “office” was located.

The company has not yet been able to enter the market with the product of Frank Wang’s dream, DJI has established the release of controllers and components for DIY-drones. At the same time, a helicopter was developed, developed in college. His assembly cost $ 2 thousand, but it was sold for $ 6 thousand. With the development of the market of “household” drones, we had to moderate appetites.

For the time being, educational institutions and companies producing sets for self-assembly of radio-controlled flying vehicles became DJI clients. Business could not boast of tangible turns, but the financial infusion of the family’s friend Liu Di helped. He invested $ 90 thousand, which solved the issue for a while. Liu Di became one of the largest shareholders of DJI.

Internal conflicts, dangerous drones

At the same time, the company is developing its own product, the same “red helicopter from the comics”, from which it all began. Prototypes, errors, experiments, failures – all this was hidden from the public. “Frank never gave up, he did not care how much trouble he got,” the colleagues of the future billionaire later told us.

Then it was considered normal to work 10 hours a day, but Frank, if he had an idea, could call and at three o’clock in the morning. This approach was not to everyone’s liking, but there was no way out. To keep friendship in business is very difficult, and those who came to DJI in the first wave left it. Li Zhihui, who entered the start-up with $ 100 in his pocket and closed his own company, was one of the first to leave Frank Van.

The reason is simple: in the beginning, partners were promised 40% of the shares, but gradually the share fell to 20%, and then – to 5%. “I understood perfectly well that everything was for Van the first time, how to work and act, he did not know,” Lee’s words sounded like that. In addition, there were disagreements about the design of prototypes that Zhihui considered ineffective and even dangerous. As a result, in 2008 he left, a little later two more people from the first team chose a different path.

American dream

Despite all the internal troubles, in 2009 the company began to show a nose in the international market. Turnover grew, reaching about $ 500 thousand during this period. Obviously, the world will not win if you ignore the United States, and DJI North America became one of the first outposts outside of China for DJI. She opened in Texas, and the responsible person appointed Colin Guinn. He owned 48% of the enterprise, the rest was for DJI.

Guinn took the bull by the horns, positioning himself as CEO of DJI, and taking responsibility for innovative development. Obviously, Frank did not like this state of affairs, but he decided to show patience.

By 2012, the turnover had grown to more than $ 26 million, and in 2013 the giant consumer drones industry prepared a product that was completely created by the company – it was now the legendary Phantom model. At the same time, Guinn announced a possible partnership with GoPro, as well as the release of a drone under this brand.

Apparently, the cup of patience of Frank Van was overflowing, he was beside himself with the situation and negotiations with GoPro did not support. Guinn suddenly changed jobs and, together with GoPro, found himself in 3D Robotics – a direct competitor to DJI. All this was preceded by mutual accusations of the parties, but the conflict was settled in pre-trial order.

In 2014, DJI’s turnovers reached new heights, climbing to around $ 500 million against $ 130 million a year earlier, there was a tangible income, the business grew in leaps and bounds. At the same time, the company was forced to fight with those wishing to bask in the rays of glory. Simply put, with companies that have established the production of fake drones, or drones, based on the engineering achievements of DJI (they know about industrial espionage in China firsthand). But Wang was confident in his abilities, and the competitors played catch-up.

Take-off DJI. Without falling

2015 was the year of DJI. The popularity of the Chinese company jumped due to an incident involving a drunk employee of the National Agency for Geospatial Intelligence of the United States and the quadrocopter Phantom. The flying machine under American control crashed on the lawn in front of the White House, making a real mess. The pilot of the drone told his friends about the “misunderstanding”, after which he decided to take a nap. Only the next day he realized what he had done. The man selflessly gave himself to the Secret Service. What was it worth DJI? In the same year, it received an investment of $ 75 million, and its market value approached $ 10 billion.

What today? DJI moves along the beaten track, dominates the market of household drones, where the share of the Chinese company fluctuates around 50% (according to other sources, up to 70%), and Frank Van in 2017 became the youngest Chinese “technological” billionaire in assessing his fortune of $ 3.2 billion.

Many people ask themselves: what is behind the success of DJI? It’s all about the parental money, some former partners of Wang, who were at the source of the company, believe. It was thanks to them that the young engineer got the opportunity to direct his efforts to research and “search for himself”, and also found qualified experts. But, maybe, even with a lot of money, but without an idea and your own thoughts, nothing would have happened?

Source list: Time , Forbes , New York Times , Abacus , Superb Crew , Yo! Success , Droneblog , Vulcan Post .

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