Seizing an opporunity to bring all the work and theories tested in laboratory into practical business world, Mark Yong transistioned himself from a university lecturer into an entrepreneur pursuing a business vision for the future of drone technology. Mark is the co-founder and CEO of Garuda Robotics.
Garuda Robotics is a leading developer of enterprise-grade drone and drone data solutions for enterprises, governments, and professional drone operators. Their products and services are deployed in the agriculture, infrastructure, security, and logistics industries throughout Asia to capture, analyse and leverage aerial data at scale.
In the following videos and transcripts, you could find out Mark’s journey as an entrepreneur, how he embraces challenges, adapts to business world, builds great company culture and continue to scale new heights for Garuda Robotics.
The Vision of Garuda Robotics
I have been working in robotics for 20 years, previously as a lecturer in a university. But four years ago I came out to start this company with my co-founder and since then we’ve been building a team of passionate individuals who are really all about developing drone technology into products that enterprises can use.
We aim to solve the most challenging problems in traditional industries and every day we think about building better hardware, better software, better products, better analytics that help our enterprise customers deal with challenges in their businesses, which are usually driven by a lot of manpower and traditional processes. And we aim to help them bring the technology of drones and artificial intelligence analytics into their daily work.
As a drone company, we felt it was very important to have some aspect of flight or aviation in our company name. But we also have a focus, a very deep focus on Southeast Asia as a region of interest. And we didn’t want to call ourselves a hawk or eagle or any of these names that are usually taken by drone companies from the US and Europe.
Garuda, which many people increasingly aware of is a bird that is very well known in the Southeast Asian context. And these days when we go into meetings, people almost instinctively say “did you name yourselves Garuda Robotics because you are a drone company and it’s a bird?”. And the answer, of course, is always yes, we are very glad that you saw the connection immediately. But it really is about speaking to our focus on this region as a core interest but also having that connection very close to the idea of flight and aviation.
The operative word really is ‘impact’. I worked for 20 years in robotics, mostly in an academic setting where I started off building ground robots for search and rescue in urban disasters.
Although we built a lot of great technology and put together some fantastic products, there was never really a focus on commercialization and bringing this technology out to the real world where regular people could benefit.
That led me and my co-founder to come out and start this company where it’s not so much about building things that are really at the bleeding edge, but a little bit more about taking technologies which are ready for prime time, turning them into products that 10000, 100000, a million people can use every day and benefit from because it makes their work-life easier and it enables them to answer questions which they couldn’t otherwise and, generally drive the enterprises forward.
So it’s really about frustration, not just from our point of view, but also from the customers’ point of view. There are all these things that they can’t do and they don’t know what they want to answer. And our technology is that missing piece, which helps them to overcome the difficult challenges that they face every day in their work.
Our core mission has always been to build products that enable people to use drone technology and a large part of that really is the digital platform we’ve been building for the last three years that connects all the different parts of the drone ecosystem.
Whether it’s the interactions with regulators, making sure that you have got the right licenses to fly or connecting drone hardware, different drones that you may have bought with different kinds of sensors.
Putting all that information into a single place so that you can make sense of it or even making sure that your drones are serviced on a regular basis and maintenance schedules are adhered to. That’s all part of this giant ecosystem that we have been building slowly from day one and we believe that five years from now we will still be following that core vision, building that single platform that enables anybody who is interested in drone technology to be able to use it simply by coming to us and signing up for this platform.
We are making small strides towards it every day as we talk with different customers in different industries and we’re taking all the things that we learned from them and taking those customized systems, turning them slowly into products that anybody can benefit from, once we understand what exactly is that we need to offer as a feature in our platform.
Strong teamwork and customer-centric culture lead the way
So our target customers are what we call people in the traditional industries. The more traditional, the better. These include industries such as agriculture, security, and surveillance. Anyone managing infrastructures such as power stations or power lines or bridges, set up cell towers, even people who are running mines, for example.
We call these traditional industries because they involve a lot of manpower and they’ve traditionally been slower to take on the latest technologies. A part of this is because they run at a tremendous scale. A single plantation might be the size of Singapore and figuring out how to bring technology out into an operation of that size can be very daunting for an operator of a plantation estate.
These are actually the customers that we are most interested in dealing with because the bigger the gap between where they are today and where they see themselves being in the future or where we see them being in the future, the more potential there is to recognize a return on the investment that they have to put in to be able to bring drones and analytics into the daily operations.
At the core of what we offer is the ability to deploy drones for your particular business in your particular domain and the way that we make that happen is by providing seamlessly integrated drone hardware with the right sensors on board to capture the information that’s relevant to you, all of which feeds into a digital software platform that is a one-stop-shop for everything you need to do regarding drone operations.
So planning your drone flights, figuring out exactly where the drones should be flying to capture relevant information, processing all that information into insights that can help you make decisions for your business, all of that is part of our corporate services.
For certain customers who aren’t quite ready to take this product in-house and run everything on their own, we also offer services. We have a very experienced drone operations team that goes around Southeast Asia to provide professional drone services to our customers who just want the information and want us to take care of all of the rest of the operations.
But increasingly we’re finding that certain customers are saying, we are now ready to do this by ourselves. All we need really is the right training. For these customers, we also have a highly regarded drone training academy where they can come and learn all of the ins and outs of safe, effective drone operation after which they will be qualified to take our drone software and hardware and run their drones on a daily basis within their own operations.
One of the most important things that I do in my role as CEO of the company is to listen to customers, existing and potential, so I’d like to spend as much time as I can in the places where they do their work. This means making visits to plantations, visiting cell tower operators as they go out to check on cell structures, visiting mines so that I understand the scale of the problems they face as they are moving, checking around.
It’s really in these visits where I get to sit with our end-users and shut up, and listen and allow them to tell me what exactly it is they need when they come and look for us. These are the moments where I find I have the most inspiration because I’m exposed to environments that I’m not very familiar with as a city boy born and bred, but also because you have the real sense that these are frustrations that strike to the core of our customers and what they do on a daily basis.
These are challenges that prevent them from getting the most effectiveness and efficiency out of their businesses. By listening to them, I’m energized, I’m inspired, I come back always with new ideas for what we can build into our product to solve their problems, and that really is where I get the most inspiration these days.
Listen to customers and help them solve their problems
Our products aim to target the three major phases of decision-making for customers and we do that by offering improved transparency, visibility, and actionability. Transparency is really important because if you’re not able to see clearly what exactly you’re dealing with on the ground, you won’t know what problems you’re facing.
By using drones, having the aerial perspective, many of our customers who manage large areas of land or are dealing with a lot of infrastructures that they have to monitor and keep running, they’re able to see much more clearly, very transparently, what exactly it is they are dealing with on a daily basis.
And, that leads to the second point which is visibility, when you have clear, reliable data that tells you what’s happening on the ground, you have visibility into problems sometimes before they even happen. And that visibility is what allows you to turn raw data into knowledge, knowledge about what you need to be thinking about as your business progresses.
And, that leads us to the final issue, which is decision-making. How do you get to a point where all the intelligence that you generate is actionable, it should be at most one step away from the final decision that your estate managers and your mine operators need to make in order to drive things forward.
So we build products that enable, improve transparency into the ground issues by providing better aerial data, improved visibility by servicing problems hopefully before they happen and turning all of this information, all this knowledge into insights that can support decision-making because the reports that we generate contain all of the critical information that decision-makers need on a daily basis.
The first lesson is definitely ‘to listen’, listen to a lot more than you talk. Listen to your customers because they will tell you what they need. And then you won’t spend your time, waste your time building imaginary things that don’t actually solve their problems, which is really the worst thing that you could do as an entrepreneur. You also have to listen to as many diverse viewpoints as possible so that if there are any things that you’re missing out because of blind spots that haven’t considered, taking advice and perspective from other people will help you avoid making the same mistakes that other people have made in the past.
The second lesson, I think is to not give up too quickly. We all underestimate how long it takes a brand new idea to really take root and as entrepreneurs, we always want to build the next great thing and that often means that we are taking on missions, building technologies and products that sometimes may be ahead of their time. And it’s very important not to give up too early just because the first 10 people you spoke to didn’t understand what you are trying to do. You never know when it’s person number 11 or 15 or 20 who really gets it and decides to become your lifelong customer.
The third lesson is really about the importance of a team and a community. It’s very tempting to try and do everything alone. It’s very tempting to try to power through just by working harder and harder but the reality is that to build any great venture, any great product requires a team. So it’s very important to focus a lot of your energy and resources and attention on growing a team that can build with you, that can support you on the journey and looking beyond the company.
It’s important to plug into the broader ecosystem and community of other entrepreneurs, all of whom are facing similar struggles every day, all of whom are learning things as they go, and all of whom are on this journey just like you are. But those are the three biggest lessons that I have learnt.
Build strong team and business resilience
I have been working in robotics for 20 years, previously as a lecturer in a university. But four years ago I came out to start this company with my co-founder. And since then we have been building a team of passionate individuals who are really all about developing drone technology into products that enterprises can use.
We aim to solve the most challenging problems in traditional industries. And every day we think about building better hardware, better software, better products, better analytics that help our enterprise customers deal with challenges in their businesses, which are usually driven by a lot of manpower, traditional processes. And we aim to help them bring the technology of drones and artificial intelligence and analytics into their daily work.
We’re building industry almost from scratch. Five years ago, the commercial drone industry did not exist in its current form. And we are very confident that in five years time things will again look very different for what we see today. So when we first started out almost at the start of this industry, one of the major problems that we face, one of the major challenges if you had to overcome was just customer education.
It wasn’t so much an issue of telling people this was real. It was convincing them that it wasn’t science-fiction, convincing them that this was something they could use tomorrow or next week rather than five years down the road. We spent the last four or five years doing that.
And many of our customers today are really at the forefront of this drone revolution. They are often the visionary forward-thinking companies in their domains where they see that if they don’t get a start on using drones today, they will fall behind all of their competitors. So that was on customer education.
The second major challenge was building a team that was scale as the company grew to address more and more challenges based on what we heard from customers. We are a multidisciplinary team. We don’t just have people who are engineering drones and building software. We also have very experienced operators go out there all the time and run the services for our customers.
We have trainers who are basically enabling drone pilot teams to flourish within the organizations that come to us for solutions and building that very diverse pool of talent has been one major challenge that we’ve had to face and something which we are continuing to face as we continue to push forward in this industry.
And the final challenge is perhaps a more personal one. I come from the background of being an engineer. I used to build technology. I used to work hands-on, on developing these robotic systems but in my evolution. I’ve had to learn to grow, to develop a feasible, sustainable business model for the company and in learning to build that business sense and business thinking. I’ve had to spend a lot of time working with clients directly, listening a lot more than I talk and just letting them guide me in terms of what we decide to build and see what is going to be the future.
I am going to give one and a half messages. I guess the overriding message would be – don’t give up. Perseverance is so important. It’s easy to get discouraged after the first year when you’ve talked to 200 people about your idea, which you believe is game-changing. It’s going to really transform the world, but no one understands…when the truth is, It might be the next person number 201 who really gets it and becomes your lifelong customer.
It’s very easy to underestimate the amount of effort it takes to change mindsets and to convince people that what you can do for them really will make a difference, which then gets to the half message, which I was talking about. It’s very important to understand why you are starting this business. Is it a piece of technology that you’re really passionate about? If that’s the case, then you need to make sure that it’s not just about technology, but there’s a sustainable business model behind it.
You have to make sure that they are customers who are really facing challenges, that you can solve with this technology. Otherwise, it’s just an interesting novelty. If you’re in it because you love the idea of business, then you need to make sure that you find something which can sustain this company, find something which you can continue to work at so that you don’t jump from one idea to another idea.
And ultimately, as I said, this is all about just keeping at it, not giving up too early. This can not be emphasized often enough, many of the ideas that we choose to take on as entrepreneurs, as people creating new industries from scratch, these ideas are very revolutionary and they take far more time than we expect to gain attraction in the larger world, in the real world where people are focused very much on the things that they do every day.
So you have to keep that in. Don’t lose faith and always remember what’s driving you when you first started this company.
We have reached the end of the transcript of Mark’s interview. We sincerely hope that you have enjoyed a great deal from Mark’s sharing of his entrepreneurial journey and resonanted with some of his approach in business.
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