One of the highlights of my 36/86 experience was hearing the two-minute pitches from the all of the startups vying for the big prize. One of the most compelling pitches—to me, at least—was SynapseMX, an Atlanta-based startup that is modernizing airplane maintenance by replacing a paper-intensive process with a software platform. It was compelling because I was sitting there thinking, how is this not the norm already? How is it that aircraft maintenance still relies on basically a ream of paper every time an aircraft gets serviced? The short answer: Regulation.
“Aviation is incredibly regulated due to safety concerns, and along with that regulation comes an audit trail for everything,” explains Shane Ballman, founder of SynapseMX and the former lead for maintenance technology for AirTran. “Just about every part can be tracked from birth to death, meaning when it was manufactured to when it gets scrapped. That’s still done on a lot of paper today—and if something happens to those records, wave goodbye to 30 percent of the aircraft’s value. Fax machines are alive and well, and I talked with a prospective customer just this week who still uses microfiche!”
Enter SynapseMX, which provides a platform for commercial aircraft maintainers to track, plan and accomplish maintenance tasks, including writing compliance records, from any device that can get online. But that’s not all it does. “Then, we take that data and help them understand hidden insights,” Ballman says. “For instance, how much time does it take to perform a certain inspection task? Is there variance between their facilities?”
Startup Lessons Learned the Hard Way
After spending 18 months validating the idea and determining that it was a viable business, Ballman launched the company in April 2015 with a co-founder who is no longer with the company. Ballman wasn’t new to startups, per se, but he did make a rookie mistake: assigning equity to both founders right away. “Even before you take in outside capital, you need to have founders on a vesting schedule,” he says. “It keeps everybody hungry and aligned in the same direction. Don’t skip it.”
Funding has been a challenge for the company, whose leadership team is composed of aircraft maintenance veterans. The company bootstrapped in the beginning, then received seed funding from 500 Startups as a participant in its Batch 15 accelerator. Its most recent investment was from Dynamo, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based fund and accelerator that is specifically targeting startups focused on improving the “lagging logistics industry.”
“It sounds like it’s been easy, but it’s been a long, hard climb,” Ballman warns. “When people say it’s damn near impossible to raise funds and run a business, they’re right. You won’t be a special snowflake, so be prepared to hustle on fundraising so you can get back to work. When you pitch (and you’ll pitch a lot), don’t bore people. Tell a story, and make it personal for your listener. People remember stories that have an impact on them.”
The Right Location
One gripe Ballman doesn’t have about the startup life? Feeling isolated from the startup community and the subject matter expertise that is necessary for success. The company started out in Newnan, Ga., an Atlanta commuter town and veritable hotbed of aviation experts. “We started the company there for one specific reason: There are a lot of FAA, Delta and Southwest (formerly AirTran) people who live around there,” Ballman says. “That means lots of subject matter experts to chat with, walk through mockups, talk about business processes, etc.”
After some growth, the headquarters moved to Atlanta. “There’s something contagious about being in a startup environment where people are hustling to make deals, and I like being around that energy,” Ballman says.
When he’s not busy running his own startup, he takes some time to help others who are starting theirs. “There’s an amazing—and free!—Pitch Practice meetup every Friday in Atlanta, hosted by my friend Kevin Sandlin, and I go there when I can to provide pitch feedback,” he says.
Ballman also help out as a mentor to younger companies in how to think about things, such as business models, marketing campaigns, investor outreach and the like. “I’m no expert but I’ve learned a few tricks along the way,” he says.
Clear Skies Ahead
So what’s next for SynapseMX? Ballman points out that Airbus recently forecasted that the maintenance and repair services market will be worth over $3 trillion over the next two decades. “Plenty there to keep us motivated,” he says. The company is also keeping its eye on drones and anticipating a market for drone maintenance.
“Drones are on the cusp of a massive tidal wave in commercial usage, and the FAA is going to ensure the same incredibly high level of safety as manned aircraft,” he says. “That means routine preventive maintenance and the logistics surrounding it. We plan to be helping drone operators in five years like we’re helping manned aircraft operators today.”
BONUS AUDIO: Shane Ballman speaks with Relationary Marketing during 36|86 in June.