Air travel is a necessity for most businesses, but if you ask any business traveler what he or she thinks about air travel you are likely to hear a litany of complaints about high costs, lengthy trips, time away from the office, stress, and concern about safety protocols.
Ryan Stone and Eric Legvold are making it more convenient and faster for business people to travel and offering an alternative that will allow them to work while they travel. Their businesses, Jetpool and SmartSky, work to relieve the stress of commercial business travel while providing a speedy, reliable and capable telecommunications connection.
The two business partners go back a long way. Growing up in Florida, they lived across the street from each other and attended middle school together. Fast forward a number of years when the two friends relocated to Charlotte around the same time, and reconnected.
Legvold, a pilot, was flying planes for a charter company. Stone, a Naval Academy graduate and submarine officer, was working as an engineer for Duke Energy. Stone was also pursuing an MBA and was looking at new business opportunities. The two started talking about using their different areas of expertise to start a business, and the genesis of Jetpool was underway in 2004.
Legvold had started flying at the age of 18. He learned corporate aviation during his eight years working as a corporate and charter pilot. He has more than 19 years of professional aviation and industry experience.
Stone’s contribution was his business acumen and his access to business coaches and professional reviews of business plans through the MBA program at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
“There is a lot of room for companies like ours that focus solely on aviation,” explains Legvold, Jetpool’s cofounder and CEO. “We provide charter services to clients in planes that we acquire or lease. We also maintain the aircraft and provide all the regulatory compliance.”
Even in the early days of Jetpool, the partners couldn’t help but notice another big issue in business air travel—how to increase productivity on electronic devices by surmounting telecommunications constraints.
“Making a mobile phone call, let alone conducting business via telecommunications connections via video or audio during a flight, has always been fairly impractical, to say the least,” says Stone. “As a consequence, businesspeople are forced to figure out what they need to download before they travel.”
Enter SmartSky, the partners’ new launch, to provide interconnectivity with air-to-ground transmitters, allowing business travelers to work during air travel on anything that requires connectivity—making phone calls, downloading documents, or conducting video conferences.
Both businesses are located near the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where it is easy to meet with customers.
Getting Off the Ground
Both Stone and Legvold are quick to credit the Charlotte business community as essential to the establishment of their companies.
“We’ve found some nice partnerships,” comments Stone. “Charlotte is the kind of community where people work together to help each other with business needs.” Both praise Packard Place, a hub for business start-ups, as extremely helpful. They also laud the Business, Innovation and Growth Council (BIG), which the two joined when starting Jetpool, and a place they returned to later.
“When we were ready to open SmartSky, we went back to BIG and got feedback and pushback that was helpful in starting the second company and separating the two,” adds Stone.
Stone’s MBA coaches and classes offered assistance. The Jetpool founders presented a business problem to a class asking for assistance with cloud-based computing. The students returned good business advice, even recommending three vendors to consider, from which Jetpool selected one to develop its IT system.
Stone and Legvold also consulted with the Golden Leaf Foundation-backed Wireless Research Center of North Carolina on patent work and wireless analysis.
Jetpool was incorporated in 2006 with three partners; Paul Sameit, another pilot, joined Legvold and Stone as CFO. Opening during the recession was difficult, but soon after its start, Jetpool was asked to bid on and won a contract for aviation from a local Fortune 500 company. Day-to-day operation benefitted from Stone’s systems engineering and Sameit’s business background, while Legvold provided the aviation and aircraft system experience.
“We provide aircraft management and charter services; we are a turnkey operation,” says Legvold.
“We offer our clients safe travel on their time, and have the ability to schedule and maintain airplanes to the level required by a Fortune 500 company,” assures Legvold. “Business executives and corporations have come to view business travel as a necessity, with the goal being to use it as a tool and a time machine.”
Private jets allow key executives to pack more into their day. Private jets typically land five to 10 miles from the traveler’s ultimate destination, allowing executives to avoid long waits for commercial flights, overnight stays and long rental-car rides. In addition, there are no security checkpoints to endure, saving even more time.
“Over the long term, the effects of wasted time and added stress can even affect career choices or early retirement options,” Stone points out. “We are able to offer a time-effective, cost-effective, productivity-effective alternative at Jetpool.”
Jetpool clients are a mix of large companies and smaller clients. For companies that require extensive executive travel, Jetpool offers charter management. Companies that don’t require as much time in the air can access private aviation through hourly chartered flights or by participating in Jetpool Shares, which combine the access of jet ownership with the financial accessibility of a lease.
Essentially, Jetpool acts as an outsourced aviation department, maintaining aircraft, providing pilots and scheduling fights. At present, the company has 30 employees; 15 full-time and three part-time pilots with seven airplanes, up from four in 2013.
“Jetpool has grown every year, and been profitable since it began,” boasts Legvold. “Year-over-year we’ve seen a 35 percent growth in revenue. In the future, I see us holding to a minimum 20 percent growth rate.”
Legvold points out that safety is a core value of Jetpool, learning and adopting a mindset from its Fortune 500 clients on how to build a “culture of safety.” The company has earned an IS-BAO, an international certification for business aircraft operators similar to ISO 9000, becoming one of the first adopters of this certification.
Trust is another core tenet and a companion to safety for Jetpool clients.
“It’s different from commercial airlines where you don’t know who’s flying the plane and you’re not sure how well the plane was maintained or why there might be a maintenance issue delaying your flight,” says Legvold.
Legvold says the company gets to know its passengers over a period of years: “We know their habits and what they like so we can be better prepared and always ready to serve them. One client’s ‘few minutes’ might be an hour or so, while another client’s ‘few minutes’ might be 15 minutes. We’re always ready and operating on their time.”
He thinks that the company has the “right mix” of people working in maintenance, operations and scheduling to continue its expansion, perhaps into the Washington, D.C., market.
SmartSky Set to Launch
Stone and Legvold’s newest brainchild, SmartSky, will offer airborne connectivity with the same kind of service available in an office or home by connecting aircraft to ground antennas, rather than satellites in orbit, to allow for real-time sharing of data. SmartSky is scheduled for a beta-customer launch in late 2015, followed by a national commercial launch in 2016.
Stone says the impetus for the new venture originated from a Jetpool client: “We had a specific request for telecommunications connectivity, and when we looked at the options available, we found limited services available. So we set out on a quest, and SmartSky was born.”
SmartSky was incorporated in 2011. Stone takes primary responsibility as the new company’s president and director. The leadership team of Stone and his Jetpool founding partners Legvold and Sameit are rounded out by a fourth partner, Stan Eskridge, who served as Stone’s MBA business school coach, and is the company’s COO and a director.
“Particularly on a plane, everyone wants the same standard of connectivity they have everywhere else,” comments Stone. “The airlines have spent a lot of money to get to 3G, which is state-of-the-art for commercial planes. Unfortunately, that is like accepting a 3G level of performance on your cell phone while the rest of the world is becoming a 4G system.”
The 3G air connectivity standard for most commercial airlines leads to problems with speed and bandwidth, a function of the system which uses older technology or satellites in space.
“This is not an easy market to enter; there is so much noise in the market,” Stone points out. “We were able to acquire some patents and work on a ‘secret sauce’ that will allow us to offer a viable solution.”
The company’s initial plan was to offer 4G connectivity first to business aviation and later to commercial airlines, but, Stone says, “The airlines came to us and asked us to get to them sooner. We’re now involved in discussions with leading commercial airlines.
“The reason for the intense interest is clear—with the 4G connectivity experience, SmartSky will offer 10 times better than what you would get today,” continues Stone. “It’s the same as you would get in your home or office. You’ll be able to make video conference calls, download documents and watch movies.”
With its launch, SmartSky will be the first company in the U.S. that will have this combination of high bandwidth and low latency—or delay—for connectivity in the sky, says Stone.
Untangling the Regulation
“Nothing in aviation is simple,” Stone comments. “And starting SmartSky was a complicated business with the bureaucracy of the telecommunications industry and compliance requirements
“We realized very quickly that we needed telecommunications expertise,” says Stone. “We needed someone with an intimate knowledge of the marketplace. Haynes Griffin, our chairman and CEO, was the CEO of Vanguard Cellular (one of the co-owners of Cellular One), and the first chairman of the cellular industry association, and a mentor. We feel fortunate that he was interested in getting involved in our new venture.
“Haynes brought in other world-class experts, including former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, to help us with regulatory strategy. We needed a view of where the world is headed and so we added two Intel Corp. board members.”
SmartSky also needed to line up partners. It worked with Textron Aviation (owner of iconic brands Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft), Duncan Aviation, and DAC International as partners to help with the certification and installation of hardware, Satcom Direct as a subscription and customer support partner, and Harris Corporation as a radio development partner.
“We decided to keep our launch of the business under wraps until we could check the boxes on all the major risk items,” says Stone. “We made our first public announcement at beginning of October after working with our partners for more than a year, and working on the business for more than three years.”
Cost for SmartSky’s new service will be comparable to its main competitor’s cost, Stone says, and likely to be embraced by potential customers, hungry for some new options in air travel telecommunications. Potential competitor AT&T backed out of entering the air-to-ground telecommunications field in April, based on its decision to focus on other core parts of its business.
“We have this unique vantage point. The vision of the company is to transform aviation through disruptive communication,” says Stone. “We can give customers something they desperately need and keep innovating so we won’t be disrupted ourselves.”
SmartSky’s closest competitor Gogo has 2,500 subscribers, using just 4 MHz of bandwidth. In contrast, SmartSky will access 60 MHz of spectrum and a huge, patented 4G pipeline, boasts Stone.
“The potential market is huge—there are about 12,000 business jets in commercial aviation so there is plenty of untapped market,” says Stone.
Business growth is good at Jetpool and expected to be in demand at SmartSky. Legvold attributes their business success to “finding the right people to grow the company.”
“As an entrepreneur, it never seems as fast as you want it to go, but what we’ve accomplished over the past few years is extraordinary,” reflects Legvold.
“Our growth is also a story of embracing local entrepreneurial ventures,” adds Stone. “If you start one business, you are more likely to start another.
“And, if our business plan goes well, we may be the next Fortune 500 company.”