Founder feature: Rory San Miguel, Propeller Aero
With a $26m Series B now in the rearview mirror, Rory San Miguel, Co-founder and CEO at Propeller Aero, talks about startup life, failing weekly, and the importance of fun. Craig Davis Oct 21
On being a founder.
How did you come to be a founder of Propeller Aero?
While studying Robotics at university, I worked at a small electrical engineering company in Redfern. One day, I looked across the hallway and there were some people building a drone I'd never seen before. At that time, I was doing plenty of drone-related things in my spare time, so I went over, knocked on their window and asked ‘what are you guys doing? Do you need a drone person?’ And they said yes!
The next day, I became one of the six co-founders of Flirtey, a drone delivery company. I was only there for six months, but it gave me the chance to meet Francis, another of the co-founders. Him and I got along very well and when we both quit, we decided to start our own company.
This was in 2013. From the moment I knocked on that window, not knowing anything about Startups, to becoming co-founder of Flirtey and then co-founder of Propeller Aero, only half a year went by.
When Francis and I founded Propeller, we did not have a clear idea of what we wanted to do. Back then, we just knew we needed to figure out a way to make money with our knowledge of drones.
Rory San Miguel and Francis Vierboom co-founded Propeller in 2014.
We started calling potential customers and asking them if they needed drones, and they would ask us to build them an easy API for drone data. We’ve had many twists and turns along our journey, but that's how Propeller became what it is today.
We basically started a business without a defined idea of the problem we were solving and had to learn that on the job. Thankfully, it worked out. That naivety has become an asset to the business - always asking rather than assuming and this has brought many unique innovations to our customers - But I’d say this is certainly not the recommended path on how to start a company.
Tell me about a time when you’ve been really challenged as a founder?
One of the biggest challenges I faced as a founder was when we had to define what we were going to focus on and who was our target market. We actively had to make an effort to decline opportunities, which is extremely difficult when your company has no money. Yet it was absolutely necessary for us to carefully choose our clientele in order to sharpen our identity as a company.
With time, we got better at declining opportunities that did not align with us, and we haven't deviated from our target market ever since. But it was hard, and involved many difficult decisions.
Share one of the key differences between being a very early stage founder and the role of a founder on the Series A to Series B growth journey?
I know this might be a common response among startup founders, but the main difference is doing a lot of the work yourself versus supporting the team that’s doing the work. As a founder, your job changes from low leverage tasks at an early stage to higher leverage actions as you move forward in the growth journey.
Propeller team retreat, 2019.
My best work now is no longer hustling deals over the line or having product ideas. The highest leverage work I do now is proactively planning ahead, and making sure the team understands our context. I believe it's important to keep the team across and the reasons why we are focusing on certain problems.
The real startup life.
What is the best thing about being a founder at this point in the Propeller Aero story?
My favourite thing about Propeller is the people we are now working with, both the team we managed to build and the clients we have. Every day I enjoy being surrounded by them, and I think that’s one of the best things you can ask from a job, to love the people around you.
Propeller Aero and DJI Join Forces to Launch New PPK Drone Solution
Tell me about a time when you had to let go of in order to grow as a founder and a leader?
In the early days I did lots of the selling at Propeller. As the founder, you have the most context out of anyone in the business and you can connect dots that others simply don’t know about. It’s a bit of an unfair advantage.
However, me doing all the selling needed to change so when we started hiring up the sales team there was this understanding that we would certainly lose deals we might have won, however the prize was actually to make sure others in the team could learn the ways and then build into better sales people than I could ever be.
And that has since happened - it wasn’t long at all before everyone in the sales team started hitting their stride and we’re much better setup to scale as a result.
What is your approach to satisfying the requirements of the business, your own needs, and those of your friends and family?
It has evolved over the years as Propeller has and as I have gotten older. As I mentioned earlier, the work I need to be doing for Propeller is more proactive and less reactive, which requires a clear mind. I’ve started prioritising sleep and exercise more and more as well as being more intentional about catching up with friends and family on weekends and weeknights.
Work definitely takes priority - which isn’t great for the other people around me but I’ll continue to try and work towards a more healthy balance. Even now, I don’t work much on weekends which I’m quite proud of. It’s not that I care less about Propeller - but I’m thinking about how to give my best over a very long time frame for the business rather than flame out.
This means I’ve had more time to pick up some other hobbies and ‘use my hands’ as I like to say - camping on weekends or doing some DIY around the house - both of which bring me great joy.
Yeah, that was a f#@% up.
They say that failure is the best teacher. Tell me about an experience of failure that you are thankful for.
I think every week I learn a new lesson by failing at something.
For example, last week I was giving a performance review and trying to be as clear as possible with my feedback. But I ended up being insensitive and demoralising a person. I got the exact opposite result of what I was looking to achieve.
I'm also trying to work on our pitch deck as a company, but I need to be in the right headspace to do it. I keep committing to people I'm going to get it done and I keep failing at it, which frustrates them and frustrates me! My learning here is to be mindful of my other obligations and not to overcommit - and also to [intentionally] set some time aside to get this done (I'm currently thinking about a staycation week for this sort of thing).
So, I would say I often make mistakes, but they allow me to remind myself of the type of person and leader I want to be.
Propeller Aero has just been recognised by Fast Company as one of the 2021 Best Workplaces for Innovators.
Paying it forward.
What practical advice would you give your pre-founder self about what lies ahead?
I would tell myself two things. The first one would be to ‘find the problem you want to solve and focus on it’. Because in our case, it took longer than needed.
The second thing I would say to my pre-founder self would be ‘focus on margins and scalable revenue from the beginning.'
Scalable revenue and high margins should not be an afterthought. We find ourselves today fixing things that with more experience, we could have structured differently from the beginning.
Obviously, to have high margins, you need clarity of what you are building, for whom and how much to charge for it. All which comes from knowing your product beforehand. At Propeller, we had to learn everything on the job. Therefore, these two practical pieces of advice are connected. That being said, I love where we have landed as a company and our approaches to solving these issues on the fly have made us more resilient no doubt.
If you could recommend one thing to do in preparation for the founder journey what would it be, and why?
I would recommend them the same I would tell my younger self: make sure you know what problem you're solving; have line-of-sight to a revenue model that scales well and make sure that this revenue model produces high margins.
(Re)sources of inspiration.
Tell me about a time when the going got tough - what are the things that kept you going?
I don't really know anything else. And I love what I do. I absolutely love the products we build and the customers we have. It's a sad thought to imagine myself working for a different customer base, with different products at a different company. So maybe, what kept me going, is that I’ve always felt like this was my only path.
What are your go-to tools and resources that help you be a better founder?
This is an easy one: a close support network of other founders who have become some of my closest friends.
Rory chatting with Cam Grant, co-founder Unyoked, at Upside.
Think about the statement, “I am my own work in progress.” In what ways have you made progress in the last year?
Last year, I learned the importance of working in physical proximity to other people. Especially if your culture is set up as an in-office culture from the beginning. We certainly can work remotely, but it’s not as fulfilling as sharing an office space.
I think no one at Propeller works hard for the sake of working hard. Everybody is compelled by other factors, such as the relationships we've built or the feeling of achieving success as a team.
Helping people have fun at work, drives productivity, which drives fun, which drives productivity and so on. I think I learned the importance of that for myself personally and for our team as well during this last year.
I also learned how challenging it can be to be the one providing stability to a growing team when the whole world is facing uncertainty. I feel I made progress by being able to deal with that pressure.
What’s one thing you’ve learned from the Upside Founder Program that you are bringing into your founder and leadership role at Propeller Aero?
The first couple of sessions of the Upside program were about gaining a better understanding of our bodies and minds. This meant wearing an Oura ring day and night to record steps, heart rate, sleep metrics and many other things.
We got plenty of data and learned about sleeping, relaxation and meditation benefits, which was very useful. It helped me develop better habits, which led me to be calmer and happier.
In one phrase, what would you say to other founders about Upside?
It's a great chance to look at yourself in the business from an outsider’s perspective and reconsider your fundamental assumptions.
We’re all a work in progress.
Upside Founder Programs help founders become the very best leaders for their businesses as they grow from Series A to Series B, and beyond. Applications for the 2022 program close November 24th.
Upside Founder Programs are generously supported by KPMG High Growth Ventures.