Extended Play is a conversation with Swiss innovators and entrepreneurs at all stages of the development cycle. Today Jan-Mathieu Donnier explains how he transferred dreams into reality as CEO of GlobalVision, a pioneer in drone and 360° film services for global brands.
GG: Ten years old as of yesterday, GlobalVision was first to market in corporate services for drones and Virtual Reality production, what you call ‘visual innovation’, a field which is absolutely booming right now. Give us some context, what was booming ten years ago when you started?
JMD: In the technology space you had the first smart phones from Apple. People started to discover screens outside the computer, screens that would be personal devices that could do amazing things! And they would be with you all the time. Today I probably wear my phone more than I wear any of my clothes.
GG: So you saw this at the time, you knew there would be a need for content at a time when it was all about hardware?
JMD: I remember very clearly the iPhone1. It was the first moment I saw somebody holding a television and interacting with it as a computer. When I saw this I knew it was going to be life-changing. Ten years later I can say our analysis was right and am happy we saw this trend.
GG: Content as a service was still very experimental by the mid 2000s. You had this cottage industry called cross-media and then came transmedia. There was an opening for content providers but instead of going the traditional route of film, gaming or publishing, you bet on cameras that fly in the air.
“We’ve always been a bit geeky. For us being geeky is not a crime.” – Jan-Mathieu Donnier
JMD: We’ve always been a bit geeky. For us being geeky is not a crime. We were looking at 3D cameras at the time, and then shortly after the first drones, like the helicopters you see behind me, which were mostly toys. But we saw in those toys a real potential. We started with multi-copters, which we built ourselves, and then out of the multi-copters we added very small cameras, of low quality, but we knew by Moore’s Law the quality would double. Our way of thinking is to be future-proof. This is why clients come to us.
GG: Moore’s Law seems to be the axiom of everything you do.
JMD: It’s a forward-thinking mindset that allows us to see trends and act on this. It’s what we call a growth-axis. Camera filming on the ground was one growth-axis. Then drones were another growth-axis. Right now VR, which is basically in our DNA, is our current growth-axis.
GG: The ability to build and prototype and deploy rapidly comes from a rich collaboration between you and your brother Marek. I’m guessing innate curiosity came at a very young age?
JMD: Well at the very beginning we started the company in our room as teenagers. We were sharing our computer – one would work in the day while the other worked at night. This was the division of labour. My brother is someone I trust, someone I can rely on, and someone I see daily. Talking together as brothers we’d say, “That would be so cool, let’s make it” and then the next day it was there. I’m very blessed to be working today with a team that’s more than two brothers because it brings new ideas, news ways of working and new types of value.
GG: A trait of many entrepreneurs is an active and uninhibited childhood. Parents just let them explore and break things. Would that loosely describe your home environment?
JMD: I don’t come from an entrepreneurial family as my parents were working for the state or as teachers. We were very lucky our mother did not want us to have a standard education. She always urged us to study, but with our studies she said, “Just do something that is your passion.” I’m super-happy my family was supporting us in this regard. We were forward thinking, we liked to test stuff, we liked to buy stuff, and we liked technology. So if we tested something and it worked, we said: “This is gonna be convincing for others.“
GG: With entrepreneurs you notice immediately people who have a dream and follow it. Did you have a dream in the beginning, or were you building and then discovered that dream along the way?
JMD: I remember it quite clearly at the very, very beginning. My brother comes to me and says, “Did you see what happens in America? People get rich with the Internet.” And then the question was how can we get rich with the Internet? This was pre-2000. It was the dotcom bubble and I had a very small website that I coded myself, on the beach, in the summertime. Then we said, “Let’s have advertisements on the website.” We started with this, and out of this, we coded another website. I was fifteen then.
GG: Coding on the beach at 15 while dreaming of the Internet…
“The dream was reaching a global audience and making a tower. With our name on the top.”
– Jan-Mathieu Donnier
JMD: The Internet was the dream because we knew that, with minimum investment we could reach a global audience. For us the dream was reaching a global audience and making a tower. With our name on the top. So we decided on this. We didn’t have a proper idea of what we would do exactly but we had an idea of the area we wanted to play in. What we called the information highway at the time became the Internet, and on the Internet you had so many divisions, so many fields you could play in. That for us was huge. We just had to pick one and be successful.
GG: In the American experience you learn very young to dream big. In Switzerland is there is a tendency to dream small?
JMD: In Switzerland we have a tendency to dream, not small, but realistically. People expect you to deliver on your objectives. They expect you to try something or do something that will succeed within your local area, then your canton, then the country. If you start a business in Switzerland people are going to say, “This is great on the local scale”, but then will expect you to go bigger. Swiss people dream big but express very little. You don’t dare express your global vision.
GG: Is this a fear of failure? In America the experience of failure can be a positive but in Switzerland there is a real phobia towards failure.
JMD: For us we never, ever considered we could fail. Failure was just simply not an option. Whatever happens we have to go forward. We can either go above, go on the side we can dig down, break the wall, but we’re gonna go through. We started with nothing, zero, no money, no investment, nothing. The first problem was money. We said, “Let’s get customers and this problem will be solved.” There are always daily challenges and obstacles, but failure is simply not an option.
GG: In this economy banks are not lending to fulfil dreams and VCs are not financing unproven products. In order to get financing you have to have a product but to build a product you need financing. How do you cover the funding gap?
JMD: As I said, we started with zero. We thought if we want to be a successful viable company we have to find customers to fuel our growth. This is the basic mindset. We don’t spend money that we don’t have. I totally agree, banks are not lending to companies that have no proven track record. For VCs it’s always too early or too late. I always said we would self-finance our entire growth until it was the right time to seek financing. The first step was proving we could reach a certain level with zero. Now I can say that, starting with zero, and showing the hard work and dedication, we reached that level. Twenty-five people. Two offices. Clients in 30 countries. This is what we call show by doing. We did what we said we would do. Now that we have transformed our ideas into reality we are ready to look for investors, for like-minded people, to contact us.
“The first step was proving we could reach a certain level with zero.” – Jan-Mathieu Donnier
GG: You seem to have beaten the odds in a market that is not easy for start-ups. It must be said not all Swiss entrepreneurs reach the finish line.
JMD: Switzerland is a dream-country for start-ups. If you succeed in Geneva, you have a microcosm of the world really. You have a super-wide diversity, you can test your product with different people, different cultural backgrounds and demographics. The government is also doing a lot for start-ups to hit the ground running. You have some programmes to help validate your project, where people help you refine it a bit more, and then it’s up to you. We have so many global players based in Switzerland, if you have a good product, you have a good team, you can find customers easily and then those customers you can replicate. If you can succeed in this microcosm of International Geneva you can succeed in any large capital.
GG: GlobalVision was something of a rocketship from the start and recognised by several accelerator initiatives in Geneva. How critical was outside support in bringing you closer to the goal?
JMD: Switzerland has several initiatives supporting start-ups. There is the InnoVaud in canton de Vaud. There is the Fondetech in Geneva. There is the Fongit in Geneva. The AlpICT in Geneva. There are so many initiatives to give you guidance and advice, and in some cases funding. Global Vision was lucky to be selected for Venture Leader in 2011, an accelerator programme put in place by VentureLab. At the same time, we were contracted by Mozilla Foundation. This was a new level for us. We weren’t talking to people on the corner about small stuff, rather it pushed us to look for the big game.
GG: VentureLab sent you on a 10-days startup training programme in USA. What were the takeaways when you came back, what did you do differently?
JMD: Yes we got to visit large companies that started with two people just like us. That was really inspiring. Plus we had a lot of feedback on the project, people telling us things like, “Guys, stop doing websites. It’s worthless.” Then I realised it was true, yes, we earned money but we were losing time. Our DNA is making super hi-tech products focused on innovation, not making websites for one-off customers. We had to look for the big game. This was key in shaping our mindsets.
GG: While GlobalVision is an international business you do have the Swiss touch. With all your international exposure what is it that makes your business uniquely Swiss?
JMD: We want clients to be happy because ultimately we know this is what leads to customer loyalty. If something is not right, we’re going to re-do it. We want our customers to be happy, we want to create good quality and we want the whole experience to be a positive one. Our new tagline is “Creative mindset, technical expertise and worldwide reach.” We have the capacity to think about something, to create it, and then promote it. We are also Swiss in the way that, no matter what, we’re going to make it work. Swiss people are very resilient people.