Jonny Nicol Was Flying Private Jets When He Spotted a Gap In The Market And Set Out To Revolutionise Jet Travel

Private jet travel is so complex to book that Stratajet’s founder discovered a real gap in the market – what lessons can we learn from his success?

RISING How did you originally spot the gap in the market for Stratajet? JONNY NICOL, FOUNDER ‘After serving for a decade in the British Armed Forces I became a corporate freelance pilot, which included flying private jets. One day I was flying a jet from Nice to London with no passengers, as the aircraft simply had to be repositioned. Problems like that – inefficiency and wastage – were resulting in hiked prices for passengers and holding back private jets from being accepted as a valid form of transport. In my opinion, the concept of elitism and luxury has outgrown what private jets were originally invented for; and that’s efficiency of travel.’

‘So, I set about building a software that would bring private jets online for the first time and streamline the industry. The aim of Stratajet is to make private jets more accessible to the mainstream traveller and make it easier than ever before for fliers to get from A to B. Now we’re the fifth fastest growing tech company in the whole of the UK in the Deloitte 2017 UK Technology Fast 50.’

RISING Why was the market so inefficient before Stratajet? JN ‘The major issue in private jets comes in the complexity of calculating the cost of a flight. There are millions of variables and since every flight has to be calculated from scratch it takes the most experienced aircraft operator around half an hour to provide a quote. Until Stratajet there was no automated version of this process, with other providers claiming to offer ‘online’ booking but in fact merely using a website to collect customers’ flight ‘requests’. However, it can take several hours for these bookings to be confirmed as it’s necessary to verify these quotes over email – a similarly time-consuming process to the traditional means of phoning a broker for a quote.’

There are times when all you can do is work – like chipping away at a never-ending mountain

RISING It has taken you five years to bring the process online – why so long? JN ‘It was the need to gather an inordinate amount of data and code it into an exceptionally complex algorithm, which would allow for all these calculations to be done in seconds. Now up and running, Stratajet is the first and only booking platform that gives fliers direct access to the private jet marketplace. This means that customers can search for a particular flight without having to go through a broker, then see accurate costs of as many as 50 aircraft available to charter for that flight – not just a select few – and book instantly.’

RISING What business lessons did you learn during that time? JN ‘Investing in the right staff is one of the most important parts of building a business. It takes a second to hire someone but if people don’t share your vision, this can have a detrimental effect on the company for a long time. Conversely, I have hired some brilliant people and everyone has fed off each other, particularly in the more challenging times.

RISING Where did you get your inspiration from? JN ’I took a lot of inspiration from reading one book in particular during the early days of the company, although it actually has nothing to do with building a startup! It’s a book called Death on the Ice, by Robert Ryan, and it’s about the 1910 expedition to the South Pole led by Robert Falcon Scott. A CEO can learn a lot about leadership from the challenges that team of explorers faced. For example, there will be times when all you can do is work and it seems like you’re chipping away at a never-ending mountain, but with crushing lows come equally dizzying highs.’

Choose your investors carefully – never take one who isn’t aligned with your vision

RISING What top three tips would you give to other startup entrepreneurs in the high-end space? JN

  1. When setting up a company, choose your investors carefully. Never take an investor who you don’t think is aligned with your vision. Some investors might get involved with a company because they can see a different vision for that company and that will inevitably result in difficult decisions further down the line.
  2. From a luxury perspective customer service must remain key, especially if it’s a premium service that you’re providing, as opposed to a luxury product.
  3. Always make sure that wherever you work, you love it. As a startup you will spend more waking hours in your office – and more hours full-stop for that matter – than anywhere else. So make sure that your work environment is perfect. Do what you love and do it in a place where you love it.

RISING What are your long-term goals and how could Stratajet open up private jet travel to more people? JN ’We are continually speaking to operators in order to expand our network with the aim of bringing more aircraft onto the system. As this number rises, more and more flights will become available at reduced prices to the customer. 32% of Stratajet’s customers are first-time private jet fliers – a staggering statistic when compared to the industry norm of less than 1%. We’re opening up the industry to a wider audience and we hope that there will be an industry defining moment when people will say there was private aviation before Stratajet and private aviation after Stratajet. When we are regularly able to compete with commercial costs, there will be a major shift in the way in which people perceive this industry.’

RISING How have you maximised your own productivity to work on multiple projects? JN From my background in the military I like to maintain quite a regimented work structure and schedule. I have an antique desk at home, so I like to enjoy a coffee in the morning and do a couple of hours work in relative peace and quiet. It helps me focus and this is when I get the most done. I’m still very hands on with the technological side of the business and there is always coding and programming to be done which requires a high level of concentration. I head into the office mid-morning and try to be as approachable as possible. My role involves a lot of problem-solving but being presented with issues and working through them to find the solutions is the rewarding part of growing a business.’

RISING How hard is it to innovate in the tech space – do you need a good imagination or is it more a about of looking for existing inefficiencies? JN ‘Success in this area stems from a combination of a multitude of different things, from imagination and inspiration, to sheer dogged hard-work and also some luck along the way too. I spotted a gap in the market but it took five years to turn a vision into reality. Other people have tried but haven’t had the combined knowledge of the aviation industry and the computer science expertise to bring everything together.’

We bought a battered twin-propeller Chieftain and I flew the team door-to-door around Europe

RISING What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome to get to this point with Stratajet? JN ‘Getting the technology to work was the biggest hurdle in the company’s build phase. It took us two years to programme a search engine intelligent enough to filter through all the various different fees that need to be considered when calculating the cost of a private jet. Stratajet makes upwards of 2.5 million calculations when returning flight results and the first time we ran a search it took around 20 minutes to produce these final prices. So, the next stage of the technology build consisted of getting this down to a consumer-friendly time.’

‘Eventually we had an idea that brought the search time down to around 10 seconds and I can’t describe how incredible and emotional that moment was for my team and myself. In hindsight it was a computer science miracle and we went from a worthless company to a company whose valuation was in the tens of millions.’

RISING How did you persuade a traditional business like private aviation to get on board with a smartphone app? JN ‘Private aviation remains a very traditional and old-fashioned industry, one where a handshake is essential for conducting business – operators were wary of change and reticent to adopt a new technology. So, to bring the supply of aircraft on board, we had to give physical demonstrations to each and every operator – we bought a thirty-year old, battered twin-propeller Chieftain aircraft and, as a former RAF and commercial freelance pilot, I flew the team door-to-door around Europe. We conducted 150 face-to-face meetings in half as many days. We then repeated this across the United States, conducting 496 meetings in 197 cities within 92 days!

WHAT NEXT? While Stratajet was in the R&D phase Nicol used some innovative ways to raise funds – he flew photographer Simon Roberts on a 24-hour mission around the Polar ice cap in -50º temperatures to capture a never-ending sunset for Citizen Watches in Chasing Horizons.

Stratajet allows you to search, compare and book from the largest choice of private jets available for charter at the best prices, instantly.

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