In this post I talk about how to start a drone business that will succeed and last in the long term, and how to earn money as a drone pilot and aerial photographer. As we shall see, it’s one thing to be a good drone pilot but quite another to run a successful drone business. Some people are better at working for themselves while others are more suited to working for others.
My advice is derived from the experiences I had between 2013 and 2016. In 2013 I noticed drones were becoming increasingly sophisticated and popular and I noticed the rapid growth of companies like DJI Innovations. Consequently I registered several domain names and got involved in this burgeoning industry.
At first I was a retailer, selling DJI Phantoms using a site called CopterDrones.co.uk. I also blogged about drones and unmanned aviation on DronesUAV.co.uk, and then I ran my own aerial photography business under the name WessexAerialPhotography.com. I did all this in my spare time while employed full time as Network Engineer. It was a busy period!
Too busy in the end. I sold the business and the collection of websites to an aviation partnership. It became clear to me that in order to fully exploit the potential in this industry it would take more time than I was able to give at that point so it was better for everyone if I let it go.
7 Tips From A Former UAV Operator
So, what I’m about to tell you is based on my own experiences. The opportunities are huge and if you’re ready then you can look forward to a long and lucrative career in the world of unmanned aviation.
I’d be very interested to know more about you and your drone business, and if any of what I’m about to say is of use to you. So please, read to the end and leave me some feedback in the comment section below.
First I need to make some assumptions about you. I’m going to assume that you are already familiar with the technology and your particular models of drone, and the laws, legislation, and the necessary permits for flying drones in your particular country.
If you fly drones then it is of course essential that you comply with all the laws and stick rigidly to all the safety recommendations when operating unmanned aerial vehicles of any kind.
The reason I want to set aside the technical aspect and the subjects related to training is because plenty of people have explained this already. I can see from articles and videos already published that there’s plenty of advice about the practical side of flying a drone, drone photography, and getting the required training for a commercial operator’s licence.
Besides, drone technology has evolved over the past few years. Any drone pilots starting their own business offering drone services now has more advantages in that department than I did in 2014. The number of commercial drone pilots with a current remote pilot certificate is growing year on year. When I started there were less than 150 individuals (or legal entity) listed with the CAA.
Instead, I would like to pass on my advice about running a small business on your own, planning ahead, and gaining new clients. You might be very adept at UAV flying, aerial photography, and video editing but you need more that these practical skills to make a success of a drone business.
The tips that follow apply to any drone business whether your speciality is aerial photography, videography, aerial mapping, thermal imagery, agricultural services, aerial roof inspections, or whatever. I’m sure you have your own drone business ideas but a drone photography business is obviously the most common starting point.
1. Preparation and planning before you get started
Your first task is to consider your market.
- Who are your potential customers likely to be?
- How will you find them and how you will you retain your current clients?
- How will you persuade them to use your services as opposed to a competing drone service?
- How far are you prepared to travel?
- Is all your business going to be locally based, in your home country, or abroad as well?
This may seem obvious but it’s suprising how many people rush into the drone business without considering this in detail. Even if you already have ten people who have promised to hire your drone business services you will need ten more, and ten more after that for years ahead.
Are they likely to be one-off clients or is any chance of repeat business with them? Obviously it will be a bit harder if all your clients are only going to hire you just the once. Repeat business and up-sells will make life a little easier.
The real estate market is a common source of potential customers for a drone business. There’s a fairly constant demand for real estate photography so it’s a good place for any new drone business to start looking. Real estate agents need plenty of good quality marketing materials that include aerial clips of the properties for sale.
Another area that you might want to explore is construction drone services. Construction projects have been transformed by the use of drones for planning and capturing the progress from breaking ground to completion. Drones can film and photograph the site from the air, create 2D and 3D maps, and record the exact location of the buildings’ infrastructure as it is built.
You will also need to decide on a business name for your new business. This might be based on your business location or on the services you intend to supply. It’s worth spending some time on this and giving considerable thought to the branding.
Potential Targets for Aerial Inspection Services
- Domestic roofs
- Industrial roofs
- Wind turbines
- Solar panels
- Power lines
- Whole building inspections
- Data collection
- Drone surveying
- Aerial mapping
2. Create a business plan for your start up
If you’ve ever watched the TV show Dragons’ Den (and I recommend you do) you will probably know that it is essential to know the figures for your business. It doesn’t matter how good the product or service, if it doesn’t show a reasonable profit in a given timeframe then it’s never going to succeed.
So your first task is to create a drone business plan. This doesn’t have to be a complicated PowerPoint presentation with pretty pictures and multimedia (unless you intent to pitch for some investment) but you should at least compile one or more spreadsheets that remind you of what your capital costs and expenditure are likely to be in the first 12-24 months.
There are plenty of free Excel templates online. Just google for ‘business plan templates Excel’ or similar phrases.
You should know the answers to basic questions like, What’s your CODB? (cost of doing business). You need to understand for your own benefit and be able to explain to anyone who might be an investor or a lender of funds. You need to be certain how many clients and how much business you need per month to break even and go into profit. You’ll need to set an hourly or daily rate for your drone photography business.
I cannot stress enough how important this is for your success. Many drone businesses (in fact, any type of business) fail in their first two years because the owners just don’t know what to charge for their products or services. Set the right price at the start.
Don’t forget to factor in drone insurance for your drone business. You will need not only hull insurance for the UAV and all the other kit you take to site, but also general liability insurance against any mishaps that result in property damage or worse, injuries to people as a result of your commercial drone activities.
Business insurance is a must, not an optional extra. Any drone businesses not paying for liability insurance are taking a huge risk and are probably operating illegally without drone insurance, bringing the drone industry into disrepute.
You’ll also need to decided whether you’re going to operate as a sole proprietor or as a limited liability company.
3. Controlling the budget for your business venture
The second point I want to emphasise to keep a tight rein on your budget. You might thing that you need every new gadget, tool, and software for your business. It’s very easy at the start when you’re flushed with enthusiasm (and you’ve still got money to spend!) to buy all the latest kit.
Just remember that for every pound or dollar you spend you will have to replace it with several pounds or dollars. Do you really need that gadget or software today?
Don’t get bitten by the softare bug and suffer from upgradeitus. A lot of software tools are filled with features we don’t use. Stick to the essentials.
While there will always be a need to maintain your equipment and some online tools will help your marketing you need to be certain that everything you buy earns a good return on investment.
4. Set the right price for your drone flying
Imagine the scenario; you’ve quoted for a job but your client hesitates and tells you that they can only pay a proportion of your price. They may even hint that they will hire you again if they can secure a discount this time.
My advice is to stick to your original price and don’t be talked into a discount that results in you working at a loss. You should know from your plan what your break even price is so you’ll know there will a point at which it’s just not worth taking the job.
The contrary argument to this is that some work is better than none but once you let a client agree to a discount it’s much harder to obtain your full price later on. You need to explain to them that your price is set in accordance with the going market rate and that, just like them, you need to make a fair profit just to stay in business.
Remember also that a small discount for them is a much bigger loss to you than they imagine. For example, if you need to take £300 to break even so you add £150 profit and your quoted price is therefore £450.
If they persuade you give to them a 10% discount then you’ll lose £45, but that’s £45 off the total price. By giving them a 10% discount you’ve just lost 30% of your profit!
So brush up on your negotiation skills. Eventually it will pay off. People tend to respect those who show confidence in their own abilities and pricing. If your work is of sufficient quality then people will respect you and your prices.
5. Reinvestment and further drone training
Following on from the point about profit there is the need for reinvesting in your business. You didn’t think that £150 was going to go into your back pocket, did you?
Drone technology is evolving rapidly. I like to think that these years are similar to the early years of mobile phones or the world wide web. We are beginning to see the potential but no one is really sure just how big this technology is going to be.
You’re going to need to reinvest some of your profits in new equipment and perhaps external drone training and online courses for yourself. As your business grows you may need to send employees on drone training courses too.
Training is the usualy the first budget to be cut when a business experiences a downturn in sales but it’s essential if you and your employees are to maintain currency in their respetive skills and certifications.
All this needs to be considered while still keeping in mind the points mentioned previously about your budget. You will have to discern between what is sound reinvestment and what is non-essential.
Even the most talented people can fail in business by not attracting new clients. If you’ve got excellent drone piloting and other skills then you are off to a great start but you need to feed your business with new clients.
There are some businesses that do well simply by word of mouth. Good work is referred to others and the orders continue to flow in but they are rare. Most businesses need to budget for marketing every month.
Presumably you added a marketing budget to your plan. If not then do so now because it will have an impact on your prices.
Don’t imagine that marketing is something you can do just on rainy days when there’s no flying. You will need to put some effort into it every week, come rain or shine.
You can do a lot yourself to save on costs but what you save in pounds in spent in hours so you’ll need to decide whether or not some or all of this task can be outsourced.
There is a lot you can do to attract potential clients online. We are all familiar with websites and the various social media (SM) accounts that can be set up for free but it takes time and doesn’t always work. If you rely on this method alone and no new clients find you then your business will start to fade before it’s fully begun.
You can showcase your work in a website or YouTube channel but if your potential clients don’t find you there, then what?
You can add your drone business details to one of the many UAV directories but if the website isn’t being promoted enough to bring you new clients then your subscription could be wasted.
You can start tweeting, create a Facebook page, and upload shots to Instagram. You can open as many accounts as you like but how much time can you spare each week to spend on these tasks? Do you know the best times to post?
I’ve been checking lots of drone business websites and SM accounts. It’s apparent that a lot are underused and left neglected. Nothing says ‘don’t bother’ more than a dead account that hasn’t seen a tweet or update for six months.
You’re going to need to combine the efforts in attracting organic traffic via your website and SM accounts with the more direct approach of paid advertising.
Once again, this refers back to your business plan. Knowing where to spend your budget depends on your target market. Is print advertising still a good choice for reaching them? Perhaps a quarter page advert in a specialist trade magazine is a productive choice.
Or should you do what more and more businesses are doing and pay for clicks using Google Adwords, Bing, or Facebook ads?
Don’t forget you can also try the old fashioned method of cold calling. However, I strongly suggest you research this first. Take the time to find out what the best format is for an email. Learn about the best heading, opening line, second line, and signature in your emails. Keep a record of what emails you send out and note the responses.
Research your clients and show a genuine interest in them and their business and they may return the favour by responding to your unsolicited email. Send a follow up if you like but whatever you do don’t spam people.
7. Time management
Yes, this old chestnut. It crops up in every list of tips for would-be millionaires but it does so for a very good reason. If you’ve ever read any autobiographies written by successful people you may have spotted two bits of advice that they all want to pass on.
The first is that we all only have 24 hours in a day. No one gets any more.
The second is that it pays dividends if you spend your time wisely. It’s a precious commodity and it’s not infinite. So develop the habit of spending 90 minutes each day doing your essential tasks. I suggest you spend 90 minutes on marketing
Do this before you check your email, Facebook, or Twitter. Don’t read the news or faff about with online distractions. Do your 90 minutes of marketing then at least if the rest of the day becomes unproductive you have at least succeeded in achieving that much.
This concludes my list of seven tips for starting a drone business. If you need any help with your website, social media management, pay per click advertising, or internet marketing videos then please get in touch.
I hope I’ve demonstrated knowledge of both the market and running a business so I would be glad to quote for your online marketing needs.
Operating a Drone Photography Business
In conclusion, if you’ve set you’re about to start a drone business in which you legally fly drones for commercial purposes, then as a business owner you’ve got a lot of planning, preparation, and research to do. You will need to be familiar with the drone laws and local rules in order to operate safely. As a drone service provider you’ll need to have a strategy for keeping your existing customers
If you found this post of interest or helpful in any way I would be grateful if you’d add a comment below. Even better, please share it!
Thank you for reading and good luck with your drone business.