Kanika Tekriwal on disrupting in a traditional, male-dominated aviation industry with tech
The only sector that has not been disrupted in the last few years is air travel as the industry remains a traditional market controlled by a handful of businesses who do not allow for disruptions to happen, said Kanika Tekriwal, CEO and Co-founder of private plane aggregatory startup
Speaking at TechSparks 2021, the entrepreneur said her startup is gunning for an IPO in “three to four years or even lesser time”.
She said there is a new wave of energy to innovate and disrupt and no shortage of capital to do so. She believes the future is all about enabling air taxis at the cost of an Uber for everyone and “that is exactly what we are working on.”
Her startup JetSetGo is taking on a globally male-dominated industry by heavily incorporating technology, a practice that stands apart in the industry that has not fully embraced tech capabilities.
Kanika recounted an instance where she had been laughed at for starting a business in the aviation industry and investing in tech capabilities. “Where has this girl come from to think that she is going to change the whole industry?” she recalled a harsh remark.
However, Kanika shared that tech goes beyond just booking flights.
“I think an aircraft is one of the most complex pieces of machinery I have ever seen. If something happens to a car on road, you can move aside and have resolve the problem, but with aircrafts, it would be the end of it all. We are leveraging AI to ensure strong safety and succeed in the market,” she explained.
JetSetGo has built systems to understand what might go wrong, how to avoid it or efficient ways to fix it. For example, if a tyre needs changing after every 80 landings, the startup deploys tech to study the runway, the airports, and uses the data to understand what needs to be repaired to make sure the tyre lasts 120 landings instead of just 80. JetSetGo applies the technology in similar ways to address other problems as well.
Today, the investment in tech is yielding results optimising the startup’s finance and business aspects as well.
Surviving the odds
The COVID-19 pandemic came with a lot of uncertainties. Even then, Kanika took a stand not to lay off staff, cut salaries; she was determined on survival. “I was mentally prepared to survive 12 months and then take tough decisions,” she said.
But things turned around when people who earlier considered private flying a luxury or a waste of money began looking at it as a “safe, acceptable, and the best way to travel” amidst the pandemic. During the peak of COVID-19, the startup helped transport medicines to far-flung places.
However, Kanika is no stranger to challenges and has overcome even more tough times, be it surviving cancer or persisting in the aviation market when the odds were stacked against her.
When she had little pocket money while pursuing her undergraduate studies in design in Mumbai, she began interning and eventually set up operations to help a company purchase a plane.
Later, when she went on to pursue an MBA from the UK, she worked with an aviation company and learnt engineering and piloting on the job.
“When I fell sick, everything came to a grinding stop and the idea of JetSetGo was born soon after my recovery. I did consultancy work to make ends meet and understand the market,” Kanika shared, adding that she ran away and moved to Delhi when her parents suggested she slow down.
The dream to start up and set the business sailing was well and alive but she said the bubble burst gradually and she thought of shutting shop. The first flight booked on the app never flew because the operator pulled out just two hours before departure.
“People said there is no market, and I was wasting my time in a rich man's playground because luxury can never be sold by young people. But I remember waking up one morning and thinking why I should listen to all of this,” she said.
After realising that the private jet industry continues to work on a traditional format with zero tech, she began approaching plane owners and convinced them that she would make their aircrafts profitable.
JetSetGo has gone from being a marketplace to being an aircraft management company and bought eight aircrafts in the middle of a pandemic.
“It is quite easy to sound all brave and strong... but somewhere in my heart, if I reflect rightly, I was also very scared what would happen to my life if I don't do something with it. After 10 years of being through this journey, I realise it was also the fear of ‘what next?’ that kept me going. It was a matter of survival.”
Along the way, many of her enemies have become friends and naysayers, her well-wishers. At TechSparks 2021, she welcomed the “young” competition in the market and is optimistic that collaborative effort will make the next 10 years in the industry very dynamic.
The key, she said, is to never stop believing in yourself. “A lot depends on your mind. It is the doer of everything that happens to you,” she quipped.
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