In speaking to Jonny Nicol, Founder of Stratajet, you get a sense of what it takes to get a start-up off the ground (excuse the pun). From running out of funds to drastically beating down the time it takes an algorithm to run, it can be a long hard slog to get a company into a position where it is on the right trajectory. Stratajet recently found itself fifth on the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 list, which is no mean feat, and its rapid growth seems set to continue. We spoke to Jonny to find out about the rollercoaster ride of running a fast growth technology company.
Can you start by giving us an overview of Stratajet and what differentiates it from other jet hire companies?
Stratajet is a private jet booking platform – available via Stratajet.com or the Stratajet app – that is the first in the world to give fliers direct access to the private jet marketplace.
Other providers have different models but they are still based on the principle of a broker organising your flight requirements for you. Even platforms that claim to provide an online service don’t actually do this. Rather their websites collect flight requests and these are then pushed out to operators, who have to manually calculate the costs. Once quotes are delivered, you then have to finalise the booking with your broker. It’s a terribly long-winded, convoluted and inefficient process and, due to commissions taken by the broker, unnecessarily pricey.
In contrast, Stratajet is the only platform that has built, from scratch, it’s own technology that can make these calculations. This means that aircraft are right at fliers’ fingertips. We make it easier than ever before to get from A to B by allowing customers to search for a particular flight, without having to go through a broker, see accurate costs of as many as 50 aircraft available to charter for that flight – not just a select few – and book instantly.
You’ve recently been ranked fifth fastest growing company in the Deloitte Technology Fast 50, to what do you attribute this growth and success?
That growth rate is down to our unique ability to offer fliers accurate prices of private jets in seconds and instant booking. In fact our innovative technology has allowed us to really make a difference in a largely stagnant market. We’ve removed the time-consuming, old-fashioned means of booking a jet via a broker and built an incredible search engine that does millions of complicated calculations – that were previously done manually by aircraft operators, and still are in other companies – in mere seconds.
This has had very real results in terms of positioning private jets as a valid means of travel for a far wider audience of fliers. One of the achievements that I’m most proud of is the extent to which we’re able to attract new customers to the industry. A third of our customers are first-time private jet fliers, which is a staggering statistic when compared to the industry norm of less than one per cent.
Was there a period during the Stratajet journey where you couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, and if so, how did you manage to push through?
Yes it took a long time to build the technology and at one point we ran out of investor funding. 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 – due to the bespoke nature of the industry – it takes the most experienced aircraft operator around half an hour to provide a quote.
To bring this process online we needed 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. Once we’d built the programme, the first time we ran a search it took 20mins to return all the results. So we then had to slowly chip away at this time by refining the system. It was a long, hard slog to get it down but eventually we had a breakthrough which reduced the time to around 10 seconds – and that speed of process drives the platform today.
What’s your own personal background, and how did you come to form Stratajet?
I trained as a fighter pilot with the RAF and then served in the British Army for ten years, during which time I served on three major operational tours. I taught myself computer science along the way and when I left the army, I used this knowledge to build a company that was based on using technology to streamline very traditional processes. I spent some time as a corporate freelance pilot, which included flying private jets. On one occasion I was flying a jet from Nice to London with no passengers, as the aircraft simply had to be repositioned. Problems like this – 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 my idea was to again use technology to streamline the old-fashioned process of booking a private jet. I set about building a software that would bring private jets online for the first time and reinvent the industry. The aim of Stratajet is to make private jets more accessible to the mainstream traveller.
In hindsight, what is the one piece of advice you would give to a first time entrepreneur?
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.
What’s next for Stratajet? And what does the future hold for you?
Having successfully launched the platform our key focus is to maintain growth. 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.
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.