Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Candoo CEO & Co-Founder Michael Xu about his experience launching a startup and his company’s involvement in the Hartford-area innovation hub.
The startup recently received Honorable Mention recognition at the CT Entrepreneur Awards for Venture of the Year: Pre-Revenue and Community Favorite Venture: Pre-Revenue.
NAN PRICE: Have you always been entrepreneurial?
MICHAEL XU: I was working the actuarial field when I first started my entrepreneurial ventures. I launched a couple of failed startups.
The first one was a modular cell phone case. I started that with two other actuaries. None of us were mechanical engineers and none of us knew about entrepreneurship, so that quickly went south.
After that, I tried to launch a website designed to revamp the Yelp review system. At that point, I didn’t know enough programming and I tried to do everything on my own, but it was too difficult.
Around then, I plugged into to the startup community and became connected to reSET through Christopher Mazziotto, who was Director of Operations at the time. I was also introduced to Entrepreneur-in-Residence Eric Knight. They helped me, and I learned a lot.
But it was still too difficult as a solopreneur and I was having a kid then, too. I convinced myself maybe I could work in an office, which I did that for a while. And then I decided to pursue the opportunity to work on Candoo.
With this venture, what’s good and what’s most important is I’ve found a good team that is very supportive. We have our highs and our lows, but we talk through things and we help each other move forward.
NAN: Tell us about the startup team. Are you the founder?
MICHAEL: There are three founders. We started as a project for fun at an InsurTech Hartford Hackathon. I dragged everyone in because we had complementary skills. We’re all tech founders who are not very good at marketing, but we’re learning as we go.
NAN: When did you launch the startup?
MICHAEL: September 2017. When we won second place at the Hackathon we felt our idea was validated, so we decided to work on it. For the first two or three months, we were solely focused on developing our product, a drone-sharing service for the insurance industry. As we ideated, we realized this was much bigger and decided to open up to other industries. We thought we could take our original idea and refine our market fit.
NAN: What makes Candoo innovative?
MICHAEL: Candoo is really a platform for people or businesses to order drones. The way we are scaling is much like Uber. The service lets customers order drones online. We do all the vetting of the drone operators to ensure they are licensed and insured. Right now, we have about half a dozen independent drone operators, and of course we’re starting in Hartford. Our app is available on Google Play and through the App Store.
Other services exist and it’s a rather crowded space because it’s new and growing. But what’s innovative about candoo is our software. We also integrate analytics.
For example, if you are a utilities company you’re not as concerned with cars or the people in the imagery. You really care about tree cover on your utility lines and you want a computer vision model to understand that. You’re not going to hire very expensive data scientists to do that. You also don’t really have open-source inexpensive tools to identify tree cover—that’s where we come in. We offer you the drones bundled with the analysis.
NAN: You have some prior entrepreneurial experience. Tell us about the business planning process.
MICHAEL: Plans are always a guideline that changes rapidly with time. More than business planning, I believe it’s most important to get a product out, iterate, test it, and get direct feedback. Then you can keep improving with the customer in mind.
And then, of course, you need a market and a pain point. We spent months validating what our market is after our ideating phase to settle with the business model we now have.
NAN: You mentioned drones are a crowded market space. How do you handle competition and set yourself apart?
MICHAEL: Most of our competition so far is focused on the drone marketplace idea. There’s less focus on the analytics. We know how to scale in such a way that we make it efficient and inexpensive.
NAN: Is your target market business-to-business or business-to-consumer?
MICHAEL: We’re currently focusing on B2B. That could be a large enterprise or a small business. The industries we serve include real estate, construction, agriculture, inspection, events and survey/mapping. The drone service is shared across all business and then the artificial intelligence layer is going to specifically cater to each business type’s needs.
NAN: How are you marketing?
MICHAEL: We were originally trying to directly approach large enterprises, and we were able to sit down with a couple to talk with them. Right now, we’re offering one free trial for Connecticut real estate agents to start using aerial photos for their property listings.
NAN: Aside from funding, what do you need most to move your startup forward?
MICHAEL: Partners. We’re in this business to help drone pilots find more jobs and help businesses access reliable drone services. We believe working with businesses as partners allow us to work together so that data is collected through our platform and that we can build useful artificial intelligence tools for businesses to use.
NAN: We talked about your tie-in with reSET and InsurTech Hartford. In what other ways have you been involved with the innovation hub that’s growing in Greater Hartford?
MICHAEL: We are working full-time out of Upward Hartford. It is a wonderful working space and we have begun hosting a monthly drone meetup event there as well.
I think the Hartford InsurTech Hub Accelerator is an awesome idea. It’s exactly what Hartford needed. I was wanting something like that for the past couple of years. We applied, but we were too early and too young for that. I’m supportive of such initiatives and I’m also interested in the Stanley Black & Decker advanced manufacturing center.
NAN: What about mentors?
MICHAEL: I think a mentor relationship starts very naturally. You ask for advice, listen to that advice, follow it through, and meet back with your findings. We have a couple of good ones. Shana Schlossberg, CEO and Founder of Upward Hartford has given us good advice throughout the Hackathon and afterward. Eric Knight has provided advice that has helped us a lot too.
NAN: Any lessons learned in your entrepreneur journey?
MICHAEL: What I’ve learned is: Never give up. Even if you utterly fail, even if no one supports you, just keep going. And don’t expect to succeed. Just keep doing it. Throw something out, listen to feedback, and then throw something better and newer out until you’re better than everyone else on the market.
NAN: Where would you like Candoo to be one year from now?
MICHAEL: A year from now, I want Candoo to be a national drone service platform.
NAN: Do you want to expand outside of Connecticut?
MICHAEL: Eventually. But we have no track record. We have to grow and prove something first, and Connecticut is a great place to do that.
Find out more about Candoo