DJ Vegh of AerialSphere: “Don’t care so much about what people think of you”

Don’t care so much about what people think of you. I used to be very aware and concerned about what others thought about how I was doing a certain thing, managing a scenario, handling a challenge. Over time I learned worrying about such things only holds you back. You’ve got to buck the system and challenge […]

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Don’t care so much about what people think of you.

I used to be very aware and concerned about what others thought about how I was doing a certain thing, managing a scenario, handling a challenge. Over time I learned worrying about such things only holds you back. You’ve got to buck the system and challenge everything. That necessarily means you’re going to get adverse reactions along the way.

I do much better now with a ‘don’t sweat it’ mentality. I’m just going do me, learn, and adapt and not ruminate about how others think about my actions.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing DJ Vegh, Co-Founder & Chief Innovation Officer, AerialSphere.

DJ Vegh is an expert in 2D and 3D graphics. A serial entrepreneur, he founded AZ ChopperCam, an aerial photo business using small unmanned aerial vehicles (SUAV) equipped with digital cameras, in 2005. His success with AZ ChopperCam led him to found PhotoShip One, LLC in the summer of 2008.

DJ Vegh was an inventor with an entrepreneurial spirit even in his childhood years. As a youngster he enjoyed designing and building things. His favorite past time was building and flying radio controlled airplanes. After he graduated from high school he became interested in video production. He quickly landed a job at a Fox affiliate TV station in Ozark, AL as an assistant in the production dept. Within several years he had managed to work his way up to a Chief Editor/Motion Graphics Artist at a large advertising agency/production house in Mesa, AZ. During that time he became well versed in the art and science of 2D and 3D motion graphics.

During his stint at the ad agency he became quite interested in aerial photography. In the summer of 2005 he founded a small start-up, AZ ChopperCam. AZ ChopperCam began as an aerial photo business which used small unmanned aerial vehicles (SUAV) equipped with digital cameras. He realized that technology advancements in the hobby radio controlled aircraft industry and digital camera industry had created a convergence where the two could be put together.

He maintained his position at the ad agency while working AZ ChopperCam on the side. After he had spent 13 years at the agency in 2008 he decided to leave his full time job to pursue a new business dream. Seeing success with AZ ChopperCam he realized there was a major opportunity awaiting. Until this time in 2008 there were less than four other companies manufacturing camera gimbal systems for SUAVs. The demand for such products was on the edge of going mainstream.

He founded PhotoShip One, LLC in the summer of 2008. PhotoShip One designs, manufactures and sells camera gimbal systems for SUAVs. It has been a major success for DJ having designed and produced over 12 different SUAV related products since PhotoShip One was started. Within 1 year of starting the company DJ had pushed PhotoShip One to become a leader in the industry.

DJ had become involved with 360° aerial spherical photography around the time he founded PhotoShip One. He knew there was something to it that others hadn’t quite latched onto yet. He headed up several design projects at PhotosShip One specifically related to capturing 360° spherical panoramas from SUAVs. For several years he dreamed of specifically pursuing 360° immersive aerial imaging. He had some innovative ideas in ways to develop and use the technology for purposes other than they are currently being used.

In early 2014 he partnered with Jim Todd, a Phoenix, AZ based aerial photographer, and Mike Smith. Together they founded Aerial Sphere, Inc.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve been around aviation my entire life. My father learned to fly when he was 16 years old and continued to fly professionally until his retirement in 2018. I took my first flight in a small plane with my dad at just a couple weeks old. My continual exposure to airplanes and all things aviation at a young age seems to have hardwired me to be drawn to anything related to flight. My father taught me to how to fly and I currently hold a pilot’s certificate.

In my late 20’s I took an interest in digital photography as it was a pretty new technology. My first digital camera was a Sony 0.6 megapixel that stored photos on a 3.5” floppy drive. Over subsequent years, I would always buy the latest and greatest cameras available.

Before long I began to mix my love of aviation with photography. In 2008, I started a company that designed and manufactured camera gimbal systems for drones. While operating that company I became intrigued with 360° aerial photography and began experimenting with various methods to collect the images. I designed several products to quickly and easily capture 360 aerial panoramas of which I ultimately received patents for.

By 2014 I had decided I wanted to pursue 360° aerial photography in a more serious manner. By a few turn of fate events I had come across Jim Todd and Mike Smith who became interested in the idea of starting a company based around aerial 360° photography and we co-founded Aerial Sphere in Mid-2014.

Ultimately, what led to the creation of AerialSphere was a convergence of two of my passions, aviation and photography.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

What is so disruptive about AerialSphere is we are completely changing the way people experience maps. Currently, when you look at an aerial photo map such as Google Maps, you are looking straight down at the world below. There are actually some maps that allow for you to look at images from a 45° angle (oblique). However, there are no options for full 360° aerial panoramas that are georectified (every pixel of the image is assigned a latitude and longitude, so data can accurately be overlaid.) It is essentially Google Street View, but in the sky. It is incredibly difficult to do, as there are so many moving parts at work — the capture of the imagery, the processing of the imagery and the delivery of the imagery. Fortunately, we have figured out the “secret sauce” and are now making what once was impossible, possible. Our aerial imagery gives people a completely different perspective of the world we live in, which allows people to make better decisions, understand our world better, and enjoy sights and locations from the comfort of their own home.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This is more discovery than a mistake but funny all the same. By 2015 I had completed the design and fabrication of our first multi camera sensor system that could be mounted in a full-scale manned airplane (Cessna 206). On paper everything calculated out that it should all work as designed. All that was left was to get the system airborne and flight test.

We decided we would test our system by flying every square mile over Phoenix, AZ. It was a nice spring day in March when we took off from Deer Valley airport in North Phoenix. As we set up and deployed the camera system from the airplane things were working quite well. The system was taking 360 photos every 1/2 mile just fine for about the first 3 minutes. As I was in the cabin of the plane operating the system, I noticed on the computer monitor that was showing the live feed for the front facing camera a sudden large greenish-yellow splotch suddenly appear. The splotch covered at least 30% of the image. No way we could use images this way. Puzzled, I looked down at the front facing camera lens to find that splotch were the remains of a very large insect. A grasshopper I presume. We had flown the camera lens straight into that poor grasshopper at 130mph and it didn’t end pretty.

Thinking that was perhaps just an anomaly, I cleaned the lens and redeployed the system. Within the next few minutes it happened again. I repeated this process at least 3 more times that flight. Each time we were wasting precious time and fuel cleaning the mess from the lens. It was at this moment I had realized that after 9 months of intensive R&D, engineering, and fabrication of our specialized camera system, I had completely ignored the simplest of problems we were going to face… smashing bugs with our cameras!

It’s funny how you can spend so many hours and resources designing, testing, simulating, analyzing, yet fail to ever consider how some seemingly insignificant thing can severely affect your product.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have to give credit to a friend and former neighbor of mine, Jack Burnside. In 2008 when the financial crisis hit, I had effectively lost my main source of income working as a special effects artist/motion graphics animator. I needed to come up with something to do, and fast. Jack knew that I liked to attach video cameras to RC airplanes and helicopters as a hobby. Jack owned a successful hobby products distribution company and suggested I start up a company designing and selling systems to allow others like me to do the same. At the time there were only 1 or 2 other companies globally offering those types of products. I was a bit reluctant as I had never started up a company that designed and sold tangible products — I wasn’t even sure where to start. With some pushing, prodding a bit of seed capital from Jack I was able to start that company. The company became extremely successful over the following 3 years.

The launch and operation of that company really ignited my entrepreneurial spirit. It’s conceivable that had Jack not helped me launch that company, AerialSphere and several other companies I have started and been involved with since may not exist today.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I see disruption more like evolution. Every life form on the planet is what it is today through the process of evolution. Just as in the process of evolution there can be ‘mistakes’ i.e., genetic mutations unbeneficial to the survival of the species, the same happens in technology. Technology discovery and development are never finished. There is always something new, huge, and exciting around the corner. Occasionally, those new discoveries upset the status quo and we call them disruptive. These disruptions can have long and short term positive and negative effects. Either way I believe they are certainly a good thing no matter their effect.

I believe it is not fair or proper to categorize disruption as always good or always bad. It can be neither all the time. Disruption should be considered necessary and be pursued and encouraged!

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

1) Don’t care so much about what people think of you.

I used to be very aware and concerned about what others thought about how I was doing a certain thing, managing a scenario, handling a challenge. Over time I learned worrying about such things only holds you back. You’ve got to buck the system and challenge everything. That necessarily means you’re going to get adverse reactions along the way.

I do much better now with a ‘don’t sweat it’ mentality. I’m just going do me, learn, and adapt and not ruminate about how others think about my actions.

2) Do work you care about

I believe to achieve success you really have to believe and care about what you do. I have always done things that interest me, but when I really started to achieve success is when I focused on doing things I was completely passionate about. Being an entrepreneur means completely going all in on what you are doing — it can’t be a part time gig. Once I started developing technology that combined my 2 biggest passions, it wasn’t hard to fully dedicate every waking moment developing because I was doing what I love. I wake up every day excited to work because to me, it feels like I am getting to play with my favorite toys — it makes the challenges and obstacles so much easier to overcome.

3) Take the risk
 As I mentioned earlier, I used to work for companies until the economy blew up and I received advice from a mentor of mine to take the risk and create my own company. It is an incredibly difficult thing to do for the first time, but it is so incredibly rewarding once you break that barrier. You may not always succeed, and being an entrepreneur, you have to be ok with losing, but you will never know unless you take some risk and follow your dreams.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I’m never done. Even though we are disrupting the mapping market, our work will never be done. There is always so much innovation in the world, that even though you could be disrupting one day, the next day, there could be someone disrupting you. I am never happy with the status quo, which is why we are always looking at ways to improve our collection, processing and delivery of our product. Our XP360 platform is an amazing solution, but it can be so much better. I would love to tell you what we are currently working on, and how we are going to further disrupt our industry and other industries, but I can’t quite get into that.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I don’t believe there are challenges faced by women disruptors that are significantly and uniquely different than men. Disruptor challenges come from all directions and sources which don’t care what your gender is. They will eat you all the same. I think that the tech market is so hungry for new technology that changes the game, if your product is a disruptor, you are going to be taken seriously, whether you are male or female.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

One of my favorite books is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. The lean startup methodology really dials in how to reduce dev time and learn if a certain product can succeed. I used this methodology extensively in my drone company and found it works quite well and we use this methodology today as well with Aerial Sphere.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Do what you love and you’ll never ‘work’ another day!

While no job is exactly what you expect and perfect, working in an area that interests you and you have passion for is key to work not feeling like work at all. Since I graduated high school I have always worked at jobs or started companies that relate to me and keep me motivated. Dreading going to work every morning seems so gloomy and depressing. It’s not an existence I see as a possibility for me.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Clean alternative energy for every person on the planet seems so essential to me. We are a society that persists only because of vast amounts of energy consumed. That we consume so much petroleum-based energy seems so 20th century to me. We have technologies today that can allow for generating seemingly endless clean energy. The biggest challenge is making alternative energy sources affordable and scalable. I’d love to be a part of massive disruption in energy generation and distribution. Imagine a world where centralized power companies are less important or even irrelevant. Where you generate the energy you need where you need it when you need it. I hope I live to see that someday.

How can our readers follow you online?

I prefer to keep my Facebook and Instagram profiles active with friends and family, but the general public is welcome to follow my LinkedIn page to keep up to date with what I’m doing professionally:

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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