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Drone journalist takes flight with help from Sauder

Tagged: Entrepreneurship

UBC graduate Cliff Vermette is helping people see the world from a whole new angle.

A new breed of journalist, his company shoots footage using drones that fly above and around subjects, such as the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma, in a video that was featured across the world in London’s Daily Mail.

His business took flight after studying with Sauder School of Business Instructor Paul Cubbon, who helped him chart a course toward launching his company in the class Decoding Social Media, jointly offered by Sauder and UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism. Cubbon says the course is aimed at getting students to think about the “business of content.” 

Bringing a business plan into focus

Through directed studies, Cubbon helped Vermette pinpoint his business niche, while thinking about who his customers would be, what he could provide them, and how his product could stand out from his competitors – business questions a journalism student isn’t used to thinking about

“With first-time entrepreneurs, people often don’t think there’s going to be any real competition, they totally underestimate their costs, and they overestimate what people will pay for things. So it’s all a recipe for disaster,” Cubbon says. “I got Cliff to be more rigorous and objective in his planning. He was driven by passion, which was great, but sometimes that can get in the way of making clear decisions.”

Vermette says working with Cubbon helped him put things in perspective.

“He managed to temper my unbridled enthusiasm with very pragmatic and useful advice,” Vermette says.

Standing out from the crowd

Since graduating, Vermette has made his home and set up his business in Bangkok, Thailand.

“I love the idea of choosing what I want to learn and then running with it,” Vermette says. “What I learned has really set me apart from my colleagues here in Asia and opened up a lot of opportunities for me.”

Even living in Bangkok is tied to staking out a unique place in his field. Having lived in Asia before, he returned because it gives him a business edge as one of a relatively small number of English-language journalists in the region. Add his specialty using drones to capture editorial footage and he’s one of a kind.

“Since I'm the only one in the world with a drone shot of the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, it has given my company a lot of cachet,” he says about the video footage that provides startlingly beautiful aerial shots of the massive sacred Buddhist landmark. “That landed me all sorts of calls to shoot some amazing things.”

Cliff Vermette
Vermette shows off one of his drones to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand

A dynamic business model

He’s continually adapting his business as he seeks to keep doing video journalism, but also take on more lucrative jobs in film and advertising.

“I've begun to model my business like that of polling companies, where I look for high profile jobs such as shooting for BBC, and do those at cost just for the exposure,” Vermette says. “Then I can leverage the exposure to get more corporate jobs.”

While it’s his calling card, Vermette has also branched out into video production work beyond drones.

“I’m building the company into a full-fledged advertising and production company,” he says. “And at the same time, I’ve developed the perfect breaking news drone to make more inroads with news outlets – so I’m ready to pounce on the next breaking news story and really show what can be done with these things.”