Zia Drone Operations wins the grand prize in the business plan competition

  • Mark Knight, Josh Bishop and Wes Bond are the three partners in the business.
  • They claimed $10,000 in prizes in the recent Hawk Tank business plan competition.
  • The three students entered San Juan College’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program when it launched in fall 2020.

FARMINGTON — A group of students from San Juan College’s drone program didn’t need to get involved in a new entrepreneurship competition to start a business that would put their newly acquired skills to good use.

But the three partners say the Hawk Tank business plan competition – which they entered and won this spring, claiming a total of $10,000 in prizes – has certainly given them a boost.

Mark Knight, Josh Bishop, and Wes Bond entered San Juan College’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program when it launched in fall 2020 as its first three students.

They enjoyed their experience so much that they had already made the decision to start their own business earlier this year when they learned that their school was partnering with Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado for the competition.

Teams comprised of students, alumni and community members from both schools would pitch their business concept ideas to a team of judges, competing against each in various categories for a total of $65,000 in prize money.

In the April 24 virtual competition, Knight, Bishop and Bond — competing as a team under their company name, Zia Drone Operations — impressed the judges and won the San Juan College division, winning $5,000. They also advanced to the final round to face the winning team from Fort Lewis College and won that round to claim the grand prize, earning an additional $5,000.

“What Hawk Tank did was show us how much (help) we had (available),” Bishop said, describing the various forms of college and community support contestants were able to access during the competition. “We learned so much just by completing all the stages. We could have completed all the stages without making any money, and it would still have been worth it.”

A bird's eye view of Farmington at sunset captured by Zia Drone Operations, a new venture started by three San Juan College students.

All three students said they were thrilled to have won the competition, especially considering the amount of work they put into their presentations. Bishop noted that he had never been involved in writing a business plan before, and going through that process was hugely beneficial, he said.

“We took every resource available in the community to make sure our projections were correct,” Bond said. “We’ve spoken to deans, we’ve spoken to faculty advisers – I don’t think there’s an area we’ve missed, to be honest.”

What the Zia Drone Operations team learned during this process was that there was no detail so small that it could be overlooked.

An aerial view of a construction site on the San Juan College campus captured by Zia Drone Operations.

“It was the little things,” Bond said. “Everything counted for that.”

Knight, Bishop and Bond have not only emerged from the competition with the $10,000 cash prize, but they have already created a viable business which they hope will see them live soon. Zia Drone Operations has signed up a handful of clients – including the local office of real estate agency Century 21, a local environmental services company, and the Tico Time River Resort north of Aztec.

ZDO is also in talks with Navajo Agricultural Products Industry to provide the company with specialized mapping of its fields. Bond said the health of various crops can be determined by smart trackers carried by drones, and the data can then be downloaded and analyzed, allowing growers to determine if plants need more fertilizer, moisture or other treatment.

The three students learned to work with such applications in order to create a market for their services.

“There are a lot of cool things you can do with a drone,” Bishop said.

ZDO prides itself on its customer service and promotes the quality of its photography. Bond said the company photos are far from simple snapshots.

Zia Drone Operations captured this image of the Salt Creek Fire near Shiprock on May 2.

“We put some love into it,” he said, referring to the angles, composition and production that ZDO uses, especially for its real estate photography, to provide an appealing image. “It gives (real estate clients) the upper hand against someone who just walked in there with a smartphone.”

With the credibility their company gained with its victory over Hawk Tank, the three students said they plan to aggressively recruit more customers this summer. In fact, they hope to generate so much work for themselves that they can get other drone pilots to work – and they know exactly where to look for them.

“If we land NAPI and all of its areas, we’re going to have to hire pilots almost immediately,” Bond said, explaining that San Juan College — which offers a one-year certification and a two-year associate’s degree program in small unmanned drones aerial systems – will be the first place they seek help.

Following:San Juan College drone program students have a variety of career options

“Right now, we plan to grow as more people participate in the drone program,” Knight said.

Bond has touted the college’s program and hopes his company’s success will serve as an example of the kind of career opportunities that await those who graduate from the program, which is led by instructor Brian Seavey.

“It shows you all the things teachers can do with students in the drone program,” he said.

Following:Business Plan Competition Comes to San Juan College as Part of Hawk Tank Program

Bond said he struggled to find direction in his late teens, but enrolling in college’s drone program helped him overcome that hurdle. He said it’s a great professional choice for those who like to combine technical expertise with a bit of adventure.

“You’re going to have a blast,” he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.

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