Pitching to investors is one of the most daunting experiences a startup founder can face – especially as the rejections pile up.
You can begin to question your business model, your idea and even yourself.
Randel Darby has been there. The Airportr founder is absolutely flying after his firm signed a deal with Swissport – the world’s largest provider of ground and cargo handling services – which will see its smart baggage solutions deployed across a network of 269 airports in 47 countries.
Headquartered in London, the baggage platform had already been adopted by some of the world’s largest airlines and airports, including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and London Heathrow.
Prior to setting up AirPortr, Darby worked for a private equity firm which invested in growing businesses. Having spent a great deal of time mixing in those circles, he had the confidence to pull together compelling business plans and develop a killer pitch. However, after initial success, he still found the fundraising process “brutal”.
“I felt like I knew what investors were looking for [and] I knew who to go to,” he explains. “When I was ready, I was able to pull together an angel funding round fairly quickly.
“We have raised angel, seed and Series A funding but – despite all my prior experience and apparent success in raising financing – I didn’t find it easy to secure. In fact, the journey on many occasions was brutal.
“Rejection is hard to stomach, especially when you think you have the best product or company that’s going to change the world; and the problem is you never really get any answers as to why you’ve been rejected.
“This arguably elongates the iteration process; you’re left questioning why and are forced back to the drawing board to figure it out yourself.
“That said, if you’re getting lots of no’s, don’t discount the investors as being ignorant or simply not understanding your business because the chances are there is merit in why they chose to reject you on that occasion – because there is something you need to address with your business model.”
Airportr was founded back in 2013 and Darby says that bringing the vision to life depended on building a talented close-knit team around him. That meant making some tough decisions along the way.
“The first months and years were not as intense as I imagined as we gained a lot of confidence in the form of early enthusiasm from investors, partners and early adopters who loved the product,” he explains.
“However, the crunch came when we needed to get the idea up and running and start producing – that’s when the intensity really started to ramp up.
“As a founder, you have to be prepared to experiment and pivot fast and, in some cases, even deconstruct parts of the business or teams – including people who were there at the start – to be able to move forward.
“This is of course not easy to do, but necessary for success.”
Airportr’s technology was developed to handle the regulatory, commercial, operational and customer-facing complexities involved with baggage handling and processing.
As COVID-19 ground the travel industry to a halt and threatened to mothball his business, Darby and his team used the unexpected time to instead plot a pivot which led to the Swissport deal.
The platform now integrates with airlines that sell its service to their end customers and allows passengers to have their baggage collected from their doorstep and delivered on to their end destination.
“We took some time to pause and reflect on our successes, failures, feedback from customers and partners and decided to use this insight to inform our strategy to expand our product globally,” the founder says.
“We knew that airlines wanted the product to be available in origin, destination and door-to-door, so we vowed to make this happen. What we needed were large supply partners with global reach, such as Swissport, to help us scale services into airports.
“We developed our tools and tech platform to ‘enterprise’ level for operating partners, so they could handle and seamlessly deliver the product globally.
“Then we executed the pivot to become a platform for B2B partners – airlines, airports, handlers – who can provide the service to their passengers as the end users.”
He adds: “I would have to say that our biggest challenge to date has been disrupting an industry that was not ready or built for such far-reaching change to happen rapidly.
“Airlines have been so used to processing baggage in the same way for so long that the infrastructure for something like AirPortr just wasn’t in place. The industry is dominated by big B2B corporations that aren’t necessarily all that agile or, in many cases, even set up to work with startups.
“We are already trusted by over 100,000 travellers a year in the UK. The aim is to make the future of air travel more efficient, seamless and sustainable for passengers, airlines and airports.
“It will become the norm for customers’ baggage to be processed from their doorstep rather than at a traditional airport check-in desk – and AirPortr will be the driving force behind that change.”