Flying High

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Brothers buy a drone and get to work.

Merrick and Zach Wolfe

Look out, Wright brothers! There’s a new pair of siblings taking to the skies over Metropolitan Detroit, and their technology is more advanced than Orville and Wilbur could have ever imagined.

Zach and Merrick Wolfe of West Bloomfield, professionally known as the Drone Brothers (dronebros.com), have a few things in common with the famous bicycle mechanics-turned-inventors. Like the Wrights, the Wolfes are four years apart, and their first flight also began with nothing more than a little tinkering around.

Last summer, 21-year-old Zach was applying for jobs while 17-year-old Merrick spent his days studying up on the latest technology.

“Merrick started talking about drones and wanted to buy one to have around the house, but they were too expensive, so I suggested we come up with a way to make our money back,” explained Zach, a University of Michigan science major. “I thought we could sell our services; but we never really imagined what it has turned into.”

If by now you’re scratching your head and trying to figure out what exactly a drone is, you’re like most customers who see the Wolfes in action for the first time. A drone pairs highly advanced camera equipment with a remote control helicopter, allowing Merrick to “pilot” the device around area car dealerships, homes listed for sale and commercial real estate developments. The brothers then sell the edited footage for use on websites and in marketing materials, and it all started with some very confused employees at the Golling dealership in Bloomfield Hills.

“I walked in with the drone under my arm and the sales people started flocking around to see what was going on,” recalled Zach, who serves as salesman and “air traffic control” for the burgeoning business. “I asked to see the store manager, showed him some videos we’d taken around the house so he could understand what we do, and he loved the idea so much that he signed up right then and there.”

Merrick returned in the evening when the sun was right and shot 40 minutes of footage around the dealership, capturing nearly every angle from the sky and the ground. The Bloomfield Hills High School junior then edited it down to just one minute of video for the dealership to use.

“I’ve always liked videography, but Merrick is the technology guy, so he does all of the filming and editing and I handle the sales and billing,” said Zach of their business model.

drone shotAs they’ve grown, they’ve had to make outside hires and they’ve also relied on family, sometimes calling on 18-year-old brother Spencer, a student at Michigan State University.

The pair have also had help from their father, Andy, a serial entrepreneur who not only loaned them the money for their first drone, but also taught them almost everything they know about sales and client relationships, though now they’re teaching him a thing or two.

“Our dad has worked around car dealerships his entire career selling loyalty programs, and he always had a hard time because even when they were interested, they’d want some time to think about it. When we make a pitch, I take a contract with me, and they’ve been signing up on the spot. That’s been pretty cool for him to see as a dad,” said Zach.

drone shot 2Though business has slowed for the winter, the Drone Brothers have turned out more than 300 videos in their first year alone – some for paying customers and others done on prospect that show off everything they can do. They’ve purchased a second drone so they can handle multiple shoots at a time, hired a professional voiceover talent to add another dimension to their videos, and throughout have done everything they can to keep costs low and prices reasonable for a small business that otherwise couldn’t afford to hire a video crew and editing team.

“We don’t want our customers to hesitate; we want them to sign up on the spot. We don’t have a lot of overhead today, but as we add staff and buy more equipment it might be necessary to reassess our pricing. We’ve had customers tell us our work is worth more than we’re charging,” explained Zach, who hopes as they grow they’ll expand their reach beyond videos prepared for real estate agents and car dealers.

The pair have as much passion for their business as they do for the Jewish community, inspired by their membership at Temple Israel and their time volunteering at Friendship Circle.

“We’ve been talking about shooting outdoor services for a synagogue or offering our product to local summer camps and charities to use for their marketing. This is a new way to help our community show off and sell its assets, and there are endless possibilities for a drone shoot — we can handle everything from a wedding to keepsake footage of your cabin up north.”

By Ryan Fishman, Special to the Jewish News

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