Lana Axelrod is the Chief Strategy Officer at Drone Pilot Ground School, an online training course designed to help you study for the Part 107 test. All drone pilots who wish to operate commercially must have a Remote Pilot’s License via the Federal Aviation Administration, and passing the test is one of the steps toward getting that license. I personally used Drone Pilot Ground School to help me study for my test — and I passed on the first time! If you’re interested in trying it out yourself, use DroneGirl50 to get $50 off.
Lana has a wildly impressive resume, which includes an MBA from Harvard Business School and a B.S. in Finance and Accounting from New York University’s Stern School of Business.
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Drone Girl: What is an average day in the life like for you as Chief Strategy Officer at Drone Pilot Ground School?
Lana Axelrod: My average day starts by getting my 1.5-year-old up and ready for pre-school. This process requires some of the same skills as running a business — negotiation, prioritization and maintaining perspective.
My work with Drone Pilot Ground School is part of my role as the Chief Strategy Officer, and it fits under everything that I work on for UAV Coach, which is our parent company. UAV Coach is where we report on industry news and conduct interviews, it’s where we offer a few other courses, and it’s also where you can find our community forum.
At the end of last year, I was focused on 2018 strategic planning. Now that the new year is underway, I’m project managing key initiatives and monitoring our marketing and customer support efforts. I also manage hiring and people development, oversee our financials, and participate in building partnerships. It’s a pretty broad role because we’re a small team, so I have to be a generalist.
DG: Drone Pilot Ground School is easily one of the most successful Part 107 training programs out there. What’s the secret (without giving away all your business secrets!)?
LA: Thank you for saying that. I’m extremely proud of the program we’ve built.
If I must point to one thing that has made our course successful, it’s actually pretty simple — we focus on our customers. One way we do that is by working one-on-one with our customers over phone and email to ensure they’re prepared for the FAA exam. If you contact us with a question, there’s a real person on the other end who will do everything they can to help you. That goes a long way in creating a good experience for our customers.
DG: I do agree! I love getting emails from Alan (the principal course instructor…and husband of Lana!).
LA: We also understand that different people have different learning styles. That’s why we offer our course materials via videos as well as text lectures — you can watch it, listen to it and read it. Another thing we’ve continuously done is listen to customer feedback. Feedback is a gift, and it enables us to strengthen our course for current and future students. We’re most proud of the fact that over 99% of students who report back to us say they passed the FAA exam, and many of them thank us for helping them. And that makes our day.
DG: In your opinion, what is the single biggest thing people who aren’t Part 107 certified pilots don’t realize about drones?
LA: Most people see a drone and think it’s a fun toy, or maybe even a nuisance. They don’t realize that drones have a multitude of applications across many industries.
I like to use the example of using drones to deliver medicine and blood to remote areas. That’s usually an “a-ha moment” for the person I’m talking with. These examples help them realize that drones are not the thing. Rather, it’s what they can help us do and the data they can collect and the perspective they can provide — that’s the thing.
DG: You have a wildly impressive background! How did your background in Wall Street help or lead to your work in the drone industry?
LA: Thanks! Honestly, I never expected to end up in the drone industry. If you had asked me in high school what I wanted to be, I would have said “business woman.” I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but it’s funny that now I actually do that.
DG: I’m the same way! I would have said journalist, yet here we are!
LA: I went to college at NYU and double-majored in Finance and Accounting. After graduation, I went to work for a Wall Street bank in their investment banking division in New York, and then I transitioned to working in private equity for a global firm. Those experiences taught me a lot about financial analysis and evaluating business models. I eventually went back to school to get my MBA at Harvard.
The work experience that most prepared me for what I do now is what I did after grad school, and that was working for American Express as a product manager for two different AmEx cards. That’s where I really learned the skills that I use every day now. Most people say that AmEx has good customer service, and I think I learned from the best in that respect. I also got an important education in profit and loss management, marketing, and operations.
DG: So true — and it is so important to have people from ALL different industries in drones, and not just people who are great at flying or building them. That’s what I think comes to mind for a lot of people when they say “working in drones.”
LA: I got into drones through my husband Alan, who is the CEO of our company. He started UAV Coach as a nights and weekends project back in 2014, and by the time 2016 rolled around, he was working on the business full time and wanted a business partner. I had recently left my corporate job, and we decided that I would join him.
So obviously I don’t have a traditional aviation background, and I’ll go on a mini rant about this for a minute — it really annoys me when some negative people in this industry say things like, “So-and-so doesn’t have a background in aviation and therefore you shouldn’t take their course or trust them with your money.” I’ve even heard the word “fraud” thrown out there in public forums. They haven’t said that about me, yet, but I’m sure it will happen. And I think it’s complete and utter nonsense. We need business-minded folks in this industry just as much as those with flying expertise, and when we marry the two, we can build strong businesses that serve our customers and push the drone industry forward.
DG: That must be so frustrating. We need people of ALL backgrounds to contribute to moving this industry forward. So what’s been the most surprising thing for you about working in the drone industry?
LA: I’ve been surprised by who our customers tend to be. People outside the industry assume that it’s mostly the younger generation that’s getting into drones. You definitely see a lot of young people doing amazing things in FPV drone racing. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see people of all different backgrounds and age groups who are taking our courses. A lot of folks see it as an opportunity to make a side income or to start a new career in their later years.
DG: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to launch their own drone business?
LA: Just because drones have been a hot topic for the last few years, that doesn’t mean that the money will start flowing in if you just buy a drone and get certified. The same basic principles of building a business apply to drones as they do to any other venture.
First, figure out your target customer. For example, are you a wedding photographer who wants to start offering aerial footage to your clients? Or maybe you’re looking to shoot footage of commercial or residential real estate, which you plan to sell to developers, realtors or property managers? Talk to your existing and potential clients to understand their needs and figure out how you can help solve their problems with your drone business services. Everything starts with the customer.
The number one concern of small businesses is building up revenue by getting more customers. To that point, figure out how you’re going to market your business in order to get clients. What tactics will you use? Will you put together a demo reel? Will you build a website or start a YouTube channel? Will you use a company like DroneBase, which connects drone pilots to people who need drone footage?
Some people make the mistake of investing a lot of money upfront by buying an expensive drone and paying for an annual insurance policy. Start small — buy a reasonably priced drone for your budget and try a service like Verifly, where you can get on-demand insurance by the hour. Then, if you see that you have steady business and a growing clientele, you can consider upgrading your gear and also assess whether getting an annual policy is more cost effective. Test out how well your business can do before investing a lot of money into it, and grow your operation on an as-needed basis.
DG: Which drone is your personal favorite?
LA: My criteria is going to be different from someone looking to do commercial operations. I want something light, small, and compact that travels well but also has smart features. For those reasons, I like the DJI Mavic Pro. I nicknamed ours Mave, and it’s a she. She travels with us all over the U.S. and abroad.
DG: Okay, if you could fly Mave anywhere in the world, where would it be?
LA: We got some beautiful shots in Namibia last year of the desert and dunes. I’d also love to fly in the Swiss Alps someday. Of course we’d have to do our research to figure out where it’s legal to fly. Those mountains are so majestic, and the tiny Alpine villages are incredibly picturesque. In that part of the world, you see a lot of people doing BASE jumping and paragliding. It would be incredible to see what they see by getting a drone up there and capturing some gorgeous shots.