Talking investment with Simon, co-founder of CharterSync
Read time: 7 minutes
BDO talk to Simon Watson, co-founder of CharterSync, about how he disrupted a traditional industry and created a pioneering air cargo charter tech firm.
What inspired the creation of CharterSync?
My co-founder Ed Gillett and I have been keen on aviation all our lives. I first started flying when I was about 13 and got my pilot's licence at 16 – before I got my regular driving licence!
Ed and I met in 2012 when we were both training to be commercial pilots for a UK airline. He’d previously worked at an air charter broker where his client was a logistics cargo company that regularly needed to charter aircraft. Acting as a broker Ed would use traditional methods of email and phone calls to find the best aircraft for the client. We got talking and realised that we could streamline this process using digitisation and technology. We realised that the charter aviation industry was, in fact, ripe for disruption and over the next few years our idea for CharterSync grew.
We describe CharterSync as a revolution for air cargo charters. Essentially we connect clients, that is freight forwarders and logistics companies, directly to the aircraft operator. So instead of the client having to pick up the phone when they need to urgently charter an aircraft, our system can identify the most suitable aircraft and get an immediate quote from the operator. Our intelligent platform removes the traditional broker from the supply chain, and we offer efficiency, speed and transparency. While some experienced clients can manage the charter by themselves, others are not used to chartering an aircraft so we offer a greater level of support and hand holding.
Industry type: Airlines/Aviation
Type: Privately held
How did the company develop?
We got initial seed investment in 2018 and started trading in July 2019. With technology companies who have initial upfront investment, it tends to be quite hard to break through the profitability barrier. However, CharterSync’s first full trading year was profitable, which we are very pleased with.
How did the company develop?
When we first started, we established the needs of our clients and set out a minimum viable product. We got that to market quickly and used a product feedback loop to iterate and develop the platform. Yes it was as simple as that! We regularly sat down with our tech team to establish priorities and grouped these into features and development points. We asked ourselves: How does this customer feedback translate into a feature that solves a pain point?
Whether you have tens, hundreds or thousands of users, their feedback can be grouped. From that grouping, you can work on a feature that can solve those problems. Initially, with CharterSync, it was very much trial and error to see what worked. And we've now fallen into a better cadence and a more formalised process.
What’s the size and makeup of the business now?
We’re growing very rapidly and currently have 7-8 people on the team. We've processed around 13,000 requests since the company began. Our first year of trading ended in August 2020 and we recorded eight figure plus sales and six figure profits.
In terms of our KPIs, we've taken the quoting process time down from the industry average of 20-30 minutes to as little as 4-5 minutes. And remember, these are time-critical markets we’re operating in, like pharmaceutical, automotive and precious goods, so every minute counts.
What role has investment funding played in your development?
We had seed investment in 2018 which went towards the development of the minimum viable product mentioned. Since then we haven't needed to seek any further investment; all our growth has been organic and self-funded.
"Going forward, we’ll be considering further investment to help speed up the growth of the business. We’re planning to develop into new markets and verticals, as well as new regions."
What advice would you give to others looking for investment?
If you’re developing a new technology product that no one has brought to market, you won’t have a blueprint to work from. So in the early days, make sure the investment you bring into the business is appropriate for the stage you're at; don’t give away too big a piece of the company.
A key challenge with scaling a fast-growth tech business is making sure you listen to customer and client feedback and are prepared to iterate and evolve. You might start with an idea that’s 90% wrong, but the 10% that’s right you can pivot to. And then that's where your business will grow from.
What challenges have you faced since you founded the business?
For a company at our stage, the biggest challenge is finding the right people. That’s much more of a bottleneck than anything to do with the tech. In the early days for us, having a brand that wasn't known and a business model that had never been tested, it was quite difficult to get the right team with the right experience. Once you've solved that challenge, you can build the right culture and momentum starts to grow. In a market like aviation, there’s a level of experience you need. But we've been very fortunate, and I would say our team is second to none, from flight operations to sales and tech.
Customer service is very important to our brand. Initially, people thought we were just a faceless tech product but actually what we’re about is bringing 21st century technology into an outdated and complicated industry and pairing it with world-leading customer service.
"We make sure that CharterSync is not just a tech product, it's about the team, our clients and the fantastic customer service."
What impact has COVID-19 had on the business?
The downside to focusing in on one small subsection of a market to test your idea, is that you are not diversified in your revenue streams. So in March 2020 when coronavirus started to take hold in Europe, we recognised that our automotive client base would be massively affected. We decided to look at what markets within the charter industry were likely to pick up, for example pharmaceuticals and personal protective equipment (PPE).
In terms of our sales pipeline, we decided to bring forward a number of customers that we had been planning to target in 1-2 years. We pivoted quickly to this new client base and ended up doing a high number of PPE flights.
For example, we flew the first aircraft into Italy containing tens of thousands of masks on behalf of the Italian government. We also moved PPE into Europe on behalf of the Hungarian, French and German governments. Our trading couldn't have been stronger. Coronavirus accelerated our growth into new client bases and helped increase revenues.
Any other advice for people looking to start or scale up a tech business?
Make sure that you build something that people need, and then test and validate that need. Market research and background work will only get you so far, the real learning comes when you've got real customers interacting with your product.
First, establish what the need is for your product and what problem it solves. Then focus on getting a minimum viable product to market as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Once you've got it to market, get as much feedback as possible, maybe in a small subset of that market. Be smart about how you use that feedback. If 10% of your idea is working well, focus on that.
Netflix started by sending out DVDs and iterated to an on-demand digital service, and Amazon started by focusing on books and then realised there was an untapped e-commerce market. Much like this, focus on what works and iterate as quickly as possible as the market demands.
Looking for advice on how to give your tech business the best chance of success? Email us at [email protected].