By GREGORY ZELLER // With customer satisfaction locked in the upright position and with a little lift from Start-Up NY, a B2B tech firm connecting charter-flight operators with flight brokers is ready to soar.
It’s actually been wheels-up at FlightPartner Technologies since January, when the startup incorporated and moved into the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology on the Stony Brook University campus. Since then, it’s been running a beta version of its online platform, offering free services, building a global database of charter planes and piling up customer feedback to help refine the process.
Before CEWIT, Soundfront Internet Media – dba FlightPartner – launched as a yearlong resident of LaunchPad Huntington. The startup was required to incorporate after a friends-and-family investment round, according to founder and CEO Doug Schmohl, and he’s not complaining: With $250,000 in hand, including his own personal stake, plus that goldmine of customer input, FlightPartner is now reaching a comfortable cruising altitude.
It hasn’t necessarily been a smooth climb. Among other challenges, Schmohl has dueled entrenched competition with a stranglehold on critical scheduling software, the logistical difficulties of building a global scheduling service, plus a still-turbulent economy, all monumental challenges for a travel-industry startup in a post-9/11, recession-weary world.
But “we’ve collected enough information and primed the pump,” Schmohl noted, and the company is now finalizing an updated platform that will eliminate its free services and introduce monthly subscription fees between $99 and $299 to access the FlightPartner system.
“We’re finally ready to begin the process of generating revenue,” Schmohl said.
An experienced pilot and tech entrepreneur, Schmohl decided to try something new after mindSHIFT Technologies absorbed his Soundfront Internet Media. Schmohl launched his startup in 1997 as an online broadcaster of New York-area radio stations and grew it into a streaming video platform for GE, Home Depot and other large corporations. When MindSHIFT spun off its streaming media services, Schmohl suffered what he called “another case of entrepreneurialitis” and decided to leverage his technological savvy and flying experience.
Under the Soundfront Internet Media flag – he retained the name after the 2012 mindShift buyout – Schmohl focused on charter flights, a market he thoroughly understands. A certified pilot for nearly 40 years, the entrepreneur boasts over 16,000 hours behind the stick of everything from jumbo jets to the super-sleek Gulfstream 4, which he calls “the Maserati of the private-jet world.” Schmohl has also logged more than 12,000 hours as a Boeing 727 pilot for cargo carrier DHL.
The FlightPartner founder is quick to note that his firm isn’t a charter company or an airline, but a global distribution system with a B2B pedigree. On one side are the aircraft owners and operators; on the other are brokers who arrange private flights for high-net-worth clients, including professional athletes, entertainers and C-level executives.
In the middle, FlightPartner provides the “electronic handshake,” Schmohl said, “aggregating aircraft availability from around the globe and … giving aircraft operators and flight brokers the ability to close charter sales.”
FlightPartner has built a database of roughly 75 global operators and over 1,000 aircraft, everything from twin-engine turboprops to Boeing 737s, though not the 737s most commercial passengers are accustomed to.
“These would probably have a stateroom and a nice bathroom and maybe 15 or 20 seats,” Schmohl noted. “It’s going to look more like a yacht than the 737 most people know.”
FlightPartner is also on board with more than 250 brokers looking to book flights for all those sports stars and top executives. Schmohl’s firm is now fully integrated with the nation’s three largest scheduling services, a process that took years.
“It was like pulling teeth,” Schmohl conceded. “But we finally found the right people to talk to and managed to structure alliances.”
FlightPartner is now looking to emphasize the services that set it apart from others in the flight-booking realm, and that’s more than just better prices, Schmohl noted. For instance, FlightPartner uses its long technological reach to vet the flight operators, something his competitors don’t generally do.
The challenge now is spreading the word beyond the companies that have beta-tested FlightPartner over the past several months. After debuting the platform in October, Schmohl and his executive team – including COO Howard Stone and CTO Yi Chen, a graduate of SBU’s MBA program whom Schmohl “considers a cofounder, if not by title than by our relationship” – will begin earnest marketing at the National Business Aviation Association’s annual conference, scheduled for November in Las Vegas.
The biggest challenge of all, however, remains the economy.
“The recession caused a considerable dip in this industry,” Schmohl said. “But since the recession ended, this industry has recovered and is growing. Maybe not at the pace it once did, but certainly better than it was since 2008. The last couple of years have been very bright.”
As it ascends, FlightPartner – which joined the ranks of the Start-Up NY program when it moved into CEWIT in January – will continue to operate out of Long Island, even though its founder admits “in the world of technology, where you are is really just a location.”
But, he added, “We certainly are a Long Island company. It’s not a matter of who goes to and from Long Island. As long as they’re going to and from somewhere, our system is relevant.
“I was born and raised here,” Schmohl added. “I left to go to other places, but ultimately we decided we were going to raise our family on Long Island. And this is where FlightPartner is going to be.”