The following feature is Part 2 in a two-part series telling the unique story of Jordan Nelson – a Millennial-aged entrepreneur whose success story is rooted in the Blue Ridge Mountains region. A version of this article first appeared in High Country Magazine. Part 1 appears here.
From Hobbyist to Entrepreneur
Six years ago, the commercial drone industry had been around a handful of years. However, most folks viewed the word as a negative – conjuring mental images of unmanned military vehicles bombing civilians. The commercial industry mostly used rotor vehicles (think four rotor copters) rather than the small fixed-wing planes used in warfare.
However, as time passed, people began to see that drone technology had a non-lethal, economic future. As drones became more commonplace, Jordan saw opportunity as clients began to find him.
“It got to the point that I had clients request stuff in the middle of the week,” he said. “It was becoming more frequent. I needed to use vacation days to do the work.”
Even as Jordan continued his work at Appalachian State, his business began to grow organically. Finally, the potential income of a full-fledged business outpaced his full-time salary and he launched Nelson Aerial Productions.
“I enjoyed the freedom of being able to go places and do different things instead of the same thing every day,” Jordan said. “I was not yet making the same as at ASU, but I knew if I did it full time, I could surpass my salary.”
“I decided to go out on a limb and pursue it.”
Many of his first clients hailed from the world of real estate. With such a gorgeous backdrop of mountain scenery surrounding homes for sale, Realtors could not resist the chance to wow clients with an aerial perspective of their dream home.
A colossal tipping point flew into Jordan’s vision when demolition firm D.H. Griffin Company hired Nelson Aerial to film the historic implosion of the Winkler Hall dormitory at Appalachian State in 2014.
Built in 1974, the aging 11-story building succumbed to carefully placed charges and toppled slowly while a crowd gathered. Jordan captured it all, adding to his already growing reputation as “That Drone Guy.”
Since that implosive day, Jordan’s client base has gone national. Clients include Vintage & Specialty Wood, Lees-McRae College, Allen Yates Realty, UNC-Chapel Hill and Sotheby’s International Realty. National media outlets have also worked with Jordan to feature headline-grabbing footage.
“Jordan does just amazing work. I think he brings a rare blend of being a great pilot and also a great editor and storyteller with his work,” WCNC Charlotte Chief Meteorologist Brad Panovich said.
“I work with a lot of great photographers and even some amateur drone pilots and we all agree Jordan does some of the best work we have seen.”
Proposal from Above
Flying into the world of drones changed the course of Nelson’s professional path, but it’s also affected his personal life.
While on a hike with his girlfriend at McRae Peak on Grandfather Mountain in 2016, Jordan stopped at the summit and unloaded his drone a move that didn’t surprise Meghan Frye.
What happened next did.
As the drone circled the couple on autopilot, Jordan bent to one knee in front of Meghan and proposed.
“I decided to propose on top of McRae Peak because that is actually where we went on our first date nearly three years to the day. I always took my drone with me so I knew she wouldn’t think anything of it.”
The video immediately garnered the attention of Good Morning America and the Today Show. Oh, and Meghan said “yes.”
They were married a year later.
“I had footage go viral before but not on a personal level like this. About a year later, Google actually used some of the footage for one of their national ad campaigns.”
Success is in the Air
Looking back, Jordan realizes some measure of his success – his talent notwithstanding – was being in the right space at the right time.
“I think in every industry there’s always an opportunity for someone new to take the industry by storm,” he said.
“I think the amount of work, the commitment and the quality have to be much greater than when I started in 2013 just for the fact that the industry is so established now.”
“The fact that the quality of drones has increased significantly, and the price has decreased also makes it harder. Almost everyone can afford a decent drone, so it means the competition is much fiercer which makes a quick and easy success story even harder.”
Jordan’s Advice for Commercial Drone Enthusiasts
“My advice for those getting started is to do things legally. Have fun flying and learning but before you do any sort of work for anyone (even free work can be for the betterment of a business meaning it was still a commercial drone flight).
“Having the proper credentials will go a long way in the success of your business and unfortunately in the drone industry far too many people don’t do that.
“Drones can certainly be dangerous if operated by careless people who don’t want to do things legally. Those people not only jeopardize themselves and others around them but also the industry as a whole. I don’t want to see someone careless ruin the industry and the progress it has made over the last 2-3 years.”