Email clients — check. Build portfolio — check. Study for exams — check.
Mike Rhine and Quinn Poland face challenges with their aerial photography company that are unlike those of most small-business owners.
The two have gone through the typical bumps and jolts of early-stage business ownership, from building their client list to perfecting their craft. But on top of those, they have to worry about homework, student loans and exams.
Rhine, 22, and Poland, 21, are university students who own Exos Aerial Imaging LLC, a drone photography company based in Salem. They founded the company during their junior year of college and were recently cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration to take on paying clients.
Their clearance follows other drone-photography operations like Exos that have launched in recent years in the Pacific Northwest. Southern Oregon Drone operates in the state, and another company, Skyris Imaging, with a fleet of 12 aircraft, has offices in Seattle and Portland.
A requirement for a pilot’s license was resolved with new Federal Aviation Administration rules that went into effect in late August – FAA rules now say drone pilots are covered once they pass an aeronautical knowledge test.
Rhine took the knowledge test in late September and was cleared by the FAA to start selling photographs and formally offering Exos’ services to clients.
Rhine and Poland are elementary school friends, both growing up “infatuated with technology.” While Rhine pilots the drone, Poland manages clients and acts as the lookout on shoots for birds, trees and planes his partner might not spot.
They always wanted to start a company together and were particularly fascinated in recent years by what could be done with drones.
While aerial photography has been around for some time, an influx onto the market has come in the last three or four years, said Robert Gonsalves, president of the United Association of Unmanned Aerial Videographers, whose membership numbers are in the thousands.
“Before then, (drones) were just cost prohibitive,” he said.
In 2015, Rhine and Poland registered Exos as an official business. Over the past year, they have been building their portfolio with pro-bono work.
Poland attends Oregon State University in Corvallis; Rhine studies at Willamette University in Salem. They often have to work remotely and sometimes only have time to work on the weekends, in order to balance classes, course work and internships.
Poland said he emails clients between classes.
Asked about the best way for clients to get in touch, a “text is better, ’cause (we) might be in class.”
Kari Ramey, owner of Zenith Vineyard in Salem, had good things to say about the enterprising duo.
The two have done free shoots over her expansive property, helping to map the hills where her fruit grows. Ramey has even used their shots of her property and vineyard events for marketing.
Ramey remembers the days when her vineyard would use photos from a fixed-wing airplane. But she knows drone photography could be an emerging industry for farmers and Realtors, saying it’s a “nice niche” for the market.
“This is a whole new industry,” she said. “There’s gonna be an amazing explosion of applications — we haven’t scratched the surface.”
It was important for Rhine and Poland to do everything by the book in this new enterprise.
Rhine and Poland invested hundreds of their own dollars into the drone itself, as well as batteries and other equipment, like cases, filters and memory cards.
Their DJI Phantom 3 drone and two batteries costs around $1,200, even though the batteries take hours to charge and only last 10-15 minutes a piece. When the FAA changed regulations recently, they thought they would have to spend $10,000 to get the pilot license.
While they would like to eventually be earning money and possibly hire other workers, their number one priority right now is getting a return on their investment in the company, and hopefully a little more to pay off their student loans.
They particularly like photographing open spaces and feel they will have a great market for that in the surrounding areas of Salem. Poland said they are looking to expand their market to golf clubs, real estate and agriculture.
Their biggest advantage, Poland said, is they offer “what Google earth can’t provide accurately.”
They both love working with drones, using them as “another way to see the world.”
One of their first paying gigs will come up in a few weeks when they shoot a local woman’s Airbnb property.
Poland and Rhine are ready and raring to get started.
While the two are still setting a firm price, they’ve mentioned a $75 flat fee with $10-$20 per hour cost. This would include travel time, a 20-40 minute flight and video editing time.