When Ron Wilder decided to buy an airplane for recreational purposes, little did he know it would be a purchase that would lead him to start his own small software company. How one thing directed him to the other is a prime example of an entrepreneur seeing a niche and filling it. Moreover, his software is making money for other entrepreneurs.
Wilder had a lucrative job as an electrical engineer for a medical electronics manufacturer in Fremont, Calif., and his lifestyle had allowed his savings to accumulate. Having a pilot's license and a passion for the air, Wilder decided that having a small aircraft to fly would be a great way to enjoy the weekends.
But the costs of owning an airplane, he quickly learned, could be quite high. When Wilder could not fly the aircraft as often as he liked, for example, he still had to pay monstrous rental fees just to let the aircraft collect dust on the airport ramp. So, like many other aircraft owners, Wilder sought partners to share flight time and expenses. Luckily, he found three other pilots to buy into the airplane, but then another challenge appeared: how to schedule the four pilots' flight time.
Because Wilder was the principal partner and the most enthusiastic, the task was left to him to schedule the airplane. At first he used a pocket calendar, but it didn't take long for him to realize that there must be a better way.
Seeking a solution. The four aircraft owners reasoned that using a computerized scheduling system would be the most efficient way to work out their time with the plane. "I looked around the marketplace to see who would sell me something like this," Wilder says, "and there was nothing out there that was carefully thought through."
Wilder figured he could write a better program himself. "After I started [writing the program], I realized it was going to be a major project. I guessed it would take a couple of months. I was naive then," he remembers.
To be useful, Wilder determined, the program must have certain features. It must allow pilots to schedule aircraft remotely through a touch-tone telephone. This feature required a "voice card," a computer add-on that can differentiate between and respond to computer signals, voice, tones and answering machines.
As Wilder worked on the idea, he happened to mention the project to Gordon Matthews, a friend who owned a flying club.
"He desperately wanted a scheduling system and he was very interested in what I was doing," Wilder recalls. It was then that Wilder realized he had a marketable idea, provided he could actually create the scheduling system.
Wilder and Matthews met for Christmas dinner in 1992. Through their discussions, the seed of the product began to show signs of life. "It all blossomed on a white board, ' Wilder says of the diagrams the two sketched for the project. For the next two months, they mapped out the entire system before writing a single line of software. "Once the architecture is in place, the [computer] code is really straightforward," Wilder says.
Originally, the software was designed to serve partnerships like Wilder's. But Matthews wanted a system that would also serve flying clubs and flight schools. He estimated that such organizations would pay about $15 to $25 per aircraft per month for the system because scheduling is critical to making a profit on an aircraft fleet.
"That's when it hit me: We should [create] more than one product,"Wilder says. The system design evolved to handle multiple phone lines.
Going for it. When the team began initial testing of the software, Wilder quit his regular job. "I made a decision that I was going to work on this product and I was never going to work again as someone else's employee," says Wilder.
He had four months' salary—about $25,000 to invest in the project He already owned the necessary computers and modems, but the voice boards - vital to the system - were expensive, as was the initial marketing plan. He set up a display booth at an Airline Owners and Pilots Association convention for $1,250. Wilder also took out two display ads in AOPA Pilot, an aviation trade magazine at a cost of $325 a piece.
"At that point I was wondering where next month's rent was coming from," Wilder says.
He was about to return to the labor pool when the touchtone aircraft scheduling system suddenly found its niche. Wilder and Matthews presented their product - named simply the Flight Scheduling System - at an aviation trade show in Orlando, Fla., in November 1993. The system was a hit.
Wilder credits the industry's warm reception of the product to his patient approach to system design. "The fundamental difference between my product and everyone else's is that they started with a system and tried to market it. I very carefully engineered this product to meet market needs."
The system allows pilots to schedule aircraft at any hour, and it does so with convenience. The computer remembers a pilot's preferences in aircraft and helps each pilot find an available plane. The software can even match "flying buddies" to share expenses and has a powerful voice-mail feature. Fleet management, once prone to human error, becomes computerized.
The opportunity. Although some customers use the Flight Scheduling System for their own partnerships, most of the people to whom Wilder has sold the software use it to turn a profit. Setting up the system on their own computers for other small airports, these customers collect fees from clubs and fleet owners to schedule their flights. One such customer averages about $2,000 per month in gross revenues. According to Wilder, "This system was designed right from the beginning for people to make money."
There are three versions of the software system: one for partnerships, one for small flying clubs, and one that can handle up to 1,000 aircraft for 10,000 members in up to 1,000 flying clubs and flight schools. An entrepreneur with the larger system can offer scheduling services to separate clubs and collect a monthly fee per aircraft.
The multiple-club version requires a 386 or 486 PC processor with an 80 megabyte (minimum) hard disk and 4 megabytes of RAM.
Now that Wilder has a viable customer base for the Flight Scheduling System, his next project is a more generalized version of the software that other industries can use to schedule resources accessed by many different users. Onward and upward.