How to set up a drone business

Recently I read a post on how to start a drone business. It was advice on how to start a drone photography business but many of the same principles apply to all small businesses.  EG, the importance of finding your niche and focusing on it.  Become an expert in your field.

But there were many omissions in the above-mentioned blog post plus some advice I didn’t agree with.  EG, re avoiding ‘cliches’ in your business name. Yes avoid meaningless cliches but it is smart to include terms that people are using in search engines to find businesses like yours. Or you’re going to have to work a lot harder on SEO (search engine optimisation).

I tried to post my comments in the blog comments section but they were too long for the little comments box. So instead, here’s my advice on how to set up a drone business:

Start how you want to continue. 

What does this mean? If you want to be considered a professional, now or in the future, then behave in a professional manner right from the outset.

Think long term, right from the outset.

  • If you want to run a business – get some business training.  No it doesn’t sound exciting. But whatever business you’re in, there’s going to be elements that you’re just going to have to suck up and get on with – if you want to keep doing what you want to do.  IE keep your eye on the end result, and do the things you’d rather not, to make possible the things you do want to do. Yes you could employ a great business or office manager – but A) when starting out, who has the cash for that, and B) you need to know enough to know whether they’re doing a good job.  You’ll learn which bits of business management you’re able and willing to do, and which aspects of business management you’ll farm out to other professionals.
  • Create a professional website – not DIY el-cheapo (like cheap clothes, yes people can spot the difference). Don’t think a social media page is all you need, especially if you’re operating B2B.
  • Pay for whatever licences you need, join professional associations, and undertake whatever training you need. And get ongoing professional training, to keep up-to-date.  Or get ready to be left behind, because the business car only has 2 gears: forward or backwards.  There’s no idling in neutral.
  • When starting out, it’s often best to begin in spare time; which allows full-time work to pay for small business startup costs incrementally and takes the pressure off having to fund cost of living expenses when the learning curve is nearly perpendicular.  Accountants typically tell clients it take 2 years for a small business to become profitable but most small business owners I know say it took them much longer.
  • The coastal photography market is flooded to the eyeballs. However there are a multitude of drone business-related opportunities in rural and regional areas, particularly for rural Australians and those with specific agricultural experience. Infrastructure safety inspections (for local councils, road authorities and telecommunications companies), aerial property photography for local owners and agents, work on farms and stations that ranges from mapping and specialist data analysis, to fence and yard design planning; and running introductory drone workshops in regional areas.  Always keep your eyes open to other possibilities to pursue.
  • Invest heavily in yourself – ongoing training, research, networking and drone flight experience.  Become the drone expert in your area and it will be hard for any visitors to beat the quality of the local-knowledge based service you can provide. But never rest on your laurels and take that for granted.
  • In relation to flying drones, don’t just stick to the laws – develop a moral compass as well. EG would you want someone overflying your backyard, or buzzing around your family when on a quiet bushwalk in an out-of-the-way place? Or would most people you know be happy with that?  For me, the answer is no & no; so I would never do that to others.  Bear in mind also, that if you’re good at what you do, you’ll be a role model for others to emulate. Build a sound reputation.
  • Marketing. Get good at it. The world is full of people who do great things, but who either have no idea about marketing or they spend no time on it. Conversely, many of the best known people in their fields are actually not nearly as talented as others in the field who aren’t as flash at self-promotion.  Be good at what you do AND learn how marketing works.  Yes you can farm out marketing, but nobody can talk as convincingly about a business as the person who started it and owns it. Farm out technical aspects and do your best to write your own content. People can tell when there’s heart in it. And learn how marketing differs from sales.
  • Be prepared to take risks; albeit calculated risks, based on sound research and backed up by experience. If you don’t take risks, get prepared for mediocrity, which is a slippery slope to going out the back door.  And accept that taking risks will involve making mistakes.  The only people who don’t make mistakes are: A) People who don’t do anything, B) Liars, or C) Dead.
  • Constantly be aware of ag industry and general public perception– and tailor your messaging to solve actual and perceived problems. In relation to drones, right now – many farmers are disenchanted. They’ve been sold drones worth thousands of dollars on the promise of reduced work hours and greater farm net profits. Then they’ve crashed the drone on the first day, had it malfunction or found that drone operation can be very time consuming and not the panacea promised.  And those who haven’t done this themselves are sceptical because they’ve heard the horror stories from those that have. I liken this to an ‘after the honeymoon’ experience, when inflated expectations are replaced by the realisation that like everything new – mastery requires work and dedication, and nothing is perfect.
  • Be very careful giving anything away. Donate to worthy charities – and as a general rule, don’t donate to businesses.  Unless there’s some sort of contra-deal of equal value to both parties.  If you give stuff away to businesses, you’re effectively saying either that you’re as rich as Croesus and don’t care about payment, or that what you’re producing doesn’t have any value. And you’re training business people to think that you don’t need paying.  (If I had a dollar for every photographer who started out by virtually giving their work away (& undercutting others, including those who have helped them), who then went on to moan long and loud that they can’t make a living – I could retire today.)  Giving stuff away to businesses may also create the impression that your business isn’t going well and you’re desperate.  Which is not how to foster customer confidence and increase sales.
  • When donating to a charity, always include an invoice detailing the value of your donation, with ‘no payment/donation’ on the bottom line. This is something I should have done myself, but haven’t, usually.  Learn from my mistake!  Do it for tax recording reasons and to ensure the value of your donation is clear to recipients and valued for what it is genuinely worth.
  • Theoretically giving media free pics to illustrate stories (that aren’t featuring your business), can lead to great sales.  (At least – this is what those working in the media would love us all to believe.)  But the reality is – resulting sales are VERY uncommon, especially in this era of image oversaturation.  Yes there are great examples of someone reeling in some cash after their donated images appeared in the media – but that’s like holding Roger Federer up as what’s achievable as a pro tennis player.  Yes do-able, but one in a many, many million chance!  If you’ve photographed a meteorite strike or second moon landing, don’t give the photo away – sell it and make the most of your once-in-a-lifetime chance!  Don’t be tempted to indulge in an ego trip, because that just helps ensure that you – and others like you – will not be paid in future.
  • Think carefully about what goes online. Watermark all online images.  Generally – if it’s not good enough to bother watermarking, it’s not good enough to let loose publicly.  Put enough images online to get people’s interest & attention, but not so many that people feel they’ve seen it all for free so why bother paying.
  • Do unto others – don’t plagiarise, don’t pinch ideas and pretend they’re your brainwaves, don’t use other’s images without credit or acknowledgement – etc.  Respect the work of others, including musicians – don’t download music illegally.  Why? Just because it’s the right way to behave. Theoretically also to maintain your credibility, but unfortunately many who do the wrong thing in this regard, do develop profitable and high-profile businesses.  (Ideally the public would be more discerning & less forgiving, in this regard.)
  • If you can’t be bothered doing your own research and making an effort to educate yourself, from the outset, then it’s doubtful that you have the self-starting drive to survive in business.  Everything you need to know is online.  Don’t use up time belonging to random strangers simply because you don’t want to use up your own time doing some simple Google searches.
  • Give back. EG chip into forum discussions with your thoughts to help others, rather than only asking questions; don’t just be a taker.  Make the time to revisit discussions to report on outcomes, down the track. Introduce other people – help them build their network.  A) Because this is the right thing to do anyway. Help make the world a better place. Don’t be a self-obsessed user; the world already has too many.  B) If you need a business reason for not being someone who’s just a taker – do it because many others in the industry have very long memories.  So whenever you ask for or accept help from others, always think of what you can do to help them in return. Long into the future.  Other people aren’t charities so don’t treat them as such.  And publicly thank those who have selflessly helped you, when the opportunity arises.
  • Always refer back to this: The average person in western countries lives until they’re around 80. What do you want to look back on, when you are in your 80’s? Make sure it’s a life to be proud of. Yes with inevitable mistakes, but a life that helped make the world a better place, either on an individual, community or environmental basis.

Ultimately – if you’re in something just for the money:

A) People will see it, and

B) You won’t have the grit to carry you through the inevitable tough patches. To survive long term, you need to really care about what you do.  Not because it’s fun – but because it’s something you just have to do.

‘Find a job you love and you’ll never work another day in your life’ is a fairly worthless platitude. Find a job you love – but if you’re 100% committed to doing your best, it is work.

You’re going to have to invest time in research, plan long term but be prepared to be flexible in the short term; and have a lot of tenacity and patience.

Australians are known for being innovative and hard working – we have some of the most fantastic small businesses in the world.  Same applies to our neighbours across the ditch (New Zealanders).

Good luck – there are niches waiting for you!

PS: There’s also a blogpost with information on Basic Business Principles – Tips for Online Startups

Note: This blog post was written in August 2017. Last update: January 2018.

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