(Photo: Joi Ito, CC-BY)
He’s not the only major figure in the world of tech and ideas who goes by Chris Anderson. His namesake runs the TED conference - whereas the Chris Anderson of this article was Editor-in-Chief of Wired for twelve years. During that stint, he co-founded a company that helped launch the consumer drone industry, which he now runs (the company - not the industry).
There are those who think these guys are one solitary, mega overachiever, but no. They could settle who has rights to the name through some kind of brainy public smackdown - the nerd equivalent of a battle of the bands, say. But not a chance. This Chris Anderson has been through that once already. With his band. They were called REM.
No - not that REM. That REM clobbered Team Chris in musical combat back in 1991 (at the storied 9:30 club in Washington), winning rights to the name. Chris’s band then took Mike Mills’ suggestion that they rebrand as Egoslavia – a clever-ish name back when Yugoslavia wasn’t just a fading memory and a handful of spinoffs.
Chris and I cover this, plus the story of his impressively misspent youth in an hour-plus interview you can listen to right here (or by typing the name of the podcast series – “After On” – into the search bar of your favorite podcast app):
But we mainly talk about drones, his company (3D Robotics, or 3DR), and how he launched and grew it to millions in revenues in partnership with a Tijuana teen, while winning awards for running the world’s most influential tech magazine as a day job. Chris eventually left Wired to raise venture capital and go fulltime with his partner Jordi Muñoz (by then, all of 21). 3DR grew explosively after that – until China attacked (or rather, a wildly competitive Chinese company). Chris’s startup was almost annihilated. But fear not: they’ve pivoted.
A wonderful aspect of the 3DR story is how it sprang from DIY Drones, a forum-cum-social network, which Chris launched in 2007. Catching the updraft of the rising maker movement – plus the newfound fervor for hardware spawned by the iPhone – the site soon had tens of thousands of members. People swapped code and designs, and gradually created open source hardware specs for consumer-class drones. Chris and Jordi launched their company when they realized that even within this robust community, most folks were way more interested in having drones than in building them.
3DR then became one of the first open source hardware companies. And don’t be surprise if it also proves to be one of the last! Chris articulated the open source hardware business model quite persuasively in his 2012 book Makers. But it was always chancy, as open source specs can be used by anyone, one’s competitors certainly included. The hope was that “owning the community” would provide a big competitive boost. But Chris acknowledged the risks back at the start of this thing, saying “if we get it right, it’ll be a fantastic model for companies of all sorts; if we get it wrong, an instructive failure.”
The outcome was very instructive indeed, and Chris no longer believes in open source hardware as a business model. But he maintains that the crucial flaw lay not in competitors accessing specs, but in the burgeoning complexity of certain chipsets and some other underlying hardware that drones rely on. This gradually made it hard, then nigh impossible for tinkerers and amateurs to contribute meaningfully to world-class drone designs, robbing 3DR of its all-but-free R&D source.
3DR is still a drone company, but its product is now data, not quadcopters. They service the construction industry (the second largest in the world after agriculture, and the biggest employer in the US). That transformation is almost as interesting as Chris’s leap from being a bass-playing bike messenger/dropout to his current gig. All of this is detailed in our interview. For those in a hurry, here’s a quick guide to some of its interesting sections:
0:04:14 - I ambush Chris by presenting a copy of his 1981 vinyl record and demanding an autograph. We hear the full story of his REM and that REM.
0:8:47 - Chris discusses his lengthy bike messenger career, and his years of living in a squat.
0:20:22 - Chris explains how he weaponized Lego, and (kinda, sorta) invented a consumer-class drone while trying (unsuccessfully) to interest his five kids in a Mindstorm-guided plane.
0:26:36 - Chris starts the online community of drone-happy makers from which 3DR will ultimately spring.
0:35:04: Chris articulates the open source hardware business model as he once envisioned it, and why it didn’t work out.
0:41:42 Chris discusses his mighty Chinese competitor, DJI (in extraordinarily gracious terms).
0:51:06 3DR pivots to a drone-driven data company focusing on the built world.
1:07:34 - Some cool things Chris expects drones will soon do (and some even cooler ones he does not expect them to do.).