There is an old axiom in businesses that are just getting started that it is characterised by ‘the 4 F’s’, namely Fountains, Fishtanks, Ferraris and Flagpoles. These are the things that are prominent in the business environment whilst the startup in question is working very hard to ‘fake it until it makes it!’
That may be true in Silicon Valley but was not at all representative of my time in a UK Drone Startup, I saw none of those things in the 4 years I was in that environment. What I did witness though is a useful learning exercise that warrants summarising, if only to help future drone startups avoid the same mistakes.
To get started then, I didn’t seek life in a drone startup, it found me. Having done some Operating Safety Case (OSC) consultancy for my soon to be future employer on an early prototype, they then presented me with an appealing opportunity to come on board as an employee at an early point in their evolution. I said yes. I mean, what could possibly go wrong….
Formed around an initial concept and conceived by a balanced mix of technical and entrepreneurial individuals (who will invariably become the C-suite and then move into a founder role), the early phases are frenetic. Everyone does everything by necessity. There is no IT department to submit a problem ticket to, you all have to get in amongst it and hope that the majority of issues can be resolved by a posed question online or asking an industry peer.
As an example, I was responsible for quality and safety but soon picked up an emerging requirement to develop an engineering test function which I had zero experience in. I subsequently led interviews for Test Engineers with a script largely populated with questions I extracted from Google or by a series of evening phone calls to an old friend who had once been an aviation test engineer ….
As a manufacturer of drones, engineers constituted 60-70% of staff and engineering constituted most activity. That said, the engineering within the business could best be described as ‘seat of the pants’, with a cycle that can be described thus: Scratch head until a build process becomes clear, build, bench test, go out and fly, spike it into the ground 4 times in 5, collect what remains and then rinse and repeat….
It was the epitome of fail your way to success but it was working, that much I could see. At the time, it sometimes seemed naively futile but looking back on it from where the business evolved to was like looking back on your schooldays way after you’d left. With an element of wistful nostalgia and a quiet acknowledgment that you actually ‘missed the good ole days’……
Our offices were not really adequate to cater for 20 people, never mind the 35 they actually held so office life was intimate to say the least. Engineering projects were characterised by a short notice funded sprints (around 6-9 months) of R&D against specific technical deliverables, culminating in milestone events for the customer, in this case the UK MOD Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL). If successful, they would sign off and we would then get the next set of deliverables and go straight back into the cycle. There were no real pauses between cycles though and it all rolled into one…..
We opened a dedicated workshop that, while demonstrating our understanding of the need to expand and make space for future growth, was universally seen by engineers to be too small, even on the day it opened….
And then when we moved into a purpose refurbished office just before Covid which had plenty of space, brand new kitchen and break out area and even a games room. We felt like we were going places but then the fun really started.
– Craig Lippett, Head of Technical Services
Read Episode 2: Growing Pains