Conversations with Mark Yong

Co-founder and CEO at Garuda Robotics, a Singapore-based developer of turnkey drone solutions for agriculture, security and construction, Mark’s twin passions are robotics and education, and his daily focus is on translating technologies into real-world products that solve really difficult problems. His belief is that the true test and opportunity for robots is out in the physical world with all its unstructured, uncertain and chaotic ways.

M: I’m sure you hear this from a lot of people but there isn’t really a typical workday for us: we are a start-up; we still think of ourselves as very much a start-up. We explore different things, different needs and different markets. We have a couple of people who focus on the hardware; their typical day would consist of coming in and then spending 80% of their time at work upgrading an existing drone or trying to build new drones or testing new systems. Even then, within the hardware, they conduct various experimentations, so it’s hard to have such a thing as a typical workday. On the software side, there are different software products that we build and support. But things change, and sometimes there is a problem – a customer may call up and say, “This thing is not working”, and then you have to go and sort it out. On the operations side, for my Chief Pilot who oversees the operations, a typical day can range from anything like going out to Sentosa to fly a mission for a customer, to being in Malaysia, driving up and down the West Coast doing plantation surveys. Or the day might be spent in the office writing a document or proposal to the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, to engage them on new regulations.

There is really no typical day in that sense; we are building up an almost entirely new industry from scratch; there are no established rules, there are no patterns to draw reference from. For me, most days are spent talking to customers, or potential customers, trying to understand what they do. Talking to people like yourselves to spread the news of what we do so that people who could take advantage of this can benefit from this new technology, and those who may not have heard about it before can be introduced to it. It is quite new; many people have heard about drones – even drones that can be used for industrial applications – but they have not actually seen it themselves. We make it relevant to them and help them integrate it with existing operations. A typical workday is all of the above.

M: A good and fulfilling day is one where we make progress. And this progress can take many forms – it can be a technical achievement, for example there was one day when one of our teams came up with a proposal to reduce the weight of the drones by 15%. They had an idea and wanted to try it out. It did not work exactly, but it got us a 10% improvement in the weight. On a small size drone, for every 100g of weight that you save, you gain about 1 minute of flight. It is really important. One minute may not seem a lot, until you realise in total it can increase the endurance of the drone by about 20 minutes. The weight does matter. If we take away the 100g, you also make it easier to transport around, you make it save up in the air, because there is less weight up there. All of these things have a nice positive cycle. Eventually we have this 10% improvement in weight, which means that we get a 5-6% improvement in flight time, and that is great! Recently, we found a way to improve the planes’ endurance, from about 70 km to 80 km of endurance, which means that what we thought could cover about 350 hectares of land in one flight, can now go up to about 450 hectares because of the improved efficiency. What this means is that when our team goes out to do surveying of the plantation, they no longer have to do as many flights. For 4000 hectares, instead of having to fly 12 flights of 300 hectares, they can now fly 10 flights of 400 hectares instead. That is easier for the team, giving them less stress and less room for things to go wrong. These are the things that to me on the technical side, every time we have a customer sign up, use the system and provide feedback and point out something that allows us to understand how they use the software in a way that we have never really considered before. That is also progress. I say this because we are not building software programmes for other engineers, we are not building Gmail that is used by people who are familiar with technology. We are building equipment and systems that are used by plantations, farmers and people on the ground who are not very educated. That job might be anytime from managing a one hectare, about 150 trees on a small area – that is what they do every day. They might be a plantation worker who migrated over from Bangladesh – that is quite common in Malaysia. Everyday their jobs are to make sure that their trees get enough fertilisers, because if these are not precisely and properly applied, it affects the output very quickly. A small mistake can result in 5% of output reduction, and that is directly related to monetary loss. It is also affecting the output which affects food supply and so on. Anytime we learn something like this, anytime we make progress in solving a problem, whether it is a customer’s problem or an internal, technical problem, to me that is a good day.

M: Actually yes. I don’t know about being an entrepreneur, because being an entrepreneur these days is usually tied to technology, but I think more broadly the idea of entrepreneurship is about thinking about an idea that does not have a proven business model yet. There is no obvious way to make it successful, and you have to pull a bunch of people together, talk to customers and find the needs; when you build something, it solves the needs. And that process is ongoing. When I was younger, I was always interested in robotics. I always thought that it would be nice to have my own company that builds cool robots that people use, to save lives and make their own lives better. As I grew older I found that this sounds really difficult. I started out in the more traditional path of going to school, studying engineering, and working on a lot of projects related to robotics, for about 20 years. I worked on search-and-rescue robots, and then I came back to Singapore to teach at NTU and started working on outdoor robots. It also included robotics for education, so students can learn more about practical problem-solving in engineering by taking part in a robotics competition. It never occurred to me until recently that I would actually start a company, and go full circle back to the original idea of having a company that builds robotic things that people would use.

Looking back, yes, I can say that I’ve fulfilled a childhood dream of mine. I can say that now, but it was not so clear to me because even as early as four, five years ago (the company is about three years now), we started the company properly early-2014, and all the way until then I was still an academic, teaching and looking at research. I always thought that the place I wanted to work in robotics was within the university environment, as I got to work with bright young students, tap on their knowledge and share all the ideas with one another. But part of that was also because I thought the world wasn’t ready. I felt that a lot of the technology wasn’t mature enough. When you look at the science fiction movies, you see the drones like a small snowball, with the propellers opening up and flying into the mountain, zooming all over the place, mapping the entire area in thirty seconds. In reality, we are still very far from that. Today, we can have a drone which maps a large area, but it takes time and it takes a human watching it and programming it, but we are getting there. What surprised me was that within the span of five to seven years, the technology really progressed so quickly, in terms of the basic building blocks, things like the equipment and motors being so cheap now. We do not have to spend $600 on one motor. We can spend just $60 for one motor, and build robots out of anything. We can build them cheaply enough to make them disposable – we can build them, test them and even crash them against the wall. The cost of building equipment and building systems that can solve a problem really went down so much. At some point, I saw that if I do not take advantage of this, I may never have an opportunity like this again. That really was the reason why I started the company. 

M: We face challenges every day. I think the thing to remember is that any sort of business faces challenges, whether it is a big established business or a start-up.

If you’re in a company, it means that you’ve found a business model, and it means you’ve found something that you can do. People will pay money for it, and you can just keep doing it. A start-up is different from a company in the sense that it is still trying to find a sustainable business model. Is it selling drone hardware? Is it writing drone software? Is it selling the entire package? Is it doing services for people? So, in the drone industry, a lot of people are still trying to figure it out – they’re all making bets and guesses.

Some want to make hardware. Usually, they’re based in China, because they’re right where the factories are. Others say “I’m not in China, I’m not running a factory, so I’m only going to build software.” We are saying that we want to do a combination. I don’t think that you can just sell drones, or just sell software and have customers use those by themselves.  I think a consulting approach is better, where we talk with customers and understand their issues. We will have around 90% of the technology ready. We can hand over the hardware, with about 5% customisation. The remaining 5% will be handholding and training them. So, what we do is that we will sit with them for the first two weeks and our chief pilot will help ensure that their people are trained. After the two weeks are up, they will be ready to do this on their own, and we will provide support over the next year.

So this is how we approach it. If you think about what it involves, we don’t just serve clients who are based in Singapore. It’s easy in Singapore. You drive down within half an hour to meet people. But we serve clients in Malaysia and Indonesia. We serve clients in the agriculture industry, building inspections and telecommunications. Each of these have unique concerns. Working in Southeast Asia, where you have very different cultures, different languages and different dialects, you have to think about how you can engage clients and ensure that you can train them to operate the system properly.

There are many challenges, most of which aren’t technical. Most people seem to think that it’s all about technical challenges – can you build a better system? But I think that with any new industry, the harder challenge is the human factor. How do you get people to understand that this is something which they can use now? That, if they start now, they can grow slowly into it. And that they shouldn’t be scared, because we’re here to work with them and guide them. I think those are the harder challenges, but they’re also the more interesting ones – getting people to understand that this is real, it’s not science fiction, and they can use it today.

M: I don’t think that any particular technical domain is better than others. You have engineers who become entrepreneurs, and are the bosses of their companies, taking care of the business side of things. You have people who were trained in finance and business, and you have people with a background of design. Because it’s not just one person doing everything, ultimately, a successful business has to have variety. It’s about valuing diversity. Your team has to be diverse, with people handling different areas, and covering for each other’s’ weaknesses.

The key thing you need as an entrepreneur is grit and having stress tolerance. You just need to be able to keep going in the face of obstacles and opposition. You’ll face all sorts of challenges, and very often you’ll find that the biggest challenges come just after victories. So, you push and push and push, and you say, yes, this works now! But all that does is bring around a much bigger mountain that will leave you shocked. You’ve barely had time to enjoy this small victory, and now look what’s happening. Many people give up. They give up just before the big breakthrough. As an entrepreneur, if you don’t have the perseverance and optimism to keep going, you will give up.

The thing that is scary to me now is that entrepreneurship is trendy. A lot of people want to be in a start-up. A lot of people want to start a company. A lot of people want to be an entrepreneur, without knowing what that means and why they’re doing it. I’ve not seen people succeed by saying “I want to be an entrepreneur, and I will now go out and find something to be passionate about.”. It’s invariably people saying “I’ve been really bothered by this problem for a while now, and I want to go out and solve it.”. And in the process, because they care so much about it, they solve it really well.  Other people start saying “I’ve been bothered by that problem too, and you’ve solved it! Let me give you money for it.” So, I think you have to be driven by the right intentions.

M: When I was a university student, I deliberately tried to broaden my education. My main course was computer engineering. I trained in computer engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, but I also did additional work in economics and psychology, because I wanted to understand how economies work – a continuation of my ‘A’ Level studies – and I’m just generally interested in how people think and why they do the things they do. So, that was basically my attempt to be a very proficient engineer, while also understanding how markets and people work. For me, doing that gave me tools to examine how the world operates.

After that I became an academic. I started teaching, and I was unprepared, because I had never gotten formal training in teaching – pedagogy – unlike in the National Institute of Education (NIE), where trainee teachers go through a year of directed and structured training, which I had to learn by myself. So, I struggled through that and figured it out, just like right now as I’m struggling through and figuring out a lot of things which I was not trained for, such as accounting and human resources. Questions arose such as how to hire the right people, how to present the right image and brand of the company when you speak at conferences or give interviews, how to adequately convey what you do to people of different cultures, why you are the right person for them to work with, and how to get them to trust you and reveal business secrets. By secrets, I mean problems that they are facing. For them to come to you, reveal their failures and ask for your help is a big vulnerability. All of these are things that I’m still learning.

So, I think that if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you cannot be too closed. You must be willing to learn as much and as quick as possible. The way to help yourself do that is to start young and just learn a bunch of different things. If you’re used to learning broadly, reading widely and trying new things from an early age, when you are forced to do those things and have new experiences for work, it won’t come as such a surprise to you. The real world isn’t about finishing exams and getting results from them, in a linear fashion – it doesn’t work that way. In the real world, there are always new things to be learnt. There are no fixed targets you can hit and be done with for the rest of your life. You just have to be comfortable with continuing to learn with all the uncertainty that life gives you.