Derek Waleko is the co-founder and CEO of Up Sonder — the number one drone rental platform to provide, hire, and rent drones and related services online — along with his partners Isaac Nabors (COO) and Keith Smith (CTO). The platform has launched in San Francisco, Chicago and New York and is aimed at being the ultimate destination for anyone needing a drone, as well as a handy way for drone owners to make some extra cash. For more on that, check out this Drone360 piece.
We recently had the pleasure to sit down with Derek to discuss how Up Sonder was founded, what attracted him to the drone space, the challenges of being an entrepreneur and what the future holds.
1. What were you doing before Up Sonder? What led you to start your own company?
I helped Korean companies expand in the U.S. through mergers and acquisitions (M&A). I would evaluate U.S. businesses and determine if they were suitable for my clients. One day in the office, one of my colleagues in the marketing department was chatting with me and mentioned that he needed to rent a drone for one of our client’s commercial shoots. I asked a simple question and got a shocking answer. I asked, “Where does one rent a drone?” and his reply was, “Craigslist.” I incorporated Up Sonder that same day. For an industry as dynamic as the drone industry, I couldn’t believe people were renting drones in every major city in America on Craigslist without safety features like verifications or insurance policies in place. A lightbulb went off and I knew a better way had to be developed. So I got on the phone with my now-business partners, Isaac Nabors (COO) and Keith Smith (CTO), and after one phone call, and less than a year later, Up Sonder is a living, breathing business with all the safety features and added conveniences the drone industry needs.
First in the industry.
2. What is unique about your business?
Up Sonder is the first and only on-demand, peer-to-peer drone and service rental company with a $1 million insurance policy that protects our Providers. No one else in the industry can offer this level of protection with zero cost to its members. We know because it’s the first of its kind. Also, Up Sonder uses UberRUSH technology to power our on-demand drone deliveries. Another industry first. This now means business and the general public can have access to a high quality drone in as little as 30 minutes. Up Sonder offers something for everyone. Our Providers own their own drones and earn money by renting them out to others and can earn even more money if they are certified drone pilots by also listing their services. Renters have it good too as they have access to high quality drones and drone pilots where and when they want it. Businesses and the general public alike have legitimate needs for a drone from time to time, but buying a drone for one-time use doesn’t always make sense, but now with Up Sonder everyone can get Up and save big.
Don’t let the hurdles get in the way.
3. What’s the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurs face a lot of hurdles and Up Sonder was no exception. It’s even harder when you’re first in an industry and there aren’t road maps to follow. I think most entrepreneurs face difficulties with money, but for Up Sonder it wasn’t the money hurdle, because we were fortunate from the start to raise a $250,000 seed round. The insurance was another matter. We knew we wanted to solve the liability issue because accidents do happen and we wanted to make sure we are there for our members. The insurance market had never seen a business model like ours; it truly was a first for the industry and took close to half a year of conversations with multiple underwriters to develop a special first-of-its-kind insurance policy just for Up Sonder. Today, our members who provide their drone or service on Up Sonder are protected by a $1 million policy and the best part is they pay nothing for it. Just one of the many perks Up Sonder offers. We are big on helping others and if we can be that road map for entrepreneurs, then we’re happy to be the leaders in on-demand, peer-to-peer drone and service rentals. And to our future competitors who will now find it easier to secure a complex drone insurance policy; you’re welcome.
Don’t be afraid to fail.
4. What’s the biggest mistake entrepreneurs make when starting up?
Being scared to fail. There is so much valuable information in each failure that it’s sad to see startups play it safe spending too much time learning and not enough time doing. Take the Uber approach and push forward; you will learn in greater detail along the way. It really is the best of both worlds anyway, because you get to move your business forward while learning at an expedited rate. When you have to troubleshoot a real world problem that threatens to close your business, believe me, you figure it out, you never forget that life lesson, and in the end you’re stronger.
Don’t forget to have fun!
5. If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
Build a great team and make sure you’re having fun. I guess that’s two, but they go hand-in-hand. There are entrepreneurs out there who have the passion, but lack the business acumen and vice versa, and both end up failing. I’ve always had a fascination with the sky ever since I was a kid flying my Styrofoam glider and now I own a drone company. I love what I do. Starting a company from scratch has a lot of moving parts and most are mundane and tedious. If you’re not smart about what you’re doing and don’t love it, then those necessary, less than exciting tasks will suck your soul dry and it’s over before it even begins. The way you know you are on the right track is when your love for what you do overshadows your love for sleep.
Saving the world with Elon Musk.
6. Who has been your greatest inspiration and why?
Elon Musk. Building a business for the sole purpose of making money is one-dimensional and a shallow endeavor. There has to be meaning behind it and the greatest meaning I’ve always found in my life is helping others and Elon is doing just that, but on a grand scale. Elon is doing great and exciting things for the world – his literal goal is to save the human race. It sounds crazy and silly, until you realize our planet has an expiration date and he’s the only one with a solution. We should all do more and Up Sonder is doing just that. We’re not colonizing Mars, but we are helping the world have access to safe, clean drinking water. I’ve been to Africa and to Third World countries and have seen first-hand those without. Water is a finite resource and there are over a billion people in the world who don’t have it. Water should be a right and not a privilege and with the success of Up Sonder we are committed to doing more by donating a portion of our profits to our clean water initiative, Up Sonder Life. Seeing business leaders like Elon doing more than growing the bottom line gives me hope for the future.
Life on Mars?
7. Where do you see yourself and your business in 10 (or more) years?
Expanding Up Sonder on Mars with Elon Musk! Haha… (only half joking). In ten years, Up Sonder will be a household name and a global company helping the world fly drones for both practical and recreational purposes, and Up Sonder Life will have touched the lives of those billion people who need access to clean drinking water. We constantly have people contacting the company from other countries asking Up Sonder when we will be available in their area. We have aggressive expansion plans and will start our first move internationally as early as 2018. The reality is that Up Sonder will be a global company much sooner than 10 years and has grander plans for the 10-year mark that will shake up and lead the industry, but if you want that information, you’ll have to talk to our army of lawyers. The future is bright!
From senior advisor to the South Korean government to co-founder of the pioneering drone rental company, Up Sonder, Derek Waleko has a rich business history. As a senior government advisor in charge of mergers and acquisitions at South Korea’s KOTRA agency he worked with many high technology companies pushing the limits in the aerospace industry. Today he works to push those limits further with the sharing economy and his love for all things drones. Outside his international work he has also served as President of Los Angeles’s Van Nuys Neighborhood Council and sat on the board of the Mayor’s Budget Advocate Committee, drafting recommendations to advise the Los Angeles Mayor on reducing the city’s deficit and increasing revenue. Derek attended Texas Tech University earning his Bachelor’s of Science degree in Biology and Chemistry and studied film in New York at New York Film Academy.