Last year Model Retailer published an awesome article about Cliff Whitney, and how the owner of the Atlanta Hobby group takes flight with the drone industry. While this is an old article, its a good reminder of how far he has come, and how far he continues to go.
Cliff Whitney has a passion for photography, the hobby industry, and drones. Cliff’s dad taught him about building models and, like his dad, Cliff loved flying. Cliff could not afford airplane lessons, so he took up hang gliding. He turned his hobby into a business in 1978. Today he is owner and CEO of Atlanta Hobby, UAV Experts, UAV Ground School and UAV Expert News, all based in Cumming, GA.
Cliff started Whitney’s Glider Supply shortly after high school graduation. “I made a mail-order catalog and mailed it to a list I had purchased from the National Hang Gliding Association,” recalls Cliff. “I was offering R/C gliders and hang gliding related equipment all drop-shipped from vendors I had contacted.” After moving to Chattanooga, Tenn., Cliff expanded the business and built a 1,500-square-foot store right on the bluff of a mountain where he could fly every day. “This was a hang gliding flight school and remote-control glider shop.”
The school photographer in high school, Cliff learned about a sales job at a camera store from his future wife. Years later, recognizing an opportunity to merge digital photography and aviation, Cliff invested in drones, or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles). During his career at Wolf Camera, Cliff learned a lot about business, technology, and programming, and he “saw the potential of the internet.”
Cliff’s brick-and-mortar store helps his online businesses. “We supply equipment, fleet management, flight training and FAA test prep: One source, one call when you need help or have questions. The retail store enables clients to come and see, touch and feel the equipment. Everything is on display and can be flown right here at the shop. The retail presence has given my team the ability to work with a wide array of clients including National Geographic, the Weather Channel, General Electric, CNN, ABC, CBS and Fox News, where we are the primary vendor and handle all of the training, equipment sales and fleet management.” Other clients include real estate companies, law enforcement, the U.S. Department of Defense, Homeland Security, FEMA and the crew of the Walking Dead TV series.
To promote his physical store, Cliff does a lot of marketing. “We spend about 8 to 20 percent of sales on marketing, depending on the season and new-product launches. I have two wonderful marketing associates who work hard to keep us in the news and promote our business.” Video is a strong tool for marketing and promotion. “We produce in-house as well as share the media from our suppliers.”
Cliff uses Google and social media, and he buys ads on digital media. “You need a website that is conducive to the search tools and devices consumers are using. We have worked hard on this aspect of our site, but it is a constant fight and always a work in progress. We are slowly moving away from print, as it just can’t be measured as well as digital. With digital, I can tell so much about who clicked on the ads, where they went and [if they bought].”
“Social media is more of a quick read,” Cliff points out. “We use it to keep our businesses top of mind, more as branding tools versus direct sell. Instagram is nice, as you can flip through all of the cool photography—we have properties for Atlantahobby.com and UAVexperts.aero. With Facebook being more and more advertising-based, you have to work hard to interact with readers. The kids are leaving Facebook for Snapchat. Our biggest followers are on Instagram and Twitter. Instagram is very visual, and Twitter is quick headlines.”
“This is a very rewarding but hard business. A tremendous amount of technical knowledge is needed, and it changes very fast. The client-support needs are heavy and the hardware margins are small. You do not want to get stuck with old inventory! As with many hobby-related products, you are competing with your suppliers, who control the prices and in some instances don’t care about you or your business. They only want you as a showroom, [meaning] the customer will shop at your place and then buy from the manufacturer’s website. So you better know your stuff to win that client.
“It is becoming harder and harder to stay in business even with years of experience, computerized inventory, and business tools. When I started my business, there were thousands and thousands of hobby shops around the country. Now there are [fewer stores], and the reason is that the manufacturers and distributors have reduced the margins to a point that the math for a typical store no longer works, even if you are internet-only based.”
A smart investment
Cliff built a home in the Atlanta area on a private grass airstrip where he can fly his Ultralight as well as real aircraft. One day, he invited the local R/C glider club, North Atlanta Soaring Association, over to the house to fly. “I saw a need and started selling R/C gliders again out of my hanger,” he said. “I saw the future of electric aircraft and battery technology and how it was going to really change the hobby industry, so I invested in all-electric products. We were the first in Atlanta and poured money into marketing. After a year or so … I moved into a 3,000-square-foot warehouse and hired my first associate. Now we are in a 12,000-square-foot warehouse and the number of associates fluctuates between 15 to 20.” “The consumer drone business blew up two years ago but is now only a small portion of the overall business,” notes Whitney.
“UAVExperts.aero was built to focus on the emerging UAV/drone industry. Most corporate companies and government groups … think that a company with the word “hobby” in their name is serious about the UAV space. The “dot aero” came about because we are in the aeronautical space, and to get the .aero domain you have to be an actual pilot. I think it is cool and a great marketing touch.”
“UAVexpertnews.com was born out of a need to share the good things that are happening in the UAV/drone world. We write articles and do product reviews. … We curate UAV content daily from around the world to spread the good word about drones and UAV technology. We have a daily email newsletter that goes to over 20,000 readers, and the site is totally free to use.”
“I call my employees ‘associates.’ For a business to succeed, you all have to work together toward the common goal. The best advice I have is to treat everyone with respect. Be open so the staff knows your pains, thoughts, and vision for the company. You are the boss, but you must have buy-in or your program will not succeed. … We have staff meetings and discuss what is happening with our clients and talk about margins, expenses and how the business is operating.”
Years ago, Cliff joined one of the hobby dealer-only forums. “The owners were so down on the internet, so down on change,” he says, “and were not open to sharing business ideas like we were doing in the photo industry. … You must always change, be it committing to a new line of products that are foreign to what you are currently offering, adopting an internet e-commerce website, buying a new domain name to help control a market or rearranging the showroom. As an entrepreneur, we gamble all we have every day, I have even mortgaged my home several times when I needed cash. Every decision you make impacts the lives of your family and the families of the associates that run your business, so you have to be all in.”
“The aviation industry, as well as photography and the now rapidly growing UAV/drone industry, are such emotional spaces; they touch lives and change the world at all stages. I feel very rewarded to know that we are building products and enabling technology that can actually move society forward in a positive way using science, engineering, and mathematics. I am excited to be a part of this new frontier, and each hobby shop owner should feel the same way every day.”
Pamela Kleibrink Thompson is a writer, recruiter, speaker and career coach. She has written and produced training films for AT&T and IBM, and her articles have appeared in more than 90 publications. Email: Pam Recruit@Q.com.