While on the surface, the barriers to entry in the commercial drone market might not be as high as some would expect, the reality is that a modest initial investment will only get you so far. Simon Handley is well-versed in the cost and time involved in establishing a drone business, having founded his company, Skylark Aerial Photography, three years ago. Here, he gives his account of what it is like to launch a drone venture from scratch, and the sort infrastructure and investment challenges a start-up can expect to encounter on their journey.
If you are thinking about starting a drone business then you have got to be realistic about the start-up costs involved. I would hate for anybody coming into the field to be misguided and think that with an investment of £2,000 they will make money and can quit their day job. That simply isn’t going to happen – and I believe the drop-out rate for CAA renewals underlines that.
I have flown drones for 11 years and I’m also a fixed wing pilot, but Skylark Aerial Photography was only started up two-and-a-half years ago. However, we are already the most widely used drone business in Cumbria. We are now just on our 60th filming operation in 10 months up here in the Lake District for the 2017-2018 period, and we fly 200 hours on average a year.
We now generate 70% of our business from referrals, but it certainly hasn’t been easy. Business has to be chased. You have to sell yourself – drones come second. It is not uncommon to spend seven hours a day on the phone contacting potential customers and answering emails. You’ve got to be prepared to cold call and offer free demonstrations. In the end, customers buy because they like you but do not over sell your ability – and be realistic about pricing.
Like any business you have to invest in not only drone hardware but all the ancillary gear such as batteries and lenses etc. You need a professional website, marketing, accountant. You also need to be full-time; there is no way you can run a business any business without putting all your time in seven days a week, often for 12 hours a day.
If you have a well-paid job already think very hard about moving across without a solid business plan and maybe a partner who has a steady job. You do not make any money in the first two years. As any business knows, it’s the third year when you see money coming back in.
I agree that you do not have to buy all the gizmos; you buy what you have to use. I use two Inspires, a Mavic, 15 batteries for drones, Olympus lenses, Osmo, high-end Apple Mac for editing, high-end editing software and two iPads. Also have access to a DJI Phantom 4 Pro when required.
I would estimate that when I started Skylark Aerial Photography it cost me in the region of £22,000 to set the business up. You cannot run a drone business on a Phantom 4 on its own. TV crews want X5 cameras. When on location I will have two Inspires and a Mavic and the Osmo, two Ipads, DJI Goggles, 15 high speed SD cards, ND filters and business licensed long range walkie-talkies. I always need a back-up drone – DJI firmware always fails, as do drones.
Because we started with good foundations and investment, we now have three estate agents on our books as drone operators. We normally have a confirmed job every week all throughout the year from property to TV filming. In the summer this will rise to maybe three confirmed jobs a week.
We also do charity work, presentations, school demonstrations and consultation. We also practice and practice coming up with bespoke drone filming techniques. Our drones are normally replaced every 2.5 years due to the high hours they fly, however we do not just go out and buy the next best thing – a lot of research goes into the purchasing decisions that we make. Do not buy for the sake of it as it comes out of your bottom line.
I do not want to spend good money on the latest DJI drone when they regularly update with the latest drone (too often), when an Inspire 1 with X3 or X5 does the job. That’s why we did not upgrade to DJI Inspire 2s. Unless you are at the very top of aerial filming, we still have a long way to go. Personally I think the smaller the drone, the better. The Mavic is superb, it just needs a better camera. For high light levels it is very good, but it is no good in low light levels, such as throughout the winter months.
Setting up a drone business is like anything – once you get started it’s a long road but do not give up if that’s what you want to do.
Simon Handley is founder and director of Skylark Aerial Photography, a specialist provider of aerial filming, photography, building inspections and surveys throughout the north of England and Scottish Borders. www.skylark-aerialphotography.co.uk