Entrepreneurs seldom discuss the emotional and spiritual trauma of things going wrong.
Joel’s story is a deeply felt and authentically told one where he shares how he survived immense setbacks and found the courage to keep going in his Stratos Jets journey.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start by going back to the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Joel Thomas: I’m from Florida. I was born and raised in the Orlando area. As a kid, my dad became a private pilot. He got an airplane when I was in 6th grade. I remember that when I was a young kid.
He picked me up from school. I had just gotten dropped off and he picked me up and said, “Do you want to go to lunch?” I said, “You mean breakfast?” He said, “No, lunch.” We went down to the Orlando Executive Airport. He handed me my passport and pointed to the airplane that he bought. He said, “Get in. We’re going to lunch in the Bahamas.”
That introduced me to flying in general aviation. When we got back, I got dropped off before my mom had picked me up. He said, “Don’t tell your mother.” I never told her, but that opened my eyes to aviation. You can imagine that experience was something that transformed my life.
I fell in love with aviation. I was constantly prodding dad and asking him to go for a flight. I always wanted to go. He was happy to have me down at the airport. We would tinker around and talk to other pilots. I just fell in love with aviation as a result of my experience with dad. I had an older brother. He was four years older.
I got an Economics and Finance degree from the University of Central Florida. I started working for Edward Jones, which is a financial planning firm. They taught me sales and I got a good insight into how to build a business. I just wasn’t in love with what I was doing. This was in 2006.
I was lucky enough to have a girlfriend at that time who was an executive assistant to a fairly successful guy here in Orlando. He asked her, “I need to get a private plane to do this journey.” She called me knowing that my dad had a private plane.
Sure enough, I happened to be at the airport. My dad used to be really involved in the local community of pilots. Every first Friday of every month, they would do a cookout. I happened to be at that cookout. I was able to put the deal together. I ended up going to the next first Friday.
The air carrier that we connected the client to said, “You keep these clients coming, and I’ll keep these checks coming.” He handed me a check of $3,000. It opened my eyes. I quit my job and fell in love with the idea of connecting people with private aviation.
As I got into it and started selling more and more charters, I realized that there was an opportunity globally for this role. Also clients didn’t have a good insight into the appropriate aircraft, the performance, or safety. I saw an opportunity for me to become an advisor to help people make an informed buying decision to maximize the value of the money they were spending. That has turned into a $15 million charter brokerage today.
Sramana Mitra: What year did you start this business?
Joel Thomas: I left my job in late 2006. I didn’t incorporate until 2007.
Sramana Mitra: What were the elements of that beginning? Did you raise money? Did you bootstrap? How did you get this thing off the ground?
Joel Thomas: I’d say it’s bootstrapping, but I did borrow money. I went to my stepdad and asked him. He believed in me. He said, “What do you need from me?” I said, “I need a line of credit.” I had a home. I bought it in 2001 right before 9/11. I got the loan in 2007. The housing market had just skyrocketed.
I borrowed about $100,000 for my home. Then I asked my stepdad if he would help me buy and sell my flights and to provide the liquidity that I needed to buy and sell the flights. He agreed.
Sramana Mitra: In terms of getting the business started, you’re obviously doing a marketplace model matching demand and supply. How did you seed that marketplace?
Joel Thomas: The way you buy chartered flights is, there’s a government designation. That means that this aircraft and this company is allowed to offer flights for charter. There’s a registry for that. It had a listing of all the carriers in it.
I was able to identify air carriers in certain locations but I had to find the clients. The majority of my initial local business came from referrals from that one client. Then as we got a little bit of extra money, I had some good friends who were really good at web-based marketing.
They helped me start an organization on campus to build a website and to build out a political organization. I used that group of friends to help me build out my own personal website. Back then, there were few companies doing charter brokering. It didn’t really exist. I used some web-based marketing strategies and became visible online. That resulted in identifying clients nationwide.
We eventually took that globally. That helped us to bring in new clients. The content that we put out there really mattered. We were the first company to utilize the website as an educational resource so that we could help clients make an informed buying decision.