How Did Drone Racing League Founder Nicholas Horbaczewski Turn An Underground Sport Into A Commercial Heavyweight In Just Two Years?

RISING Set the scene for us – before DRL came about, what was drone racing?

NICHOLAS HORBACZEWSKI ‘The sport started in a combination of Australia and France, we think, and it really spread globally, so people started making homemade drones, meeting up secretly in fields and parking lots and racing them. For five, six years it basically spread around the world and there was a huge community of people doing that, but it was very underground.’

RISING So what about your chance encounter with drone racing in 2015 made you turn it into a business?

NH ‘I just thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen, and as I looked at it I thought: “A lot of people could enjoy this”. So I set out the challenge of doing it. Really the DRL had to do three things to make that happen. One, we had to develop a lot of novel technology. It turns out the tech to do this at a professional level simply didn’t exist. After a lot of effort to go and source that technology we gave up and decided we had to build it, and built a whole technology team community to just develop novel technology around drones and radios.’

‘We tell our pilots: “Don’t start racing until you're ready to win” – we had to learn that same lesson’

RISING What was the biggest failure and greatest lesson you’ve learnt over the past two years?

NH ‘One of the challenges about drone racing is everyone gets excited about it, so it's very easy to go off sort of half-baked. You've seen a number of public and dramatic failures in drone racing, and I think when we set up DRL we immediately tried to do an event, suddenly realised it wasn’t going to work, and had to dramatically change what we told people we were doing. We stepped back and spent a year just hardcore developing technology, developing methods to film drones. We did the hard work. We tell our pilots: “Don’t start racing until you're ready to win.” We had to learn that same lesson and take a step back. We weren't ready to win when we started; you need to get ready to win and then start racing.’

RISING Talking about founding DRL, what was the biggest lesson from starting up a sports league?

NH ‘So one is that sports leagues are not monolithic entities. No sports league exists in a vacuum; sports leagues are more like mini solar systems. In the middle there’s a big centre of gravity, which is your league, but the goal is not to make your league as big as possible, it’s to put other entities in orbit around you in a sustainable way. Those are your fans, your broadcasters, your venues, your sponsors, you name it. All of whom have to be revolving around the same goal in the same way.’

RISING With the startup process did you try to pick a path to re-create other people’s successes?

NH ‘I'd say we like to learn from other sports but you can’t try to go out with a modern technology-enabled thing like drone racing and try to replicate something else. You’ve got to carve your own path; you need to take the best lessons from other sports and entities. We’ve gotten invites from everybody from the people who own Formula 1 to WWE, to UFC, to Riot Games and League of Legends. We try to learn the lessons from everywhere and apply them.’

‘We have tryouts through our video game – one pilot won his spot in the league and a $75,000 contract by winning the game’

RISING Why were the technological challenges facing DRL so fierce?

NH ‘You have a drone that needs to fly like a performance aircraft, has to be incredibly reliable, and there were no commercial manufacturers. I compare it to a Formula 1 car. We had to create a drone that would race. Then the radios that control the drones and get the video feed off the drones to the pilot are very, very specialised, and they need to operate within extremely tight parameters. The speed at which the information is conveyed, the reliability with which they operate. You have all these overlapping challenges that make it extraordinarily hard to build a radio that can do this – we looked at radio systems all over the world. We just built and patented our own. That process of designing and building a drone, and a radio system that could facilitate the sport at the highest level took us over a year to develop.

RISING How did you turn something that was very underground into something that you could get investors interested in?

NH ‘You're solving three problems. You need to develop the technology, then you need to develop the media and learning how to film these things is incredibly hard. They’re going very fast, they’re quite small. You need to convey a lot of information to the audience about who's winning and who’s losing. Then once you've done those two things, you need to build a functioning sport league, and that’s about bringing in investors, it’s about signing up sponsors, it’s about signing up broadcasters, it's about forming relationships with pilots. So we had to do all three of those things effectively, at the same time, and we had to do them all very well or this wasn’t going to work. You need all three layers to make it work.’

RISING What do you think the appeal of DRL is for spectators?

NH ‘There’s a big chunk of our audience that watches it because it is a very exciting technology-enabled sport that people call sort of a real-life video game. We also have a huge chunk of our audience that are frankly just motor sport fans. So they are people who watch Formula 1 or NASCAR, MotoGP, and for them it's exciting, it’s in three dimensions and it’s high speed; there’s a lot of crashing and winners and losers and all the things they love about motor sports.’

RISING Is DRL, in a sense, tapping into and converting public fascination with drones into a commercial success?

NH ‘It has a lot of dynamics of video games, but it is actually happening in real life. It's very futuristic. A lot of people interact with drones now or know about drones, so when I tell you that DRL is a championship that defines the greatest drone pilot on the planet, that means something. It's a concept that compels a lot of people in the same way that Formula 1 can argue that they find the greatest driver on the planet. We certainly hear that from our fans, that it resonates with them, the idea of finding the very best at this activity that increasingly millions and millions of people around the world are doing. That has value.’

‘Our investors are really a part of our organisation – this is a group effort 100%’

RISING Your investors all seem to be involved in drone technology or racing in some way – is that deliberate?

NH ‘Yes, we don't raise money and bring in investors for the money, per se, we bring it because we need help, and our investors are an integral part of our team. They work side-by-side with us. I think often with start-ups people think of venture capital firms where they give you money but they're not really doing much more. Our investors are really part of our organisation, and you see it. Sky and ProSieben are both investors, as is Hearst, ESPN, they’re also our broadcasters. We’re on this journey together, and honestly, I mean we’ve come quite far in less than two years and it’s only possible because of these partners. This is a group effort, 100%.’

RISING Startup success is all about timing too – drone racing has a first-person-view VR element, so you must see opportunity in that developing trend?

NH ‘Yes, I mean we are very fortunate in terms of the timing and blend when DRL came about, because you have a lot of technology trends from the expansion of the use of drones, to the development of VR360. Just the fact that VR makers are getting headsets into the home, and that’s a slow process, but everyone who owns a headset creates an opportunity for us to give people a unique and immersive sport experience. So we can’t wait for the Vibe and the Oculus and the others to get out there in a mass way. This evolution from broadcast being the dominant form, to a mix of both digital and linear broadcasting creates opportunities for us.’

WHAT NEXT? If you want an insight into what it’s like to fly a 100mph drone, then download DRL’s simulator. ‘Play it and feel confident that way, because the minute you start flying real drones, mistakes turn into broken drones, which can be frustrating,’ says Horbaczewski. ‘It’s less time flying, more time fixing. So the number one piece of advice would be to get on the sim.’ And look out for the RISING guide to racing drones, out soon...