By Rebecca Wilson – Skyward
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 already employs a dozen pilots, has contracts with major utility companies, and is the leading UAS flight provider in North Dakota’s northern Red River Valley.
Many small drone service providers have reached out to us for advice on setting their businesses up for success and gaining new customers. So I sat down with Matt, 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.
The first FAA-approved and fully insured UAS operations company in North Dakota, SkySkopes has focused on safety, professionalism, and customer satisfaction from day one. Those values have translated directly to more jobs, happy customers, and an excellent reputation in the industry.
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,” Matt told me.
Many of these pilots come from the world-renowned 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,” Matt 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,” Matt said. “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 infrastructural 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,” Matt 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.”
Matt says that 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,” Matt 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. Matt 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,” Matt 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 of 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 3-D 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 are collected of the cellular tower, they can be stored in a database specific to that tower so the wireless company can see how the tower changes.
SkySkopes knows that data delivery is essential, and they take their client relationships seriously.
“We always follow up with our customers after a job to see if they are satisfied,” Matt said. “We’re always looking for that feedback. So far, we have a perfect safety and customer rating!”
The Challenge: Scaling Up a Commercial Drone Operation
SkySkopes’ commitment to pilot expertise, safety, and providing value to clients has paid off. It’s a good problem to have, but when a small business grows rapidly, unexpected challenges arise: If a process doesn’t scale well, business leaders often find themselves swamped by logistics and administrative tasks (keeping track of maintenance records, scheduling jobs), rather than focusing on revenue-generating activities (inspecting a tower, gaining new customers).
“Our company has been growing pretty quickly and there are always growing pains,” Matt said. “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 had been using Google Drive and a patchwork of other software to store records, log flights, and manage monthly COA 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.
That’s what brought SkySkopes to Skyward.
“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.”
And for all the emphasis on automation, human knowledge, and the personal touch are still essential. “Skyward gives us in-depth info specific to our business because Skyward truly understands what it means to be a flight services company. Skyward also has the regulatory specialists on hand, and I can call Skyward if I have a question—if it’s about regulations and I use docs I can’t just call Google.”