How does a teenager who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer end up building a multimillion dollar aviation business?
Jamail Larkins is the founder of Ascension Air, a private aircraft sales, leasing, financing business, and management.
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Jamail Larkins, Ascension Air
Jamail Larkins is the founder of Ascension Air, a private aircraft sales, leasing, financing business, and management.
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Hey there Freedom Fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. How does a teenager who won’t take no for an answer, end up building a multi-million dollar aviation business? Jamail Larkins is the founder of Ascension Air. A private aircraft sales, leasing, financing, and management company. I invited him on here to talk about his story. Jamail welcome.
Jamail: Well thanks for having me Andrew.
Andrew: It was the FAA at 14 years old that told you no. What were you trying to do?
Jamail: I wanted to learn how to fly. I wanted to be involved in airplanes and I wanted to be in the sky, bottom line. Anything that was going to help me do that, I was all about it. And anything that was going to prevent me from doing that, I was trying to find a way around it. And bottom line here inside of the United States you have to be 16 to be able to fly a private airplane or a powered airplane solo and I didn’t want to wait the extra 2 years for that to happen. So I went up to FAA, tried to petition the FAA to an exemption to fly solo before my 16th birthday.
Andrew: And what did they say?
Jamail: They basically said no in a really polite way. Which I didn’t understand at the time. When I sent them my original petition request, they sent a letter back saying that they needed more information before they made their final determination. After I received that letter, I ended up flying with over six different flying instructors and two designated flight examiners. Al of which wrote letters to the FAA saying that I could safely handle an airplane and solo fly. And then I also found out in Canada, you only have to be 14 to fly solo up there. So I got another bright idea that if I went to a different country, got my student pilots license up there, soloed a powered airplane, when I came back to the United States the FAA would see that I had done it safely in a different country and hopefully it’d grant my exemption.
Andrew: And so how do you get yourself as a teenager, to Canada?
Jamail: So I wrote over a hundred different companies asking them if they would support my trip and over 90% of them essentially told me no in a very polite way. But a few of them did say yes. Like Shell Oil, and [??] Insurance company and those that yes gave me the funds I needed to. And so I was able to go up to Canada without asking my parents for any money. Went up there 7/3/1998 and ended up soloing an airplane in a couple years or, about 10 [??] later, came back to the United States and continued my exemption request with the FAA.
Andrew: And did they ever say yes to you?
Jamail: Unfortunately they said no. But it was really interesting because I got the opportunity to meet with the FAA administrator and even the Secretary of Transportation at the time. And it was basically told to me that despite the fact that I had more than pretty much anyone ever had done in the past to try to get an exemption like this, politically there was no way that it was ever going to happen. But at that point I was about 15 years old; I had already flown to a different country to fly solo up there and was very involved in it. Had grown to love aviation even more and realized I wasn’t going to give up right there. So I decided at the age of 15 that if I couldn’t’ lower the cost of flying for myself, I had to be able to make enough money to be able to afford it on my own. And I started up my own company.
Andrew: You know what’s inspiring to me about that is the FAA the government told you no, and then you kept at it with them. And then they kept telling you no and you found a clever way to get around it, going to Canada. But you didn’t have the money to go to Canada, so you found a gutsy way to get somebody to fund you, which is writing letters to a hundred companies and asking them to foot the bill. Most people would’ve stopped so many different steps before you continued and man I can see in that story so much of the person that you became. Which is why I wanted to hear about that first. And then the next big milestone for, seems to me, was meeting John and Martha King. Is that right?
Andrew: Who are they and what happened through them?
Jamail: John and Martha are two industry icons inside of general aviation here inside of the United States. They operate King Schools which is the largest pilot training company inside of the country for ground school products. Pretty much half of all of the pilots inside of the United States have used King Schools products in some shape, form or fashion to be able to help them get their student pilot’s license, their private pilot’s license, commercial license or some license.
That basically means they provide computerized courses, video courses, and books and videos
to be able to help pilots be safe inside of the air.
Andrew: If I’ve flown a hundred times in my life, chances are fifty of the pilots who flew me were trained by the Kings.
Jamail: That’s correct.
Andrew: Wow. Wow. Alright, so then how do you meet them?
Jamail: I was at an air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin called EAA AirVenture right after I had soloed in Canada. I was speaking at a press conference for Cessna Aircraft Company at the time and had the opportunity. John and Martha King were sitting in the front row. I remember seeing them when I was up there telling my story. After the press conference I heard from one of the representatives at Cessna that John and Martha King from King Schools wanted to meet me. We arranged for me to get a meeting with them. They asked me if I had ever used King Schools products before and I said, absolutely, just like half of the other pilots out there. Next thing you know we developed a relationship. They’ve been great mentors and great friends, in all honesty, ever since that day. They gave me ,really, my first opportunity to start earning money for myself. That was by becoming a distributor for King Schools.
Andrew: How did you end up speaking at a press conference?
Jamail: When I came back from Canada in mid July. At the end of July there was big airshow in Oshkosh, every single year. I went up to the Oshkosh air show for my second time. While I was there I was just talking to a random pilot who happened to be a demonstration pilot for Cessna Aircraft Company. I had talked about having just soloed in Canada. The next thing I know he had relayed my story to the VP of Communications at the time at Cessna Aircraft Company. Cessna was getting ready to have a press conference the next day. Then all the sudden I was speaking at the press conference telling my story about how I had become a young Eagle, which is a international youth program to get young kids involved in aviation, all the way to soloing in Canada at the age of fourteen. Next thing I know I’m speaking at a press conference.
Andrew: They approach you. You get to know the Kings. They suggest you become a distributor. Selling what?
Jamail: Selling all their flight training materials. Literally, at the time, videos that could be as low as thirty dollars all the way up to some of their training courses which were just shy of 300 dollars at the time. That really gave me the opportunity to just start making a little bit of margin and start learning a little bit about business. In all honesty, the volume that I did with them wasn’t that great but the experience was immeasurable in terms of how valuable it was for me.
Andrew: I remember when I was a teenager my Dad used to have me hand out fliers to people on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. No one wants on Myrtle Avenue to be bothered by strangers, kind of a dangerous street, or to be handed a flier. I remember what I learned about getting people to take the fliers, if I looked them in the eye, they would just take it. Directly in the eye, it was amazing. It was also surprising to know that I wasn’t doing that naturally, that I was just kind of looking down and handing it. That little lesson from something so silly, such a small part of business just stuck with me for years. Do you remember something similar to that from your early sales days.
Jamail: I think probably the biggest thing that I learned early on was how important networking was. I don’t think I really understood it until later on in life. For me networking isn’t just about going to a cocktail party and handing my card to someone. It’s about actually developing a true relationship with people. The reason why I think that’s so important is that the Kings are a great example of that. I had the opportunity to meet them. I got to know them versus it just being that passive relationship. When I needed something, then I approached them. You try to make it a mutually beneficial relationship. When you’re dealing with people like that there’s very little in most situations of what you can do to make it a mutually beneficial relationship. I think people recognize the fact when you’re willing to do something to help somebody else and it’s not just all about you.
Andrew: Even if you can’t do anything, even if they know. This guy’s so small. He’s just a teenager. He doesn’t have any money, doesn’t have the ability to buy all of our classes, but he still wants to do something for us. That’s enough for them to . . .
Jamail: Yes. I think that is probably one of the biggest things I have learned is that develop role relationships and make those relationships mutually beneficial relationship as much as you possibly can. If you are able to do that, I think that speaks volumes of not only who you are but the character and what that relationship means to you.
Andrew: That’s so interesting to hear that, because usually in that situation I feel so insignificant that I don’t feel like I can help anyone. I feel like if I even say or imply or act like I can help them, then I am a fraud. But, you are saying no, just have that outlook, have that desire and that’s enough for them to feel trust.
Jamail: As long as it’s genuine. It can’t be something that is superficial. If it’s something that people can tell is an actual genuine thing that you would love to be able to help them out or do what you can to be able to make a difference. I agree with you in some situations especially with some of the people that you may meet it can be a daunting task and something that is scary to be able to pretend like you can actually be helpful to someone of a substantially different status level from a professional accomplishment standpoint or something along those lines. But, if you are really sincere about it and you are genuine about it, whether you can do something or not people, I think, will recognize the fact that if they ever needed you, you would be willing to answer the call and do what you could to help out.
Andrew: You were how old at this point, roughly?
Jamail: Probably when I recognized that maybe 16 or 17, probably.
Andrew: 16 or 17 and you, by that point, had you launched Larkins Enterprises?
Jamail: I had. I launched Larkins Enterprises at the age of 15.
Andrew: Already thinking Enterprise bigger than just a small company. You had this big vision for yourself.
Jamail: Yes, I would say so. The funny thing is I had opportunity to meet a gentleman by the name of Al Klapmeier that founded Cirrus Aircraft. He made a comment to me that had he realized how difficult it was he probably wouldn’t have started Cirrus. But he goes, ‘I was dumb enough to start but smart enough to finish.’ I think that is a really good quote. Had I known what was involved in starting up my own companies and the trials and tribulations associated with that, especially in aviation, I don’t know if I would have done it. But, I had this passion and this desire and this thought that it was possible and it would be something that would be enjoyable, so I went along with it. But, once you are involved in it you get too far in debt that you just can’t quit. You have to keep on going even when it gets rough sometimes.
Andrew: At that point, you were selling videos and classes. And, then you diversified into something else. You were starting to get into electronics, right?
Jamail: That’s correct. I met another gentleman by the name of Rick Garcia, Gulf Coast Avionics. He gave me an opportunity to kind of become a vendor for Gulf Coast Avionics when I was 16 years old. That migrated from just selling flight training materials and books and videos. That gave me an opportunity to start selling pilot supplies, headsets, GPS’s, and all sorts of different equipment that pilots can use for flying their small airplanes. I remember selling $2,000 products and feeling like I had made it now that I had 5% margins on a $2,000 product versus 5% to 10% margins on a $30 product. It just slowly migrated from getting the opportunity from selling small flight training materials and books and videos to beginning to sell pilot supplies. I did that for several years. Somehow I ended up doing some marketing consulting work for a variety of different companies. I got to the point when I was 18 and in high school, I had the opportunity where I had enough cash flow and a little bit of a down payment and I purchased my first airplane, a Christen Eagle II, which is a high performance aerobatic airplane my senior year of high school. And, then I used that airplane to start flying in air shows.
Andrew: I was going to ask you, what do you do when you are starting to make money in high school. That’s an incredible accomplishment, to not just have enough revenue coming in, but also enough to buy a plane. What do you mean by airshows? What were you doing in there?
Jamail: In air shows, if you have ever been to an airport, and there’s an aerobatic demonstration, the pilots doing loops, rolls, and hammerheads and all sorts of different aerobatic maneuvers. I learned how to do that. I started flying aerobatics off and on when I was 16. When I bought my Christen Eagle, I started doing it seriously. For the month after I graduated from high school, literally every single day, I was flying and practicing inside my aerobatic airplane. That gave me the opportunity right before I left the week before I left to go to college I took my ACE evaluation which is an air show competency evaluation. I passed that and became a certified air show performer. And then I started flying in air shows doing aerobatic routine and air shows up and down the east coast primarily for the next five years.
Andrew: One thing I’ve learned in doing these interviews is that people end up being inspired by someone. Someone or some story opens their eyes to a world of possibility that most other people wouldn’t have known about. Was there someone like that for you around business or around aviation that made you think, you know what, you don’t have to wait till you’re older. Or here’s a way of life that other people wouldn’t have been aware of.
Jamail: Unknown: I would have to say it’s a combination of so many different
people. The John and Martha Kings of the world to the people who, for instance, there’s a gentleman by the name of Wyman Fox [sounds like] in my home town of Augusta, Georgia that took me for my very first flight inside of a small airplane. And if it wasn’t for him I would’ve never been exposed to what it was like to fly a small airplane. So there’s probably I could name about 20 to 30 people who had a key impact on me going into aviation, me starting up my own company, me evolving my company, to ultimately buying and selling airplanes. So I was really fortunate that over the last 15, 16 years I’ve been involved in aviation that I have access to a lot of interesting people that really help shaped what I have done inside of aviation and opened up a lot of doors for me.
Andrew: At first did you get to meet them and find out their stories or did you start off by reading about them from a distance?
Jamail: It was a combination. So there were some people who I met and I didn’t know who they were before I actually had the opportunity to meet them. And then there was others that I had the opportunity that I read about and then all of a sudden I go to an aviation event or convention and I’m getting the chance to sit in front of someone who I had seen on TV or seen inside of magazines or read about inside of a book and those people really, those were those jaw dropping moments where you’re sitting at a table next to someone and you’re like, I’ve been reading about this person for months or years. And I’m sitting at the same table as them. That was kind of cool.
Andrew: I know that feeling. That is amazing to feel that. I feel like people who are into just novels will never get this feeling, or into television, they never get this feeling. But if you get into aviation or business, your heroes are people you can grow into becoming and you want to be like and they’re people you can meet and be inspired by and learn from and grow from. All right, then you told April, who pre-interviewed you, that a friend of yours in college asked you something that moved your story forward, what was this friend asking for?
Jamail: Which one is this? Is this about the airplane?
Andrew: Yes. He wanted to buy…
Jamail: Yeah, so a friend of mine from Augusta, Georgia asked me when I was in college about wanting to purchase his very first airplane. And he didn’t know where to go and asked if I had any friends that I could recommend inside of that segment of the industry that might be able to help guide him. And so I called up a colleague that had graduated from the same college I went to [??] University and was inside commercial aircraft sales and leasing. And I asked him if he would be able to help out a friend and he said, ‘Absolutely.’ But he said,’ Instead of me getting one of my sales guys to handle this, how about I walk you through the process and see if this might be something that you’re interested in doing.’ So he literally allowed me to be the point of contact for this transaction and my very first airplane that I was involved in trying to buy was a small corporate jet. And so I got the opportunity to work on a transaction and present the deal to my client, or my friend, who ultimately became my client. And it was really unique because you’re sitting here and at the time I’m a 21 year old college student that’s sitting here on one end of the phone talking to some of these business executives that are brokering airplanes and I’m doing million dollar plus transaction on my first very bill, and the rush that I got from that was unbelievable. And I was like, this is insane. And then when you start getting margins off of that, it makes it even more insane when you’re in college. But that was really an eye opening experience and I love aircraft sales, I love the rush associated with it. I love the complexity of the transaction involved in it and I love being around airplanes. So it combines so many different aspects of what I was interested in. It was a really unique opportunity.
Andrew: So your friend in college was ready to buy a jet?
Jamail: Yeah, he was an older friend. So he owned a couple of car dealerships at the time. And so he had the financial resources to be able to do it and called me up since he knew I was involved in aviation to see if I had anybody that would be able to help him out.
Andrew: And this person who said to you, ‘Look, I can either teach you or I can do it for you,’ was it Arnold Leonora [SP].
Jamail: That’s correct.
Andrew: Why did Arnold say I can teach you how to do it, instead of saying, ‘Hey the commissions for us. Great. I’ll send you a thank you gift and we’re going to take over this sale ourselves and keep sending us stuff and we’ll give you a little bit a kickback or a nice gift every time you do.’
Jamail: I think a couple of reasons. One, he was also an Embry-Riddle graduate and alumni and one of the really unique things I found out about Embry-Riddle is a that a lot of the alumni are very considerate and willing to help out newer alumni. And so he knew that I was getting ready to graduate in a year or two, hadn’t fully decided what segment of the industry I wanted to make my career in, knew that I had a little bit of business background and thought that it might be something that might peak my interests. So I kind of presented an opportunity for him and he said, ‘I’ll present another opportunity for you in exchange.’
Andrew: Wow. And when you were selling it, were you doing it through his
company or doing it through…
Jamail: Yes I was. So initially I started selling it through his company. We created a partnership for a company and did that for a couple of years and then I started up my own company with the Ascension Aircraft for aircraft sales and leasing in 2008.
Andrew: I see. And how do you make the break from working for him and selling for him through a partnership to doing it on your own?
Jamail: His primary focus was on commercial aircraft sales and leasing. And the numbers associated with those airplanes are even substantially larger than what they are even on turban airplanes, private turban airplanes. But the issue was for me selling a triple seven to an airline or leasing a triple seven to an airline is great and the money falling from that is fantastic however it’s not where my passion lied in. My passion really lied on [??] private aviation side. And I wanted to stay in that arena. So, with that not really being the focus of what he wanted to do, he didn’t have any issues, and we still give opportunity transactions together from time to time. But really just set down and had a talk and said, ‘You know I want to focus on general aviation,’ and he completely understood from a passion standpoint and has been really supportive ever since.
Andrew: When you were working with him in this 50/50 partnership, what size deals were you working on?
Jamail: Everything from about the same transaction levels that we typically do now. So I would say, you know, the average transaction was probably between 200 to 500 hundred thousand dollars for single engine piston powered airplanes with the occasional turban transaction that would happen every couple of months or every couple of years. And those would range up to 2 to 4 million dollar range on those airplanes.
Andrew: I see. And he didn’t have that business before you guys partnered up.
Jamail: That’s correct. So he focused on commercial aircraft, say buying a DC-9 and leasing that to an airline. And I, that was a great opportunity but just not really the area of the industry that I really wanted to focus on.
Andrew: And he was thinking by partnering up with you, if I’m understanding you right, ‘Hey this could allow me to go a little further down in the market. Make some revenue from the smaller sales.’ And so why was he willing to give that up? Because you essentially were taking that business with you.
Jamail: Because I think for him, he really never looked at it from a business opportunity standpoint of let me expand this. I think in more in all honesty, his biggest thing was, let me see if I can help this guy get a start inside of the aviation industry and I think that’s what his primary focus was.
Andrew: In thinking about the person who’s listening to us right now, who might be thinking, ‘Why are so many people nice to Jamail? Why are they giving him all these opportunities and nobody’s paying any attention to me?’ When you look inside yourself and really go introspective, what do you think is that quality that draws people like Leonora Arnold to you? Arnold Leonora, excuse me.
Jamail: I think it’s a couple of different things. One, we’re going back to the comment that I made earlier about recognizing and trying to develop real relationships as being one thing. And I think the second thing is, you know, I’ve been at the right place at the right time a lot. But also when that happened I was prepared for the opportunities and I think that was another key distinction. Because a lot of people get similar opportunities and I guarantee you there’s been opportunities that have been there for me that I wasn’t prepared for and because of that we didn’t get the opportunity to actually fulfill itself. But there had been some that I’ve been very lucky about that I was prepared for at the right time and ended up being able to be successful with those. So I think developing the real relationships and then when the opportunity presents itself, being prepared by whatever means that means, so, that could be getting the opportunity to meet a government official and being able to explain what your story is and what you’ve done and then getting the opportunity to start working with the FAA as their Ambassador for Aviation and Space Education because they recognize you’ve been doing a national tour to visit hundreds of schools throughout the year for the last couple of years.
It could be getting the opportunity to meet a business owner and saying, “I’ve been selling flight training materials for the last few years and I’m looking to grow and expand into a bigger product line,” and then him saying, “Well because of your experience if you would like to become a distributor for pilot supplies and headsets I’d be more than glad to allow you to become a distributor for us.”
All of those little things are things that I think are some of the key differences for people who get the opportunities like that to be able to make something happen and then the people who don’t get the opportunity to be able to make something happen.
Andrew: I’m not sure how to ask this question but it comes in via e-mail so I’ve got to. I get e-mails from black entrepreneurs who want me to interview more black entrepreneurs.
Andrew: Why is that? What do you think they’re looking for and what’s the benefit of hearing another African American story, another black entrepreneur story?
Interviewee: I think it’s a couple different things. One sometimes I think people can feel that maybe there’s not enough stories of people of all diversities that are shared to say no matter where you come from, no matter what part of the country, no matter what your financial background may be you can make something happen.
Jamail: I think the diversity on that whether it’s racial, economic, geographical all comes into play. I want to hear something from someone who I can probably relate to a little bit easier. That’s probably part of it. For me I love hearing stories from everybody, African Americans as well as Caucasians as well as Hispanics.
It really doesn’t make a difference to me because I think I can learn something from all of those stories. For me I love learning and reading biographies of what has allowed people to become successful and the trials and tribulations they’ve had to overcome to be able to get to the point where they’re at today.
Andrew: For example I took the name Andrew early on because I was inspired by Andrew Warner and I had one of these foreign sounding names that no one can pronounce so I went for Andrew. Who was that kind of inspiring to you?
Jamail: Going back to some of the people that I’ve had the opportunity to meet there’ve been a ton of people inside of the Aviation Industry. For one from a piloting standpoint I could say there’re two really big ones. Both Tuskeegee Airmen as well as a lady by the name of Patty Wagstaff who is a three time National Aerobatic Champion Professional Airshow Performer and has had a phenomenal career inside the Aviation Industry from a piloting standpoint.
From a business standpoint there are a lot of great entrepreneurs inside of the Aviation Industry. One gentleman by the name of Jack Pelton who I’ve had the opportunity to really develop a relationship with and he is a retired CEO of Cessna Aircraft Company. You look at some of the other entrepreneurs out there that have started up smaller aviation companies and you’re able to see them take a concept and create it into a multimillion dollar and a couple times multibillion dollar enterprise is really unique.
There’s another guy by the name of Steven Udvar-Hazy who recently donated the new annex to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington and he started up the aircraft sales and leasing company when the commercial aviation side was horrible and came to the United States and he had a unique opportunity and took it from just being a concept when he was in college to a multibillion dollar enterprise and he sold to AIG.
Andrew: How are you hearing those people’s stories? For many people in tech it’s Mixergy they come in and they listen for an hour. They read a long transcript that takes them that takes them through the story of a less successful entrepreneur’s journey. For me when I was growing up it was Forbes magazine back when they were doing nice in-depth bios. Where do you find out about these people?
Jamail: I read a lot of online stuff whether it’s [?] Magazine, Forbes Magazine, Wall Street Journal or Aviation Trade Publications as well. Almost every single day that I come into the office I sit down and I scan the news. Whether it’s just the state current economic events that are going on or it’s also just kind of scan to see who’s new inside the industry and what new is going on just so you can learn a little bit more about people.
Andrew: By the way I got a lot of my research done on you through this great Inc. Magazine article. I’ve got to say this to people who are listening, ink magazine does really good in depth bios on people. It’s not fluff, and it’s not designed for link bait. I use it often for my interviews and there’s a great one on Jamail that I recommend you guys look up. I think it’s in the under 30 2009 . . .
Andrew: . . .series. So, now we talked about how you got your first customer, who is a friend of yours when. you were in college. Now. you got to go and get other customers. I’m trying to think in my life, how many people want to buy a plane. There probably are some people in the audience, and maybe we can talk about how they can buy it, but I don’t know too many people who have planes and are in the market to buy them. How do you come across enough customers to keep yourself going in the early days?
Jamail: In the early days it was kind of picking up the phone, and doing cold calling, and trying to develop relationships and ask people if they would utilize me for selling an airplane or buying an airplane. Today it’s a lot of the same, but at the same time, we’ve been really fortunate that over the last, kind of seven years we’ve been in business, that we have developed a fairly good reputation. So, word of mouth and referrals is a huge chunk of our business now. We get a lot of referrals from people that have bought airplanes from us, or used us to sell their airplanes. Referring us to their business colleagues or friends or family members, for them to purchase their own airplanes.
Andrew: When you were cold calling, back before you had this Rolodex full of clients, how would you find your prospects . . . Oh we’ll get into what you did with them later. How did you find your prospects? Where do you find people who can afford to buy planes and know what to do with them?
Jamail: A lot of times going to the local airport. It’s getting a chance to meet local pilots when they’re flying in and out. Letting them know that you’re involved in aircraft sales and you’d be interested in helping them broker their airplane or help them acquire an airplane if they’re in the market for one. A lot of times it doesn’t happen right then and there, it’s definitely a business that takes a while to generate a customer base, a Rolodex of clients. But, if you stick with it, and you do it right, you’ll get one or two here and there, and then over time that one or two starts to multiply. That’s honestly what’s happened.
Andrew: So, our process of finding a guest like you, and getting you to say yes, and to go through our rigorous pre-interview process and our internal rigorous research process. It’s like an eight step process. We each have our part in this process . . .
Andrew: . . .It’s laid out in a pipeline for us to move the person step by step as we each do our part. Did you have a similar process? Even if it wasn’t as clearly laid out as our process is for finding interviews and doing interviews. Did you have a similar process for taking a stranger who you meet at the airport and continuing that relationship and making sure it doesn’t get lost so that you can be there when he’s ready to buy a plane or when you’re ready to sell her one?
Jamail: It has not been that way. The reason why is because the way that we view aircraft sales and management is it’s a relationship business for us. We keep the relationship alive, and this goes back to like I said early on, learning that relationships need to be real relationships versus just showing up at a networking event. But, developing that real relationship and then keeping it alive for some period of time because you never know when someone’s going to get into the process of wanting or needing to buy an airplane.
Andrew: So how do you keep the relationship alive?
Jamail: Occasional updates with them, and touching base with them, to see if there’s anything that they may need. If there’s that’s new going on. In some situations you just being really n ice and doing a lot of big favors sometimes.
Andrew: For example.
Jamail: Give you an idea. We have a couple clients that for instance, when they need pilots, because their pilots may be sick or going on vacation, allowing them to use some of our pilots that we have on staff, for situations. Allowing them to borrow an airplane when the airplane may be down. A variety of the different thing that we’ve done, just to be able to keep the relationship alive for people. People recognize that, that if you come to me Andrew and say, ‘Hey, Jamail, my airplane is down and I really need to get to Mississippi tomorrow for an important meeting.’ I say, ‘Sure, just take one of our airplanes.’ You give someone that, and you provide that lifeline when may ultra need it. They recognize that compared to some people who wouldn’t necessarily go above and beyond. When it comes time for them needing to sell that airplane and upgrade to a larger airplane or whatever the case may be, a lot of times they’re willing to do that.
Andrew: Do you have anything else that you do that’s not so expensive, like send out cards or . . .
Jamail: Yeah, we try to recognize every single one of our owners and clients inside of our database for little things. Whether it’s holidays, whether it’s birthdays, anniversaries, all the minor things that I think most companies probably do to a large part, but then like I said we try to go above and beyond that as well. So that may mean being there when someone really needs some assistance and we have the capabilities of being able to provide that to just picking up the phone no matter what time of day it is when someone needs assistance with a simple question.
Andrew: You started working out of your parent’s house?
Jamail: That’s correct.
Andrew: You did. And then, what was the progression there?
Jamail: I started working out of my parent’s house, fortunately my dad had a small financial service company based in Augusta, Georgia, so after I got to the point where I need the kind of warehouse products and stuff I rented some small space from him and then kind of took over part of his office. As time went on, when I left to college, started hiring some people and I started working out of there and then ultimately after I graduated from college I moved to Atlanta, started up my office here in the Atlanta area and now we have about 15 people that are working in the metro Atlanta area.
Andrew: What size revenue are you guys doing now?
Jamail: It varies. Typically on average I would say we’re somewhere between the five to eight million dollar range every single year. This year I’m hoping to break 10 million. So we’ll see if we’re able to accomplish that. Last year we started up the new division of the company that’s had some pretty good growth. And if we continue on track with what we did last year, we’ll hopefully be able to break the 10 million mark this year.
Andrew: I’m going to get to that in a moment. That’s fractional ownership right?
Jamail: That is correct.
Andrew: The promising part of the business. But when you’re doing five to eight million dollars, what percentage of that is commission on sales of planes and what’s management and the other part?
Jamail: To give you an exact number I would have to look at it to be a little bit more specific. But I would say probably about 40% of our business is with the aircraft management section of the company and then I would say about another 40% of that is actual aircraft sales; whether that’s brokering or actual aircraft dealing transactions. And then the remaining 20% is made up of aircraft charter, aircraft financing, and aircraft leasing projects that we do.
Andrew: Why didn’t you tell me to those last few questions, ‘Andrew, shove it. We’re a private company. I’m not going to answer this any of this question about our financial…’
Jamail: Numbers are numbers. There’s going to be companies that are smaller than us. There’s going to be companies that are bigger than us. I still view us, although we’re not technically a start-up, I still view us at very much in the start-up phase. And I hope to one day become a much bigger company but we are where we are today and I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do as a team now. But I still recognize that hopefully we have a lot more to do down the road.
Andrew: Do you do anything on a personal level to keep yourself motivated and goal-oriented. To give you an example, Ryan Alice the founder of iContact told us how he had a band on his arm with the number of millions of dollars that he wanted to earn and the kind of influence that he wanted to have in the world was similarly, he had a similar symbol for that. Do you do anything like that?
Jamail: I don’t have anything that big of a reminder every single day. But for me it’s just recognizing that my passion is I love to fly airplanes. I love to travel; I love to spend time with my friends. I love to explore things. So me having a successful company allows me the opportunity to do things like that. That in itself motivates me to go up and get work done and get out of bed every single day. And then on top of that I have really enjoyed some of my activities that I do what’s primarily aviation administration now it’s an ambassador for aviation and space education and getting a chance to travel around and talk to high school and middle school students about not only career opportunities inside the aviation industry but just about achieving your goals in general. And so that’s really the two biggest things that kind of motivate me is knowing that a). I can go out there and I can go live a life that a lot of people would love to go
visit some of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to go visit. Or secondly, being able to have an impact on people and I get letters on a semi-regular basis from students that have seen, like the Dream Launch presentation that we do and have either a) gotten involved in aviation, or b). have started up their own companies. Not anything dealing with aviation, but just the fact that their going out there and doing something different and not waiting. That’s a cool feeling to know that you’ve been able to make a difference in somebody else’s life.
Andrew: How can someone, we’re not nearly done with the interview, I’ve got a little bit more to go. But if someone wants to send you a card or a thank you note and say, ‘Hey thanks for doing this interview. I learned so much from you.’ What’s a good way for them to connect with you?
Jamail: Email is probably the best way to reach me and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I can go share a website such as aircraft.com and my contact info is right there on the website. I can also get on my personal website jamillarkins.com and all my contact information is on there as well.
So email is probably the easiest way but on top of that if they wanted to mail something my corporate address is right there and I check all my mail personally. So that’s another great way as well.
Andrew: You had a client, we asked you about your biggest setback and it had to do with a client that was forced to declare bankruptcy.
What happened there?
Jamail: He had a good friend of mine as well but a client that had a bunch of airplanes or had leased a bunch of airplanes for me. And that client ended up going bankrupt. Filed Chapter 7 and ultimately dissolved the company and we had to take back literally about $3 million of airplanes that we had on lease. And we were still a young company. So imagine taking back $3 million worth of product that’s on lease that it was generating revenue for you on a monthly basis and allowing you to do OK and all of the sudden you now have $3 million worth of product that you’re having to cover costs for unexpectedly. And that was a huge wake up call for me.
It thought me a lot both about both defining the personal client base and not becoming dependant on any individual client, about having margin reserves when we need to be able to prepare for situations like that, about having a plan B in the event a situation happens. So many different life lessons I learned from that. But company ended up going bankrupt. We had to take back the airplanes that we had. We ended up leasing them or reselling them and we’re here to live another day fortunately.
But it was definitely a stressful time period when that happened.
Andrew: And you were up at night at that period
Andrew: How do you deal with stress?
Jamail: It varies. Sometimes it’s easier than others in all honesty. But the majority of the time I think I’ve gotten better with it compared to what it was 5-6 years ago. Just from knowing that you’re going to have some downs associated with it.
Previously, I was having a lot of ups and then whenever there was a down, that would completely ruin my day but now it’s kind of you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some. And the overall goal is to win more than you lose and you’ll be ok.
Andrew: And you actually, from what I understand again going back to this Ink magazine article, you found a new opportunity in that. You went to other banks and you know what I’m talking about.
What did you do?
Jamail: Yes. We had an opportunity where one of our banks that we were working with also had some airplanes from this individual client and they needed to resell them. They saw that we were able to take care of what we were doing and said ‘Hey, can you actually represent us and start selling airplanes for us?’ And it’s been a huge opportunity for our aircraft sales division on the company to be able to broker kind of distressed assets as well as an opportunity to buy some distressed assets and then release those out as well.
Andrew: So that brings me to this new part of your business which is fractional ownership. And before we get into that specific part of your business, I’m curious about how you know where to go into.
I mean, every entrepreneur thinks Well, I have a great idea. Should I go launch this as a new part of the business or not? Or we’re just getting stagnant here and we need to grow our revenue is the way you wanted to exceed $10 million soon.
Where do I come up with the new idea that will take me there? So tell me about your process of coming up with new product lines in new areas of your business.
Jamail: We were really careful. We had a lot of clients that were coming up to us and saying ‘You know, you guys do a great job. I’ll be willing to support you if you decided that you need some major capital expenditure into another venture.’
The biggest issue was I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I mean, I searched every single aspect of private aviation and was looking at what opportunity would I do if money was no object to try to buy something or start up something. And on fractual ownership on the turbine side it’s really expelled over the last couple of decades. You look at [??] and [??] and [??] and the big players on the turbine side and you see the majority of people that are buying or are getting access to private airplanes is kind of going into that route in terms of aircraft ownership where they buy a slice of the airplane they need versus having to buy an entire airplane and being an inefficient [??].
But that really hadn’t translated down into personally flown airplanes very well. On private airplanes, about 20% of all the corporate jets out there going to fractional operators, on the general aviation personally flown airplane side, that number was less than .01%.
So there was a big discrepancy there and started thinking about the reasons why that was. Because the same reasons why it’s been efficient in the turbine side applied to personally flown airplanes but that message hadn’t really been delivered very well to the private aviation, private pilot community. And so we did a lot of research, figured out some of the problems associated with it, developed some solutions for those problems and then launched our own company in that in January of last year.
Andrew: There’s so much that I want to dig into there that I didn’t want to interrupt, but I want to break it down step by step.
Andrew: What kind of research are you doing and then what problems did you uncover?
Jamail: So there was a variety of different things. We spent about a year and a half of trying to figure out why that huge disparity between personally informed [SP] fractional and determined fractional. There are problems with the aircraft not being clean when people wanted them. There were problems with aircraft availability. There were problems with fleet commonality issues. There were problems with finding [??] of the air flying…
Andrew: So a few commonalities. So if for example, I need a jet for my company because we as sales people fly around the country a lot but we can’t yet afford our own. We’ll then do fractional, whenever we need it, we just call ahead, we have our card, and we get to use the jet. That makes sense and if you don’t give me the exact same plane, you’re going to give me a similar plane.
Andrew: But when it comes to me flying my own plane on the weekends for fun or to take my wife somewhere for a romantic trip, I want to own it myself partially you’re saying because I want a specific kind of plane because that’s what I’m going to be flying and I’m going to feel comfortable flying. Tell me what else.
Jamail: Say you’re taking clients with you and the clients don’t necessarily need to know that it’s not your airplane. So for them, if you take them in a blue airplane one day and then the next airplane you have a silver airplane, they’re going to kind of know that it’s not your airplane.
Andrew: Oh, and then it’s like, oh he just went to Budget rent-a-car and got a plane and this doesn’t feel as cool. So what do you do with these issues? How do you solve them one at a time?
Jamail: So you create the opportunity for people to have specific airplanes so, when our fractional program for instance, in my share inside of an airplane looks identical, so our entire fleet looks absolutely identical and you wouldn’t be able to tell outside of the end number which is essentially kind of like the license plate on the airplane and for the majority of people, I’ll say 90% of the people, no one would ever be able to tell if it’s 100% yours or if you only own 25% of it. The other big issue that we had was the kind of concierge aspect of it where sometimes people would go out and there would be issues that were not reported by the last pilot that was flying it and then it didn’t have time to get resolved, or whatever the reason was it wasn’t resolved. And so that was another major reason why some people didn’t enjoy the fractional ownership on the personally [??] side. Other aspect was, there wasn’t financing mechanism to be able to finance shares early on. So if I was to go out and buy a share inside of $100,000 airplane or my share was a $100,000, I had to write a check for a hundred grand. Whereas I could go out and buy a two or three hundred thousand dollar airplane and only put 15 to 20% down and finance the rest. So the capital cost for getting into the asset was substantially greater than what it would be if you went out and bought your own airplane on your own. So we developed a financing solution. We developed solutions and procedures to make sure that when an owner came back that all of the squawks or issues were taken care of. That whenever an owner came out to go fly again, the airplane was always clean. We developed solutions on how to make sure that the fleet commonality was there where people can feel a sense of ownership and pride and not have to worry about showing up and the wrong colored airplane being there. Some really minor things on some levels and then some big things on other levels. But like I mentioned, we had a couple competitors that had been involved inside of the industry, some for as long as 12 years. Some that were number one in the marketplace and now in our first location that we’re operating here in Atlanta, we’re not number one in market share here. We’re twice the size of our closest competitor now and we’re looking to launch our second location within the end of the first quarter of 2013.
Andrew: Most entrepreneurs I imagine would’ve launched this, or launched whatever their idea was, and then come back years later to do Mixergy interview about the setbacks and the failures in the business and then they would’ve told me, ‘What we discovered was, we had five different planes, each one of them was different,. We thought they were essentially the same but people told us, just having the color be off is a deal breaker for them and we lost their business that way. Little things like that destroyed our business.’ That’s what many people would do. It didn’t destroy your business because you knew about it ahead of time. So what I’m curious about it, how do you as an entrepreneur discover pitfalls that other people would just come crashing into before you hit them?
Jamail: Because a lot of times, first at market is a huge advantage but sometimes it’s not. In this particular situation that was the case. There was a lot of, like I said, a couple of competitors that have been inside of the market, some for more than a decade and we were able to interview their customers.
Andrew: You went to their customers and you said what do you like about this company, what do you hate about this company?
Jamail: Yeah. What do you like and what don’t you like. And we did that for all of the people that we could find. I went to some of the founders of companies that were doing this but are no longer in business and said, ‘What put you guys out of business?’ You know we heard everything from maintenance costs, and the initial costs of getting into, to all sorts of different things. And then after doing that research and hearing the problems from both the people that operated the company to as to well as the customers that were involved in the company, then we decided let’s come up with some of these solutions and then deliver our product and announce to the world. And that’s what we did.
Andrew: What about in a software space where I usually do my interviews, entrepreneurs will launch a minimum viable product. They’ll say, ‘I’m not sure if this idea works. I’m going to launch a small version of it. See if people are excited about it. And if it does we’ll go big.’ Did you get to do anything like that?
Jamail: We took, Atlanta was our test market for that essentially. And it did exactly what we thought it would do. We learned a lot still from that and now like I said, we’re getting ready to launch our second location. We’ve got about 25 locations throughout the United States that we plan on launching. But we tested the market, in the water to kind of see if what our thoughts were and if our research was accurate. And for them I would say 95% of it has been accurate. There are a few things that we’ve tweaked over the last year doing this kind of beta test site in Atlanta. And we plan on launching that in the second location here shortly.
Andrew: All right and I have one last big very important question to ask you. But first let me tell people about the mug that I’ve been holding up here. It was actually created by a Mixergy fan named Alex Champagne who runs a company called Launch Tower. You guys can see it if you need any design work, I know I’ve worked with him. You can see him at Launchtower.com. He created this Mixergy mug, sent it to me as a surprise gift and I’ve been drinking from it as you guys have seen in past interviews. He’s a great artist and a great web developer and actually I hired Alex in addition to a design work he also, well I hired him, I said, “Alex you know the space that we’re in because you’re an entrepreneur in the text space, help me find guests to interview.’ And if not for him, I don’t think Jamail, you and I would’ve met.
He found you I guess, some article that he read. He added you to our pipeline. He said, ‘Andrew I know this isn’t a tech interview the way that we usually do. It’s not a software based business. But we should consider him at least.’ We obviously more than considered you. We got excited and we had you on here to do an interview.
And that essentially you guys, if you’re wondering about the process of how Mixergy happens here, it’s not hey we lucked into doing this great interview. We do a lot of research, we say unfortunately ‘no’ to so many more interviewees than we say ‘yes’ to. And the reason we do is because we want, if you’re investing an hour of your time in one of these programs, we want it to be inspiring. We want it to be accurate. We want it to be well researched and we want it to be something that gives you ideas that you can use in your business and chances are as you’ve listened to this interview, you’ve thought to yourself, ‘Hey you know what? I should be talking to my competitor’s customers. And maybe there’s an idea I can bring back.’ Or, ‘You know what? Someone just said no to me. And if a 14 year old can find a way to get around that no, then maybe I can also.’
So throughout this interview I hope you’ve picked up on at least one and probably even as many as five different ideas that you can use in your own business. And if you haven’t, trust me, it will happen to you in time. Where you are about to launch a project and you said, ‘Wait. I just heard, I don’t know where. I don’t know who told me this. But I know I should be talking to some of my competitors customers. Let’s go start that.’ I don’t want the credit. But I do know that your life will be impacted by this. If you like this interview and you want more of them, we have a vault of hundreds of interviews that I’ve done in the past with entrepreneurs who will inspire you, educate you, open your eyes to possibilities and send you out into the world a better entrepreneur. And I hope you go to Mixergypremium.com and sign up for it. And if you’re already in Mixergy Premium, if you’re a premium member, I hope you go in there and just download those things. Especially before you have a long trip or a big commute, go to mixergypremium.com and start downloading and listening to them on those trips. And one last thing, I shouldn’t even have to say this because you guys see my face here, you know even if I didn’t say it, that it would be true. I absolutely guarantee that you’re going to be happy with it. So go to mixergypremium.com right now.
All right. So here’s the final question. We’re inspired by your story. But I believe that there’s something about aviation that’s inspiring on its own. So if someone’s who is listening to us says, ‘Hey you know what? I might be ready for a company jet. Or I want to just keep that up on the wall so when I’m ready I’m going to call this guy who I saw on a Mixergy interview and say I am ready. I got myself here.’ Or maybe they thing, ‘Hey, I want to start off with a jet I can fly, a plane I can fly on my own.’ How do we get started with this and how accessible is it for the person who is listening to us?
Jamail: It can be accessible because there is airplanes as cheap as $15,000 out there for someone. You don’t have to go out there and buy a jet. You can go out and buy a single engine plane which is how I first started flying. They’re safe. They’re easy to learn how to fly for the most part. You do have to get your pilots license, which that’s going to take a little bit of time and a lot of studying and a little bit of training to be able to do but it’s doable. After you do that you can upgrade from there.
Depending on how involved you want to get opportunities are endless. For the person who wants to go out and buy an airplane it’s a very complicated to a large degree in terms of the things you need to know about it. Similar to how you wouldn’t want to go out and buy a house on your own without using a real estate broker. I would highly recommend whether it’s Ascension or and other company that you at least evaluate using someone who does it on a daily basis. If we can be of assistance we would love to be. We highly recommend you go to our website Ascensionaircraft.com and then they can find out more information about our company and what we do. We would love to help out anyone who wants to get involved in aviation whether that’s learning how to fly on their own or owning their own corporate airplane.
Andrew: Ascensionaircraft.com for those people who are ready to get into it and for people who aren’t ready to get into it. Ascensionaircraft.com where you print out the plane that you have in mind for yourself. And now you know the guy who you’re eventually going to buy it from. Keep that on your desk. Keep it as a picture on your Android phone as your wallpaper or Iphone or whatever. I hope in addition to doing that you’ll keep Jamail in mind as a person who you’ll one day to connect with and learn from the way he learned from the kings. From Arnold, from so many people we brought up in this interview. I’m honored that you are here to do this interview and to share your story with us.
Jamail: Well Andrew thank you so much.
Andrew: Thank you all for being apart of it. Bye guys.
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