Carol Cork, Co-Founder PrivateFly, on Disrupting The Private Aviation Market

Carol Cork is co-founder of PrivateFly.com, the leading online booking platform for private jet charter and the fastest-growing air charter business in Europe in 2010. Her co-founder is her husband, Adam Twidell, a former RAF and private jet pilot.

PrivateFly is a disruptive technology platform, bringing price transparency and response speed to the highly-fragmented and traditional private aviation market. The business was launched in March 2008, after 18 months of software development and research. 

PrivateFly has been widely featured in the FT, Times, Telegraph, BBC and CNN. Flight International, the leading Aviation trade media, awarded PrivateFly 'Website of the year' 2011, ahead of sites like Boeing.com, with the judges commenting that "PrivateFly has the potential of changing Business Air Charter in the same way iTunes changed the music industry."

We spoke to Carol about her recent successful £2m funding round; the pros and cons of having her husband as a co-founder;and how she achieved phenomenal business growth despite the recession.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for PrivateFly and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

CC: Adam (husband and co-founder) was working in private aviation as a pilot, and as a consultant to London City Airport. I was working in marketing for luxury goods and travel businesses, and together we saw the opportunity for an online aggregator for private jet charter.

It’s a highly fragmented industry, with 2500 aircraft managed by 900 aircraft operators in Europe alone, so was ripe for disruptive technology.

I had been involved with the travel industry, and seen a dramatic shift with the emergence of online travel agents and scheduled airline booking online, so we saw the private charter industry as one of the few remaining sectors of the travel industry yet to embrace the brokering capacity of the internet.

TNW: PrivateFly was the fastest-growing air charter business in Europe in 2010. How did you achieve this phenomenal growth?

CC: Private aviation holds strong appeal due to its time-saving benefits and other factors such as increasing disenchantment and commoditisation of scheduled airlines, and airport security delays. The overall industry showed rapid growth in 2005 and 2006, when business aviation movements in Europe grew significantly. However the impact of the recession brought cost-consciousness to an all-time high, so PrivateFly’s core values of delivering price transparency, with rapid response times, gave us a great advantage in this economic climate.

This has enabled us to grow our customer base during a very challenging period for the private aviation industry.

The adhoc charter sector as a whole has also benefitted from customers trading down from owning aircraft ownership or from fractional ownership schemes, which involve significant upfront costs and commitments.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

CC: One of the biggest challenges has been ROI marketing. The private jet customer can be difficult to reach as they are time-poor, highly sophisticated and not easily influenced by some marketing channels – they don’t always behave in the way that other travel consumers do. But I think we have learnt not to overlook anything, to challenge our preconceptions about this.

Yes, there are unique challenges but we have been surprised in some ways by what works and what doesn’t. The key is to make everything measurable and to gain learnings along the way.

TNW: PrivateFly recently announced £2m in funding from 11 private investors. Why did you choose private investors as the best fundraising option for your business?

CC: We took advice from our non-exec directors and finance advisors, and were approached by a private investor initially, before raising the funds from the other individuals.

The investors involved in the business all contribute expertise and value beyond their financial investment, combining corporate experience, travel industry expertise, technology and a wealth of contact books.

The £2M amount we were raising meant that private investors were the more suitable avenue, and those that we now have involved are all passionate about different aspects of the business – from aviation, to online technology, to transformative travel brands.

TNW: What have you learned the hard way through the fund raising process that you wish someone had told you at the beginning?

CC: How much time and energy it takes! From building the investment model and CIM, to attending presentations and meetings. It does mean that you inevitably have to dilute your management time to be able to devote focus to the fundraising process – which for us took just under a year to complete, during a very tough and cautious investment climate. However one benefit has been that some of our investment meetings have resulted in new clients for PrivateFly, even when they were not successful for investment, so none of the time was wasted!

TNW: How have you found investors’ attitudes towards you as a female entrepreneur, particularly in the male dominated world of private aviation? Have you witnessed your husband receiving different treatment, as a male entrepreneur?

I think being a female entrepreneur in any sector gives you an element of standout which you can turn to your advantage.

In the private aviation sector, I have personally found it to be very positive, although Adam, as a pilot, does inevitably take on more of the figurehead role. Given we are a disruptive game-changer for the sector, I think investors liked the combination of Adam’s industry experience, combined with my marketing background, for us to challenge some of the traditional legacy business practices in the industry.

TNW: What have you found to be the pros and cons of your husband being your co-founder?

CC: Pros – when you live and breathe a business, it can be a great help to share ideas and challenges at 2am. We also each bring different business experience and management styles which seem to complement each other well.

Cons – being able to switch off. As a tech business we have quite a staggering number of screens in the house and it can be difficult to carve out time that is business-free.  But we also have two young children, which is actually a real help in this respect– as any parent knows, you have to focus on their needs before anything else can get done.

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

CC: Our non-exec directors Richard Carrick (chairman) and John Bevan are key business mentors for me. They each have such a wealth of expertise in online travel and have experienced many of the same challenges that we now face in taking PrivateFly to the next level.

I also admire female entrepreneurs such as Michelle Mone who achieve both business success and a work/life balance through incredible discipline and organisation.

TNW: If you could get on a soap box and get something off your chest about the world of tech entrepreneurship, something you’d like to change, what would it be?

CC: I do think that tech entrepreneurship should not be perceived as completely distinct from other business sectors. There does seem to be a tendency to stereotype the ‘tech entrepreneur’ whereas, in fact, there are also many long-held rules for business success which still apply. But at the same time, it’s an exciting area, where innovation and disruption have a great opportunity to flourish.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our readers?

CC: No, I think that covers it!

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