There are precisely three times in Chris Anderson’s life when the future’s boundless possibilities have encroached upon his present and taken his breath away. The first was when the internet was in its infancy. A physicist with a penchant for unearthing novel stories, Chris knew he was in the presence of something big. The second occurred while standing in Guangdong Province, when he suddenly realised and understood that China is going to dominate the world’s economy. Chris recalls musing, “Everything I’d thought about China was wrong. They’re going to win the twenty-first century, and I’m here, now, witnessing it.” And the third took place in Chris’s dining room, when a foray into building a robot with his children opened the door to technological innovations that had previously exceeded his wildest imaginings.
“When people retell these moments they always sound like epiphanies. In fairness, it isn’t always like that. In my case, it probably took a week for the impact to really sink in. I was sitting at the dining room table trying to build a robot with the kids,” Chris says. “We tried to fly an airplane across the room, and it crashed. While they were wholly unimpressed, it made me wonder: how could that go better?”
Driven by his innate curiosity, Chris spent the night at the dining table with his then 9-year-old assembling the components of a Lego Mind Machine kit. The next day they took their construction into a field, where — to Chris’s great amazement — it flew. He was utterly stunned. “I thought drones were a military thing that were super high tech,” he says. “And we just made one; on our dining room table. I thought: something in this world has changed, and I’ve got to find out what that is.”
At that point in time Chris was the Editor in Chief of WIRED, an American publication renowned for its considered coverage of emerging technologies and their broader social and political implications. A scientist at heart however, Chris had long struggled with the notion of being a journalist. “I started writing for Nature and Science, which, in my mind was a halfway ground between science and media, and then I took up a position with The Economist, which felt very academic.” As far as Chris was concerned he hadn’t crossed the partition and delved into ‘proper’ media at this point in time. “But then I got drawn further and further into the media world and started working for WIRED.”
Given his vocational dissonance, when the possibilities of drone technology opened themselves up to Chris, it didn’t take long for him to jump ship. After building that first drone with his children, Chris set up an online community for amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) called DIY Drones. It was there that he met his future business partner and Co-Founder of 3D Robotics Jordi Muñoz, a Mexican immigrant awaiting his green card alongside his then pregnant wife.
“It all happened completely by accident,” Chris laughs. “If the editor of WIRED wants to start a twenty-first century aerospace company, they probably wouldn’t choose to partner with a Mexican teenager they met on the internet. But it turned out to be the right choice.”
Since it was founded in 2009, 3D Robotics has proliferated. It currently outsources manufacturing across the globe — from Mexico to China — and produces ready-to-fly consumer drones in addition to purpose-built commercial drones. While Jordi left the company late in 2015, Chris remains on as CEO. Wearing this hat, Chris has found himself dealing more in leadership than directly in the engineering of drones. Although his inner physicist misses the hands-on component, Chris has discovered just what it takes to rally a community and lead a team.
“I’ve learned a lot from trying to build a community, and from building a company out of a community,” he says, “and I can’t say I got everything right, but there are very few people who have successfully migrated communities into a commercial realm without completely breaking them. And I’d say that — the community building — is probably the thing I’d reflect upon as being the most rewarding.”
Chris Anderson will be speaking at the World Marketing & Sales Forum, which runs from 8–9 November 2016.