Surviving and Thriving as a Commercial Drone Business
So you’ve decided to dive into the field of drone services. You have your Part 107 License, your equipment, and maybe a client or two. At this point, you might find yourself thinking, “Where do I go from here?”
Don’t worry: you’re not alone. Building your drone service business, and positioning it for long-term success, is about so much more than just firing up that Phantom 4 Pro. We get a lot of questions from new commercial drone pilots about the best way to position their services in the growing market and build those services into a thriving business.
To help pilots improve their drone service offerings, we’ve compiled a set of pro tips that answer common questions about marketing, pricing and finding clients for a commercial drone business.
Positioning Yourself in the Drone Services Market: Who to Serve and What to Charge
There are over 30,000 commercial drone pilots currently certified under Part 107, and this number is growing fast. In a recent report, the FAA estimates that the commercial drone fleet will grow to be 10 times larger over the next five years, growing from 42,000 in 2016 to 420,000 by 2021. This means the drone services industry will see a major influx of entrepreneurs in the coming years. To stand out from the crowd, you will need to position your business well. This includes taking a step back and thinking carefully about your service model and price point.
Ed Schmalfeld, of Dragonfly AeroSolutions, is a civil engineer and former landfill manager who now uses drones to provide professional analysis and review for landfills, construction and roadway projects. In our recent webinar about building a new drone business, he had this to say:
“You probably could go buy a drone, go get your license real quick, go out there, and have some limited success….But for sustained success, you need to look at the who, what, where, and why of what you’re doing.”
In other words, to succeed as a drone service provider, you need to first decide: who am I going to serve, how am I going to serve them, and what will I charge to do it?
There’s a lot here, so let’s break it down:
Who to Serve: Choosing Which Industries to Target
From construction, to agriculture, to oil and gas — drones are rapidly finding their way into nearly every industry. As a new drone service provider, it can be hard to know where to focus your energy. Before you decide which industries to serve, it’s helpful to answer these two questions: What industries do I already know about? And what needs in my location aren’t already being filled?
If you have any experience in a particular field, use it. A drone service provider who used to work construction is going to speak the language and know his way around a jobsite in a way others might not. This can be a valuable asset, especially to that project manager who is wary about bringing someone onsite to fly an unmanned vehicle around heavy machinery.
Pro Tip: Before you decide which industries to serve with your drone business, it’s helpful to answer these two questions:
What industries do I already know about?
What needs in my location aren’t currently being met?
If your background doesn’t lend itself to a specific industry, consider how your drone services can solve a business problem that isn’t otherwise being solved, or fill a need that isn’t being met in your particular location.
Stephen Myers of Angel Eyes UAV took both of these factors into consideration when he landed upon his niche market. “It was a matter of being opportunistic in my surroundings,” says Stephen. As a single-digit handicap golfer who lives in Florida — the state with the most golf courses — his choice to focus on turf analysis for the golf industry was a natural fit.
How to Serve Them: Deciding What Services to Offer
Commercial drone operators are no longer limited to the point-and-shoot real estate photography that marked the early days of the industry. Thanks to advances in hardware and technology, today’s drone businesses are able to offer a whole host of services, including high-resolution photography and videography, mapping, 3D modeling, and even land surveys.
As you decide what services to offer, it’s important to take stock of what outputs your potential client base needs. Do you anticipate your clients using drone imagery for marketing purposes only? Or will they benefit from the more in-depth data analysis that drone maps and 3D models provide? Spend some time learning about the different ways your target industry already uses drones, as well as any emerging opportunities, and then match your services to meet this demand.
Again, Stephen Myers has advice to offer on the subject: “The drone is nothing more than a platform, the sensor is nothing more than a data capture device. You have to understand how the value of the data is going to help your end user.”
Pro tip: Consider adding maps and models to your service offerings.
Drone businesses that specialize in mapping and 3D modeling charge an average of $23 more per hour. [click to tweet]
Set Your Price Point
Once you decide what services to offer, you’ll need to price those services in such a way that you stay both competitive and profitable. But nailing down that price point can be difficult. There are so many variables at play, says Justin Moore of Airborne Aerial Photography. Justin is a professional photographer who now offers drone mapping services to the construction and nature conservation industries. “It’s so localized,” says Justin, “and so different based on your market and based on so many other factors.”
To help nail down a pricing structure that fits well for your business, spend time researching your competition and local market. Early groundwork in this area will go a long way. As a starting point, review our recent pricing study, which digs into the available pricing data to help new businesses get a sense of what other drone service providers are charging.
Marketing Your Drone Business
Although not everyone is excited to hear it — if you want your drone business to thrive, you have to spend time marketing your services. This might seem daunting, but, it doesn’t have to be. Start by focusing on these three initial tasks, and you’ll be well on your way toward building a solid marketing strategy.
Develop a Company Name, Tagline and Logo
Your business name, tagline and logo are in many ways the “face” of your company. Develop them thoughtfully. Spend time researching how other drone businesses handle these elements, and then create a package that is unique, memorable and reflects how you want prospective clients to think about your business.
In terms of a logo, do make sure it’s responsive — meaning it scales well to fit a variety of digital formats. If this is beyond your skill set, you can hire a freelance graphic designer through websites like Fiverr, Upwork, or CloudPeeps.
Create a Professional Website
It goes without saying that you won’t get far with your marketing endeavors if you don’t have a user-friendly, professional website for your drone business. Sites like Squarespace and Wix are affordable tools that make it simple for anyone to design a site — no coding experience necessary. Or, you can access website designers for hire through marketplaces like Codeable.
As you design your site, keep search engine optimization (SEO) in mind. For web marketing newbies, SEO just means you are drawing relevant people to your website by designing it — and the content on it — in such as way that it ranks high on search engine results. This ensures people can find your business without having to search for your business name. Instead they can use search-friendly terms like “drone services in Chicago”, or “drone mapping Seattle” to locate your business on Google and other online search engines.
Launch a Blog Highlighting Customers and Successes
Publishing regular blog content, even just a short post once a week, will improve your SEO. Frequent blogging will help keep you top-of-mind with current clients and send the message to potential clients that you are a knowledgeable and trustworthy resource. You can say you are a drone expert all you want, but a blog helps you show it with photos and testimonials from happy customers.
Your blog content doesn’t have to be fancy. A post highlighting a successful project, or a short video in which a client talks about how your drone services have improved their business, are two easy ways to get blog content up on your website.
After you’ve laid the groundwork with a solid business model and marketing plan, a big question still remains: how to find customers? Joining drone service directories like DroneDeploy’s Drone Mapping Directory, droners.io and airstoc is a great way to put yourself out there.
But in addition to getting on directory lists, it’s important to put yourself out in front of as many potential customers as possible. Many people simply don’t know what drones can do, but once they realize the business benefits of drones, hiring a DSP becomes a no brainer. Consider setting up an exploratory call to educate people on the benefits of drones. Demo and pro-bono work also goes a long way toward finding new business opportunities.
Pro Tip: Attend rotary meetings and professional networking events to connect with local businesses and find customer prospects
Attending professional networking events and rotary meetings is another way to connect with local businesses and find customer prospects. Create presentations and slide decks to share at these meetings to give your presentation even more impact.
Gregg Heath of Silicon Falcon Micro Aviation takes this approach. He also keeps an eye out for opportunities to network on the fly. He recounts stopping to talk to the staff of a crop management company when he happened to drive by one morning. “They tried drones on their own a few months ago, but they didn’t know it was possible to do things like stand counts.” Not seeing the value, the crop management company gave up on drones. But after hearing from Gregg what drone mapping can accomplish, they turned from skeptics to a solid business prospect for Silicon Falcon.
And finally, never underestimate the importance of networking with other drone service providers. You never know when someone might get a query for work that is outside their service area. Likewise, if a local colleague ends up with more work than they can handle, they may refer clients to other trusted drone businesses. Connect with colleagues in the commercial drone field by joining pilot networks and communities. Examples include the DroneDeploy Users Forum, PhantomPilots, and the SUAS Commercial Mapping Pilots Facebook group. DroneLife’s guide to the top drone forums is also a useful read.
No doubt about it, building a thriving drone business takes some work. But if you find yourself getting overwhelmed, take things one step at a time. And remember, all of this work now will pay off down the road. As a bit of parting advice, here’s Ed Schmalfeld again:
“You want make sure you set yourself up for success. If you run your business like it’s a little teeny tiny thing, it’s going to be very hard for you to grow or manage success. If you start things like you’re going to be a big formal company, as growth and success come, you just kind of grow into it. You already have a lot of the pieces in place.” — Ed Schmalfeld, Drone Service Provider
Where to Learn More
Hungry for more? Get the full breakdown in our comprehensive guide to getting your commercial drone business off the ground.
Here’s how to access the resources we talked about in this post:
- Webinar: Building Your Drone Business
- 4 Steps to Building Your Drone Business
- DroneDeploy Pricing Study
DIY Website Tools
Website Designers for Hire
Freelance Logo Designers
Drone Pilot Networks and Communities
Get Started with DroneDeploy
Want to learn how DroneDeploy can help your business? Visit www.dronedeploy.com to start your free trial or request a consultation with one of our team members. The DroneDeploy mobile application is available for free download for both iOS and Android devices.