In late 2004, Daniel Baker (right) was a newly minted private pilot flying Cessna 172s around the country. “I wanted my friends and family to be able to track my flights just as they could if I were flying on a commercial airline,” explains Baker. “I may have been piloting the aircraft myself, but I still needed a ride once I landed. There were a few commercial products that provided this service for around $1,000 a month, but that wasn’t a realistic solution for friends and family. I got in touch with the FAA and after learning a bit about working with the government, managed to obtain a feed of the live flight data.”

Baker then started working during his free time to build an infrastructure for processing the data and a web interface. He recruited friends Karl Lehenbauer and David McNett to help out too. After six months they released to the public. The site “took off like wildfire” within the pilot community, according to Baker.

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“Before long, the phone started ringing,” he says. “A guy called asking for a data report. I was so excited that someone was interested in us that I produced an Excel file for him for free. The next day, someone called asking for a similar project and I charged him $200, which he gladly paid. Later that day, another call, and I charged $500, which was no problem. It didn’t take long to realize that we had stumbled into a real business. It also didn’t take long for the call volume to encourage me to hire someone to answer the phone.”

The rapid growth led to hardware and bandwidth expenses. At first, Baker used his credit card to cover the costs. He says, “Initially, I bought a server for $6K and just put it on my AmEx. I figured it would all work out; I did the math and at our October 2005 run rate of $20/day, I’d be able to pay myself back in just under a year. I was OK with that. Quickly, it became clear that we were going to grow a little faster than that and we all chipped in for more hardware, some graphic design, and bandwidth. All in all, we only fronted about $25K before we broke even in March of 2006. And we have been profitable ever since then.”

The inside scoop on flights
Now, the site is a full fledged hit. Unlike airline-centric sites that simply pass on the flight status straight from the airlines, shows the real-time, inside scoop from air traffic control data and other operational data sources. This includes radar positions, flight plan re-routes, and weather on interactive maps, delay projections, trends, and more. According to Baker, the site serves over two million people per month, split about 50/50 between airline and private flights. It displays over 150M ads every month.

Additional revenue comes from commercial data services. Baker explains, “Everything from a single aircraft owner who needs a flight history report to complete their taxes, to aircraft engine manufacturers who want to evaluate real-world flight conditions. There are many valuable answers to be found within FlightAware’s historical databases, and there are many organizations that have interesting questions.” FlightAware also profits from enterprise products for the aviation industry.

FlightAware did over a million dollars in the first 18 months after it launched, according to Baker. “It’s pretty remarkable considering we had no business strategy or real products back then,” he says. “Now, sales are in the millions, we continue to grow revenue 40-75% a year, we’ve got over 20 employees and offices in two cities (Houston, New York) and three data centers (Houston, New York, London). We think it’s a rate we can sustain for several years before we need to expand the strategy.”

“On the sales side, everyone can pretty much come up with their own strategy, market, or even product, if people will actually buy it and we can reliably deliver it. Our sales team doesn’t just sell FlightAware’s products and services; they also invent and design them.

“Matt Davis from our sales team realized we could combine a bunch of different features and data and sell it to FBOs, terminals for private jets. He named it FBO Toolbox and he sells it for $100/month (competitive products are around $1K/month). He convinced one of our developers to put a few hours into it every now and then and now we’ve sold hundreds of licenses in the 14 months since the product launch. It does fuel price trending and figures out how much fuel an inbound aircraft needs and all sorts of amazing stuff. There was no official company initiative to make that happen and the CTO and I have had no involvement. He recently asked if he could get our creative design firm to make a brochure (PDF) for it and I agreed; I was amazed to see how many features it has! Pretty cool.”

Growing pains
As for growing pains, Baker says the toughest part has been turning employees from doers into managers. “FlightAware, like a lot of companies, started out with people who are ‘rock stars’ at their particular niche,” he says. “The rock star developer, the rock star database architect, the rock star biz guy, etc. That’s how we created a killer product so fast, got millions of users, tons of press, thousands of customers.

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