Daniel Wiegand’s electric, vertical take-off and landing startup is set to transform the transportation industry. Given all of the recent events happening around the world, there may be no better time for a new, sustainable mode of mobility that can get us around.
During our time together on the Dealmakers Show, Wiegand shared his inspiration for innovating in aerospace, the future of travel, and the fun he has had building and funding an important startup.
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A Passion For Flight
Daniel Wiegand was born in a small German town of just 80k people. His family soon relocated outside of Munich, in an area bordering France and Switzerland.
Ever since he can remember Daniel has been passionate about flight. He’s dreamed of being able to fly since he was five years old. His childhood pets had to be birds. He would film them in flight in slow motion to watch their movements. His family would take him on holiday to watch thousands of seabirds in action. His toys were radio-controlled aircraft.
By the time he was seven years old, he says he was“seriously unhappy that I was born as a human and not as a bird.” The next best thing was getting his gliding pilot license. By just 14 years old he had his first solo flight.
As with many great engineers Daniel also enjoyed creativity through music. He was playing the trumpet at eight years old and joined the school jazz band and classical orchestra to play piano.
Despite this incredible early passion for flight, the journey to entrepreneurship is commonly filled with experiences that teach you what you do and don’t love and excel at.
Having the heart to help the world and solve problems, he decided to go study economics. While he enjoyed learning it, it just wasn’t his thing. He switched to aerospace engineering in Munich.
He continued to do a lot of traveling, including biweekly flights to visit his girlfriend in Sweden.
He got a job in Zurich, Switzerland with ABB. There he worked on hybrid ship propulsion as a project manager. He got to see how big companies worked at scale. Though he also quickly realized his preference would be working in smaller, entrepreneurial environments.
He returned to Germany to complete his Master’s, during which time he spent a semester in Glasgow, Scotland, and found his startup idea.
Fundraising The Next Thing In Flight
Daniel’s crazy idea was to start an electric aircraft company that manufactured small jets capable of vertical take-off and landing. He went after it.
This isn’t your typical tech startup. Which meant getting funded was challenging. They bootstrapped for 12 months. A feat that Wiegand does not recommend others copy. It slows you down and limits the talent you can bring in early on.
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They picked up the use of some office space and 50,000 Euros from the European Space Agency. They took on debt and each of the four co-founders hit up their banks and parents to bring another 10,000 Euros to the table.
It still wasn’t enough. Their prototype was almost ready, but they were about to run out of money, just before they could get it off the ground. They began spending their mornings trying to build a network and get in front of angel investors. From lunchtime to midnight they would be building the prototype in the garage.
They eventually struck a match with a star of Germany’s version of Shark Tank, Frank Thelen. A few weeks later they were in the air. They’ve pivoted and iterated, and have now raised around $340M.
Storytelling is everything which is something that Daniel was able to master. Being able to capture the essence of what you are doing in 15 to 20 slides is the key. For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) where the most critical slides are highlighted.
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This was no small feat. Especially given the fact that most of today’s investors are all in on SaaS. Few if any have aerospace experience. It was an investment that would take at least several years to even finish a product.
There could be no MVPs. Not when you are flying in the air. A glitch there would be catastrophic. It is one of those few scenarios in which everything really does need to be perfect at launch.
Automation In The Air
Today Lilium has a team of more than 450 people. They are on their way to affordably connect us in the skies, in a super fast and eco-conscious way. Think of it as a taxi service in the skies.
Daniel interestingly points out that we may be more likely to see this automation and leap in technology happen even faster in the air than on the ground. Many autopilot functions have already been figured out, and there is a lot more space, with fewer humans and obstacles than on the antique road and train systems we are used to.
Recent events are also likely to seriously impact traditional large commercial airlines and flight paths. An air taxi from the suburbs to small towns and important hubs, which doesn’t have the baggage of yesterday’s airlines may be just what we need. Especially if you can order it right on your phone.
Listen in to the podcast episode to find out more, including:
- Building an aerospace company
- Fundraising for unique ventures
- Daniel’s top advice for founders
- Finding your cofounders
- The downsides of new trains
- Building an entirely new ecosystem to support your startup
- Spaghetti dinner interviews and long walks