Entrepreneur interview: Adam Twidell, CEO of PrivateFly

The online booking boss on how its easier than ever to charter a jet.

The exclusive and privileged act of chartering a private jet has seemed out-of-reach to most folk. However, Adam Twidel, a former RAF pilot saw an opportunity to disrupt the market and bring it into the 21st century with a digital-first strategy.

Tell me more about the company, when was it founded and why? Also, what is your background and what’s the companies vision?

PrivateFly is a global booking platform for private jet charter, making it faster, easier and more cost-effective to compare and book private jets.

In 2008 when I founded the company with my wife, Carol, the private jet market was highly fragmented and complex, with very traditional booking options. It had yet to adopt the tech-based aggregation already being seen in other travel sectors. We saw the opportunity for a disruptive, customer-facing business model, and created the first online platform offering private jet price comparison and booking. By combining this innovative technology with PrivateFly’s team of aviation experts, available 24/7, we have developed a service that has grown to over 7,000 aircraft integrated worldwide.

My career began in the Royal Air Force, where I served for 10 years as a pilot, including time spent on active service with the UK’s Special Forces. Later I joined private jet market-leaders NetJets as a private jet pilot.

From this experience, I’ve been able to observe the industry from all perspectives – pilot, passenger, airport, handling agent – it’s allowed me to recognise the major inefficiencies in the fragmented private jet charter market. This is what fuelled my desire to create change in the industry and why I left NetJets to pursue entrepreneurial climbs, and led a successful bid for a private jet hub at London City Airport.

Today PrivateFly, with myself as CEO, and Carol as our marketing director, employs a team of over 40 people and has expanded to the US, with an office in Fort Lauderdale.

Our company’s vision is to continue to lead innovation and excellence in the sector, making it faster and easier to book a private jet, anywhere in the world.

How much initial investment did the company need to start and where did it come from?

In 2008 we sold our family home to provide the seed funding required to launch PrivateFly. This investment was used to develop the booking technology/platform, and then to open the company’s first office and hire our first team of employees in 2009.

Since then, we’ve developed the business through further fundraising, and have secured £2 million of investment for ongoing expansion. This has led to a bigger 24-hour team, technology developments, multilingual platforms and international expansion, particularly in the USA.

What marketing did the company employ to maximise exposure?

Our marketing team is led by Carol Cork, who previously had 14 years experience working closely with the travel and aviation industries. When we first launched, Carol developed a marketing strategy based upon informing and educating potential customers about the previously-closed world of private jet charter. Rather than just targeting those who already made use of the service we decided to create new customers by making it accessible. Our marketing focused upon educating people to the private aviation industry – how it works, what it costs and what to expect.

Our team developed a content-led and digital strategy around this, building strong SEO value around key search terms. We were able to work ahead of our competitors, who at this point were yet to see the value in this type of activity.

The PrivateFly blog, launched in 2009, quickly became known as a source of informative content about private jet travel, along with email marketing and social media.

We also placed investment into ongoing PR support, helping to convey the company’s messaging. It helped to raise awareness of the online private jet booking industry. Given PrivateFly was ‘first to market’, it has really enabled us to put the company, and sector, on the map.

How has the company grown over the years?

The chart shows PrivateFly’s milestones in its first 10 years

In 2012, the company expanded into Europe – creating booking platforms for France, Germany and Russia. Then in 2016, we decided to launch PrivateFly in the US.

The company has grown rapidly, generating sales growth of over 40 per cent every year since launch – during a period of flat demand in the market overall. PrivateFly’s rapid growth has been continually recognised by its inclusion in the Sunday Times Tech Track and Export Track 100 league tables in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and in the FT1000, the Financial Times’ list of Europe’s fastest-growing companies.

Our growth plans from here include: continued expansion in both Europe and the US, both through organic growth and through potential M&A opportunities. PrivateFly has seen exciting growth in the North American market with limited investment to date.

How important is an inspirational figurehead to a scale-up company?

I believe it is very important. As CEO, I try to lead with spirit, energy and adventure. My management style is focused upon being very straight-talking and creative. Using different environments and actions helps to generate new ideas. For example, I’ve been know to interview people while out eating street food, or have a meeting whilst walking the dog!

We have key stakeholders in the business who are outside of the aviation industry, which means clear communication of our goals and methods is especially important.

I believe that my passion for aviation shines through in my leadership. And, by combining this passion with the military precision and clear focus on efficiency that I developed during my time in the RAF, I hope to drive PrivateFly forwards towards our goal for continuous improvement.

What specific advice would you give to scale-up companies looking to build their company to exit?

I don’t think too much about an exit, I just think about building the company! There are so many things to think about when you are scaling up, but underneath it’s all about passion and belief. If you believe in what you’re doing, others will follow, and you can build a strong culture around that. That gives you a great platform to build any business on.

Find out more: PrivateFly

Further reading on entrepreneurs

Entrepreneur profile: Guy Nixon, Founder and CEO of Native

Michael Somerville

Michael Somerville

Michael was senior reporter for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2018 to 2019.

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Scale-ups