By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)
When you make your first billion before you’re 35, it’s pretty impressive. When you do it creating a revolution in how people take pictures and videos, so much the better. But we’re not talking about GoPro‘s CEO Nick Woodman here, though you could give him that accolade just as easily. No, we’re talking about DJI‘s founder, Frank Wang Tao. His drone company has not only rocked the filmmaking world with a new camera platform, but did it his own way.
“We are not willing to be someone else’s accessory, but a lot of our customers had the need [to use a GoPro camera for aerial footage],” says Wang, “so we made a product like this. However, from the beginning to now, we never wanted to be in the shadow of someone else.”
Having founded DJI Innovations just nine short years ago, Wang’s company went from just $500,000 in sales in 2009, to over $500 million by 2014. And 2015 looks even better with a projected revenue of a billion dollars and control of over 70% of the drone market. It’s made Wang’s personal net worth nearly $5 billion since he controls 45% of his company shares.
With that kind of rapid growth, and the fact that it was so popular with GoPro users, you’d think a partnership with the action camera company would be a natural, and it almost was. But a disagreement over profit participation, the partnership never came to fruition.
While DJI would just be a radio controlled helicopter toy without the GoPro Hero, the revolutionary action camera helped give it a huge jump start, Wang is adamant that his company has made it on its own, and that the latest Inspire 1 and Phantom 3 are living proof of it. You only need to take a look at that video footage from the Phantom 3 flying out of a high rise hotel window in Singapore, which shows DJI’s camera quality is off the hook. But Wang wanted more than just being a flying GoPro platform
Wang says that when the Phantom was being used to house GoPro cameras, it wasn’t because DJI didn’t want to make their own cameras, but because they simply couldn’t initially get the chips they needed to develop their own camera. “It wasn’t like we couldn’t make good cameras. Our supplier sold the best chips to GoPro,” Wang says, “and only sold us the second-grade chips because we were not big enough.”
But that all changed with the Inspire 1, since DJI had grown to the point that chip manufacturers could see that DJI was now large enough to compete with GoPro for their top of the line chipsets. “Our newest camera is better than GoPro’s because we convinced the supplier to sell us the newest generation of chips,” he says.
The DJI CEO says that not even corporate espionage or a recent corporate shakeup has stopped DJI from controlling the lion’s share of the drone market, and with an estimated value of over $10 billion dollars, there seems to be no end in site for the billionaire drone king. But Wang isn’t planning on stopping there.
Now that he’s cemented DJI’s dominance in the drone world, he’s going after the camera business. One DJI executive told me at NAB that they are transitioning from a drone company to a camera company, which puts them in square competition with GoPro. Could we see a DJI action camera soon? Maybe. That makes me wonder if GoPro will go after Wang’s secure market share in the drone market. With DJI’s sights set on that, could 3DRobotics leach enough of the market share while no one’s looking with their new Solo drone? With Wang’s former design guru Colin Guinn at the helm reportedly working on a partnership with GoPro, you can bet it’s going to be an interesting year.