How This Airport Security Officer Is Building A Profitable Travel Search Engine
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello. My name is Andrew Norton and I am the CEO & Founder of SkyAlliance Limited®. SkyAlliance is a travel search engine which allows you to find cheap flights, hotels, holiday packages and car hire all over the world.
The company was founded back in March of this year and has excelled beyond my or anyone's expectations. SkyAlliance welcomes new and unique customers each month looking to book their holidays, business trips and/or trips back home.
Based on our data, last month (June 2019) https://skyalliance.co.uk welcomed over 3,504 unique web visitors. Today the company generates an average income of £2.300/month. I started from earning nothing to earning a basic living wage from pursuing a goal I once thought not possible.
5 years ago I knew nothing about web design, coding and software development, and today, I own a company that sends people away to various destinations and supplies them with another means of travel, all based on the 3 elements I knew nothing about.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
It all started at Heathrow Airport. I was and currently still work at the airport as a security officer in Terminal 5.
When I first started the role I had learned how to develop software, code and also web design. However, I didn’t know what direction of business to pursue with these skills. In the role of a security officer, you interact with the masses of passengers passing through every working day.
It all started at Heathrow Airport. I was and currently still work at the airport as a security officer in Terminal 5.
I would often come across a certain type of passenger that really concerned me. Passengers who had missed their flights. I once met a lady who was distraught about missing her flight to New York one Sunday afternoon.
It was her first time flying. She opened up to me about how she was charged £200 more to rebook her flight. I thought to myself that this was totally unacceptable and I wanted to help this lady, but at the moment in time I could not do anything to assist her.
That’s when the idea of building a travel search engine sparked into my head. “What if I could build something to help people like this?” (I actually said that to myself). So I got to work. Within a year I had built my initial platform. Now to validate that everything worked perfectly I thought I’d share my platform with some of my work friends. The only way to validate everything was up and running to perfection was to wait for my first booking.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Designing the product was difficult at the start. There are so many aspects you have to take into account, but the most important factor for me to consider was how my business was going to make a first impression to my visitors. My first ever thought before I started building scared me a little bit:
“How on earth am I going to put the data of 336 airline web results and up to 1.1 million hotels into one display and respond to input requests?”
I knew then, once I had to start, it was going to be a long journey for me. I set up many API’s from websites to get the ball rolling. I had to request access to these API’s which took the most time to complete. But once I had gained access, my next task was to build the framework to display these search results.
I had a lot of setbacks, A LOT. Sometimes one issue would set me back weeks, I could have given up but I kept saying there is always an answer, always!
For obvious reasons I can’t go into much detail but it took a lot of learning from my mistakes to complete the initial setup. I had to hire a few friends who also specialise in web design to give me a few pointers. Do not be afraid to ask for help.
Within 6 months, the engine was complete and I was ready to go. I had a lot of setbacks, A LOT. Sometimes one issue would set me back weeks, I could have given up but I kept saying there is always an answer, always! That gave me the motivation to continue and I’m so happy I did. It just shows you that giving up when the going gets tough, is a test to see how you respond to situations, and if you give up, you fail.
Always tell yourself you can do it, no matter how tough the obstacle is because sometimes the answer is right in front of you. You just need to be looking in the right place. Remember what I did with the Facebook Pixel? I couldn’t spend money, so I used tools I already had access to.
My good friend Zach Jenkins was my first ever booking. He booked a hotel in Las Vegas through my website, and my initial thought was to just pray everything went well for him, because it wasn’t like he was taking a weekend trip to Scotland.
A month passed and I had asked Zach to keep me updated on how his booking experience goes, for my records. I received a message from Zach a few weeks later saying he would like to promote my company on LinkedIn as he had booked a lovely hotel in Las Vegas for a very below average price whilst his friends had paid more for the same hotel.
I was relieved, and for me, that was confirmation that the platform was ready to become operational to the general public.
The only issue was money. I had a very small budget to work with as I had to pay for my car, insurance, phone etc. I had to take all of that into account when advertising. But I had no choice, for the business to grow, I had to spend. So I did it the smart way, a way I wouldn’t get a bad turnout on my ads. I took full advantage of the things around me. I used what’s known as a Facebook Pixel. What a Facebook Pixel does, is it tracks people when they visit your website and sends the data to you. It also tracks other aspects of what people do on your site. Just be careful using this Pixel. With recent GDPR laws, you must make your visitors aware they are being tracked through third-party advertisers. Otherwise, you could receive a penalty for violating GDPR laws.
My next step was to wait for some traffic to visit my website. After a few days I created a Facebook advertising audience based off of my pixel. That way, I know that everyone my ad is shown to, has had an interest in my business and more likely to interact with my ad. It worked. I spend £1 a day on all of my ads, and receiving hundreds and hundreds of unique visitors every month. So, if you are struggling with advertising for your business, consider using a Facebook Pixel, that way you’re not hoping someone takes an interest in your business, you know for certain that they already have at some point in the last 30 days!
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching an online travel business in 2019 was difficult but in order to do so, you had to stand out from the crowd.
So, my first task was to look into other companies to see what I can do that they aren’t. Shockingly, the primary feature all of them were lacking was customer service. I found many customers with questions/issues on their forums waiting months for a response. To me, this was the reason I got into this business, to help people.
I took this into account when designing the SkyAlliance website, you’ll find that there is always an option close by to contact us if you need it. Whether it’s through the use of a feedback form, or through our ‘Contact us’ page, support is only a click away. You’ll find our feedback form disguised as a blue light bulb hovering on the right-hand side of your browser when you visit www.skyalliance.co.uk.
This form has 3 options for you to leave your feedback:
- I like something
- I don’t like something
- I have an idea
Now, these have been carefully worded and if you are to fill out our feedback form, you’ll notice we would love for you to provide as much detail as you can for each selection. If you have an idea of something we could add/remove from the website, do tell us! All submitted feedback forms are sent to me directly and I review each and every one of them. And if you leave an email for me to contact you, I will do so. If you have an idea, I will discuss it with you. If we see a demand for whatever it may be, we will apply it and also credit those responsible for bringing it to my attention.
Financing the business
Financing SkyAlliance has all come from my own pocket. This was a pain sometimes as one month I could purchase one product, then have to wait another month until I was paid again to purchase another. But for me that was the best decision as I didn’t want to take out a loan just in case I could not pay it back.
I’d rather spend my paycheck and owe myself, then owe a bank and watch the interest rise until I paid it back. My biggest lesson from the long year and a half it took to start up my company was to power through until the job was done. Just go for it. If you are in the position I was 1 and half years ago, with an idea but do not know how to execute it, at least try. Yes, you will get negative people saying “You can’t pull that off”, “You won’t get that big as a company”, or the classic, “Someone’s already done that”.
But the truth is, they don’t know what your capable of, and the scary part is, neither are you. Those people are irrelevant. Use them as a means to prove them wrong. You have absolutely nothing to lose, but so much to gain if you pull it off.
Pursue. Your. Dreams.
No matter how bizarre your vision is, there’s always a way to make a success out of it. Like I said, the answer is right in front of you, as long as you are looking in the right place.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Loyalty. Without a doubt the most important feature in retaining customers is the loyalty SkyAlliance shows to them.
I have and always will maintain a policy here that the customer is not to be disrespected, and if they need help, we don’t go home until the job is done. We aim to respond to queries as soon as we can and we put the best of our relevant teams on each case.
This works both ways, you show loyalty to your customers through customer service, and as long as your product is good, they’ll come back and choose you no matter how big of a company your competitor is. Loyalty and customer service lack in today’s world. Use it to your advantage.
To market SkyAlliance we use a few methods, but not a lot:
- Google Ads
- Facebook Ads
- Instagram Ads
- Apple App Store
Now you may be thinking hang on, why aren’t you taking advantage of every advertising platform to maximise reach? And I would say to you, good question. But there is a very simple explanation as to why SkyAlliance only advertises on a few platforms. No one likes ads when browsing the internet or using an app do they?
For an average internet browser, ads just get in the way and disrupt whatever it is they are doing. And people remember the ad and who put that ad up. And to be honest with you, it annoys me too when I’m shopping online and an ad for tennis pops up. I don’t want SkyAlliance being subject to that. Even though it’s not up to us where our ad shows online, the customer will not be happy that we have interrupted them. That’s a very easy way to lose a potential customer, by annoying them, it does happen. So we don’t.
We advertise on Google Search and our ads pop up when a customer is looking for something travel based. Because then, you pop up when they need you. They explore your service and are more likely to purchase a product from you because you showed up when they needed you, not when you need them.
It’s the same with Facebook & Instagram, we only have audiences based off of our Pixel. That way, we know that we are advertising to people who have shown an interest in our business within the last 30 days, rather than giving someone else with no interest in travelling at all, another ad to scroll past. It makes sense to the company and the audience you are targeting. Placing an ad and hoping an audience will respond is the same as playing the lottery. Placing an ad to an audience who have shown an interest in your company themselves, is more likely to show results. Simply put, it’s a win-win.
Email marketing is another promotional method we use. Again, we use this method to benefit the customer. We ask them to sign up to receive weekly travel deals, which we send. This way, we earn a subscriber and another channel for promotion, and the customer takes advantage of travel deals they do not have to search for themselves. Easy right? For promotion, as long as you keep the customers interests at heart, you can’t lose. The way you do that is ask yourself, if I saw my ad online, would I want to click on it and investigate further? Does the text pull me in? Does the image I’ve used stand out from any other ad? If I saw this ad whilst browsing for a topic completely different, would I click on that? Put yourselves in the shoes of your target audience and once you do that, you feel how they feel.
How do we retain customers? Simple answer is, we don’t. If we receive word through email that a customer isn’t happy with our service and will not be visiting again, we respect that decision. We kindly ask what had happened and if we cannot rectify the situation as best we can, we let them go. If you poke an angry snake in a corner, is it going to learn to love you, or is it going to make it its top priority to attack you defending itself? Truth is, you shouldn’t press angry customers, you show them more respect. Even if they attack your business. Once they calm down, some people will realise how they reacted and will apologise. They will also take into account how you treated them when they were complaining, and that’s the key. As of right now, we haven’t received any sort of complaints from our customers, but we have contingency plans in place to deal with those situations with respect.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The future looks bright. We will continue to pursue the same vision we started out with. As a team, we will also maintain our platform to a high standard and keep our customer service level above average. That’s the plan.
We have adopted a new means of attracting new traffic by giving away free flights to select destinations. We hold giveaways on our Facebook page every month. Today, our product is in a position we would like it to be in today’s world, easily accessible from multiple channels, easy to navigate and a clear focus on what we serve. We plan on expanding our reach to new customers but for now we need to let word of mouth work it’s magic to bring in more customers so we can afford to expand.
Our goal as a business is to become well known for giving a fantastic service and also supplying customers with what they were looking for. We are always working on speed and accessibility improvements to our service and apps. And we will maintain that focus for years to come.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve learned a bit of both to be honest. I’ve made mistakes, many of them. But they have helped me to learn more about myself and become a better version of myself. Whenever I made a mistake, I had to get past it to progress, in my head there was no other option. A rookie error I was making time and time again was rushing tasks to just get them done. Often these mistakes would set me back days as I would have to go back and rectify them. My biggest breakthrough was convincing myself to take my time until the product was perfect. The urge to launch and get my company out there was outweighing the standard of the product I was making.
Now, the little details matter to me. I’ve seen what time and effort has equalled to and seeing the end product has made me develop a keen eye for detail. What I mean by little details are the style of the menu icon on a mobile browser, fonts, colours, what the company logo represents, stuff like that, things that I would have once overlooked. Starting up a business is a constant learning curve, and for me, you constantly learn more and more about yourself. It’s all a course to seeing how you can become your own leader. Music was the biggest element in me getting rid of old habits and adopting new ones. Taking a breather from everything for a minute, an hour or even a few days really refreshed my brain and opened my eyes up to what I wasn’t seeing. Those moments really showed me why taking breaks is highly important and I now respect that.
My biggest decision as CEO is developing new partnerships and the best deals I have made are with travel bloggers. I constructed a system where we both benefit. We both need things the other has. SkyAlliance needed the mass exposure, and the blogger is looking for a paycheck. So what I did was offer bloggers a cut of every booking made on their own sites (powered by us) and in return we would get the mass exposure when they promote our services. And that has really boosted our sales. We’ve welcomed more customers I never thought we would. Celebrities, famous bloggers and interest from others has put us on the radar, and I’m excited for what the future holds.
Running this company has taught me a lot about the timing and precision needed to launch certain products at certain times of the year. An example, we have a travel blog, we can’t write articles about summer in winter as no one is thinking about summer in winter. Writing blog articles about winter destinations will bring in more traffic as that is the trend at that current moment in time. With regards to our giveaways, my team and I try really hard to send people away to destinations that are in fashion at that time of year. This method has generated a lot of interest into these giveaways and lead people to check us out. And that’s the ultimate goal, reach. Even if it means a lot of waiting, timing the release of a product can make or break you as a business. Would you sell christmas trees in March or would you sell them in December? You do the math. Think.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My favourite tools are our widgets. For those of you that do not know what a widget is, a widget is an application, or a component of an interface, that enables a user to perform a function or access a service (source: Google). To simplify that, a widget is a small section of the bigger product put into a frame for you to use and distribute over the internet. Sort of like a mobile phone is a smaller version of your laptop, you can take your phone anywhere, your laptop, not so much.
We use lots of widgets and they are designed in a way to make the booking experience easier for our customers, relevant information in the right place and very simple to use. We take into account that not everyone uses technology and we need to be able to reach out to those people as well. Using widgets, we are able to guide them through the booking process much easier. A few of our widgets are displayed on our website: www.skyalliance.co.uk.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Probably my biggest inspiration throughout all of this for me is Apple. The way the company is run, the cleanliness of their website, the speed of their products...they just scream perfection to me. The most inspirational aspect is how they started, their journey and how they have helped millions of people across the world. They have the same goals as me and I’d love to have a status such as Apple’s. Being known for cleanliness, an eye for detail, leaving no stone unturned, these things make companies nowadays and Apple has it down to a tee for me.
My other source of inspiration is negative people. People who want to see me fail. I love that. More people to prove wrong. If you doubt me, it doesn’t knock me down, it makes me work harder to just see the look on your face when I succeed. I use them as a motivation. I look at them and question what they have achieved against what I have, do they really have the right to put me down? No. So I show them why I am where I am today. Hard work and perseverance.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I do. Just go for it. What have you got to lose? Your reading this article on me so you obviously have the right mindset to look for help. You need a push in the right direction from someone whose done it, I know that because I’ve been in your shoes. The question you have to ask yourself is, are you ready for change? Running a business is only a task for a select few, and 99% of that is having the right mindset. Use hate as a weapon for success. Use mistakes as a way to become a better version of you. The biggest battle is against yourself. Ask yourself now how bad you want it, how far you’ve come, and what the future could hold for you. Don’t let anyone tell you no. You want that deal, that office, that business, that customer, then go and get them!
You have to realise, yes, the life you live may be great right now, and you may feel that it wouldn’t matter if your idea succeeds or not. But, the truth is, it can get a whole lot better if you want it to. Ask yourself, wouldn’t you rather give it a go than dwell on what could have happened once it’s too late? Because trust me, you will regret that decision. If it succeeds, you earn, people remember your name, you win. If it doesn’t, nothing changes in your life. I can’t stress enough that you have nothing to lose from trying. I didn’t want to follow the stereotype of going to school, getting my qualifications, go to work and then retire for the rest of my life. I wanted to make a name for myself, provide a service to others and be remembered. And I know for a fact that because you’re reading this, you want the same. You have what it takes, and hopefully this advice will push you into pursuing your dreams. I look forward to shaking your hand one day. And hey, if you need a mentor or another motivational push, give me an email - [email protected], I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you may have about running your business.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: www.skyalliance.co.uk
- Facebook: @SkyAllianceUK
- Email: [email protected]
- Travel Blog: https://skyalliance.co.uk/news
- SkyAlliance Broadband: https://broadband.skyalliance.co.uk (more info below)
One last thing, SkyAlliance has just launched a UK broadband fare aggregator. Alongside our travel platform, we also compare UK broadband. For low Home, TV, Mobile broadband please visit: https://broadband.skyalliance.co.uk.
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
SkyAlliance has provided an update on their business!
Over 2 years ago, we followed up with SkyAlliance to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
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