Over the past few months, we’ve been introducing you to the whole Propeller team with employee spotlights. Today, we’re doing a special founders edition where we talk to Propeller’s founders, Francis Vierboom and Rory San Miguel.
First up was Francis, and now we speak with Rory, who splits his time between our Sydney and Denver offices.
How has your job changed since Propeller started?
My job has changed a lot over the years. When we started, I was the robot guy and Francis was the software guy. Later, when we figured out the business was going to be software—a data analytics and visualization platform—I decided to try my hand at sales and generated our early revenue, fundraised, and started partnerships with DJI and Trimble. (We’ve since hired amazing people like John to oversee partnerships, and Dave and Laura for sales.)
One constant is the great relationships I have with our customers—people still text and call me to say how well things are going or when they could be going better. For example, a customer will get help with a problem from our customer success team, and then call me to say one of our team members did something amazing.
What’s your educational background?
I’ve always been a hardware guy. As a kid, I was always building things with my uncle, who’s an auto electrician, on his five-acre farm west of Sydney. I’d spend weeks at a time making go-karts and fixing engines and mucking around with the computer. I also loved maths and science in school.
At the University of New South Wales, I found a degree called mechatronics engineering. It was supposed to be a mix of computer, electrical, and mechanical engineering, but I found it was heavy on the mechanical side. So I took a year off after my second year and worked at a bar on a racecourse.
After that—plus a stint in Europe—I returned to university. A few mates and I started a club called Create. It was a maker society, where we bought engineering parts in bulk from China and resold them to the students on campus.
In the first six months, we made $50,000; had a thousand members; and won Club of the Year from the university. We also had a spin-off club called Create UAV, where we taught people how to build and fly drones, which was my hobby project.
We ended up teaching tons of nonengineering students to use these little robot parts to make things like clap-on light switches. Those weekly courses got to be pretty popular. The university eventually started paying us to teach to high school students.
Where did you grow up?
Dulwich Hill, which is a suburb of Sydney.
How did Propeller get started?
While Create was happening and I was at university, I was also working at a startup called Taggle as a lowly intern and learning so much. One day, I saw another company in the same building making a drone. They were starting a drone-delivery company called Flirtey. I asked them if they needed a drone person, and they said yes. Within 48 hours, I was a “co-founder,” along with Francis and a few others. Flirtey then got into an accelerator called Startmate to learn about business and all the startup stuff.
After that, Francis and I decided to start our own company that would make drones a thing, but not for delivery. We talked to some construction companies who’d been using drones to do photogrammetric surveying and learned how hard it was to make maps of worksites. We wanted Propeller to be the way to make better maps.
Before working at Propeller, what’s the strangest or most interesting job you’ve held?
In the first year Propeller started, I was also working a full-time bar job. I had to do 38 hours a week, but I’d do it between Friday at 5pm and Sunday at midnight, so I could spend all week on Propeller.
What’s your favorite Propeller memory?
When the company was about six months old, I remember driving to a quarry in Sydney in my bright blue 1993 Ford Festiva—definitely not mine spec.
We demo’d our software for the site. They liked it and said they’d buy; they wanted monthly surveys. That was great—we had another customer. But what surprised me was a few of the guys asked if they could invest in the company! We clearly impressed them, even if everyone laughed at my car.
What are you most proud of the company doing today?
While they were one of our first big successes, I’m still so proud of us for building the AeroPoints. Making these smart ground control points for drone surveying hadn’t been done before, but the concept—putting the GPS in the target—was brilliantly simple. And that’s what I think we’ve brought into all our work since: looking at a long-entrenched problem and finding the simple, intuitive way to fix it and then making that solution easy to use.
It also goes without saying that the people here are epic. I’m really proud of the team we’ve built.
Any talents, secret superpowers, or fun facts about yourself to share?
I’m quite good at squash. Francis and I play every week.
I’ve also spent way more time than people would expect doing engineering stuff: writing a bit of code, soldering things. My workday today is very different from five years ago.
What do you like most about your job?
There are two things that stick out. First, when our customers are happy and tell me why. Second, when our team excels. Seeing people grow here at Propeller is the best thing—the absolute best thing.
If you could be any piece of technology, what would you be and why?
I’d be the internet because you can learn all the things. You’ve got information, and you can do anything from that. It’s surely the greatest invention of all time. What else has had such a huge impact? I’m very proud of humanity for making all this information shareable.
Do you have an office nickname? If so, what is it and how did you get it?
Some people call me Roz. Adding “oz” to the first initial of someone’s name is a common Australian nickname.
If you could, would you choose to go forward or backward in time? Why?
I’d go forward in time, not back. Two hundred years ahead. Then, there’d still be a couple of fragments of today’s experience existing; some things that would be recognizable, I suspect.
What always surprises me is that, while it seems like the world slows down and inventions become more and more unnecessary, the pace of development is speeding up. That’s impossible to really comprehend. It’s hard to reconcile that we’re living in the fastest-moving period ever. If you take the approach of what our parents saw and what we see today, and stretch it to 20 years, 50 years, 100 years—it’s going to keep speeding up. That’s mental.
What are you most excited about for the company’s upcoming year?
I’m excited to see how we create thoughtful structure and expand foundations for the company as we grow to the next phase. Typically, I’d be excited to get out there, drum up some business, hit the gas to make Propeller better. But now I’m actually excited for this next phase of slowing down, pausing to get things right, regrouping, and then going turbo. And we’re going to need it with the new stuff we’ve got coming this year.