20VC What Is The Right Drone Investing Strategy, The Catalyst That Will Take Drones to 100s of Millions & Will Amazon and Google Win The War of The Airspace with Ben Marcus, Founder & CEO @ Airmap

Summary Notes


In this episode of "Founders Friday," host Harry Stebbings interviews Ben Marcus, the accomplished founder and CEO of AirMap, a company revolutionizing drone airspace management with over $40 million in funding from major investors. With a background that includes co-founding JetAviva and experience as a flight test engineer and FAA-certified airline transport pilot, Marcus shares his lifelong passion for aviation and how it led to the creation of AirMap. He delves into the future of drone technology, emphasizing the need for automation and safety to extend the benefits of flight to more people. Marcus also discusses the investment landscape in the drone space, highlighting the importance of backing versatile, multidisciplinary teams capable of navigating the industry's complexities and regulatory environment. The conversation touches on the implications of drone hardware commoditization, enterprise solutions, and the potential for drones to significantly impact consumer and commercial markets.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Founders Friday and Airmap

  • Harry Stebbings introduces the first Founders Friday of 2018 and invites listeners to follow behind-the-scenes content on Snapchat.
  • Ben Marcus is introduced as the founder and CEO of Airmap, a company providing solutions for drone operations in airspace.
  • Airmap has raised over $40 million from various investors, including industry heavyweights and friends of the show.
  • Ben's background includes co-founding Jetta Viva and working as a flight instructor and flight test engineer.
  • Ben is an FAA-certified airline transport pilot and flight instructor with extensive flight experience.

"Now, Ben is the founder and CEO at Airmap, the startup that provides everything one needs to unlock, lock and scale drone operations in the ever changing world of airspace."

This quote introduces Ben Marcus and his company, Airmap, highlighting its role in the drone industry and its significant funding achievements.

"Ben is also an FAA certified airline transport pilot and flight instructor with over 4500 hours of flight experience."

This quote emphasizes Ben's qualifications and extensive experience in the aviation field, positioning him as an expert in the industry.

Naturebox and Lisa Partnerships

  • Naturebox offers an unlimited snacking program for offices, which is a highly requested perk among employees.
  • The service includes simple ingredients without artificial colors or sweeteners, and it provides a dedicated account manager.
  • Lisa is a company that has revolutionized the mattress buying experience with a luxury foam mattress that can be ordered online.
  • Lisa donates one mattress to a shelter for every ten sold, and all mattresses are made in the US or UK.

"Naturebox is the first ever unlimited snacking program for offices of all sizes, starting with just $12 per month per employee."

This quote describes Naturebox's service offering, emphasizing its affordability and the value it provides to office environments.

"All Lisa mattresses are 100% US or UK made. And for every ten mattresses they sell, they donate one to a shelter."

This quote highlights Lisa's commitment to local manufacturing and social responsibility through its donation program.

Ben Marcus's Background and Passion for Aviation

  • Ben grew up near Santa Monica airport, developing an early fascination with airplanes.
  • He took his first flying lesson at the age of ten and worked at the airport to fund his flying lessons.
  • Volunteering for Angel Flight West, Ben found a passion for extending the benefits of flight to those in need of medical treatment.
  • Ben's core mission has always been to make flight more accessible to a larger number of people.
  • After becoming a flight instructor at 18, he joined Eclipse Aviation and later started Jetta Viva, expanding the market for private jet travel.
  • Despite the success of Jetta Viva, Ben desired to return to his core mission, leading him to the drone industry in 2014.

"I really fell in love with [flight]. So, you know, when I was four or five years old, I used to read as many books as I could get my hands on about flight."

Ben's early love for aviation is evident from his childhood, showing a lifelong passion for the field.

"Throughout my life, I've really always come back to this primary concept for me, which is how do we extend the benefits of flight to more and more people."

This quote encapsulates Ben's primary mission to make aviation benefits more widely accessible, which has driven his career choices and entrepreneurial ventures.

The Genesis of Airmap

  • Ben's interest in drones began in 2014 when he recognized them as the next frontier for expanding the benefits of flight.
  • He saw the potential for drones to impact the lives of millions or even billions of people.
  • Researching the drone space, Ben explored various types of companies before deciding to start Airmap.

"I started getting really excited about drones, started researching the whole drone space. There are all kinds of amazing things happening, and really came to appreciate that drones were the next frontier for flight."

This quote reveals the moment Ben realized the potential of drones and decided to pivot his career towards the burgeoning drone industry.## Inspiration for Starting Airmap

  • Ben Marcus was inspired to start Airmap due to the lack of an orchestration layer for airspace management.
  • He recognized the need for a system that could manage millions of drones flying highly automated flights.
  • This system would be essential for integrating drones into daily life and delivering capabilities to people.

"What is the airspace management layer that's going to allow for millions or billions of drones to fly highly automated flights and really deliver capabilities to people in their daily lives. And that was really the inspiration to start airmap."

The quote highlights the gap in drone infrastructure that Airmap aims to fill, focusing on the management of airspace for automated drone flights, which is crucial for the practical integration of drone technology into everyday activities.

Investment Strategy in Drones

  • Ben Marcus made personal investments in drone companies like Skydio.
  • He believes the drone industry is still in its early stages with limited revenue generation outside of the military market.
  • Key enablers for industry growth include increased automation and public safety assurance.
  • Ben sees potential in investments related to navigation, sensors, connectivity, and real estate for drones.

"I like to think about what are the key enablers that will take drones from being sort of a cool thing relatively few people are playing with or experimenting with, to really drones benefiting hundreds of millions or billions of people."

This quote summarizes Ben's investment philosophy, which focuses on identifying and investing in technologies that will enable drones to transition from niche applications to widespread use.

Market Consolidation

  • Ben Marcus anticipates significant consolidation in the drone industry.
  • Early investments have targeted specific verticals and enterprise sales, but larger businesses are expected to emerge from consolidation.
  • Areas like analysis tools, photogrammetry, pipelines, and drone hardware may see consolidation.

"I think there's going to be some significant consolidation."

The quote predicts a trend towards fewer, larger entities in the drone industry as a result of mergers and acquisitions, particularly in specialized areas of the market.

Amazon and Google's Airspace Ambitions

  • Google and Amazon are primarily focused on drone delivery.
  • They recognize the importance of airspace orchestration for their operations.
  • It's uncertain whether they will offer these orchestration services to third parties.

"Having an airspace orchestration element is a critical enabler for their businesses."

This quote reflects the strategic importance of airspace management to the business models of large companies like Amazon and Google, particularly regarding their drone delivery services.

Common Investment Errors

  • Investors have heavily funded drone hardware companies, but building a successful drone is challenging.
  • The assumption that drones would become a commodity has not materialized, with DJI maintaining a strong market position.
  • Investments in hardware may not pay off as the industry evolves towards open source flight control stacks and chipset manufacturers facilitating new market entrants.
  • Companies like 3D Robotics have shifted from hardware to service-centric models.

"The biggest companies that have been funded to date have been DJI 3d robotics. They've really taken the majority of the investment, and thus far, it's been really hard to build a great drone."

This quote explains the difficulty in creating successful drone hardware and the investment trend that has favored large companies like DJI, which have dominated the market despite expectations of commoditization.

Hardware vs. Software in Drones

  • In the early stages of the drone industry, companies tend to offer complete solutions to control the user experience.
  • The distinction between drone hardware and software is important for understanding the market.

"It's easiest for folks to really deliver a complete solution to an end user in order to learn exactly what that end user customer wants and to be able to control the entire experience."

The quote emphasizes the initial strategy for drone companies to provide all-in-one solutions, which allows them to fully understand customer needs and manage the quality of the product or service.## Vertical Focus in Drone Industry

  • Kespry's focus on a specific vertical with a complete hardware and software solution is a current trend.
  • Scaling the drone business will require a shift towards specialization in components.
  • The industry is expected to transition to a model where organizations excel in specific aspects of drone technology.

"So it makes sense that folks like Kespry are really focused on a specific vertical and delivering a complete solution, both hardware and software."

This quote explains that companies like Kespry are currently targeting niche markets with comprehensive solutions but suggests that for growth, a change towards specialization is necessary.

Commercial vs. Consumer Drone Opportunities

  • There is significant opportunity in both commercial and consumer drone segments.
  • Consumer drones are becoming more automated and user-friendly.
  • Commercial drones are seen as adding value to society when their benefits are accessible without direct interaction.
  • The future of drones includes package delivery and personal flying vehicles.
  • The DIY community is important for innovation that benefits commercial and enterprise applications.

"But I think on the commercial side, drones become really interesting as a value add to society is when people can benefit from these things without having to even care about the drone."

Ben Marcus highlights the transformative potential of commercial drones when they seamlessly integrate into society, providing services without the need for user engagement with the technology itself.

Enterprise Offerings and Market Presentation

  • Airmap has not focused on direct-to-enterprise selling, but engages with enterprises for product feedback.
  • Enterprises seek simplicity and answers, not complexity, in drone applications.
  • Liability and compliance are major concerns for enterprises using drones.
  • The drone industry must address these concerns to gain traction in the enterprise market.

"Enterprises want answers, right? They don't want complexity. They want to be able to know exactly how much rock is in this pile of rock, or where is vegetation encroaching on my power lines."

Ben Marcus emphasizes that enterprises require straightforward solutions from drone technology, focusing on end results rather than the intricacies of data collection.

Drone Regulations and Market Impact

  • Regulations are essential for scaled logistics and transportation platforms.
  • New regulations like part 107 in the U.S. are enabling commercial drone operations.
  • Regulatory development is ongoing, with advancements expected in flights over people and beyond visual line of sight.
  • Some countries are more progressive with drone regulations, leading to innovative use cases.
  • The U.S. is exploring ways to liberalize drone rules to balance economic benefits with safety concerns.

"So you need to have some regulation in order for you to have any scaled logistics transportation platform at all."

Ben Marcus argues that regulations are crucial for the orderly and efficient operation of drones in commercial spaces, much like traffic laws are necessary for road transportation.

FAA's Perspective on Chinese Drone Manufacturers

  • The FAA's stance on the largest drone maker being Chinese is not explicitly stated.
  • The quote is incomplete, leaving the FAA's perspective on foreign drone manufacturers open to interpretation.

"Well, I think that the FAA itself probably doesn't care that the largest drone manufacturer is a chinese compa"

The quote cuts off, but it suggests that the FAA's main concern might not be the nationality of the drone manufacturer but rather the safety and regulation of the drones themselves.## Civil Aviation Safety Concerns

  • Civil aviation regulators prioritize safety over the manufacturing origin of aircraft.
  • The FAA and other global regulators ensure both the aircraft and operations are safe.
  • U.S. government agencies have cybersecurity concerns with some manufacturers, such as DJI.
  • The concerns from U.S. government agencies are separate from the regulators' safety concerns.

"I think that the FAA and other civil aviation regulators like them around the world are purely interested in safety. So the aircraft itself is safe. If the operations are safe, it doesn't really matter where it's manufactured."

This quote emphasizes the primary focus of civil aviation regulators on safety, regardless of the aircraft's manufacturing location.

Potential Weaponization of Drones

  • The weaponization of drones is a legitimate concern with instances of their use in warfare.
  • Technologies are being developed to detect and mitigate drone attacks.
  • Non-technological solutions, like trained eagles by Dutch police, have been effective against unwanted drones.

"Drones have already been used as weapons in the battlefield. So there have been reports of ISIS using drones, for example, carrying grenades and things like that."

The quote highlights the real-world application of drones as weapons in conflict zones, which raises concerns about their potential misuse.

Personal Preferences and Perspectives

Favorite Book

  • Ben Marcus recommends "The Wealth of Nations" by Adam Smith for its timeless economic principles.

"I'd have to say the wealth of nations by Adam Smith. I think it's a timeless regulation of the laws, of the economics that will last forever."

The quote reflects Ben's admiration for Adam Smith's work and its enduring relevance in economics.


  • Ben associates success with Newton for his foundational contributions to our understanding of motion in the universe.

"Newton? Because we can thank him for practically everything we know about motion in the universe."

This quote showcases Ben's respect for Newton's scientific achievements and their impact on modern science.

Common Advice Disagreement

  • Ben disagrees with the conventional advice to get good grades, citing successful individuals who didn't graduate from college.

"The most incredible inventions were developed by people who never graduated from college."

Ben challenges the conventional wisdom that academic success is a prerequisite for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Favorite Blog or Newsletter

  • Ben enjoys the Social Capital's weekly snippets email for insightful content.

"I really like social capital's weekly snippets email. I think it's pretty good."

The quote indicates Ben's preference for the type of content provided by Social Capital's weekly email.

Drone Investing Advice

  • Investors should look for curious, multidisciplinary teams in the drone industry due to regulatory uncertainties and the inevitability of success.

"I think it's important that you invest in curious, multidisciplinary teams that can navigate a windy path."

The advice suggests that adaptability and diverse expertise are critical factors for success in the drone investment space.

Future of AirMap

  • In five years, AirMap aims to support millions of daily drone flights, focusing on autonomy and innovative use cases.
  • Collaboration with regulators and airspace managers is key to scaling operations.

"Well, I think five years from now we're going to be helping millions of drones flying every single day, flying autonomous routes, bringing value to people in their daily lives."

Ben envisions a future where AirMap plays a pivotal role in enabling widespread and beneficial drone use.

NatureBox and Lisa Partnerships

  • NatureBox offers an unlimited snacking program for offices, emphasizing health with no artificial ingredients.
  • Lisa provides a luxury mattress ordered online, with a philanthropic model of donating to shelters.

"Naturebox is the first ever unlimited snacking program for offices of all sizes, starting with just $12 per month per employee."

The quote describes NatureBox's service, highlighting its affordability and appeal as an office perk.

"And all Lisa mattresses are 100% US or UK made, and for every ten mattresses they sell, they donate one to a shelter."

This quote outlines Lisa's commitment to local production and social responsibility through their donation program.

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