Wheels up for Stony Brook’s FlightPartner

FlightPartner Technologies founder Doug Schmohl.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Now boarding: FlightPartner.

Just 13 months since incorporating, FlightPartner Technologies Inc., is ready to launch its namesake B2B subscription service, designed to connect travel brokers to charter-flight providers. Founder and CEO Doug Schmohl said his startup, a resident of Stony Brook University’s Wireless and Information Technology center, had “one little bug” to work out, and was otherwise packed and ready for takeoff.

The commercial debut actually marks the second version of the cloud-based FlightPartner platform, which aggregates real-time charter-fight availability from hundreds of global sources. Version No. 1 of the “air charter commerce platform” has been undergoing intense beta testing for months, Schmohl noted, “following basic strategies for software development.”

“We’ve come to know the beta version as ‘Version No. 1,’” he told Innovate LI. “We continued to build out that system based on customer feedback, and as we did, we realized some incredible potential that we built into the framework of Version No. 2.”

FlightPartner is a virtual middleman between aircraft owners/operators and brokers who arrange private flights for high-net-worth clients including entertainers, pro athletes and C-suite executives. It incorporates a global database of about 100 operators with more than 1,000 aircraft – everything from twin-engine turboprops to private Boeing 737s – available to brokers via subscription.

Among other improvements, the second version is faster and exchanges information with several additional operators and travel-industry sites, promoting more intuitive user interfaces. FlightPartner’s programming team worked feverishly to incorporate as much customer feedback as possible during a year’s worth of field testing, according to Schmoll.

“We have three programmers who work far too hard, quite frankly,” the CEO said. “But that’s the world of startups. You come in on Saturday and Sunday and at 1 o’clock in the morning, the light’s still on.

“That’s the effort you need to make to bring a viable company to market.”

To promote the debut, FlightPartner sent out 3,700 email announcements, including notes to a nationwide assortment of brokers involved in the beta-testing.

The plan is to launch the commercial version with a $99 subscription fee for brokers, according to Schmohl, and no fee for operators to list their available aircraft, “one of the ways we really differentiate ourselves.”

The CEO described the broker subscription fee as “nominal” – the average cost of a U.S. charter flight is about $22,000, he noted – but necessary.

“We have to vet the brokers to some degree,” he said. “We tried other methods, such as PIN numbers, but you really can’t vet the process or the people involved until you ask for a credit card.”

The $99 subscription fee is not how FlightPartner will make its bones – in fact, FlightPartner is even implementing a points-based system wherein the one-time-only fee will be reimbursed for brokers who achieve certain activity plateaus.

Instead, the company will score a percentage of the value of each booked flight, the same way a real estate agency or credit card company earns revenues.

“As a transaction-based model, we need people to do business in the system, so we’re focused on bringing in sales,” Schmohl said. “We don’t want to create barriers to entry for those in the industry. That’s why the subscription fee is so modest. It’s our intention to be a sales-driven marketplace.”

Schmohl, an experienced pilot with over 16,000 hours in the cockpit of jumbo cargo haulers and Gulfstream 4 private jets, first launched Soundfront Internet Media – an online broadcaster of New York-area radio stations and eventual corporate video-streaming platform – in 1997, and kept the name when mindSHIFT Technologies absorbed the streaming video services in 2012.

Following the buyout, his plan was to combine his entrepreneurial and flight experiences in some new enterprise – though realizing his vision for a sales-based charter flight reservation system wouldn’t be easy. Among the challenges: longstanding competitors with a vice grip on critical scheduling software and a national economy still limping out of the Great Recession.

Soundfront, dba FlightPartner, worked out those issues first as a resident of LaunchPad Huntington. Hard-fought integration with the three largest U.S. scheduling services helped Schmoll set his course, and a successful $250,000 friends-and-family investment round soon required him to re-incorporate.

Now that it’s finally ready to spread its wings, just how FightPartner Technologies will drive those sales remains to be seen. The company hasn’t raised any funds since that friends-and-family round, but with its Version No. 2 platform set to go live, “the decision now is whether to grow organically or go out and seek funding,” Schmohl noted.

“I know that when I hit the fundraising trail, that will become a full-time job,” he said. “To this point, product development has been the focus, and I haven’t had time to think about investments.

“But one of the best advantages in the investment world is being able to show a product in working form,” Schmohl added. “Should we decide to venture into the investment world, we’ll certainly have a good, solid understanding of how we differentiate ourselves – and of our true value to the marketplace.”