Scaling a Drone Business: Hints from a North Dakota Start-Up

Matt Dunlevy has a vision for his company, SkySkopes, and it seems to be working. Though they opened their doors in late 2014 – less than two years ago – SkySkopes, based in North Dakota’s northern Red River Valley, already employs a dozen pilots and has contracts with major utility companies.

Portland, Ore.-based Skyward sat down with Dunlevy, president and CEO, to learn what SkySkopes is doing right, as well as the challenges he’s faced at the helm of a quickly expanding business, which was the first FAA-approved and fully insured UAS operations company in North Dakota.

Tip #1: Emphasize the Thing That Sets You Apart

“One of our biggest differentiators is that we hire licensed pilots and people with degrees in unmanned aircraft systems,” Dunlevy said.

Many of these pilots come from the School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota, the first university to offer a degree in UAS.

“We take a lot of pride in our safety culture and the fact that we’re training the best-educated UAS pilots in the world,” he said. “We have the most flight hours and training flight hours, as well as interns, in the state of North Dakota.”

This isn’t an overstatement.

“We fly every day, and we try to fly all day, every day,” explained Dunlevy. “When we’re not flying for jobs, we’re conducting training flights.”

Tip #2: Tell Prospective Clients How You Can Solve Their Problems

SkySkopes specializes in infrastructure inspections – cell towers, wind turbines, transmission lines – as well as survey work and aerial cinematography.

“We’re providing data to our clients that, in some cases, was impossible to collect before now,” he said. “For our utility customers, we’re saving them money and giving them access to new data. We save time by accomplishing the same tasks more quickly and safely.”

Dunlevy said SkySkopes reaches out to prospective customers in multiple ways, including email marketing, partnerships, and Facebook and Twitter.

“As a business-to-business company, we’re always on the lookout for things like turbine farms, trade groups and associations for people who own towers and turbines,” he explained. “We reach out to these organizations to see if they can use our flight services and to let them know that we have a significant amount of experience and aircraft at our disposal. For about half of our customers, they find us; for the other half, we find them.”

Tip #3: Be a Pro

We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep saying it: Major corporations require all their vendors to carry insurance, and UAVs are no exception. This is one of the first benchmarks that a big company uses to vet potential service providers. Dunlevy said that SkySkopes’ bigger clients require them to have at least $10 million in insurance.

And that’s not all.

“We show prospective clients things like flight plans, regulatory permissions, proof of insurance and operating procedures,” he said. “Their legal departments require that type of proof to ensure that we’re running a low-risk operation.”

Tip #4: Provide Maximum Value to Your Customers

If you operate drones professionally, you already know how much value the technology can provide to clients. But just because you know it doesn’t mean your prospective clients do – or they may not understand all the ways in which drone services can help them.

For example, a wireless company may understand that drones are a great tool for creating a 3D model of a cellular tower. But they may not know that drones can provide a level of standardization that has been missing – key for clients that want to see how data changes over a long period of time. Each time new images of the cellular tower are collected, they can be stored in a database specific to that tower so the wireless company can see how the tower changes.

“We always follow up with our customers after a job to see if they are satisfied,” Dunlevy said. “We’re always looking for that feedback.”

The Challenge: Scaling Up a Commercial Drone Operation

When a small business grows rapidly – although it’s a good problem to have – unexpected challenges arise: If a process doesn’t scale well, business leaders often find themselves swamped by logistics and administrative tasks (e.g., keeping track of maintenance records or scheduling jobs), rather than focused on revenue-generating activities (e.g., inspecting a tower or gaining new customers).

“Our company has been growing pretty quickly, and there are always growing pains,” said Dunlevy. “Amateurs talk about strategy; professionals talk about logistics – we’ve struggled in terms of scaling, and we need a solution that’s logistical, not strategic.”

For example, SkySkopes, before it started using Skyward’s software, had been using Google Drive and a patchwork of other software to store records, log flights and manage monthly Certificate of Waiver or Authorization reports (which will no longer be required once Part 107 goes live in August). Managing these disparate systems had become very much of a logistical challenge.

“With Skyward, we can start to automate certain time-consuming tasks,” Matt said. “We can get help with our regulatory requirements, so we don’t have that on our conscience. That way can focus on things that can’t be automated – like sales.”

For SkySkopes, it was also essential to finally have a cohesive, centralized view into the totality of their operations. “All of our people can get on Skyward and see who’s doing what and when. That is so huge for us.”

On the other hand, Dunlevy added that he “can’t just call Google” if he has a question.

Even with all the emphasis on automation in the industry, human knowledge and personal touch are still essential for businesses.

This article is adapted from a blog post by Rebecca Wilson, editor at Skyward, a provider of an information management platform for commercial drone operators.


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