This article appears in the June edition of 400 Life Magazine.
Cliff Whitney, founder and owner at Cumming’s world-famous Atlanta Hobby, is living out his dream.
He is a flying fanatic and crazy about remote-controlled toys, intricate telescopes, and the like, and he gets to play with them every single day — and make a living doing it. It’s more than that, too, as he has curated a close-knit team of associates who share his passion, and are keen on his wish to expand the hobby community, grow interest in the industry and help people discover what lies beyond their tablets and smartphones. Simply, he reminds us how much fun playtime can be.
For Whitney, it began with his grandfather’s love of flying, which was passed down to his dad and realized again in him. Unfortunately, a lack of funds for flying lessons meant exploring that interest in other ways.
Instead, he built and flew model planes, started hang gliding, and picked up photography in his free time. His hobby evolved into a business to further feed his passion, but eventually, corporate came calling and he shelved that shop to spend 23 years at Wolf Camera.
There, he learned the ins and outs of running a business, so when the company went under it was time for Whitney to take his career — and his passion — back into his own hands. He reopened Atlanta Hobby a few years later, and it has been growing ever since.
That may be hard to believe, knowing that the number of hobby shops has decreased from more than 20,000 to less than 1,000 nationwide in the last 20 years, but Whitney has leveraged the experience and knowledge he’s gained since first starting his own business to keep Atlanta Hobby a growing success …and one of the best.
“I was taught to always change and help others,” said Whitney. “I have changed our business many times. We were the first in the U.S. to have an all-electric shop. We were the first in the drone business. We embraced moving from internet-only to retail and internet. As an entrepreneur, we gamble all we have every day, and every decision we make impacts the lives of my family and the families of the associates that run my business. You have to be all in.”
It’s paid off.
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Under his Atlanta Hobby umbrella, he’s established UAV Experts, UAVExpertnews.com, and an FAA Drone pilot test certification program called UAV Ground School.
This conglomerate has enabled them to reach professional pilots, and as a result they’ve worked with National Geographic, The Weather Channel, CNN, ABC, and CBS. Their clients span many industries including real estate, roofing, The United States Defense Department, Homeland Security, FEMA, as well as many state and public entities including Georgia Emergency Management and the Georgia State Patrol.
It’s also fun to mention they’ve even taught media moguls like Tyler Perry and Phillip Grossman how to fly drones. However, Whitney will tell you, his favorite clients are the various schools, kids and families he gets to work with.
“Our front door says, enter and be prepared to be amazed!” Whitney said. “I like seeing the excitement in kids’ and parents’ faces when they walk into our shop and see all of the aircraft hanging, and the wall of hundreds of RC cars and trucks, and the big telescopes. And then again when they take the controls for the first time and realize that they can do it. Lights go off in their heads and I smile because I know their life has been inspired for the better.”
For summertime play prep, kids of all appropriate ages can fly aircraft, sailplanes, kites, rockets, and more; or drive race cars, monster trucks, military tanks, and the like; they can race powerboats, challenge each other with unique puzzles, or create something new through an array of creative outlets.
The shop has everything a family or a business might need to build, repair or revamp models, all of the accessories to power up any kind of toy, and an on-site support system, repair shop, and customer service team to help along every step of the process.
In addition, the shop houses a robotics department, the aforementioned drones, telescopes, cameras and microscopes, model kits, and even weather stations. It won’t surprise you to hear this, but that’s still not everything. What is surprising, is that it’s not overwhelming — what they don’t want people to think is that you’re on your own when you walk through these doors.
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“Sometimes dads are afraid or cautious that they might not know how to operate our products,” Whitney said. “We go out of the way to give them the confidence to experience new things with their children. We know our products, we play with our products, and always treat folks how we would like to be treated if we were in their position. We thrive on asking our clients and guests a lot of questions, and then deliver the fun and stand behind it via the right solutions for their play or businesses.”
Whitney has trained his team to provide in-depth, experienced knowledge to customers who are veteran flyers or novice hobbyists. From flight training to community connections, the goal is the same: they want people to know how much fun this stuff is.
“Kids, teens and adults need to get hands-on and there is no better time spent than time with your family,” Whitney said. “The benefit of the retail store is that it enables clients to come see, touch and feel the equipment. Everything is on display and can be flown or driven right here at the shop. It really caters to families looking for fun.”
Albeit leading the hobby pack, one thing to note is that this is an industry constantly changing, whether COVID-19 is affecting how people can shop and learn and experience toys, to working through local flying regulations, or learning the new, advanced electronics, and autopilot technology.
The silver lining was that COVID-19 showed many families how much they needed to get outside and spend time doing things together, and that resulted in one of the best years for the Atlanta Hobby books (and the last 5 months was even better than that).
In addition, the more than 40,000 active clients from all over the globe who subscribe to the store’s weekly digital newsletters and videos will tell you, this industry is not going anywhere.
Whitney’s other passion? He’s invested in his team and treats them well. So much so, that his staff will tell you his business is his real hobby.
“My associates are the business, and for a business to succeed like we have, you have to respect each other’s skills and work together toward the common goal,” he said. “I have the most talented associates! I share all of my books with them so they can learn how the business operates. We have staff meetings and discuss what is happening with our clients and how the business is operating. We take in an intern each summer and let them work in each department one day to learn all about business.”
In fact, he calls this his biggest success, having the chance to work with and grow talented groups of associates that will, in turn, grow themselves and change the world.
“The hobby industry, as well as photography and the now rapidly growing UAV/Drone industries, are such emotional spaces; they touch lives and change the world at all stages. I feel very rewarded to know that we are and have been building products and enabling technology that can actually move society forward in a positive way.”
Now he’s really flying.