How drones startup Propeller Aero got its own office, a team of 25 and more than $5 million in funding within three years

Propeller Aero co-founders Rory San Miguel and Francis Vierboom

Propeller Aero co-founders Rory San Miguel (left) and Francis Vierboom (right). Source: Supplied.

A Sydney startup developing drone technologies for the construction sector has moved out of its incubator and into a new Surry Hills office with a team of 25, less than a year after raising $4 million ($US3.1 million) with support from Silicon Valley investors.

Propeller Aero, founded by Francis Vierboom and Rory San Miguel in 2014, has combined expertise in robotics and software engineering to develop a 3D mapping platform for civil industries to track and survey sites.

Vierboom says the startup now has “paying customers” in 20 different countries, with its main clients being in the construction and mining industries across Australia, the UK and the US.

“We started building drone solutions for customers and came to focus really heavily on the software platform,” he tells StartupSmart. 

According to Vierboom, Propeller Aero uses drones to enable site managers to track the shape of large areas of land, investigate hazards without putting people in danger and monitor progress.

“Drone technology makes it quite easy to capture an entire site really quickly without putting anyone out in a hazardous area,” he says.

The startup has also sold more than 1000 AeroPoints, a piece of hardware designed to increase the accuracy of drone inspections, which it released in 2016.

“It’s like a pizza box with a solar panel on it that’s got a GPS inside,” he says.

Vierboom is also a co-founder of Flirtey, a drone startup that recently performed the world’s first drone-delivered pizza. With Propeller Aero, he wants to lead the drone “revolution” outside the consumer, financial and retail sectors.

“We started the company to make drones a thing and in ten years that’s what we want to have done with a new way of managing worksites that’s basically enabled by drones,” he says.

Reflecting on the journey of building Propeller Aero, Vierboom says there are several key actions he and San Miguel took as founders to ensure the startup is on a strong and scalable trajectory.

Here are three of them.

1. Playing with new technologies before they’re “hot”

While drones have been the “hot exciting thing” for some time now, Vierboom says he and San Miguel were lucky to have been playing with the technology before others and to have jumped on the opportunity just as the market started to surge.

“We were really lucky with the timing of when we started our business,” he says.

Despite naysayers in Silicon Valley expecting the “drone bubble [to] burst”, Vierboom says he always believed otherwise and knew drones “would be accepted into high value commercial applications”.

“The thing we did right was taking on an opportunity that we really did have some unique insight into from working hands on with the technology even when it was in its infancy,” he says.

2. Starting in an incubator or accelerator to prevent avoidable mistakes

Before opening up its own office, Vierboom and San Miguel completed the Cicada Innovations incubator and Startmate accelerator.

This placed the founders in the middle of a highly supportive and experienced network of mentors, entrepreneurs and investors that enabled them to “avoid missteps” like “building too much product without going and chasing customers first”, says Vierboom.

“We were really fortunate,” he says.

But with the startup’s team now at 25, Vierboom says it really needed its own office to grow.

“We were getting just a bit too big to fit inside Cicada Innovations,” he says.

3. Spending money wisely

Propeller Aero has raised more than $5 million to date but this money been spent wisely, says Vierboom.

Vierboom, who declined to reveal the company’s revenue, says external funding has been carefully invested into attracting the right customers and team, with the startup bringing on talent in engineering, tech, marketing and sales.

“Build your team fully and carefully,” he says.

“It’s tempting when you raise a round to run out and hire people as fast as you can and we’ve been aware of that.”

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