For Sam Stephens, the view from the top is pretty good.
At a time when many teens are earning their driver’s license, Sam just got his business license. His aerial photography business is taking off — and he’s overcome his share of challenges while getting it off the ground.
Sam is on the autism spectrum. He didn’t speak until he was 4 years old. There was a time when no one thought he would be able to attend public school. Now, the budding entrepreneur is a junior at Genesis Prep Academy in Post Falls, where he makes good grades and plays basketball.
In June, he launched a new venture: using a drone to take aerial photographs of homes and properties.
Aerial photography has many applications, Sam said. Some clients simply want to display the unique photos in their homes; others want to see their property from above for landscaping purposes or to get a better idea of where their livestock roam. Sam is considering the possibility of working with real estate agents to photograph properties for sale.
Sam uses a Phantom 3 Standard made by DJI, which he received as a gift. The drone can fly up to 35 mph and weights two and a half pounds.
“They’re pretty easy to learn to fly,” he said. He taught himself to operate the drone by watching YouTube videos.
Still, accidents can happen. Sam said he recently flew his drone into a pile of rocks near his family’s home and chipped a rotor blade.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to fly low.’ That was a bad idea,” he said with a laugh.
Drones come in a range of prices and capabilities. Small, ready-to-fly toy drones range from about $20 to about $250, while camera drones start about $300, according to MyFirstDrone, a media group specializing in drone-related coverage and reviews. High-end drones geared toward professional users can cost $1,000 or more. Sam’s Phantom 3 Standard cost around $400 new, though the exact model he has is no longer in production.
Sam takes special care when flying in unfamiliar areas, such as a client’s property. He has to be aware of potential hazards like trees and power lines.
One of Sam’s clients, Meigan Tunison, said Sam was respectful of property and privacy. When he arrived to photograph her home near Spokane, he already knew the property line so he wouldn’t intrude on the neighbor’s space.
“He does his research,” she said. “He knows his equipment in and out.”
Tunison and her husband do a lot of landscaping, she said, so she was interested in aerial photographs of their property as a way of seeing changes over time.
“Every few years, I’ll probably do the same thing,” she said. “It’s a different perspective of life, truly.”
Pitching his business door-to-door isn’t easy, Sam said, but it’s worthwhile. His outgoing personality helps.
“You get to meet people,” he said. “It’s a really fun experience.”
Sam’s mom, Deanne Stephens, said his immediate success was a pleasant surprise.
“I thought there might be a few neighbors and that would be it,” she said.
But those first customers referred their families and friends. Word of mouth has been Sam’s greatest marketing tool so far. Within a few weeks, he was so busy that he decided to raise his prices to offset the cost of gas. By early July, a month after launching his business, he’d served about 20 customers.
Sam charges $20 for three aerial photographs of a house or property or for an aerial video, which can be set to music. He offers a video and photo bundle for $30.
“It’s a really good investment,” he said.
Rob Little, one of Sam’s teachers at Genesis Prep, said Sam has grown as a person since they met three years ago. Sam is a leader among his peers, Little said, with integrity and an unmatched work ethic.
“When he’s got a goal, he goes for it,” he said. “I think he’ll succeed because he’s not going to give up.”
Sam donates 10 percent of his profits to the Autism Society of America.
“Sam has a real heart to help people,” Deanne said.
After he graduates from high school, Sam said he’d like to continue growing his business. But he’s exploring other options, as well, such as going into real estate, attending trade school or honing his photography skills.
Sam said he wants to encourage others to pursue their dreams, regardless of the challenges they face.
“It doesn’t really matter if you have a disability,” he said. “You can be successful.”