Derrick Ward is a Drone Pilot Ground School alum who has managed to build his aerial services business, Hot Shots Aerial Photography, to an impressive point in a fairly small amount of time.
We first met Derrick via email, and we were lucky to meet him in person at InterDrone in Las Vegas, back in September.
Alan and Lana with Derrick at InterDrone
Here is the story of how Derrick built his aerial services business up from offering free flights to onboard clients, to a point where he now charges as much as $250 an hour for his work.
How Derrick Got Started
Derrick’s path to creating his own aerial services business came out of a background in flying RC helicopters coupled with some specific life events that left him and his wife with a little extra time, and the desire to do more.
Let’s start at the beginning.
One thing to note about Derrick is that he has an insatiable curiosity, and a real desire to figure out how things work. When he learns about something he dives in head on, and consumes as much information as possible on the topic.
These qualities have helped him in building his aerial services business, because there are so many different skill sets required—not just flying, but also post production for cinematography and photography, and mapping and surveying (services he also offers), not to mention marketing and sales.
A Passion for Flying
Derrick has been flying and fixing RC helicopters for years. After a crash he’d tinker with the machine until he got it to fly again, and out of this hobby grew a natural interest in drones.
When drones first incorporated GPS tracking, this was a game changer for Derrick. All of a sudden you could take your hands off the controller, and your drone would just sit there in a 20 mile an hour wind and not go anywhere. This really impressed him, and he started flying drones more and more, as well as researching them to better understand how they worked.
… and Photography
As time went on, Derrick ended up getting a few different quadcopters, including a Blade Chroma with a camera.
His experiences with the Chroma led him to start experimenting with photography, and led to an interest not just in flying but also in post production for aerial cinematography and photography.
Life Events, and Why Derrick Decided to Start an Aerial Services Business
Derrick’s works full time as a fire fighter. He always wanted to be a fire fighter, and that work is his first love.
He’s done fire fighting work in California for twenty-seven years, but a few years back he and his wife decided to move to Salt Lake City, Utah so they and their two sons could be closer to his wife’s family.
The move led to an unusual work situation—even though they live in Utah, Derrick works for the Los Angeles Fire Department, and flies back regularly to work. He generally works about five days straight in L.A., then comes home to Utah for eight days off.
When they first moved about a year and a half ago, this schedule meant that his wife Carla was left looking for projects to do while he was away, since they were new to Salt Lake City and still developing a community there.
One day Derrick was in L.A. working at the fire station, and he began looking at drones online during a late night shift. He ran into the Inspire 2, which had just come out, and thought to himself, “Man, that is awesome. But I couldn’t justify the expense just to fly this thing for fun.”
And that’s when a lightbulb went off in his head.
What if he started an aerial services business? He remembered that when they sold their house in California a husband and wife team had worked together to take pictures of their property for real estate marketing. The wife went through the house taking photographs on the ground, while the husband sent a drone in the air to capture aerial images of the house.
The great thing about the idea was that it would give his wife something to do while he was away working, and it would also give him a project for when he was in Utah. All of that, and he could buy that awesome DJI drone he’d found online. 🙂
When Derrick got home he spoke to his wife about starting an aerial services business, with an initial focus on real estate marketing. They could follow the same model as the couple that had photographed their house in California, with her doing shots on the ground while he handled the aerial shots.
She loved the idea.
And that’s how Hot Shots Aerial Photography first came into being.
Creating the Business
This wasn’t Derrick’s first time running a business, so he was aware of the things that needed to be done in order to set things up for success.
Here’s what Derrick and his wife did to get their business off the ground.
- Developed a business plan, including advertising and sales strategies
- Registered their business Hot Shots Aerial Photography, LLC with the state of Utah
- Began looking for web designers for the company’s website, ordered business cards, and started a company Facebook page
- Pulled advertising images and text together, so they’d be ready to tell the world about their new company
- Researched the legal considerations around operating drones commercially, including whether they needed drone insurance, as well as everything that was required to become FAA certified as a commercial drone pilot
- Looked into the kind of equipment they needed, which included finding the right camera for his wife to do real estate shots on the ground, post production software, the Inspire 2, and everything else they’d need to do real estate marketing shoots
In addition to all of the above, Derrick and Carla made sure to get caught up on everything they needed to know for the business they wanted to run.
Derrick’s wife took classes on photography, both online and in person, so she could get up to speed on everything she would need to know for her new line of work.
Derrick already knew how to fly and take pictures, but he wanted to get even better, so he took courses on flying and aerial photography / videography.
He also signed up for Drone Pilot Ground School’s remote test prep course so he could get ready for the Part 107 exam, which he passed with a 97. (Woot!)
In short, once Derrick and his wife decided they were all in on starting a business they did a TON of planning and learning to set themselves up for success.
They launched Hot Shots Aerial Photography in February of this year, and in just nine months they’ve been able to go from offering free flights to charging between $100 and $250 an hour, depending on the type of work.
In case you’re curious, Derrick currently has an Inspire 2, a Phantom 4 Pro, a Cannon XA35 for work on the ground, an Osmo for indoor and real estate work, and a ton of batteries, so that he can fly all day long without needing to wait for a recharge.
He has 10 sets of batteries for the Inspire 2, 6 sets for the Phantom 4 Pro, and a charger that charges four batteries at once.
How to Get Your First Client—and Keep Them
To get his first client, Derrick called all of the realtors in his area to set up meetings, and offered each of them free shoots.
The first realtor to accept the offer was one of the biggest realtors in Utah for homes being sold in a lakeside community. They were pleased with his work, and also impressed that he had put his skills on the line by offering to work for free, and out of that one free shoot he was able to land contracts to several houses, every single park, and several shops in the community.
He used this approach with several other realtors, giving away shoots to demonstrate the value of his work and of aerial services in general, and it won him so much recurring work that people now call him to hire him, whereas he originally went door to door to get meetings.
The reason Derrick used this approach is that, for many realtors, aerial services are still a new concept, and they don’t fully understand the value aerial shots can bring to their efforts to market and sell homes. The free shoot helps familiarize them with the value, and it also gives Derrick a chance to demonstrate the quality of his work. One thing to emphasize is that Derrick had a strong sales plan in place when he offered to work for free—after the free shoot, he followed up proactively and was ready to go when the client expressed interest in hiring him.
Derrick doesn’t generally offer free flights any more because he now has a big client base, and he has a steady stream of inquiries from potential new clients coming in all the time.
A key ingredient to Derrick’s success in not only finding clients but keeping them is that he works incredibly hard to deliver the best product for everyone who hires him.
Coupled with a strong work ethic, he has an infectious enthusiasm for working with drones that makes it hard not to get excited yourself. Just talking to him, you can feel his excitement come across for the work, and this quality is certainly something that’s helped him both get and retain his clients.
Pricing Your Services
Derrick’s advice about pricing is that people should evaluate their own work and the amount they charge for it by how busy they are.
If you’re really busy, and you have people knocking down your door to hire you, then you don’t need to offer free services to find clients since they already understand the value of your work. And if you’re incredibly busy then you should probably consider raising your prices.
On the other hand, if you’re not very busy, then it’s worth considering tactics like offering lower prices or free shoots to bring in new clients, until things start to pick up.
Key Ingredients for Success
So what can we learn from Derrick’s story?
Here are some key ingredients that have helped make Hot Shots Aerial Photography a success:
- Expertise. Derrick already knew how to fly and take photos before he decided to start a business, but he still worked hard to beef up his skills, flying regularly and working on post production so that he could get better and better.
- Creating a business plan. Derrick thought through all of the pieces of his business before launching, which helped position him for success.
- Marketing. Derrick proactively reached out to realtors when he first got started, contacting everyone he knew to grow a Facebook community. He also began advertising his services early on. He had a plan for how he would reach people to let them know about his services, and he executed it.
- Sales. Derrick had a compelling, no risk sales pitch—who doesn’t want something for free?—and he followed through with a good product. This won him his first clients, and propelled him into a position where he gets regular requests for work from new clients.
- Hard work. Derrick is one of the hardest working pilots we’ve met. He always seems to be doing five things at once, and he does them with a rare enthusiasm. This is certainly one of the ingredients that has contributed to his success.
- Ongoing education. Derrick is always learning more about aerial services. He went all the way through Drone Pilot Ground School twice, not just to prepare for the Part 107 exam, but so that he could master the knowledge contained in the course materials. He is constantly learning more about his work, and reads voraciously about new drone applications and ways to improve the skill sets he already has.
- Preparation. Derrick takes a pilot’s handbook with him everywhere he goes, which includes a pre-flight checklist, and the California and Utah drone laws (both places where he might be be operating), with key sections highlighted. He wears his part 107 certificate on a lanyard around his neck while flying, and keeps a traffic cone with him at all times to call attention to an ongoing mission. He also wears an illuminated vest for visibility and safety, and owns his own safety helmet for work on construction sites.
- Professionalism. Derrick emphasizes quick turn around and high quality. With most of his shoots he tries to return the finished project within one to two days.
Check out this video Derrick made highlighting the benefits of drones in construction:
Fire Fighting with Drones
In addition to Derrick’s work with Hot Shots, he’s been helping the Los Angeles Fire Department to help create a drone program there.
The L.A. program is going to be one of the biggest drone programs in the world, and Derrick is working hard to get it up and running.
They already have a group of fire fighters FAA-certified to fly drones, and soon drones will be helping with structure and brush fires, and also with accidents, water rescues—by Derrick’s estimation, once implemented the program will be used often, and has the potential to help save lives and keep people out of harm’s way.