DJI has now grown into the world’s famous UAV company and employs over 4,000 people, but the story of its early years is unknown to many. Chen Jinying, Lu Zhihui and Chen Chujiang all said they look at the initial years of DJI as the years of good times and great lessons…
The photo below was shot in Shenzhen, Lotus Hill Peak and on it are young and enthusiastic founders of DJI. DJI’s initial entrepreneurial team, lined up from right to left stand; Wang Frank, Chen Jinying, Lu Zhihui and Chen Chuqiang, were essential for the initial two-year existence of DJI. A lot of people came and went into the company, but the core from the photo remained. Yet, two years after the photo was taken, the members of the core team disbanded. Although the media mostly speaks of Mr. Wang, the DJI CEO, as the “conqueror of the UAV world”, there is another story to be told about DJI’s origins. There is another question about the founders. What has actually happened with the initial party of founders after they left DJI? How did MMC come to being?
It all began in 2006 when a graduate student at Hong Kong University of Science, Wang Frank, founded and situated DJI in the school’s warehouse. That same year, he won a third place at RoboCon Asia-Pacific Collegiate Robot Contest. The good result led Wang Frank towards commercializing unmanned copters. But the rest of his classmate members were not optimistic about his business. To work and study abroad seemed challenging for them. Wang Frank, however, insisted on entrepreneurial approach. He opened the first office near the Che Kung Temple Golf Complex, at his uncle’s magazine warehouse in Shenzhen and recruited the original group of entrepreneurial employees.
“It was shabby, with not very tall ceiling, a small open space, and about 20 square meters of space. I did not know such a small warehouse existed. But the three of us contently settled in there.” Lu Zhihui recalls.
Lu Zhihui was the youngest member of the team. Before coming to DJI, he founded a company in Dongguan; a structural design company for developing electric controlled bathtubs. But, soon he got bored of it. One day, unexpectedly, he received a phone call from DJI. At that time he did not know what DJI was, and did not understand much about UAVs. DJI contacted him because his resume was online. Eager to change his starts, he immediately ran down to the next door coffee shop and checked out the company online. At the time, the only information about company was its third placement at the 2006 RoboCon competition. This, however, gave Lu Zhihui some confidence; at least that the company was legitimate, he thought. Then with only 100 dollars in his pocket, he shut his company down and moved to Shenzhen.
Chen Jinying and Chen Chuqiang both came into DJI in a similar manner; they gave up their existing jobs to join DJI. Chen Chujiang has done it in a peculiar fashion. Before entering DJI, he worked in a company under a three year contract in which it said if an employee prematurely leaves the company a 30,000RMB penalty was to be compensated. Nevertheless, coming from a military family, and having an immense childhood love for aircrafts and unmanned aerial vehicles, Chen Chunjiang believed the UAVs will soon conquer the market thus did not even hesitate when he chose to leave for DJI. Since, it took him more than a year to repay the penalty; he earned a nick name “Thirty Thousand Chen”.
When asked why he went for such a small company at the time, Lu Zhihui said that it was not out of profit as much as it was out of the interest in innovative technologies and the feeling of excitement that this technology gave him
Out of four team members, only Wang Frank had a UAV technology background, Wang Frank thus served as a mentor to all of them, often giving them late night lessons. At the time the copter had a lot of problems. Jitter being one of them required a lot of testing cause many long nights and failed experiments. Back and forth experiments, measurements were a daily routine. Working at DJI remained Lu Zhihui of his sophomore year’s laboratory experiments. “Wang Frank was a person that never gave up, no matter how troublesome the situation was.” Lu Zhihui said.
DJI did not sell any products during the first year of its existence. In fact, it did not have anything tangible to offer. The founders did not consider issuing a model into the market; mainly because of the existing system problems were unsolved. “We had to work ten hours a day plus the commuting time.” said Wang Frank who preferred to work until late at night even frequently until the next morning. The other members were anxious about Wang Frank’s late night/early morning phone calls. “He would often call me and suddenly we would discuss ideas, regardless of the fact that it was 3AM” Said Chen Chujiang, who would occasionally, after work, leave his phone in a tin box, thus leaving his phone without network coverage and avoiding phone calls. Lu Zhihui, as the most junior member, dared not taking such steps. So, Wang Frank was able to call him at any time of night.
At that time, there were no titles between the members, between a few people in a room and a lot of things to be done, Lu Zhihui felt like working in a tech lab rather than an entrepreneurial facility. When the company began accepting investments, the relationship between the members got more complicated.
Lu Zhihui was the first to leave. There were disagreements about which way the development of DJI would go, but according to Zhihui this was not the only reason for his departure from DJI. But this was not the only reason.
At the beginning, Wang Frank struck a deal with the other team members, that they are entitled to a total of 40% of shares. At that time they are very satisfied with this, but after the share adjustment plummeted to 20%, and finally down to 5%, problems arose.
Lu Zhihui said, he was a little disappointed, but in fact, he understood the change. After all, Wang Frank was also a first-time entrepreneur, the issue of equity was not very clear to anyone at the time, and some adjustments were normal. At that time, they were not much equity aware; after all, they all just started working. Finally, Zhihui wondered how much cash equities carry; the concept was not so clear to them. Still, they did not want to agree at 5%.
Lu Zhihui’s real concern was company’s constant spending of money without making any. At that time they were working on the flight control for oil moving copters. Lu Zhihui believed this direction was wrong; he could not foresee viable profit due to high level security risks. Even at one of the demonstration of their drones flying around Xiangmihu Minsheng Bank Building, one of the drones crashed nearly injuring the spectators.
Due to all of these reasons, by the end of 2008 Lu Zhihui left DJI. Within six months, both Chen Chujiang and Chen Jinying also left. DJI’s most original core founding team ceased to exist.
What Happened to the Founders?
After leaving DJI, Lu Zhihui went to Aerotech (Aerotech’s revenue at the time was more than 70 million RMBs, more than 10 million RMBs in profit, while DJI had two million losses per year). After the formation of consumer drones R&D team, Aerotech made the first domestic electrical inspection UAV. A year later, this UAV made 300 million RMBs in sales. These were very exciting times for Lu Zhihui. Later on, he focused on power line technology. Aerotech copied the practice for developing the power line drones from Lu Zhihui’s electric inspection business model, but also engaged most of his core R&D members, including Chen Chujiang.
After a three-month of dry electric technologic development, Lu Zhihui developed a multi-rotor aerial drone and presented it to the CEO. He did not agree to retail the product. He said that Aerotech does not sell consumer drones, but creates military grade drones. Under such dispute, Lu Zhihui left Aerotech, and with intentions to develop consumer drones, created MMC. This time, Chen Chujiang did not follow him. After leaving Aerotech, he started the business of his own.
In 2011, Chen Chujiang founded a “head home technology” based company. This time he did not choose the UAV (never got back to it), for the market was still relatively small, but he focused on satellite communications industry. The rapid development of the company led into the collaboration with OUTERNET and other satellite communications industry giants and resulted in healthy financial output, but little to no relation to UAV industry.
The last to leave was Chen Jinying, who immediately upon his leave founded a lark technology company, mainly for FPV aircraft solutions. Some twists and turns inside investor relations and external businesses directed Chen Jinying to unite with MMC and position himself as its R&D director.
Going around in circles all these years, a close relationship was maintained between Chen Jinying, Lu Zhihui and Chen Chuqiang. In the eyes of Chen Chujiang and Lu Zhihui, DJI was not ready for what they had to offer. This was mostly relative to the market at the time. DJI’s work in research and development, without a need for marketing or income did not seem plausible for them. Perhaps because of this, three people had different success curves.
Today, Lu Zhihui gives us his opinion on why did DJI succeed. Before, he believed that DJI’s growth happened thanks to Wang family’s wealth. He thought it ensured Frank enough funding to fully focus on research and development rather than worrying about actual profits. Later on, however, after retracing DJI’s growth path, he found out that it was not only by the strength of Wang’s family, but also via introduction of numbers external resources that DJI led to the top. One of these resources was Wang Frank’s mentor Lize Xiang. Not only did Frank bring money back to his university, but also managed to obtain referrals and employ many likeminded people from the same institution he came. This gave him a stable influx of high quality referred experts with the same foundation that he had. In the Lu Zhihui’s opinion, Wang Frank’s personal growth also became apparent through time. Initially, he was very blunt, direct, and difficult to get along with a group of people. Today, however, he has managed to develop interpersonal skills that resulted in well managed and accomplished team.
DJI’s success carries a very important meaning for Lu Zhihui. He felt that its sense of direction was not bad. Early DJI developments steered into the direction of single rotor drones, but promptly Wang Frank turned to multi-rotor copters. Lu Zhihui was there to fill in the gaps between Wang Frank knowledge how to develop a copter and how to mobilize resources to put things together.
Lu Zhihui wanted to start his own businesses and adhere to the idea of industrial drones, but the funding was a big constraint to both MMC and DJI. The fact of the matter is that the technology for multi-rotors has been refined by 2009. But only in 2011, DJI began to turn to do multi-rotor aerial drones, while it took another several years for MMC to get the needed funds.
The Development of MMC
Lu Zhihui remembers with a smile that the first task for MMC was to survive the market. Because of the difficulties and saturation in the recreational market, MMC focused on multi-rotor aerial drones mostly with concentration on industrial applications.
Initially, Lu Zhihui regretted not sticking to recreational market, but now he knows he had made a right decision. He has gone through much of personal growth and many changes which made company more active and develop faster. For example, the last year Han’s Laser investment of tens of millions of RMBs and the acquisition of three UAVs and the industry chain enterprise led to 150% growths. At the same time, MMC decided to cut the number of product lines, inspection and other reservation electricity markets and improve its product line for industrial customers only. On the April 10, MMC held in the new product launch conference. The company released a UAV with 4 hours of flight time, the first one in the UAV industry. Lu Zhihui believes that this will lead to significant changes in the market and generally stir Chinese UAV race.
DJI has now grown into the world’s famous UAV company and employs over 4,000 people, but the story of its early years is unknown to many. Chen Jinying, Lu Zhihui and Chen Chujiang all said they look at the initial years of DJI as the years of good times and great lessons.
Rather than obtaining unwarranted fame, they really benefited from the technical training and experience obtained during the start-up of DJI. Every successful entrepreneur from DJI’s foundation eventually found their own way. For Chen Jinying, Chen Chujiang and Lu Zhihui, the experience was leading them to significant success on the road to wealth. There is no right or wrong, nor inevitable. The only common denominator is probably to find the right direction and stick to it.
Written by: Stan Kostic from MMC
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