Covid-19 has raised unique challenges when it comes to running a business. With various pitfalls to avoid, safety precautions to maintain, and work to complete, we’ve had to get creative with our business solutions to ensure they survive.
One person who’s made a positive pivot on his business since Covid-19 hit is Mark Elliott.
We caught up with Mark to discuss his unique journey and how Checkatrade has helped him during these difficult times. Read the full interview below.
Interview with Mark Elliott
What’s your background?
I come from a stringent regulatory background due to my time working for an energy company. I’ve also worked in corporate sales and marketing, innovation, product development and CSR (corporate social responsibility) – to name a few niches! I left that world six years ago due to redundancy and set up my own marketing business, which forms the core of my business to this day.
What type of work do you do now?
I own a drone company, S4G Drone Services, which offers commercial business drone services. For example, we fly drones that help identify building faults, wear and tear (such as chimneys, roofs, ducting, structures like pylons, piping etc). As well as capturing surveying data for architects, building developers. We also create promotional videos and virtual reality tours for a wide range of companies.
Our team also have specialist skills in thermal drone image capture for things like solar farms, assessing the thermal properties or weaknesses of buildings, and providing 3D modelling with accuracy (used by Architects or quantity surveyors in CAD design systems, for example).
What gave you the idea to pivot your business during Covid-19?
I was initially a hobbyist that enjoyed flying drones for pleasure. I owned a marketing company with a hospitality niche, and after Covid-19 hit, we lost 5-years of business in a day. I wasn’t eligible for government support as many Ltd. companies like mine were an excluded group. It was a huge blow, and I was left thinking, ‘what now?’
After an adjustment period, I bit the bullet and took out a bounce-back loan in May last year. I had no other option but to look at new avenues, and so I focussed on my passions and went for it. My knowledge base of commercial drone flying at the beginning of lockdown was very low. By the end of the summer, I’d been up to Leeds and completed my ground school training, which is what you need to become a commercial drone pilot that’s qualified for commercial work and to attain relevant insurances. It’s awarded by the civil aviation authority, so you have to pass stringent ground testing and flight school! It’s all to ensure safety – for other air users, people, vehicles, premises etc.
How did you tackle the Covid-19 barriers?
The physical barriers were easier to overcome as we were allowed to work as an outdoor trade with relevant Covid safe measures in place, e.g. masks, social distancing etc. For a drone company, that’s relatively easy as our work is 80% outdoors and close interactions aren’t necessary. However, the psychological side of starting a business during a pandemic was harder to tackle. The reason I could get moving again was because I’d already gone through redundancy six years ago. Back then, I worked with a CBT coach who helped me reassess my value – who I was and what I wanted. So, this time, I knew what to do next – and that wasn’t to try and solve it by myself!
I reached out to the coaches who’d helped me in the past, and I reached out to an online IOD (Institute of Directors) group, who bolstered each other and kept me moving forward. I’m now friends with four of them for life. At the same time, an online coach approached me and I jumped on the opportunity. I worked with her for six months, and she kept me super steady during that time.
After realising what I wanted to do, it was about strategising how to build and capitalise on that passion. The vision on the back of all this was simple for me. Yes, I enjoy flying drones, but ‘How can I build a business that’s the number 1 in the UK, known for its safety record and integrity?’ That was my next step.
How has your business transformed and grown since making the move?
Hugely! I’m building a great team. I’ve been fortunate to onboard other professionals with credibility and aviation safety knowledge, which means I can trust they understand the safety requirements involved. I’ve also taken on construction personnel who are looking to diversify into commercial drone operations for large scale construction projects. I’ve got a team of ‘spotters,’ who are often hobbyists looking to learn more about the drone industry, and they’re essential for safety. They’re your eyes on the ground, and they check in with you via radio to report any potential safety risks, such as other aircraft nearing the airspace, risk of bird strikes, public entering the area, and even dogs! (Some like to chase and attack drones).
Building credibility is hugely important. For that reason, I’ve become a member of the National Drone Association (ARPAS). I also actively raise the positive profile of what I and other credible drone service providers are doing. It’s a strategic move to help reverse much of the mistrust and false rumours that dog the drone industry. That’s why I’m one of the first drone companies to register on Checkatrade, which gives credence to a new industry. And, I’m proud to say, already have seven 10-star customer reviews.
Another great thing that’s going on is the introduction of drone technology in schools. I’m working with a company that’s going into secondary schools and looking at how drone tech ingrates with STEM subjects. They’re even looking at the benefit of drone flying schools etc. It’s the future of our trade – to inspire, educate and develop young people.
Have you got any tips for people interested in your industry?
- If you’re serious about it, you need to treat every drone operation like a project. At S4G Drone Services, we plan and risk assess every operation meticulously.
- Learn all the jobs you require of your team and do them yourself first. For example, I’ve been a spotter and gained huge value in understanding how that works.
- To become a legal hobbyist drone flier, it costs just £9 to cover you for three years.
- Check out my LinkedIn profile, which explains what you need to do to get started as a hobbyist.
- For commercial work, the minimum requirement is to do an online course called, A2CofC – which is an entry-level training course that will teach you how to fly safely.
Where do you see yourself and your new business in 5 years time?
I’ve got a 5-year business plan in place already. My goal is to be at scale around 20FTE with a fleet of drone pilots across the UK.
What advice would you give to other trades out there who have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?
Keep doing the small actions and the rest of it will come. Keep stepping out and doing something. It’s how we survive mentally, too. Just keep moving forward. Always.
‘Do you have a similar story that you would like to share with us? Join other members in the community and share your story: https://community.checkatrade.com/