In 2012, Chris Anderson left Wired, where he had been editor-in-chief for a decade to run a startup.
He had met someone online to help him run his company: Jordi Muñoz, a teenager in Tijuana, Mexico.
They unlikely pair met through a drone enthusiast blog Anderson started, called DIY Drones. Since Anderson’s first private message to Munoz a few years prior, they had been building flying contraptions together. The devices were a hit: their side project generated $US5 million by the time Anderson was ready to leave Wired.
The concept was proven, and it was time to form a venture-backed business, 3D Robotics.
“From the outside perspective, it seems insane that an editor would start a robotics company with a Tijuana teenager,” Anderson says. “But it’s exactly the right person to start a company with.”
Here’s how they found each other and created one of the top drone companies in just two years.
Muñoz was born in Mexico, about an hour south of the California border. When he was four, he moved to Tijuana. He describes himself as a normal but geeky kid who loved playing with LEGOs and dreamt of being a pilot.
As a teenager, he’d often rip apart computers and put them back together. He became known in his neighbourhood as the repairman, helping fix tech issues for friends and family members.
By the time he was 18, Muñoz had learned to program and hoped to study aeronautical engineering at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. He was rejected twice, and his parents couldn’t afford his pilot aspirations anyway. So he returned to Tijuana and studied computer engineering at a university in town.
After just two semesters, Muñoz dropped out of school and moved the United States with his girlfriend, who would later become his wife. Then 21, Muñoz spent seven months waiting for his green card. In his spare time, he built miniature aircrafts, combining his technical background and his passion for flying.
It was around this time, in 2007, that Muñoz first appeared on Chris Anderson’s radar. Anderson had fallen in love with a new kind of hardware, drones, which were taking over the robotics industry. One perk of working for Wired was all the cool gadgets strewn around the office. If editors promised to write reviews of the gizmos, they were allowed to take them home and test them.
Anderson began bringing home robots to build and test with his five children. The robots would roll around and run into walls, which was sort of cool, but it occurred to Anderson that a cooler contraption would be a robot that could fly.
The then-editor-in-chief began to Google “flying robots” and found do-it-yourself (DIY) models. He purchased a LEGO one and built it with his kids. His wife filmed their early test flights. When their drone actually took off, Anderson got chills.
“I don’t get chills very often,” Anderson says. “I got chills when I saw the first web browser in ’92 or ’93. I probably got chills the first time I used a mobile phone. I get them every 20 years or so. I don’t really get like that unless I’m in the presence of something freaky and new, and this was just one of those moments.”
Anderson realised there were a lot of other people online who had interacted with similar drones and were passionate about them. He created a message board for the enthusiasts, DIY Drones, and the community grew to 60,000 registered users. One of those users was Muñoz.
Muñoz estimates he was the seventh user on the site. He’d frequently post photos and videos of drones he was building and share his code with others.
“He was just ahead of us all,” Anderson recalls. “Nobody had grokked the whole picture the way he had.”
As the DIY Drone community grew, Anderson realised a lot of people wanted to learn to make the flying devices. He built a starter kit and used his children as the first assembly line, packing LEGO parts into pizza boxes and shipping them out to buyers. The first 40 starter kits sold out in 10 minutes.
Anderson’s children refused to be a permanent assembly-line solution, so he reached out to the smartest drone advocate he knew, Muñoz. Anderson sent him a private message on DIY Drones.
Muñoz was familiar with the drone-building process. He had spent years building models that failed to take flight, refining his methods and Googling answers until he finally had a working prototype. He estimates he had 500 failed attempts before a drone successfully took flight and landed.
“I was very good in physics and maths and all that,” says Muñoz. “The rest was Google…I would change the code, load the code, fly, fly, fly. Then land, change the code, return home and rethink a new approach.”
Muñoz was unfamiliar with Anderson’s high-powered gig at Conde Nast Publications. “I thought he was a really nice, random guy who wanted to coach and help me,” Muñoz recalls. “I thought he was just one of a few hundred random writers at Wired. And I never knew about the books [he had written].”
Anderson sent Muñoz a check to begin collecting drone parts, and Muñoz began building kits in his garage. He purchased an expensive piece of machinery on eBay that could robotically assemble the drones. Muñoz then set up a factory in his home town, Tijuana.
The drones continued to sell quickly. “I was like, ‘OK, I have extra money. I was making like, 90% profit,” Muñoz recalls. He says 3D Robotics is still a high-margin business, although it isn’t keeping 90% of sales anymore. That year, Muñoz and Anderson generated about $US5 million.
Finally, after years of corresponding online, Muñoz and Anderson finally met in person. They greeted each other at a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles; Anderson was in town for a conference and Muñoz drove in from San Diego. Munoz remembers Anderson being confident but nice. Anderson remembers Muñoz being taller than expected.
Anderson can’t remember if he and Muñoz split equity in 3D Robotics before or after that first in-person meeting. He doesn’t really think it matters — Anderson believes people are most like their true selves online anyhow.
“Engineers are extremely effective at online personas,” says Anderson. “Once you’ve been dealing with them online, you learn they have strong opinions, they’re articulate and outgoing. Then sometimes you meet them face to face and they’re incredibly shy and awkward. I think, ‘OK I’m not going to judge that [in person is] obviously not their best side.’ I kind of pretend it’s not them [when I meet them]. Their body is just the vessel they transport themselves in.”
So far, the partnership has worked.
Muñoz, who is now 28, and Anderson still manage teams in separate cities. They have played tennis a few times and gone to a few dinners. But largely, they handle business matters online. They now employ about 220 people and 3D Robotics has raised $US35 million from venture capitalists. 3D Robotics has sold tens of thousands of drones.
“He’s in Berkeley and I’m in San Diego,” says Muñoz. “There’s not really much time [to spend together], but I still feel very lucky. People would die to talk with Chris Anderson!”
“Muñoz is exactly the right person to start a company with,” says Anderson. “He had seen the web generation and completely understood tech on a first-language basis. This is all second-nature to him. The second thing is, because of where he’s from, he knew exactly how to build out a factory and all about manufacturing…Also, he was absolutely fearless. He didn’t know what he didn’t know… He thought, ‘I can learn this [drone] stuff. It’s all on eBay. It’s all one click away.”