Founder’s Story: Jin Xi, Founder of Poladrone

Jin Xi (JX) Cheong is currently the CEO of Poladrone, a leading UAS (drones) solutions company. He was awarded as a Forbes Asia 30 under 30 recipient in 2019 for Poladrone’s work in the agriculture sector.

To date, Poladrone has analysed over 300,000 hectares of land within ASEAN with deep understanding on how drones can increase productivity. He is a certified remote pilot and holds an Aerospace Engineering degree from Monash University. He believes that analytics and automation is key to achieving sustainability across all industries.

Here is the Founder’s Stories Night session with JX. Enjoy!


Q&A
 
Tell us a little bit about your background.

I think the first thing that I want to clear up is that everyone calls me Jack but my name is actually Jin Xi and the initials are JX. So a lot of people get it confused between JX and Jack and then now I just go by Jack.

Anyway like I mentioned, right now I’m 26, just started a business not long ago. Before that I grew up in Malaysia, studied here until Form 2 and then I went over to Australia, completed my high schools over there and I did a degree in Aerospace Engineering at Monash. Once I finish my studies over there, I came back to Malaysia and worked in Penang for a year in Intel.

When I was in Intel, I did something completely non-engineering related — I was working as a finance analyst. So from Aerospace engineering to finance. Within about 3 months, I sort of knew that I wanted to quit already but I lasted for one year.

So actually on my first day in my job, I told my manager that the only reason I came back from Australia to Malaysia was that it was a lot easier to start a business in Malaysia. I will do my best at the job but I will be finding out how do I start my own business and I will leave the company when the time is right. So that time came one year later.

During my time in Intel, around 6 months in I was already starting to work on the company itself, kind of figuring out what to do. One year later, we were generating some leads and business and felt that was the right time to leave. So that was around late 2016 / early 2017 back then and now it has been 3 years already.

So we’ve been doing a lot of different jobs in agriculture for drones and apart from agriculture, also in a lot of other industries.


Why have you gone into Intel which was so different from your background?
 

So one of the main reasons why I decided to take up the role (and I don’t know why they accepted me but they did ) is that coming from an engineering background, we don’t really understand how businesses work and how do we get money and calculate if a company is doing well or not. Typically, from an engineer’s perspective, we just want to make everything work and we want to make everything perfect.

What ends up happening is that a lot of engineering founders that I see fall into this trap of trying to get the perfect product out to the market and then the product never actually meets the market. This is because you spend so much time prototyping, going through rounds of iterations and so on that, you don’t really focus on the things that you’re supposed to focus if you are trying to run a business.

So that’s the main reason why I really took up the role in finance. To understand how the numbers work, how do you actually run a company, just to get a more complete picture.


You did mention that you were “moonlighting” your business while you were working with Intel, so how did it start? How was the process like?
 

I think there wasn’t really an “aha” moment, it took many many months of just trying to think of what to do. I was quite lucky in my role at Intel that it was very flexible. It means I could go in and leave at any time I want. So the work was very flexible that it allowed me to go out and explore other things.

There wasn’t really any idea but I knew I wanted to do something with drones because that’s sort of what I liked to do. When I moved to Penang, I was alone so I just went around taking photos and videos with my drone. From there, the idea went from an idea of just doing freelance jobs to another idea and to what it is today.

So from what I thought I would be doing compared to now, it’s completely different so it’s just a lot of rounds of iterations. That’s all.

Did you have a partner when you first started?
 

So I was alone when I started the business but very early on I had a partner that joined on board and he is our Chief Technical Officer right now. He joined us in early-mid 2017 which was already 6–9 months that I was thinking about the idea. Of course with all ideas and all businesses, the first year we are just trying to figure out what to do and that was what we were doing as well.


What was the moment that you feel that this idea can actually work?
 

I mean, when someone actually pays you for it. That’s it. For me, the first customer and also the easiest job to get was freelance, photography, videography jobs. They are everywhere and are very easy to get but you quickly realize that you could make much more money working in a corporate job instead because photography and videography is not really a specialized skill at this age of time. Everyone has access to the equipment and it’s quite easy to fly drones and so there is no premium there.

What we found out after that was when we started doing jobs that we got contact from the agriculture oil palm estate. What they asked us to do was to go out to their estate and to fly for them. We thought it was just a normal promo photography job but what they asked us to do after we completed the job quite surprised us.

They asked us to count how many palm trees they have from the photos that we took for them and then after that start to draw the roads and infrastructure where they have water ponding, flooding issues in plantations. That’s where the idea started to hit us that this can be a lot more than just photography and videography.

So the first job was quite small for the first client and then it just got bigger and bigger until a point where we had about 15 to 20 students sitting in a room counting trees manually.

 

Prior to running Poladrone, did you have any other experience with businesses?

I wouldn’t say that I had any experience in running a business but I was running a lot of projects, side hustles back in my university times. We actually started one of the largest online e-sports platforms because I was quite a big fan of online gaming so we started a very big community in Australia. That platform was actually acquired by Gosu Gamers so we made a little bit of money from that but it’s not a lot. The experience was very invaluable I would say. Basically just a lot of projects more for fun, nothing like a proper business.


How did you sustain financially in your first year of business?

I was still working in Intel in the first year of business and of course, we had a lot of support from family and friends. At the same time, the business also started bringing in revenue itself for us. When we started, there weren’t many expenses because it was just me and my partner.

We had some savings set up already and we weren’t spending. Our office was free and our equipment was our own, we just didn’t spend a lot of money. That allowed us to drag out our burn rate. At the start, we were selling talent, we were doing workshops, we were doing freelance jobs and etc.

To put it into perspective, in 2016 there were only two of us. The year after we had four, last year we had 10 and this year we have 30 team members. So we really grew organically from there, we didn’t hire 20 people straight from the start because we didn’t have money for that.


What is your take on hiring people for a drone company?

So most of our team members are from the engineering background and technical background. Part of the reason is that we need technical people to write software and algorithms to automate data crunching. Drones capture a lot of data and we need someone to sort through that kind of information automatically.

Even most of our sales and marketing team have engineering background whereby they are people that have a bit more inclination towards marketing and sales. We wanted to make sure that we hire people who really like our technology and typically these people are from the technical background that appreciates what we are doing.

 
When you first started out, what was your biggest challenge?

When we first started out, there were way too many challenges that I can’t even name them but if I were to pick one would be that money solves everything. So when you have customers, that would solve everything. When I mention that, I meant market awareness and the adoption of technology.

Drones have been around in the industry for quite a long time (probably 10–20 years) but it’s only in the recent 5–6 years that the technology has become accessible to the public. So because it’s quite a recent thing, in the US and western countries, they move slightly ahead of us but in SouthEast Asia, the industry didn’t really take off until 3–4 years ago.

We spent a lot of time initially just going to customers, door-knocking and explaining what exactly do we do because most of the time it’s just doing a lot of showcases, a lot of demonstrations which cost time and money. So that was quite a hard period.

To put in an example, we actually spoke to Sime Darby’s CEO, his first question to us was: “Can your drone actually fly?” So that was the kind of question we get all the time. We had to go through that process of education and awareness.

 
How did you balance between your business and your full-time job when you first started?
 

As a finance analyst that has an engineering background, we had to generate a lot of reports, analytics, workflow in terms of how the business is trending and so on. With a bit of engineering and programming background, we quickly realized that we could automate the generation of those reports so that’s what we did (me and my colleague).

We wrote all the scripts to generate reports automatically and that gave us a lot of time to focus on the business itself. We basically coded our job and as I mentioned the job in Intel was extremely flexible.

My company knew about what I was doing but it doesn’t matter because I was still delivering what needed to be done.


You were awarded as one of the recipients of the Forbes 30 under 30 recently, how do you feel about that?
 

Actually it really didn’t feel much. I woke up at 7 o’clock and then I got the email and that’s about it. It’s something very good for marketing and we do see it as a very good marketing gimmick. It’s another thing that we can leverage for our business because as a small business, it’s already hard enough to get customers so anything that allows us to gain credibility for marketing helps.


What would be one of your most satisfying moments in your 3 years of business?
 

At the end of the day, it comes back to the team itself where we see people really growing and developing themselves in a team. So we have a lot of people that started as a fresh grad in our team straight out of university, they were given big projects and the projects got bigger and bigger.

Right now, we see a lot of members in our team that after graduating from university, they are working with top engineers in respective fields and in the computer science divisions and so on. That kind of empowerment is one of the most satisfying things, its still the people that matter.


Being productive with time is very important, especially being entrepreneurs. How do you actually plan your time for a typical day?
 

I may have a schedule and calendar but it’s still very hard to plan my time. Typically I would only be able to finalize what I will be doing the next day the night before because meetings do come in and out.

It’s really more of prioritization and especially delegating the work to people whereby anything that I feel that has to be done more than 2 or 3 times should be delegated to someone else to do.

If you would ask me, the most important person in our team right now is our admin because she does all the things that I don’t want to do. Without the admin, I think I would be very very busy so that’s the most important person.


What would your plans for Poladrone in 2 years?
 

For us, we really want to push out the technology throughout the regional market. Right now, we are established in Malaysia, we have quite a few customers here but we also have infrequent customers from Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and so on.

That would be the plan for the next 2 years, really pushing our solutions and footprint out to those markets, basically South East Asia for now. This is because what we are focusing on now is still heavily on agriculture and there is a very big market for agriculture in South East Asia.


If there is someone who might be interested in starting a drone business, what would your advice be?

I think right now is a very good time to start if you ask me. There are a lot of new companies coming up, some are our competitors, some are not but at this stage of time, everyone in the drone industry in Malaysia is still very friendly. Even though we are competitors but we will still help each other because the industry is small.

There are around 20–30 drone companies right now but when it gets to a number like 50, I think it will get a lot more cutthroat.


What do you do in your free time?

I mean… there’s not much free time. I think free time is just for catching up on sleep, that’s it. To be frank, I haven’t taken a holiday in quite a while so it’s been work and work and work but the thing is because I really like what we are doing, the technology itself.

Since right now I’m managing the company so there are a lot of meetings about numbers and sales. So during my free time, what I actually enjoy doing is to deep dive into the programming of the drones itself and the algorithms.


How important it is to have a business partner and how do you choose them?

I think it’s very important because there is someone to look after your back. There is someone there to keep you in check if you’re doing something too quickly or you’re making decisions rashly. That kind of counter check is one of the most important things I would say.

I mean if my partner is like me, it is easier to work with on a day-to-day basis because the personality gels with another person but at the same time, you would have to ask does it really helps the business or not.

Like me and my co-founder, our personalities are quite similar in that our background is the same (aerospace engineering), our technical skill sets are quite similar but at the same time, there is a different aspect to us. I like to talk more whereby he doesn’t like to talk that much. So that’s why we got into the role of CEO and CTO.

What I’m trying to say is that there is no right or wrong here, it’s just that there are certain areas that you need to be similar in but certain areas that differ.

What do you think would be the 3 resources?
 

I would say it’s more on the network itself. The drone industry right now is relatively small so everyone knows each other and your network and reputation are extremely important. Among competitors, we fight for the same job but at the same time, we share the same job as well because a lot of the jobs on the market are too big for a single company to handle so we would sub-divide among ourselves.

When you have a good relationship with another competitor/”friendemy”, they will share the pie with you. So that’s the thing that we feel that’s very important right now.

And of course, the third resource would be the talent itself where your business would always be a one-person-business unless you have a team that can support what you are doing and as the business scales. As the projects get bigger and more complicated, everyone in the team needs to be able to learn and adapt to it as well.


If you have just one piece of advice to someone who just started a business, what would that be?

I think that one piece of advice would be to just go and try it out. There is no point in thinking too much about it. Just make sure that if it fails, you can afford it, that’s all. Don’t go all in and end up with a huge pile of debt but if you can afford it, there’s no harm trying. It’s not even wasting time because you will be learning something out of it. I see a lot of people talk about ideas for too long and then years later it’s still the same thing.

To learn more about Poladrone, visit their website.  

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