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19 Apr 2016

6 keys to being successful as a drone company

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Reviewing my records from the last few years, I have been looking at the long list of drone operators that have started up in Canada, many assisted by me or my company Aerobotika. As I looked at their names and thought about their enthusiasm and dreams and where they ended up, I examined those that have become really successful businesses and noticed a few things they have in common.

From my review, I identified six success factors and compiled them into an easy to follow list.

1. Experience in a niche

I think this is the biggest key to success. Many people and companies come to us for help adding UAVs to their operations to complement their other service offerings. The major reason why these companies have been so successful is that they are already selling services and can simply add this as a new service to their current list of offerings.

This, of course, means that these companies also already have a solid customer base. Finding clients is the single largest struggle that UAV service companies have when they start up. There are a lot of very obvious clients that we all think to reach out to, but these customers have already been contacted by drone service companies since this technology was available.

Now add the fact that these companies usually have experience on the ground or in manned aircraft with sensors and data. I think the most typical example of a company that adds UAV to their current offerings is surveyors. Surveyors have been through years of schooling and have done thousands of hours of ground surveying before they even looked at UAV. Imagine how simple it is for a surveyor to understand digital elevation models (DEM) or stockpile analysis. All they need to do is add an aircraft and a pilot to expand existing operations.

These companies are also a big success because they have already proven their current business. They have financials to support the investment and their training and systems are covered in well-planned budgets. They also do careful ROI analysis and have a business plan to ensure they aren’t getting into something that won’t pay for itself or provide them with the expected profits and to ensure that they can make this sub-service a valuable and sustainable addition.

2. Excellent marketing

I have seen some surprise successes from people that had never seen a UAV nor had any experience in a related industry. This is because they were good at marketing. They created a recognizable brand that carried enough initial brand appeal to get them over the hump and help them gain real-world experience that they can demonstrate.

A lot of smaller operators do a great job at this, but a solid budget and marketing prowess are what separate the men from the boys here. In 2015, I spoke to an operator who was spending more than $15,000 per month on Google AdWords alone. They are now one of the largest and most successful operators in Canada because of this advertising spending and because they had a team of experienced marketing and SEO professionals who were able to push them to the top of every UAV and drone-related search in their market.

3. Partnerships

The next best thing to knowing what you’re doing is having a partner who also does. Partnerships can be an invaluable replacement for keys 1 and 2 and can, in fact, be an even bigger contributor to success. How many times have you heard the saying “it’s all in who you know”? Who you know is even more important here than in most sales opportunities. Even better, your successful high-school buddy with the CEO job will be thrilled to have a catch-up coffee with you when the conversation is about the cool new drone that they’ve been thinking about trying.

I have seen this strategy work well for many startups. They just happen to know the head of marketing for the largest real estate developer in the region, and this launches them far ahead of the pack of drone companies biting at the ankles of these big-whale opportunities. Knowing the right people in the right positions could drop an avalanche of sales opportunities into your funnel.

4. Demo content

Successful UAV operators are able to demonstrate their expertise to their customers. They have the knowledge and technical know-how and are able to show it. There are those operators who do this backward. They believe that getting the customers first is the way to go. In the end, this will not gain them anything when they are unable to show customers that they are able to produce the required end product. As a startup, you cannot afford to make this mistake.

Operators who inspire confidence in their customers will become successful. We all know that word-of-mouth is still the most powerful sales tool. If you are able to demo content, customers will use your business again and again and will think of your company when asked for referrals.

5. Operational excellence

There are those operators who know their technical stuff, such as the hobbyists with a keen interest in how UAV machines operate, but they are not able to explain or provide details to the customer about the processes involved. On the flip side, some operators understand the work that needs to be done, such as surveying, but lack the required UAV technical knowledge. Successful operators are able to do both well.

Customers generally want to know about what you are doing, and if you are able to explain this well, they will see that you truly know your stuff and will trust in the work you are doing for them.

6. Commercial grade equipment

Successful operators use professional-grade equipment with built-in redundancies and functionalities. There is a big difference between a DJI Phantom 4 that can be picked up at local retailers versus a Draganflyer Commander or an Aeryon SkyRanger. Having the right equipment for the job is the same as dressing for the job. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. If you show up for the job with the wrong equipment, you are not gong to be taken seriously. Turning up for a big agricultural survey job with a DJI Phantom versus a Hawk Lancaster isn’t going to work. These are two completely different machines with differing capabilities.

In summary

As I discovered in my review, these six factors strongly contributed to the success of these businesses. Now, I am not saying that if you don’t hit all of these points that you can’t succeed. I’m just saying that the more of these points that you hit, the easier it will be.

Read our Why All Surveyors Need Drones blog to see why drones are a must have for surveyors.

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