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Would It Work to Start a Drone Photography Service by Subcontracting Out the Drone Operation?

August 28th, 2017

Alice in Texas asks:

I am not a drone pilot – can barely spell drone. But I’m an old hand at sales and marketing and setting up successful small businesses.

I am getting ready to set up a drone photography service for realtors and construction managers in Texas where I live. I have a pretty good ‘in’ with several of those folks, and I can see that the demand is there. So I’ll be the sales and marketing frontend, looking to partner with professional drone pilots.

My idea is to set up strong scheduling and processing standards (where realtors have complaints, they seem to be around those things). In other words, I’ll establish the Realtor relationships and keep them happy and build standardized processes for communications with realtors and home owner/construction managers. I want to outsource all photo and video editing for quality standardization.

For most businesses, your plan of being sales and marketing person and subcontracting out the work seems like a workable way to create a business. However, to me there may be several potential problems in this industry:

  • This is not a business with a huge amount of profit margin. You are going to share profit with drone operators and post processors. You’ll be competing with small one person businesses where one person does everything. After all, it’s not that difficult for one person to learn and get good at everything, marketing, drone operation, and post processing.
  • You may have a difficult time producing a standardized look and quality by using many different drone operators. Seems like there will be many different looks because of different styles and equipment. I’d be inclined to work with just one operator.

What do drone operators out there think? Has anyone else tried this approach?

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11 Responses to “Would It Work to Start a Drone Photography Service by Subcontracting Out the Drone Operation?”

  • I think it’s a viable idea. Just be sure to buy LOTS of liability insurance.

  • The premise assumes that all photographers (drone aerial or otherwise) are interchangeable. There’s only one segment of the market where that’s true. Guess which segment that is?

  • As a drone photographer in an area where there are not a lot of FAA certified pilots I tend to get a lot of work by word of mouth referrals to Realtors and photographers. I also have an account with DroneBase and their commercial missions get me in with larger businesses. I subcontract directly through other real estate photographers.

    In an area like mine with over a million people I don’t know that there are enough drone photographers to sustain a business like that.

  • On the surface this seems like a good idea. However there are already several national companies that essentially do this, though without the personal connection that you offer.

    As in any relatively new industry, pricing was high and has begun to stabilize and decline, squeezing profit margins. Also, there is a great deal of difference in the quality of work being done. High end realtors expect, and pay for, great quality. Lower priced properties don’t offer realtors enough revenue to pay for even low quality drone work.

    I think it would be quite difficult for you to make a significant income from this idea. I also suspect we are going to soon go into another recession, though not to the extreme of 2006-8. The equity market bubble cannot be sustained much longer and when it breaks all markets will follow suit.

  • In my area there is a computer repair store that offers decent licensed drone photography for $75 and allows you to markup the fee to the customer. I can make a little money and do not have to pay all of the fees to get the gear, license or insurance.

  • While drone shots are very desirable on high end homes, not sure you can make a living providing only that. Take a look on zillow or realtor.com in a market you want to serve and see how many homes have drone shots… I think for the most part you’ll find a very small percentage and you’ll be competing with other companies to get your share… Besides that, you will also notice those same listings have other media like HDR photos, floor plans, 3D walk throughs, brochures etc… The person or company who can provide all those services in one package, under one order and preferably in one visit will have a price an convenience advantage. Agents prefer not to have to deal with multiple vendors and appointments for convenience and with multiple people visiting the home, costs go up since each person has travel expenses.

    If you go the drone only route, you also have to ask yourself what additional value you are adding to the process…. Yes sales and marketing and bringing work to drone operators is a value to the drone operator, but what value does it bring to the agent? Agents can and will try and go direct to the drone operator to save money and avoid your mark up so what additional value are they getting for your mark up?

    Editing could be one of those values but it adds to the cost as well…. Will agents pay that additional cost? Some might, some won’t and that can also limit your business.

    Here again, if you have a service that includes all the other media components they need to market a listing that’s real value…. You package it all up in one property marketing website and provide tools for them to market and distribute it along with their branding, now you’re giving them even more value.

    Unless you are adding considerable value, eventually you are going to get squeezed out.

  • We recently started subcontracting drone aerials for realtors/agents to add to our MLS photography business. We located a good drone pilot locally who is reasonable, reliable and easy to work with. So far, the requests have been only for drone aerials. Our markup on his fee covers processing and delivery. The original idea was to sell the whole package of 30 MLS photos plus 5 drone aerials. So, this is not working out quite like we expected as the drone operator is making most of the money. However, it’s still summer season and business is slow so we’re going to see how things work out in the months ahead.

    We’re also considering offering pole aerials as an alternative for homes in developments and charging an add-on fee for these. We have a 12 ft pole and will have to move up to a 20 ft pole in order to get the necessary height. But we wouldn’t have to share the profit with anyone.

    Larry is right when he says this is not a business with a huge amount of profit margin. We’re always looking for ways to improve on this and it’s an uphill battle. But, don’t give up and good luck in your endeavors.

  • Maybe it is just me, but from a standpoint of one who would be giving potential profits away, this seems a losing proposition for growth

    “I’ll establish the Realtor relationships and keep them happy and build standardized processes for communications with…”, if one cannot learn these skills to run their business, they might want to think about doing something else for a living. Why would anyone give away control over the contact with their clients?

  • @Jerry Miller

    Because some people don’t have the marketing skills and are not capable of building relationships like a good marketing person can. But, they are good photographers/drone pilots. I would gladly give control of client contact to someone I trusted to treat them an me right.

  • Ken Ewald wrote: “… I also suspect we are going to soon go into another recession….The equity market bubble cannot be sustained much longer and when it breaks all markets will follow suit.”

    Economic downturns are AWESOME for real estate photography. In a seller’s market, any house can be sold with the crappiest photography. But in a buyer’s market, you have to actually WORK to sell the place. The glory days of PFRE were during the Great Recession, when agents were scrambling to figure out how to make one house stand out against the glut of identical ones on the market at the same time.

  • Very true Ken…. Inventory is very low in a lot of regions and when a dog with a note in it’s mouth can sell a home, why spend the extra money on marketing?

    There are however some smart agents that realize a listing is the perfect opportunity to market themselves and what they do or don’t do is a direct reflection on them. We’ve all seen the horrible photos taken by agents with clutter all over the place…. That agent is not going to get my listing.

    We also find that when there are fewer listings available, agents needs to compete to get that listing. They need to show some differentiation in the listing appointment and often times will commit to do some unique marketing to win the listing. This is where services like professional photography, drone, floor plans etc come into play since they demonstrate tangible value to the home seller.

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