Photo of DJI engineer holding drone
Paul Pan, senior product manager at DJI Photo Jonathan Kaiman / Los Angeles Times

DJI may be the first Chinese company to create, and then dominate, a hot new class of consumer electronics.

As China’s decades-long investment and exports-driven “economic miracle” comes to an end, the Chinese government is attempting to boost innovation to keep the country’s economy afloat. Officials are investing billions of yuan in gleaming new office parks, university engineering programs and
start-up incubators.

Their ambitions won’t be easy to realize. China’s education system encourages rote learning; government censorship restricts the flow of ideas; lax intellectual property laws enable piracy to flourish. But the country does have one major trump card — its manufacturing prowess — and that has engendered innovation in some surprising ways.

Shenzhen, a city of 7 million adjacent to Hong Kong, is frequently called the “Silicon Valley of hardware,” “the overnight city” or the “factory floor of the world.” Experts say that the consumer drone revolution couldn’t have happened
anywhere else.

“I think DJI could only happen in Shenzhen,” said Michael Perry, a 30-year-old American who is DJI’s director of strategic partnerships. The city has a “confluence of talent, resources and connectivity,” he said, giving DJI the ability to design and manufacture equipment “faster than anyone else in the industry.”

Paul Pan, a senior product manager at DJI who has been working at the company since 2013, says that founder Frank Wang nurtures a meritocratic work environment. “It’s not like there’s one guy leading, like [the late Steve Jobs at] Apple,” he said. Wang “wants us to debate with him, to tell him why his ideas aren’t good, and if they’re not good, whether there is a better way to do it. But you have to prove it.”

“When people start trying a drone and flying it around, suddenly a lightbulb goes off, and they think, we can do this,” said Perry, the director of strategic partnerships. ”A drone, essentially, is a node in three dimensions that can send and receive information. So the drone is applicable in any situation where gathering that information is either too time-consuming, costly or dangerous. When you think of it in those terms, things start to open up.”

A well reported story in the LA Times from Shenzhen with some great insights into the culture.
I find it fascinating that part of the culture that Frank Wang seems to be fostering involves knocking Steve Jobs. Perhaps it is for the sake of being quotable, perhaps there is some cultural offense – if there was one guy who was ever all about merit and competence, it was Steve Jobs. It is especially ironic given that author Jonathan Kaiman notes that “Fans call DJI the Apple of drones.”
Still it is hard to argue with the company’s rapid success in a country that is not known for innovation. Moving up the economic food chain involves moving from making to creating – Taiwan and South Korea have both faced similar challenges.
To understand more about how China is approaching this, I recommend a short article Five Windows Into China, written by Robert Tucker, CEO of  The Innovation Resource Group. In particular pay attention to

3. China’s price advantage is disappearing, roiling manufacturing. …Chinese companies are on a spending spree, buying up whole companies in the West, and dominating whole industries like solar. Governments in Europe are said to be worried that too much technology is falling into foreign hands.

4. China’s startups are moving beyond copying to create unique business models. A new generation of startups in China called Little Dragons, don’t just copy – they adapt, localize, improvise and combine until there is uniqueness. One example of this is Xiaomi, the mobile phone and internet company which might just represent China’s homegrown innovation future: a startup that figured out how to differentiate itself and survive in a highly competitive market. “There is only one Steve Jobs,” Licheng Cui, Xiaomi’s Secretary General told me, “but if we gather up good ideas from our customers and our employees, collectively we might just be able to create another Steve Jobs.”



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