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The importance of staying highly-focused when you want to build something serious

A week ago applying for a leading startup accelerator in California, I have been asked one question “What advice would you give to a brand new entrepreneur?”. After three and half years building Sterblue with Nicolas Draber and Vincent Lecrubier, my answer was instantaneous: “Focus”. This is not new at all in the “start-up recipes” but actually living it, makes this notion more powerful.

I hope these insights will also help you in your own journey.

Opportunities are everywhere, choose one: the tourist restaurant phenomena

You don’t have to reveal it here but I am sure you have already been in a tourist restaurant where the menu is translated in 7 different languages. You can order dishes from pizza to sea fruits going to chinese food and even any kind of processed meats. First it is hard to choose and second this can frighten you about what they are going to serve you!

Since the words “commercial drone” have seriously spread out on the industry 4 years ago, there are literally hundreds of unique businesses that have been created around it, guess:

Hundreds of business applications

  • Power grids
  • Oil & gas
  • Cheap counting
  • Hot air balloon (we got this request 1 year ago ;)
  • Disneyland Space Mountain inspection (we also got this request)
  • etc.

X

A more and more complete value chain

  • Flight management app
  • Hardware
  • Operation
  • Cloud platform

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Hundreds of reasons not to choose ONE opportunity

During the beginning of Sterblue we had this mindset “we know how to do everything, let’s do it”. We have been designing and sometimes building drones, ground stations, drone charging stations and for too many business applications. That was wrong. It didn’t bring Sterblue the credibility expected on the market, it slowed us down and no virtuous circle was really created with clients and investors to accelerate. We were also creating frustration among our first employees starting projects and cutting them off 6 months later.

Beginning in 2017, we started cutting the wrong branches. It was not easy to stop some of our “babies” we strongly believed in but it was also one of our best decisions: It was preferable to create a few temporary frustrations rather than leading Sterblue in to a wall! It has made everything clearer after; especially our mission and long term vision:

“At Sterblue we build software to inspect industrial assets automatically. We have started with wind turbines and are now rolling out power grids. Our long term vision if to bring a strong added value to our clients and partners, vertical after vertical, not solely raw data. Our standardized and automated approach will bring amazing insight over time to radically change the industrial inspection game.”

Saying “no” to a lead and building the right filters is not an option

Imagine this situation

  • You launch the company and you only have a couple of thousand euros in the bank
  • You are 5 highly motivated people
  • You think you do not have a great leverage in front of a lead at this stage
  • You are still figuring out the market dynamic, challenges and where you could build your nest on the value chain

A lead knocks on your door with an application, a bit of cash. You say “yes”!

End of 2016, we ended with developing an automatic fence inspection solution using drones for a logistics company in the west of France. We are really thankful for this trust in Sterblue but after 6 months of building the product and approaching the market in the same time we had figured out 2 unpleasant facts:

  • The market was mainly military and that was not fitting with Sterblue values. Moreover the decision cycle was just too long in this space.
  • The solutions we were providing with drones did not have a great product market fit and the road to reach it was not obvious at all.

This experience helped us to learn a lot, and now, all our leads go through a series of assessment criteria to make sure we have a fit and can build brick over brick: Budget available on customer side / Level of pain for the client / Standard infrastructure (for scalability) / Worldwide volume to be inspected / Off-the-shelf product for Sterblue / Easiness factor (language, norms, etc.) / In phase with our product roadmap.

Thanks to this standard approach, saying a powerful “no” to a lead becomes much easier and has made us more credible in the end

This is also applicable on the corporate side: don’t ask start-ups to build every use case you have identified. Let’s start small and grow together towards your dreams (we have the same ambition, no worries!). By the way, we will be happy to share our successful story with Enedis soon on this topic by ;)!

Building with the best and only the best

Great! You have now identified what you have to focus on and what would make you a champion! It means that you probably need to build or to integrate with an ecosystem.

We made a mistake at Sterblue. Once we had stopped designing and manufacturing hardware at the beginning of 2017, we partnered with a few french drone manufacturers to integrate our automatic 3D navigation software and deploy Sterblue to the market. These companies were like us at this time: small and with a product not mature enough for the marketplace. With this integration we had given them a reason to be even more unfocused! We were finally fixing our product problems AND our partners’ hardware problems.

Switching mid-2017 to DJI drones was a great decision: a highly reliable product backed by 10,000+ people with thousands of flight hours. At this time, we could actually work on Sterblue added value: automating the drone flight while building on the shoulders of a champion!

In the exact same approach, we have recently partnered with DroneBase to support our operation launch in the US! With 60,000+ pilots in the US and 100,000 drone missions completed, DroneBase is definitely a key partner for Sterblue deployment moving forward!