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What is your market?What is your market?

To sell a product you must first have a market. Ideally one would do some market research prior to launching a business to ensure the market is there and customers will be ready to buy once the doors open. Even if you didn’t conduct a market survey prior to opening, it’s a good idea to revisit the issue periodically to make sure your products fit the demand.

There are two main questions that must be determined in the market research exercise—what is the makeup of the possible buying group, and what is the competition? Knowing this can lead to decisions ranging from exactly what products to offer to where to put your flight school.

Of the two, the competition is probably the easier question to answer. Web tools such as AOPA’s flight school database can help you track down established flight schools. This is a good start, but not the entire picture of the competitive landscape. Independent instructors, and even unrelated activities, should be considered. If you live near water, for example, sizing up the price and access to boating makes sense. It’s also a good idea to think big for flight school competitors. Although it may seem like the only competition is from another school on the airport, the reality could be different depending on what your school is offering. Accelerated training is a great example. Although some students will come from local sources, a good percentage will travel to your school. That puts other schools from around the country as potential competitors. Even “normal” flight schools compete regionally.

Figuring out potential market demand is more difficult, and something even large multinational corporations struggle with. One place to start is the Small Business Administration. The government agency provides links to demographic data, including household income, employment status, and much more. This broad information is a good starting place to get an overview of households in your region. It’s also free.

The FAA also publishes free information about certificated pilots. This will give you a good list of everyone with a student pilot certificate or higher, and thus an idea of how many advanced certificates and ratings you may be expected to sell.

New eyeballs—those people who have never taken a lesson—are the hardest to quantify. Any resource you can find in terms of surveys on leisure activities, business interests, and anything else that will tell you about interest and ability, are highly valued. Conducting your own surveys or research is possible, although potentially expensive and time-consuming. Consider linking up with a business college student for an inexpensive resource.

There are a number of online market research resources as well. Inc. has a market research primer with advice on general technique, money-saving tactics, and more. Myriad businesses offer their own advice, many of which will also sell you a turnkey service.

Most of all, don’t waste your time and effort doing market research only to change nothing in your start-up business plan or your current offerings. It’s virtually guaranteed that your gut instincts won’t be 100 percent correct, and ignoring new information in the research makes the entire process moot.

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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