Spring is here!

4 04 2009

I’ve been busily preparing equipment for the green that is soon to show. This winter has been slow because of weather and my overall workload with existing projects. We will have some new projects that will be rolled out by May, as well as partnerships with local businesses to provide a new type of virtual tour. Cleaning out the shop currently and prepping the machines for the busy summer!

How much should I charge?

9 01 2009

So you get a phone call, and a client is asking you if you can do a aerial photo shoot of a property.  Simple enough; something you’ve done  hundreds times.  But then the dreaded question comes – how much do you charge?  Alas, that is the question!

Often people in all different lines of business must make this sometimes awful decision.  How much is your work and time worth?  And just as important, how much does your competition charge?

There are a number of variables to consider, and tasks you must do before you answer your client’s question.  First, do your research of your competition.  Call them, ask for a qoute on a shoot, or check their website.  If you are competing against full scale operators, they likely are charging  just to show up! Costs for the actual photos or other deliverables are typically extra.  Second, determine what your time is worth.  This is a more complicated task than you might think.  For one, you have associated costs and liabilities you must consider.  Is it worth doing this shoot if you end up with a total loss on your machine?  You also want to consider how much you are willing to discount your services based on the competition – if at all.  Every market is different, and every client is different.

So you know what your competition charges, and you’ve decided what amount you should charge for doing this job.  Answering that question is now easy.  You know your product is superior, you know you can beat the competition’s prices (because now you know what they are!)

Of course there are still some unknowns you must deal with as well.  For one, your competition may not be able to deliver the same kind of shots that you can.   In that case, you really need to consider the price of uniqueness and (un)attainability of what you can deliver.  Can your competition deliver a spherical panorama over a property, or at a intersection?  Probably not!  Adjust your price accordingly.  Remember, pricing yourself too low may even make that client think you deliver something cheap or sub-par to your competition!

Chopperpix – a brief history (part 4)

8 01 2009

One last fast forward to early 2007. Sometimes, simple is better. I had been dabbling with some smaller aerobatic helicopters at that time and thought “hey, that thing is more than capable of flying a decent camera.” I often create a lot of the equipment I use, simply because it’s cost effective and because I can visualize very clearly in my mind what I want, and translate that into a real working thing. I decided I was going to create a specialized camera mount for this smaller helicopter, and so I did. Once I had done so, I began imagining all the purposes that it could fill. And it was simple – simple enough that if something went wrong that I wouldn’t have another “tragedy”.

At this point, I had already acquired my real estate salespersons license. My family has been in the real estate business for as long as I’ve been around, and I desperately wanted to make Chopperpix help out in the real estate side of my life. I had done photos in the past, of course, but now I had a intent and focus, and I was doing it for our business which benefited all of us. It didn’t take long before we collectively decided that we would advertise the cooperation between Chopperpix and #1 Advantage, Realtors, as an exclusive provider of aerial photos of residential real estate. It was another “feather in the hat” for the company – exclusivity. We had something that made people stop and look at our listings twice. Our clients loved it. We heard lots of positive feedback on what we were doing. I finally started to feel legitimate, to feel the dream hadn’t died. Shortly thereafter, I picked up some contracts with a out-of-state advertising company who wanted Chopperpix to provide pictures of large commercial properties. What a feeling it was – all the work was now paying off.

The dream came true.

And today the dream continues. My dad told me long ago these words of guidance – “Make a job out of what you love to do, so that you’ll never have to work a day again in your life.” Ok, that may not be exactly how he said it, but those words are solid gold. At this juncture, Chopperpix has grown in it’s abilities. We’ve done amazing work with aerial spherical panoramas, oblique photography, and HD aerial video. We have amazing helicopters that just a year ago I couldn’t even dream of owning. This spring of ’09 will be another groundbreaking for us, as we pursue much larger ventures. The sky is the limit, and we’re taking the pictures!

Chopperpix – a brief history (part 3)

8 01 2009

The gas powered helicopter that I had pinned my hopes for making Chopperpix a success was always a work in progress. On that fateful day of June 4, 2005, I took the machine with me to a “fun fly” at a local airport where other r/c pilots were flying their planes and helicopters. I needed to fly the helicopter without the camera mount or camera a few times while I was working out some issues, and what better time to do it than on a huge full-scale airport runway? When I showed up with the helicopter, it was noticed by everyone because it was so large. It had a nearly 2 meter rotor span, and had a mighty presence in the air. On the second flight of the day, I was doing some higher altitude passes from left to right, and back right to left. At the end of one pass as I commanded it to return back towards me, there was a electrical failure of the tail rotor assembly. Instantly the machine began to spin wildly. The only thing I could do to stop it was to execute an autorotation (un-powered descent). Of course, I’ve done many autorotations, but none with the helicopter’s tail out of control. The machine descended quickly. There was only about 3 seconds of reaction time to save it, but I failed. It impacted the ground with a thud that nearly ended the dream of making Chopperpix a reality. I walked over to it, and realized it was almost completely destroyed. The countless hours of building it, tweaking and practicing with it – gone. Worse yet, it hadn’t made a dollar for me yet, and because of the financial situation at the time, I could not afford to repair or start over.

That day I thought the dream had died. I mourned the loss of the machine nearly like the loss of a loved one. It was a crushing blow that I simply could not believe had happened. After bringing the remains home, I kept going inside the house, and then going back to the garage to see if it really did happen. Yes, it did. It was over.

It took a year before I finally got over that crash. I put the helicopter on a shelf in the garage and left it, not to be touched for nearly a year, which when I did I promptly fixed it and sold it. I was done with it, or so I thought. But I couldn’t get the r/c helicopter bug out of my system altogether. I still flew my aerobatic machines as much as possible, still “training” for that someday when maybe I could make it all work out and Chopperpix could be the reality I dreamed of.

Check out part 4 for the final portion of the story…

Chopperpix – a brief history (part 2)

8 01 2009

So I got off on a tangent about what it takes to be an r/c aerial photographer – it is definitely one of the topics that gets me going – but this is about the history of Chopperpix

After the first little helicopter was pretty much worn out, I bought a second helicopter, that was bigger – about 50″ long. It was nitro powered, loud, and the exhaust emitted a smokey wonder that followed it through the sky. I flew that helicopter during 2004, putting through about 35 gallons of fuel. That’s a LOT of flying. By mid-year, I decided to take an old Canon point-and-shoot digital camera and strap it on to see what it was capable of. It did ok, and it really got the wheels turning as I realized I could accomplish a lot more with a bigger, more powerful helicopter. It wasn’t long before I became the new owner of a gasoline powered helicopter that was capable of flying at a all-up-weight of nearly 30lbs. It was finicky, but it worked. I made several camera mounts for it to carry, bought new camera gear, and really started to move forward in development and skill. I learned quickly that I was not a photographer. Nor was I fully capable of piloting the helicopter safely. I also learned that I needed a vast set of skills in other areas apart from the flying that I hadn’t really expected. While I was successful in doing my own private work to start a portfolio, there was a disaster looming that I didn’t foresee coming.

I had a lot of ideas brewing in my head for Chopperpix. I started to formulate who I wanted to market to. I started thinking about pricing. I developed a decent website. But I didn’t know how to market. To be honest, I was pretty much a chicken at that time when it came to selling. I was not the guy who could sell the ketchup popsicle to the old lady in the white dress. Far from it. Creativity was abounding, but execution and sales of my creativity was wholly lacking. I had a few minor setbacks along the way of course, either with money or achieving marketing goals. But nothing prepared me for the huge emotional setback of June 4, 2005.

Check out part 3 for more of the story!

Chopperpix – the brief history.

8 01 2009

I’ve told the story quite a few times, but it never ceases to amaze me how the concept of Chopperpix came about. I’ve been active in some sort of aviation, full-scale or model, for at least 22 years now. My dad taught me to fly on a little .049 motorized glider in a school yard in 1987. The following year dad decided to surprise me on my birthday by getting his full-scale pilots license renewed after at least a 11 year hiatus. Flying was just a built-in part of my life. I read books about flying, I watched every airplane fly by, learned their names, dreamed dreams of flying. Non-stop.

Fast forward to May of 2003. I hadn’t flown a model airplane or full-scale for years, as an internship, college, and life in general dictated it take a back seat. For my birthday, my dad decided to take me to the local hobby store to get something for me. What I left with changed me. A toy helicopter. Ok, not really a “toy” because it carried more than a toy price tag. I took that helicopter back home and flew it, and then flew it some more. I dreamed of flying it. I flew it inside, I flew it outside. I flew it till it literally wore out. Helicopters are amazing mechanical wonders, and it puzzled me and confounded me, but I conquered it.

Somehow along those first few weeks I came across a little 2.4ghz wireless video camera. I looked at that little helicopter, and that camera, and thought “what if?” That was the birth of Chopperpix. I did modifications to make that camera fit, and I buzzed it around, making abhorrent little videos that would make you vomit if you watched too long. But it was a start.

Helicopters have amazing abilities. Unlike an airplane, helicopters can move in any dimension instead of just “forward.” What confounds most is that very thing. The level of understanding, coordination, and reaction time required is much higher for a r/c (remote control) helicopter pilot than that of his fixed wing counterpart. You can even fly them upside down, and backwards! And backwards while upside down! Mind blowing capabilities – and perfect for mind blowing video and photos!

I spent a lot of time in the beginning focusing solely on flying. I wanted to learn to fly aerobatics. So I did. I crashed a lot, spent a lot of time fixing, and repeated the process over and over. Just to give you an idea, a “typical” r/c helicopter crash with a relatively large size helicopter could easily soar north of $200 per crash. I often times thought taking up smoking crack would be a cheaper “addiction.” Which by the way, any good r/c helicopter pilot will tell you that it is addicting!

The good thing about learning to fly aerobatics is that it trains your mind to respond to the helicopter in any situation. Often in internet forums that cater to the aerial photography profession, I repeat my mantra of really learning how to fly. When you push yourself and your machine, you learn so much more than if you just tooled around with it. You learn to fix it, tweak it, fly it smooth, fly it precise, fly it in tough conditions, fly it in unusual attitudes, fly it when something goes wrong, and so on. And things DO go wrong. And you have to learn why they go wrong and to keep it from going wrong again. All that adds up to the primary role of an r/c aerial photography pilot. Of course then you need to master the rest of the skills – photography, video and video editing, web development, salesman, marketer! But all that is for another blog, another day.

Continue on to the next post for the “rest of the story” on the beginnings of Chopperpix…

Common startup business failures…

7 01 2009

You might ask yourself, what does this have to do with Chopperpix? Well, it has everything to do with it! Just like any other business that started with the idea of “what if?” Chopperpix has had it’s ups and downs as well. Ever since the idea of Chopperpix was dreamed up, there have been struggles to keep it going. Here are a few of my experiences in the startup of this business. Be sure to read the follow up post where you’ll read a little about my personal experience in Chopperpix’s startup.

1. Aerial photography. Sounds interesting right? Sure, but it’s kind of plain – boring too. What any business needs to do is differentiate itself from the competition. Not just aerial photography, it’s low-level aerial photography, using low cost UAV helicopters! Now that sounds more interesting doesn’t it? As you get the grasp of where this lies in importance and the general business plan, you’ll understand why differentiation in a big pond is important.

2. The old saying is “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” All too true, isn’t it? I had my own issues with this saying when I first started Chopperpix. My first goal was to buy, buy and buy more “stuff.” But I had no plan. I didn’t have a business plan, plans for how the machines would operate, and plans to market. Guess how much money I made? Not much, and wasted a lot of time spinning my wheels. All too often in internet forums catering to aerial photography you will see this same scenario repeated over and over.

3. This may sound silly, but brochures and business cards are pretty much worthless for a startup. Focus your time with one-one contact with your potential clients. When you have your game down – REALLY down – then start with that.

4. Advertising in the phone book? No way. First of all it’s a dying medium. If you’ve got a website, focus on proliferating it everywhere you can. This is your best calling card and way to be found. Print media will soon be such a small segment of how we find one another, and your internet presence is much more important. Focus on search engine optimization. Here’s a great link on how to do that – here

5. The website. Should you go plunk down $1000 for a domain name and website right off the bat? I say no. There are websites out there that will help you get on your way to designing your own website, and you can buy domains for ~$15/year. It is best to build from the basics and as income allows, expand it. You wouldn’t want to drop that money only to give up and lose it down the road. I personally build my own websites. For me the answer was simple, but not for everyone.

6. You stopped marketing? This truly could be the biggest failure point of any start-up. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t keep marketing. Repetition is the key. Just like in real estate (my primary profession), you MUST keep your name or product out there in peoples faces or your competition will get your cut.

7. When you tried, nothing happened, so you didn’t try again? One of my favorite quotes from Winston Churchill – Never, Never, Never give up. No one likes a quitter. Have I thought I’d quite my dream of Chopperpix? Actually no, but I did get discouraged. If you make a mistake in your start-up, try again, and again. If you give up, you may never know the success that you could have possibly been.

8. You figured what worked for that company will work for yours. But for some reason it doesn’t. Just like in my experience with Chopperpix, there are many business who’ve tried to replicate another’s business model and failed. Why? Because they took a long time to get things figured out too. And tweaked it. More importantly, if you can focus on diversifying your business into a slightly different niche, you could capitalize on the customers that your competition isn’t. If you can make that work, then focus on the goals your competition is focusing on, and then you’ll leave the start-up phase behind in better shape and more successful.

What’s the bottom line here? Starting a business can be one of the hardest things to do. Uncertainty, lack of structure, and lack of your “safety zone” can leave you scratching your head and perhaps giving up. No one knows what tomorrow brings. No one knows if you’ll be successful. If you give up, you’ll never know. If you fail you can say you tried. If you succeed, you’ll rejoice in the fruit of your labors, knowing you achieved something that relatively few ever do. Just don’t give up.