An interview with Rory San Miguel, founder of drone-mapping tech startup Propeller Aero

drone startup

Propeller Aero co-founders Francis Vierboom and Rory San Miguel. Source: Supplied.

We’ve all dreamed of turning a lightbulb idea into the next big thing. But as every entrepreneur knows, there’s far more to founding a business than meets the eye. From nailing your concept to pitching for funding to snagging that first client, there’s a cascade of challenges you’ll need to overcome during the startup phase.

For Propeller Aero co-founder Rory San Miguel, he did the reverse of what most business experts advise. We sat down to discuss startups, cashflow woes, and why it’s so important to make pitching personal.

A solution without a problem

San Miguel is the first person to warn entrepreneurs against following in his footsteps. Rather than spotting a gap in the market or a problem that needed solving, he and his team devised a solution that wasn’t in demand.

“We started off with a solution, not a problem,” he says. “As they say, ‘start with a problem, not a solution’ and we did the opposite. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, but that’s just what we had at the time.”

That solution came from a lifelong obsession with technology, engineering and mechatronics. After wrapping up his role at Flirtey, which was building a drone-delivery system, San Miguel and co-founder Francis Vierboom decided to progress into something more hands-on.

“The nucleus of Propeller was literally that we believed someone was going to figure out how to make money with drones, and we knew it could be us.”

Founding a business with $50 to your name

But accurately predicting that drones would become a boom industry was only one part of the equation. Like so many budding entrepreneurs, money was tight. For San Miguel and his crew, giving up everything else to make Propeller Aero work would not come without a few hurdles.

“We started the company in 2014 when I had $50 to my name, so it absolutely needed to pay, but it wasn’t going to pay quickly. I ended up getting a job at a bar as well, which was very intense, but that did keep me going personally while the business picked up steam.”

The following year, it was time to expand. Having already spent considerable time in the Startmate scene — an accelerator program for Australian and New Zealand founders, of which San Miguel is now a mentor — he was aware of what a venture capital fund like Blackbird could do in terms of not just seed funding, but support across all areas.

“We had a really great support network from Blackbird and Startmate, and I think what people saw in us was not necessarily clarity of solution, but that there was a ton of passion and conviction that we’d be able to figure it out.”

Don’t be something you’re not

It might seem simple for an experienced hand like San Miguel, but he’s the first to tell hopeful startups to approach the pitching stage as openly and honestly as possible. 

“Keep it personal,” he says.

“The world can be very impersonal, and I think people like to posture that they’re bigger and more sophisticated than they are. But at the end of the day, it’s somebody else that’s going to make the [funding] decision.”

San Miguel offers three ways that founders can personalise their pitch:

  1. “Just be human. Be authentic in the pitch deck as a founder.”
  2. “When you are explaining your solution, do it from the words of a real customer. It’s easy to pull big numbers, but can you humanise your story?”
  3. “Be conscious of the investor and where their passion lies. If you sync up with that person individually, you can go pretty far.”

Learn how to say no

Growth is good, and any business owner would balk at the idea of turning down a major customer — particularly in your growth phase. But San Miguel says there comes a point where you can’t be all things to all people. 

Instead, he found Propeller Aero’s real success came when they started to narrow their focus to become a more niche solutions provider.

“Propeller was the drone-data platform for everyone and everything,” he says. “I remember a moment when Telstra wanted us to help them inspect all their phone towers. We spent a weekend down in Victoria doing a proof-of-concept, but when we got back to Sydney and I was with one of our senior engineers, we looked at each other and said, ‘There’s nothing here. Let’s really exercise restraint.’ Since then, we’ve been able to double-down on our niche areas.”

It’s that ability to say no and follow through on his instincts that has helped San Miguel turn Propeller Aero from just a small startup idea in Sydney, into a global operation with teams in Europe, the US, Asia and Australia.

For more tips on managing your business from ideation to establishment to scaling up, you can watch our on-demand webinar, How to build, launch and scale your startup, and gain key insights from some of the best minds in Australian business.

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