3D Robotics

3D Robotics announces VC funding, expansion plans!

3689485855?profile=originalLast week you may have seen the news that I'm going to be leaving Wired to lead 3D Robotics full time as CEO. Now I'm delighted to announce our other exciting news: last week we closed a $5+ million funding round with two premier firms, which will allow us to accelerate the growth of 3DR and expand into new markets.


The round was led by Jon Callaghan at True Ventures and Bryce Roberts of O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures. Both of them will be joining the 3DR board.  These are two of the most far-seeing VCs in the Valley, and both are part of the "hardware is the new software" trend, including investments in Fitbit, Makerbot, Littlebits and Instructables. And they share our vision of the power of open source, the Maker movement and personal robotics. Chris Michel, an investor and long-time entrepreneur (and former Naval Flight Officer) will also be joining as an investor and board member.


I'll be opening an office in the SF Bay Area ("3DR North"), which will focus on sales/marketing and community development. Our San Diego headquarters will continue to be the R&D and engineering center, while our Tijuana manufacturing is expanding to handle more and more of our production. My co-founder, Jordi Munoz, will take over the role of President, overseeing operations.


With me joining as CEO and the funding round, we'll be growing the company quickly. We're now at 40 people, but will be hiring more hardware and software engineers in San Diego and sales, marketing and community management people in the Bay Area (probably in the Berkeley/Emeryville area).


The aim of this ramp-up is simple: more cool stuff and a great customer and community experience. As part of this, we'll be launching a new 3D Robotics site/store, new product sites, manuals and tech support communities and a expanded customer support team.  And of course a wave of exciting new products, focused on making drones and other aerial robotics technology easier, more powerful and cheaper than ever before.


This is going to be fun ;-)

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  • I think the problem is when words like "Open Source" and "Community" start being used, they have connotations that imply things that are not a true reflection of what is really happening.

    Open Source implies "Free" and "Not for Profit" through historical connotations.

    Forget Open Source for a minute and focus on the Business Model of 3DR. If you understand that and are comfortable with it, then there isn't a problem. The problem occurs when the words Open Source are applied to the business model, people start to get uncomfortable.

    Basically, here is the model....

    3DR is a company that wants to sell products and make money.
    As a startup, it didn't have a lot of cash.
    It saw a gap in the market in that existing Autopilots were too expensive and saw a way of reducing the cost and making it accessible.

    The vast majority of the cost of commercial autopilots is the R&D and ongoing support costs, not the manufacturing costs.
    "Geeky" people look at the product at the component level and think "I could build one cheaper than that", without adding up the cost of their time.

    Commercial Autopilot companies spend millions of dollars on R&D and Support, paying developers to design hardware and write code and then sending people to train and provide support on the ground.

    3DR has built a community of people through DIY Drones who are willing to do this work for free in return for getting lower cost hardware.
    3DR also engages in some R&D and support directly, but this represents a fraction of the work that a commercial company has to do.

    If 3DR had to pay each member of DIY Drones for each hour they spent writing code or providing support via the forums, then 3DR products would soon cost as much as any outher commercial autopilot manufacturer.

    There are two types of people on DIY Drones who are 3DR Customers.

    - Geeks with lots of time and not a lot of cash
    - Novices with cash

    In the beggining DIY Drones would have been all about attracting the Geeks, there were no manuals and little support and everyone was kind of on their own. Things were a bit buggy but people felt like they were contributing to something that was going to be great, they saw the potential.
    Geeks have loads of spare time and skills but no cash to splash on a commercial autopilot. Geeks are willing to donate their time to write code to improve the product in return for getting cheap hardware they can noodle with.

    As time has gone on, all the hard work of those Geeks has resulted in a better product and improved documentation which in turn attracts the novices. These people are not as technically astute as the Geeks but have cash to burn. They also need a lot more support than the Geeks in order to get up and running.

    3DR needs both groups of people to be happy in order to survive, it needs the Geeks to be happy to carry on writing code and providing support for free in return for cheap hardware and it needs the products to continue to improve to attract more and more novices.

    Understanding the model answers all your questions.
    3DR will never close source anything because that would annoy the Geeks who will simply move onto another project or take the Source Code and use someone elses hardware.
    Do that and suddenly their costs will go up as 3DR will have to hire more R&D people to do the work the Geeks were doing for free. This results in increased costs and less profit which VC's do not like.

    Now 3DR has to walk a very finely balanced line at this point and be extremely careful.
    If 3DR is seen to be exploiting the work of those Geeks and making obscene profits from all their work, then the Geeks will walk.
    3DR has to reward people for contributing through Qudos, prizes, competitions etc that encourage contribution. The Geek community behind DIY Drones is the key to 3DR's success and without it they are just another hardware manufacturer.

    To date 3DR has done a pretty good job of walking this fine line. However the risk is that by introducing VC, that line is crossed and people start walking. The typical VC response to this is to exploit the assets of the company has as quickly as possible and sell as many units as possible then shut it down. Lets hope that doesn't happen.

    The other risk is that the Geeks feel a bit hard done by and just develop code for themselves and don't release it back to the community because they feel that it is just being exploited by 3DR.

    So forget about Open Source for a minute and just ask yourself the question...
    Are you willing to contribute your time to a project in return for low cost hardware for your own use and if so, do you mind that other people will be making money off any work you contribute.?

    Thats the only question you need to ask yourself and answer.

    Keep in mind, that at say $100 an hour for a developers time, it doesn't take long for you to 'donate' far more value (in time) than what you would get back from simply going out and buying a commercial autopilot.

    In my opinion, Chris has a pretty good thing going and if he gets it right has an opportunity to make a big chunk of change while also contributing to the cause, but I don't envy the challenge he has ahead in keeping the core of this community happy which he will have to do in order to make that money, while also trying to line the pockets of the VC's.

  • 3D Robotics

    Brent: Fair points, and I think we all learned some lessons from the Makerbot transition. (Which I think was more poorly communicated than poorly conceived, BTW. Where they actually ended up seems pretty reasonable at this stage to me, as the owner of two Makerbots and a contributor from the very beginning. But I understand how others can disagree.)

    I just wanted to clarify one point: unlike DIYD, 3DR has always been structured as a for-profit company. (It's a C Corp, registered in Delaware),  As a matter of practice, for the past three years we have chosen to manage it with the intention of not actually generating a net profit by reinvesting as much of the proceeds as possible into R&D, but that was simply a strategic decision based on the company's stage of development. We still think it's the right strategy at our current stage of development (minimize net profit and reinvest as much as possible in R&D), but that's a matter of day-to-day financial management, not philosophy or legal commitment.  In short, we're a regular tech startup, managed pretty much like most other tech startups -- it's as simple as that. 

  • Hi Chris,

    I appreciate you addressing some of my concerns directly. Let me be absolutely crystal-clear: I am happy for you and the 3DR team, and I'm excited for this next step in your career. I wish you all the best.

    And, I really do hate to play the spoiler in a celebratory blog entry. But I wanted to give voice to those (99.9% of us) who are far more invested in the community than your company (notwithstanding the people asking you for employment opportunities :P). As for your/management's commitments to the open-source platform -- I have read your book, and in the past have unreservedly applauded the promotional work you've done for makers, and the broader work done here... up until very recently. IMHO, the last year has seen a subtle shift of DIYDrones.com in a direction less integrated with the larger open-source movement, and more integrated with supporting 3DR. The question is, where are we [the community] going now? It's in the context of this uncertainty that the two letters 'V' & 'C' make me uncomfortable.

    I realize, too, that a number of my specific questions were perhaps too specific. ;) But from your two recent comments, I infer two things:

    • 3DR is now clearly a commercial, for-profit entity, a la Wordpress or Makerbot; probably not managed "not-for-profit" as you have stated as recently as five months ago;
    • there's an acknowledgment that due to management's direction, DIY Drones has become inexplicitly defined

    My continued/future participation hinges on the latter point, as I'm sure does a number of others'. I'm glad you brought up Makerbot, because Makerbot is a perfect example of the dangers facing an open-source community of similar philosophical origins.

    Not coincidentally after the VC's got involved, Makerbot has gone down a dark road of slowly converting its products to closed-source hardware IP -- and for many of us that were involved in its start (including ex-founder Zach Smith!), this is HIGHLY inappropriate. For any company who's gotten their start by crowdsourcing a significant part of R&D and overhead, I think there's a rather permanent/constraining debt owed to the support community that a "regular" company does not have: more, in fact, than simply selling them a product that they've participated in building. Makerbot is papering over this in their ambitions to be a major 3D printing company; I don't want to see 3DR do the same. (I see your VCs' affiliation with Makerbot's venture round as far from optimism-inspiring in this context. With their recent success in overriding the open-source model there, are they eyeing other potential hunting grounds?--I'm sure you'd say 'no', but it's just impossible to know.)

    At any rate, you seem to be drawing a similar line in the sand here as Makerbot when you talk about engineers making the hardware, and the community making the software. It's a straightforward sales pitch, but it's strained in the details, and things aren't as clear-cut as that... IP doesn't come from just *making*, it comes from *developing*--and community members have definitely done a significant share of hardware development and ideation, as well as virtually all software development--even as your team has been the one to assemble the final product for retail. Of course, 3DR has done a tremendous amount of hardware development themselves! -- but that's part of the free-IP-to-all game, isn't it? That's why we all bought 3DR's products in the first place. That's why 3DR has a market!

    I do give you credit for starting this site and 3DR, and your tireless promotion of the idea of maker-drones to build the marketplace. But you weren't the first (by a long shot) to attempt an open-source UAV project, and as a community grows (now at what, 30,000 individuals?), it comes to reflect more than just "your" interests--because they are not necessarily the same things. And for this particular corner of the open UAV world, at some point a choice has to be made as to whether that community is an independent entity which 3DR (among others) serves (as previously stated by you)... or becomes simply -- to borrow the vernacular of Nov. 6th -- a locked-in core constituency of 3DR.

    Regardless of what you're doing (or intending to do), please, please in the future be clear in your communications about how 3DR relates to DIY Drones. I and many others are invested, and care, in the community much more than the company, and will be watching earnestly how this develops.

    And I'm sure I'll keep the feedback coming as you requested ;)

    Thanks for your response.

  • 3D Robotics

    Stephen: we get pitched quite often to sell stuff made by others, and we stock it when it's a good fit. So far that's mostly been accessories like sensors and RC gear. Our core competence on the 3DR side is hardware manufacturing (we have two factories), not just retail, so we mostly focus on stuff that takes advantage of our own production capacity. 

  • What about other hardware manufactures ? have any tried to be added to the store ? 

  • 3D Robotics


    We'll be launching a stand-alone 3DR site soon, but the simple answer is the blurring is somewhat intrinsic to an open hardware/software project. The hardware is made by employee engineers at a normal for-profit company (3DR) and sold. The software is mostly created by volunteers in this open community and given away for free (since most tech support is about software, the forums here are the best place to interact with those developers). I started and run both of these, thus they reflect the two sides of my own interests (company and community). 

    This is similar to many other projects, such as Wordpress (both an open source community and a for-profit company), Makerbot, Arduino and many others. But as you say, the branding and site organization could be clearer, so that's what we're going to be changing over the next couple months. 

  • Chris,

    I would like to see a more detailed answer to the questions raised here by Brent. I am a relatively new user here, and as a new user was under the [wrong] impression that 3DR was a not for profit company, run by this community since that was the ONLY hardware available for this open source project. 

    I think when a user sees things like http://store.diydrones.com/AboutUs.asp 

    "Product support: 

    We encourage customers to use the DIY Drones forums (
    for technical support and questions. You cansearch or browse the forums for answers to your questions, or post a new question. Please remember to pick the right category for the product you are asking about, which will be listed as "[Product Name] hardware: tech support

    For further hardware support or technical questions please email us at: help@3drobotics.com."


    The boundary of where the open source community stops and the for profit company starts gets very blurred, when their branding is so intermingled.

    the http://3drobotics.com/ domains redirects to http://store.diydrones.com/ 

    the twitter announcement points to a DIYDrones blog  https://twitter.com/3DRobotics/status/265525143416225793 

    Can other hardware manufacturers also add their items to the store ? have any tried ? Why is the store the second link ? 


    All together nothing overly sinister, but very confusing for a new user. I think that a much clearer separation between the two would clarify the issues. I have seen this issue mentioned in several blogs and discussions here before, and I am sure i am not the only one who would like some clarification. 



  • Will all new products be in the UAV fields or are you going into UGV/USV too? Maybe classic robotics too? I'd love to see a quadro- or hexapod from 3DR... A well thought-through big hexapod combined with the ArduRover idea would make a seriously cool ground drone!

  • Chris,

    I think everybody gets that business plans are not "open source" :-)

    But please try to explain your ideas/plans for DIYDrones as a community (basically the "Final" question of Brent), since this is of interest for many people here deeper involved in the general open source autopilot community.

    Thanks and good luck for your upcoming work!

  • Chris,
    Just a suggestion... check out the following. another example of why diy drones should expand. capabilities of these multicopters in the comparison chart show how much more capability the 3dr, jdrones, etc drones are for the money compared to non-open source vendors...http://www.wowhobbies.com/quacopters-drones-quad-flyers.aspx
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