Practical Ecommerce

Quick Query: Pilot Identifies Niche With PDF Aviation Maps

In the United States there will be 590,349 pilots collectively flying some 28 million hours in 228,000 different aircraft this year alone, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). To navigate, those pilots use altimeters, global positioning, and good old-fashioned maps, creating an opportunity for one ecommerce merchant.Eric Boles

Aviation maps or charts are typically four-foot-by-six-foot rectangles that take up a lot room, are hard to manipulate in a tight cockpit, and wear out easily as pilots fold and refold them flight after flight.

Eric Boles, a private pilot and the founder of Skysectionals.com, saw a need and believed that pilots would for pay for smaller, easier to use maps. But bringing a product to market isn’t easy, especially if that product ends up being intangible.

“There was a fair amount of discussion about what would work,” Boles said. “At one point, Ross [Parton, a friend and pilot] and I kicked around the idea of just laminating the charts because they wear out fast, you know like laminated road maps. They are handy, but the cost of something like that …I didn’t feel like there was going to be much of a market for $30 charts when people are used to paying $7.”

PeC: Describe your product development process, what general steps did you go through to set up SkySectionals printable maps?

Eric Boles: We first needed to understand the customer need we’d be addressing. As a pilot myself, I was very familiar with the frustrations of the large-format aviation charts. You’re constantly unfolding and refolding them in the cockpit making it difficult to keep track of your route—especially in a small cockpit. By providing the charts in letter-sized panels, they’d be much more convenient to use on a kneeboard—a standard accessory that most pilots use to keep track of other paperwork in the cockpit.

With that premise, we looked into pre-printed charts in this format, but the printing and inventory costs proved to be too high—especially since the products have a two- to six-month lifespan before new editions are released. Realizing, however, that an e-product would not only be more cost-effective but ultimately more convenient (immediate delivery, ability to print multiple copies, etc.) we opted to go down that path.

PeC: Certainly not all physical products are good candidates for transformation into a downloadable product, but what advice would you have for other merchants that might be looking at moving from tangible to intangible inventory?

Eric Boles: Moving from tangible inventory to downloadable inventory can be challenging. In SkySectionals’ case, we started with an e-product and never had to make that transition within our own business. That said, I believe success in e-products comes from familiarity and convenience. We developed a product that had built in familiarity to our audience as it is complementary to the standard aviation charts. In addition, our e-products were developed to be more convenient than the tangible products our customer audience is used to.

PeC: Are there any special challenges or concerns that retailers specializing in downloadables need to be concerned about?

Eric Boles: Most e-products will require some level of technical experience on the customer side—you need to remember to take that into account when developing the products and ensure that your target audience will have the necessary software/hardware to use what you’re selling. When converting a tangible product to an e-product, try to stick to industry standards and be sure to support both the PC and Mac platforms.

You also want to be prepared for good after-sales support to help customers work through any challenges they may encounter. Thankfully, people have become more and more familiar with PDF, audio and video formats in recent years.

PeC: You mentioned in our earlier conversations, that you spent a lot of time looking for a shopping cart vendor. Would you explain what you did to research shopping carts, what challenges you faced, and then explain which vendor you ultimately used?

Eric Boles: Skysectionals.com has been in operation just over a year now and we’re already on our second e-commerce platform. There are many great solutions out there, but none of them excel at everything. We’ve had challenges finding a shopping cart vendor that supports the file sizes that our charts come in at (~50MB each…and we have over 100 charts which are updated constantly). We’ve also had challenges with email marketing and analytics integration.

We started off with 1shoppingcart.com. They offered great integration with their email marketing tools but did not provide the integration with Google Analytics that we needed. In addition, while they support the file sizes we had, the uploads were incredibly slow and unreliable.

As the business grew, we discovered E-junkie.com and made the transition to them. We were able to fully integrate Google Analytics and they have a great infrastructure that allows e-products to be hosted on a third party server. We’re able to host our products using Amazon’s S3 service—the upload and download speeds are fast and the cost is minimal. However, that change didn’t come without compromise. What we gained in analytics and hosting we lost in email integration.

E-Junkie provides some basic integration with Aweber.com and we transitioned our email marketing to them. However, the integration isn’t as robust as 1Shoppingcart.com and we lost the ability to automatically classify between prospects and customers and segment based on products ordered.

We’re still looking for the ideal shopping cart platform that delivers all of the features we need. I’m optimistic that E-Junkie will continue to improve and I regularly follow developments of other solutions—like Magento and FoxyCart.com.

PeC: Describe for use how you market SkySectionals. Is it different from how you would promote a tangible product line?

Eric Boles: The fundamentals for marketing don’t change for e-Products. We leverage SEO and SEM for Skysectionals.com just as you would for a tangible product. We’ve found our most successful campaigns target audiences looking for tangible products. Being a completely new product type, we can’t count on people searching for our product specifically.

PeC: Without giving away anything proprietary, what so great about selling downloadable products?

Eric Boles: E-Products provide a level of agility that you could never have with tangible products. It’s much easier to modify products and address customer needs—and with no inventory to need to burn through, you can roll out those changes much faster.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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Comments ( 4 )

  1. Leland O. Taylor October 3, 2008 Reply

    ABSOLUTELY wonderful idea, for all the right reasons.
    Your marketing stinks.
    Make available as a download, covering the US, Canada, and Alaska, for a yearly subscription fee, you’ve got my business.

  2. Leland_is_a_moron October 4, 2008 Reply

    Leland, c’mon – you’d think it was too expensive anyway and wouldn’t subscribe to an annual fee. I know your type.

    "Your marketing stinks" – Nice – how about saying something constructive?

    You’re exactly the type of customer small businesses don’t want – too much hassle for not enough gain.

  3. Ron Robinson October 5, 2008 Reply

    Hey Leland, not a pilot are you? Pilots usually pay a LOT more to update their map cases – guess you never heard of Jeppeson and all the updates they sell to pilots every year? On paper? And all the work that has to go into updating your binder to take out the old maps and put in the new ones? Not only is this cheaper, the updates are electronic and takes fewer trees…

  4. Armando Roggio October 6, 2008 Reply

    I would also agree with Leland that a subscription based service would be a (very) good addition to Skysectionals’ virtual shelves. But this is not a problem with SkySectionals marketing. Rather, it is the same problem that many ecommerce merchants face. What do you do when an existing shopping cart doesn’t really meet your needs.

    (1) Many carts have no support at all for intangible products. (2) Carts that do offer support often do not have enough storage space, bandwidth, or storage options. (3) Relatively few carts appear to have support for subscriptions or offer fulfillment tools.

    @Leland (or anyone) can you recommend a cart that would help SkySectionals leap to a subscription model?

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