One company’s successful product development process
When he started building drones, Johan Lassalle was confronted by a challenge many companies face in the product development phase: the temptation to say yes to every custom order.
Lassalle is President of DroneXperts, a company that designs, builds and operates drones to collect specialized data for companies and governments. The firm also retails drones to the public in Quebec City and Montreal.
"Especially at the beginning, you don't want to miss any opportunity," says Lassalle, who started building drones in his garage in Sainte-Marie de Beauce, just south of Quebec City. "In my head, everything was possible, so I always said yes to every customer request."
Resists urge to customize
However, like many entrepreneurs in product development, he was inundated with requests for features. He found responding to each of these wasn’t sustainable if he wanted to build a growing business with wide appeal.
Doing so would have been too costly and time‑consuming and led to what’s known as feature creep—adding more and more features that create undue complexity in a product.
"Each client has his or her needs, and it's easy to spread yourself too thin," Lassalle, 28, says. "We learned to say no."
The origins of DroneXperts date back to 2011 when Lassalle worked on developing an innovative system to stabilize cameras in flight. At the time commercial drone use was still in its infancy and paying attention to individual client needs helped Lassalle get his company off the ground.
"We built a reputation and made a place for ourselves in the market, but each project cost us a lot of time and money."
The company now uses drones to collect images and specialized data for surveying, agriculture, civil engineering, municipal projects and video productions. DroneXperts' partners include Rio Tinto Alcan, Hydro‑Québec and the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS), a Quebec research institute.
"Large companies don't want any fluff," Lassalle says. "When the project manager in charge of drones at Hydro‑Québec's research institute asked me if we could inspect pylons and power lines with a drone, I told him: 'Tell us exactly what you need and we will show you what we can do.'"
Lassalle's passion for aeronautics, robotics and modelling started in French Guiana when he was a young boy.
"My dad worked for the Guiana Space Centre, so I grew up surrounded by engineers."
Trained as a pilot
Having arrived in Quebec at the age of 20, he trained as a professional pilot then as a flight instructor before laying the groundwork for DroneXperts.
Jonathan Dupont Champagne, 26, joined forces with him as an investor, and DroneXperts obtained flight operations certificates for Transport Canada for its first projects in 2013.
To the technology developed by Lassalle to fly drones equipped with professional camera equipment, Champagne added his administrative management skills. Their first clients were local video production companies.
"It took months of research and development. Every time we solved a problem, a new one came up," Lassalle says. "Unfortunately, our clients at the time had very limited resources. We were losing money."
Building a solid financial structure
It was the arrival of a third investor, 29‑year‑old Marc‑Olivier Bleau, that put DroneXperts on a smoother growth path.
The company got another big boost at the end of 2014, when a Quebec‑based surveying company saw DroneXperts’ potential and put together a group of investors. "That was a turning point. They brought us to a higher level."
DroneXperts, a BDC client, has also opened a store in Quebec City and a location in Montreal offering both drone sales and repair services.
Prices for drones sold at the store range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The customized drones that DroneXperts makes for its clients cost between $20,000 and $150,000.
Plans to add staff
The company currently has seven employees and expects to hire between eight and ten more by the summer of 2015. "We have work coming in. We have to plan ahead so that we have enough time to train our employees."
"We have a solid structure and we are ready to move on to the next level of growth," Lassalle says. "We have what it takes to succeed."
1. Know when to say no
Determine the strength of your business and focus on it. "Don't spread yourself too thin," advises DroneXperts President Johan Lassalle. "You might not get anything done."
2. Surround yourself with the right people and delegate
Most entrepreneurs want to manage everything. "Performance and the quality of your work will suffer. Trust your collaborators and delegate."
3. Don't rush into things
You need a solid foundation before going out and looking for work. Lassalle recommends taking the time to ask the right questions and getting help from specialists, either in finance, marketing or human resources.