Chris McCall is the CEO of the Zurich-based startup Fotokite which makes drones for aerial photography. The editor of the goal asked Chris about his career, drone industry, his CEO title, and lessons learned.
Hi Chris! You have a product which is an eye catcher when you present it in front of the audience. But how do you sell it?
We focus on B2B markets like News Broadcast and Public Safety and our first sales have primarily been made directly to our customers, which include CNN, BBC, AFP, Tribune Media, and many more. With a new product category like ours, it’s important to start off with close relationships to your early adopters. This helps you get key insight into their use case and feedback on what they want next.
You are originally from San Diego. And you studied there at the University of California. Right? Then you worked for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for some years. How did it happen that you moved to Zurich?
That’s correct. My fiancée and I were looking for a place to move in Europe with a strong robotics scene (for me) and great environmental engineering (for her).
After a few phone calls and looking at the aerial robotics scene in detail, it was an absolute no-brainer to choose Zurich. Anna started a PhD here, and I met Sergei Lupashin who was looking to get a company started from his PhD work on tethered drones. Looking back on the decision-making process now, I wouldn’t have changed a thing!
OK. You were a member of Engineers Without Borders (UCSD). Is it like Doctors Without Borders? Why did you join it?
Yes, similar in many respects. I’ve always been lucky enough to travel quite a bit throughout my life and along the way, I found the experiences that stick with me regularly are the memories of interacting with people even if it’s just through hand gestures and smiles. EWB gives you the chance to work together with communities around the world, people you’d otherwise never meet, and help them design and implement something meaningful that improves their day-to-day lives. Seemed like an easy choice to get involved.
And since 2014, you are Head of Speakers at TEDxZurich. I suppose this is an exciting experience. Would you tell us how to tell a story which can have a wow effect?
How you tell the story is definitely important, but the biggest wow effect always comes from the content of your story. I find that the most successful talks are always delivered by people who are genuinely excited about what they are doing. Such excitement is contagious and naturally grabs and holds the attention of most audiences.
I help to choose speakers and select them based on their life’s work – it’s the hard part. Making it sound good on stage is the easy part.
Good. Then in 2014 you started working at Fotokite as a Product Lead. How did it happen that you joined Fotokite?
I moved to Zurich because of the strong robotics scene and met Sergei Lupashin at the moment he was spinning off Fotokite from ETHZ. Within the first week we met, I also watched him giving a TED talk up in Berlin. The technology looked promising and he’s an absolute thought leader in the field. Natural talent is paramount for a startup’s success and I felt lucky to join.
Now, you are the CEO of Fotokite. What does it mean to you? What are the goals the CEO of Fotokite should pursue?
I don’t put much importance into the title itself but the goals we have as a team are certainly something critical. Like any startup, razor-sharp focus on delivering value to your customers is a must. Agility or flexibility is key, but a dedicated company mission should be a strong foundation for a company’s core team to jump on board for. As CEO, I’m excited to keep pushing for solutions in the markets that we get excited about as a team.
By the way, who are the people behind Fotokite? Are you looking for someone right now?
We are a tech-heavy team, lots of specialization in controls, electronics, and mechanical engineering. We’re also a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to backgrounds: the nine of us come from eight different countries. This is a great thing in my opinion. We’ll always have something to learn from each other.
When it comes to high-level talent, we’re always on the lookout. Soon we’ll be making our first dedicated sales and business development hires, but a big part of Fotokite being founded in Switzerland is the availability of high-caliber technical talent from ETHZ, EPFL, and UZH. If someone applies in with a strong track record and an obvious fit with our team – it’s smart to try to find some room.
Now about drones… I have the impression people will get their parcels delivered by drones soon. What is going on on the market right now? Which are the main sectors you see a product-market-fit? And why did you decide to go into aerial photography?
Wide-spread mail delivery is actually one of the drone applications you will need to wait longest for. Right now, most of the commercial drones are being used in controlled environments, as in far away from densely populated areas and for limited amounts of time.
At Fotokite we’re trying to change that completely- we think that our special combination of safe autonomous flight, hours of flight time, and accountability can unlock a class of drones that are used regularly in cities and around crowds of people. We focus on the markets that need what we offer, like news broadcasters and public safety teams. These are natural fits for something that flies uninterrupted for hours at a time, doesn’t require an operator to focus on flying, and brings added levels of safety compared to traditional drones.
In your pitch at Swiss Startup Days you said that the company has already made its first million in sales. And I go back to my first question: How do you establish sales within a startup?
We focused on developing relationships with the industry leaders in our target market. Starting with Broadcast News, we reached out directly to BBC, CNN, AFP, and Tribune Media. We listened to their feedback and built something just for them.
Once we were ready to deliver our first generation of products, we showed the technology and customers placed their orders. This was a good sign that we were heading in the right direction.
If you look back what are the most important lessons learned within the last five years?
Focus. Know your market and focus on delivering value there. Making your key customers happy is the most important thing to do as an early stage company. They will become your best sources of information on the market, your best references for future investors, and great torch bearers for other customers to follow.
OK. And what is the plan for the next five years?
Show that the Fotokite as a technology is ready for real-world use in our target markets by delivering our 2nd generation of flying platforms and supporting those key early adopters in each of our target markets. Once we’ve done this, we will be armed with the market knowledge needed to scale into a significantly sized company and solutions provider. That would be exciting!
The Fotokite is a spin-off of ETH Zurich’s Flying Machine Arena and was founded in 2014 by Sergei Lupashin.