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‘Technology-empowered $50 operators – here’s how I’m pushing back’

Adam Zuchetti
Adam Zuchetti
08 May 2017 6 minute readShare
Andrew Griffiths, Lensaloft Aerial Photography

Helicopters, drones, cameras, blimps – it sounds like the props list for a Hollywood blockbuster, but this is just a normal day in Andrew Griffiths’ business.

As the founder and operator of Lensaloft Aerial Photography, Andrew has turned his two life-long obsessions – photography and “anything that flies” – into a successful business.

Speaking exclusively with My Business, Andrew reveals how he has overcome everything from emergency landings and Mother Nature to a sudden onslaught of low-cost competitors in order to stay in business for the last 12 years.

Identifying a commercial need

“I have always been obsessed with anything that flies, and I started on the path about 25 years ago building radio-controlled model aircraft,” recalls Andrew.

“Back then, of course, there was no such thing as drones – technology was limited to single-frequency AM radios. And all the cameras – there was no such things as digital cameras. They were all big, medium-format 35mm film cameras, so it wasn't really a viable thing back then and I didn't even consider it as a business opportunity.”

Yet the business opportunity presented itself somewhat unexpectedly, allowing Andrew to earn a living combining his two life’s passions.Andrew Griffiths, Lensaloft Aerial Photography

“The idea of a commercial business came about when I was working in the disaster recovery industry, and the company I was working for had to undertake an investigation into a large fire that had basically destroyed a huge factory complex,” he explains.

“The insurance company had come along and they tried to get a photo or an overview of the whole fire with a cherry picker, but it wasn't tall enough – they couldn't get the view they wanted.

“So I basically got to work and used the aircraft that I had built, and had a camera on board, and was able to get a whole lot of shots that became useful for the fire investigation. After that, they came back to me and said, ‘Is this something that you would offer commercially?’”

Perfecting the service offering

That was around 2005. Since then, Andrew has devoted his time to delivering superior images tailored to the needs of his clients, and continually working to devise camera stabilisation systems and the like to further enhance the quality of his work. Initially he focused on cameras themselves, but now his focus has shifted to perfecting his supplementary tools and equipment.

“I’m still constantly building new stuff that just isn’t available, and I guess the advantage of that is instead of coming from behind and relying on what manufacturers put on the shelves, I’m able to design new stuff that opened up new markets,” says Andrew.

“When you’re on a helicopter or anything moving, you need to have a really rock-solid stabilisation system, and that’s kind of been the main push probably in the last 12 months – [it’s] refining that process.”

“Somehow – I don’t know how – miraculously we pulled up about 30 feet above the water.”

When things go wrong

Andrew Griffiths, Lensaloft Aerial PhotographyMany aspects of life as a business owner can be pretty mundane. But when you spend much of your working life hanging out of a helicopter, there are bound to be some exciting – and terrifying – moments!

“I’ve had bits fly off aircraft 4,000 feet above the desert – thankfully it was above the desert! But it actually damaged the aircraft, so we had to make an emergency landing. That was pretty exciting,” Andrew recalls.

“When I first started out, I didn’t understand really much about the aerodynamics of helicopters, and I asked the pilot to sit in a hover over [a] beach, quite low – I think about 500 feet.

“The way I’d got into position was with the tail facing the wind, called the tail wind, and helicopters really don’t like that … the tail started to flick around, what’s called LTE (limited tail rotor efficiency), and basically when the helicopter starts losing control, it starts to yaw or spin on its axis faster and faster … and we started to sink and fall towards the water.

“Somehow – I don’t know how – miraculously we pulled up about 30 feet above the water. That was a really scary experience – brought home the reality of what it is to work out of the open door of a helicopter!”

“At the moment, there are probably drone operators out there with $200 drones doing it for $50 a pop, and initially that was a real problem.”

Technology unleashing a wave of cut-price competition

While Andrew was somewhat ahead of his time in offering commercial aerial photography solutions, the racing pace of technology has seen an explosion in the number of competitors offering similar services.

“When I first started, no one was doing it and there was no competition, so I charged what I needed to, to maintain all the equipment and keep designing new stuff. I didn't really have any cost pressures,” he says.

“At the moment, there are probably drone operators out there with $200 drones doing it for $50 a pop, and initially that was a real problem.”

However, despite the potential threat from such competitors, Andrew says that it is possible to hold firm to your service offering and pricing structure, as the initial wave of competition is unlikely to survive longer term, as the majority of these operators are unable to deliver the same quality standards.

“Over the last six to 12 months, I've started to see all those clients come back, saying that they weren’t getting what they needed,” says Andrew.Andrew Griffiths, Lensaloft Aerial Photography

“You kind of get a fairly generic result, that’s the feedback I get.”

The bigger problem than direct competition, Andrew explains, is the impact these low-cost operators have had on client perceptions of value.

“What’s been most difficult for me is that clients have come to expect less, and I find it a little bit sad when a client will send me an example of a shot that they are after and it’s really a pretty generic, average shot,” he says.

“But then of course also the expectations of what they are willing to pay for that is also a lot lower.”

Finding opportunity outside the parameters

Forging close relationships to truly understand your client’s needs is crucial to the success of any project, admits Andrew.

However that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be alert to other ideas that may be of benefit to them.

Echoing the famed “Not happy, Jan” line from a Yellow Pages TV commercial, which was reportedly picked up incidentally on-set during filming rather than being scripted in advance, Andrew says ideas and opportunities can and do arise that can far exceed the pre-set plans set down by your clients.

“I guess the flip side of working in Melbourne with Melbourne weather is you really do get to see all four seasons when you're up there flying, and it gives you an opportunity to catch things that you might not have planned to catch,” he points out.

“I’d say a lot of the imagery, a lot of the flights that I've done – perhaps 30 per cent – the client has ended up using the image that I’ve just captured [spontaneously], whether it turned out to be interesting light or the weather just being slightly moody, and it just changed the whole marketing campaign.”

“I was pressured a lot into … doing trade shows and things like that, but none of those ever really worked for me.”

Marketing without the marketing price tag

On the subject of marketing, Andrew admits that it is an exercise on which he doesn’t spend a cent.

‘How?’, you ask, by pushing out his work through social media and old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

“I have never actually actively sought out a client – they've always come to me from seeing my work. I think word-of-mouth has probably been the greatest asset. I've never really put any money into marketing,” he says.

“Everything I do, I share a lot on social media, which has really enabled me to reach a wider audience.

Andrew Griffiths, Lensaloft Aerial Photography“I was pressured a lot into … doing trade shows and things like that, but none of those ever really worked for me. I think perhaps they weren't reaching the audience that I wanted to reach, and I think the only way that I've been able to reach the audience that I want to reach is through word-of-mouth.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that, as a photography business, Lensaloft gets its biggest traction through Instagram. Not so, says Andrew, who cautions that you need to use the right platform that best resonates with your target market.

“There are a lot of images out there and saturation of amazingly beautiful photos, and it’s harder to get a really good interaction with your followers. I find I get a much better interaction off Facebook these days.”

Fast facts: Lensaloft Aerial Photography

Established: Approximately 2005
Industry: Bespoke photography
Location: Melbourne, Victoria
Employees: 0 (Andrew operates with a network of contractors instead of employees)

‘Technology-empowered $50 operators – here’s how I’m pushing back’
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Adam Zuchetti
Adam Zuchetti

Adam Zuchetti is the former editor of MyBusiness and a senior freelance media professional, specialising in the fields of business, personal finance and property. In 2020, he also embarked on his own business journey – inspired in part by the entrepreneurs and founders he had met through his journalistic work – with the launch of customised pet gifting and subscription service Paws N’ All.

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