GA Entrepreneurs

Finding a niche business

November 1, 2004

Orville Wright didn't have a pilot certificate when he launched from Kill Devil Hills on that first flight in 1903.

And Jay and Mary Honeck had no background as hoteliers, nor did Jay Taffet have training as a photographer. Cindy Rousseau had owned her own accounting firm — but never a clothing business. And while Kevin Laufer has spent many hours online in between flights, he was just an airline pilot sitting reserve, not yet an Internet mogul.

What these pilots had in common, and in their favor, was a passion for aviation and a desire to combine their working lives with the life they love in the sky. And each found a niche business that would support his or her flying habit and stay immersed in the GA scene.

"It's like always being on vacation," says Jay Honeck, who with his wife, Mary, owns and runs the Alexis Park Inn in Iowa City, Iowa. OK, maybe that's a stretch, but when the couple befriended the hotel's previous owner (during a series of conversations in the owner's hangar at the Iowa City Municipal Airport), little did they know their idea of turning the residential hotel into an aviation-theme bed-and-breakfast would enter them into a Newhartlike existence. "I hang out with pilots," says Honeck, whose hotel boasts 27 suites, many of which have already been transformed into oases of distinctive aviation eras. The Honecks have traded sweat equity to decorate suites after the Pan Am Clippers, the Stearman family of aircraft, the Memphis Belle, Lockheed Constellations, and luminaries such as Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and the Red Baron.

The Honecks own a 1974 Piper Cherokee Pathfinder — a 235-horsepower precursor to the tapered-wing Dakota — that they keep "45 seconds away" at the Iowa City airport. Though the Alexis Park Inn isn't on airport property, its proximity means a lot of pilots can fly in and walk over.

Jay obtained his certificate in 1994; Mary followed with hers in 1998. Both are VFR pilots, flying the Pathfinder upwards of 200 hours a year between the two of them. "We split the time equally," says Jay. And they've been flying more since they bought the hotel in 2002 "because everything is a marketing trip — we fill the airplane with fliers, brochures. We land at an airport, schmooze at the FBO, and get a space on the bulletin board to hang brochures. There's an overwhelming generosity amongst the people we've met. And we have yet to talk to a pilot who doesn't think it's a great idea."

The hotel has furthered the Honecks' flying in other ways too. An acquaintance from an e-mail list to which Jay subscribes answered a question of Jay's regarding upset training. At the spur of the moment, the pilot flew out from Michigan in his American Champion Super Decathlon to spend the night and trade Jay and Mary some stick time in basic aerobatic maneuvers.

The Honecks have seen steady growth in bookings, on the order of 20 percent each month — but Jay is quick to note that they started at the bottom and realize that growth will end. But, as Jay notes, "This is Iowa, remember; it's not a tourist destination, you know." So they must be doing something right.

Women Fly

Like the Honecks, Cindy Rousseau was ripe for a change when she started flying in 1990. A client of her accounting practice offered her a breakfast flight from Annapolis, Maryland's Lee Airport to Cambridge, Maryland, in his Cessna 182. Rousseau was hooked and signed up for lessons across the Chesapeake Bay at Bay Bridge Airport on Kent Island. She found that learning to fly took her away from troubles on the ground, her early morning flights two times a week an escape and a focus for her energy. Within four months she had her certificate, later checking out in an American Champion Citabria that she eventually purchased with her husband, George.

George started a printing business, to which Cindy lent her accounting expertise. She sold her practice and began doing odd jobs at the printer: folding brochures, making business cards, and the like. In the meantime, she and George made pilgrimages to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, and by 1999, she considered herself a "devoted customer" to one airshow exhibitor in particular: Women Fly.

About that time, the owners of Women Fly, a business specializing in novelty clothing and stationery featuring women pilots, were planning to dissolve the business. "I remember thinking, 'This is crazy, the world needs Women Fly!'" says Rousseau. So she put together a prospectus with an investor (who has since left the business).

As she laid out her qualifications, she noticed that, despite the leap she felt she would take to make it happen, she was the perfect person to pick up the reins. "I had a printing background, I knew art software programs and understood the prepress process, I was a pilot, and I had business ownership experience." The owners had other proposals on the table, but Rousseau guesses that a serendipitous decision spurred her prospectus to the top — she included with the packet a photo of herself skydiving. Ready to jump, and "live the message," Rousseau completed the purchase in December 1999, hauling inventory from Madison, Wisconsin, back to Maryland.

Now Rousseau runs Women Fly from a warehouse near Ridgely Airpark, in Maryland. She researches and develops new products, explores marketing opportunities, manages daily operations, and — of course — prepares the books. Recently she hired an employee (another woman, reentering the workforce after raising children) to assist with mail-order preparation and invoicing. The Women Fly product catalog includes 30 T-shirts and other clothing, including sweatshirts, sweatpants, and baseball hats, as well as two lines of stationery.

"The message of the company is more universal than aviation," says Rousseau. "The point is to go out, challenge yourself, and live your dreams. That's me. I did that. And it's not just for women either." Rousseau is working on her instrument rating in her Cessna 180, and truly embodies the process of which she speaks. "You can depend on yourself — if you're afraid, go and do it anyway."

Internet guru

Just a couple of states away in New Jersey, Kevin Laufer also enjoys flying his latest tailwheel love, a Globe Swift. When Laufer started his career as a bona fide airport kid more than 13 years ago, he didn't have a concrete idea of where aviation would take him — just a single-minded focus that took him from working the flight line to the left seat of a Gulfstream IV.

So what would a professional pilot with a classic airplane of his own need with yet another aviation occupation? Well, Laufer is the cofounder of four Internet sites, each stemming from a different aspect of aviation. He clearly just can't get enough.

The first of the sites, USaviation.com, Laufer founded in 2000 with his brother Kurt and a fellow pilot, Kyle Zinn. In 1999, at age 23, Laufer had been hired by USAir to fly Boeing 737s. But as many airline new hires find out, having a job and holding a line can be two different things. "I needed something to keep me connected to aviation while I sat reserve at a crash pad," which is airline pilot code for hanging out on call while waiting for a regular flight schedule. The Internet site serves as a portal and search engine for pilots and aviation enthusiasts, and now records more than 28 million hits each month. The online community also gives professional pilots a forum for swapping information and networking. Laufer has launched two related sites on his own, buyaplane.com and aviationclassifieds.com, that he hopes will complement the information exchange already taking place daily in USAviation.com's electronic halls. AOPA members can get a free 30-day text ad on the site.

After being furloughed following September 11, 2001, Laufer returned to corporate aviation (his first big break had been flying a Learjet 35 in Southern Florida after college). To parlay his interest in business aviation, Laufer launched CharterPro.com to "fill a communication void between Part 135 charter companies, charter brokers, and charter customers. It's a great tool that allows the charter customer to find great deals while helping the aircraft operator or broker utilize their aircraft and time more efficiently." The site currently has more than 100 aircraft operators and "dozens" of brokers using the system.

But even a guy who flies big iron has a soft spot — and that's for tailwheel airplanes. Laufer began flying when a Delta Air Lines captain who based his Piper J-3 Cub at the airport at which Laufer pumped gas asked him, "So are you ready to learn how to fly?" Laufer got hooked on the Cub, and bought a Piper Clipper when he was 18. His first flying job was towing banners over Cape May, New Jersey, in a Cub, where he amassed 500 hours in a single summer.

Last summer, with about 1,250 hours of tail time under his belt, Laufer determined it was time to launch his latest project, Tailwheel.com, the site of the Tailwheel Pilots Association. "I wanted to create a Web site where people that shared this common bond could discuss their favorite tailwheel-related topics. I hope to promote tailwheel flying and educate people about an amazing part of aviation that is still available to them."

Aerial entrepreneur

Of course, many pilots don't have the time to devote every waking hour to aviation, but they would still like to find a way to finance their recreational flying. Jay Taffet of Montgomery, Alabama, believes he's discovered just such an outlet.

Taffet, a former Air Force pilot, works as an investment analyst in commercial real estate. On weekend flights he shot "vent-window" photos of prospective sites with a disposable camera, and soon his company and clients were reimbursing him for his flight time. After two months, Taffet opened a sole proprietorship called Affordable Aerials, launching a Web site advertising aerial photography for certain applications. Taffet soon partnered with the Alabama Wildlife Federation, the City of Montgomery, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Montgomery Riverfront Foundation. Simultaneously, Taffet developed a direct-mail campaign targeting every developer, realtor, broker, contractor, and architect in the region, and placed business ads in several publications. Within a month, Taffet had secured business with five active real estate developers, as well as negotiated a two-year contract with a local Hyundai plant under development, taking photos every two weeks to document the building process. Still a renter pilot, Taffet had upgraded from the disposable camera to a borrowed 35mm Canon.

By keeping his prices in line with what he was well aware were his amateur photographic skills, he did enough business to fly several hours each week, with longer weekend flights to more distant locales — destinations such as Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Savannah, Georgia. "I was building more flight time than I had ever dreamed, and I still hadn't paid a dime," says Taffet.

Taffet purchased a Piper Arrow II one year after his first client photo mission, and he's invested in a digital Canon Rebel, which he credits with bringing his photo quality up significantly. As a result, he charges more — and at the close of his first year of business he reported more than $31,000 in revenue.

Taffet uses a special technique to get usable oblique angles in his aerial photos. Using basic energy management concepts, his technique allows him to shoot all the way around a site, rather than just from one direction, saving time and gas. He's a methodical pilot, a hallmark from his military aviation days, and it pays off as he pilots the airplane and shoots solo.

One recent project involved working with set designers leading up to the production of the movie Big Fish, which was filmed in and near Montgomery. Taffet also boasts a credit in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and a fourth-grade textbook published by Harcourt School Publishers.

Taffet sees his biggest profit, though, in his ability to give back to aviation — he has taken a number of young people on first flights, including at-risk students he has met through Montgomery's Second Chance Foundation. Taffet also sponsors an annual essay contest for local kids with a flight in his Arrow as the prize.

"I have flown since I was 18," says Taffet, "and I believe flight is the best medium to regain perspective and chart your future."


E-mail the author at julie.boatman@aopa.org.