Shane Ballman – Synapse MX

More revenue per customerShane BallmanOne of the benefits for our Aviation Marketing Insider Circle is the opportunity to network with aviation professionals. Our Facebook Group Facilitator, Bert Botta, is interviewing one member a week to help us get to know one another better, make better referrals to each other, and generally learn more about the smartest people in the industry.

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Interview by Bert Botta

BERT: I caught Shane for this interview when he was out on the west coast, working with companies to help them with their maintenance issues while at the same building his maintenance business, Synapse MX.

He’s been on the road for quite a while and won’t be back home to his wife and son until March. Needless to say, he misses his family.

If you were to target a customer for you or your organization, how would I spot that ideal customer?

We serve small to mid-size aircraft operators. We look specifically to serve companies who are growing and who realize their current processes of getting work done, whether it’s planning or tracking their maintenance, is holding them back. Things like using Excel workarounds, paper and pen, or even using a whiteboard to track open MELs (minimum equipment lists) on the aircraft, etc.

We’re also helping operators who have gotten on the wrong side of their local regulatory organizations and need to improve their business processes to help them satisfy what their POIs (Principal Operations Inspector) and PMIs (Principle Maintenance Inspector) want to see.

The ideal customer is someone who’s looking to differentiate themselves from the rest of the companies and get a competitive advantage from what is only a cost center today. In fact, there are ways to turn that cost center into something that can help you build your revenue.


You can use your maintenance compliance information to sell the aircraft. For instance, I want to charter someone’s airplane and, as part of the charter process, they can show that the airplane is super “healthy.” I can see a high-level summary of some kind that proves the work was done, so why would I go somewhere else where I don’t know what the maintenance record is?


There’s lots of other interesting ways to leverage this information if you can track it in real time.


BERT: Are you going to be working with small maintenance organizations like FBO”s, etc.


SHANE: We’re definitely open to doing that. We can do fleets that come to the FBO’s repair station, floating Part 135 fleets that are staged wherever, and even with smaller Part 121 operators who are looking for great growth.


BERT: What about places like NetJets, Flexjets, charter operators, etc.?


SHANE: We could certainly help operators who operate under Part 91 rules. The challenge for us is that a lot of those private operators who have a large number of airplanes like NetJets, for instance, have the ability & resources to build their own software.


How would you best describe your company’s approach, products and services, and value propositions?


SHANE: We exist to help companies run a better maintenance operation, and we do that with 3 things that we bring to the table. Number one is our deep industry experience. The second is a servant’s heart. And the third is a desire to build long term relationships over short term sales.


I solved problems in the Part 121 world through targeted use of technology, and my career has really been focused around using tech to make things better for people.


There’s a great German expression that goes like this; “A problem shared is a problem halved.” That’s the kind of things that partners do, right? Let me take some of that load off of you so you can do a better job.


For instance, at AirTran there was legacy software that took lots of mouse clicks to do pretty common tasks like generate a maintenance due report every shift. If you’re doing the same thing every time and you’re just looking to see what the recent totals are, then why do you have to continually go pull that information? Why can’t the system push it out to you? “Hey, something’s changed, you need to take a look at this.”


Or what about AOG (aircraft on ground) events? Today that’s a flurry of emails, phone calls, text messages, faxes, etc. How awesome would it be if the mechanic on the ground signed off on the airworthiness of the aircraft and dispatch was immediately pinged that the aircraft was available for revenue again. No faxes, no using the phone to take a picture of the log page to email it, none of that.


That’s just two of many examples of things that, if you ever thought about the user experience, the human factors element of all this, there are so many ways to improve how people interact with software to really make them better at your job.


And it’s not a gigantic sweeping change all at once. Rather, it’s these small incremental steps that, over time, add up to be these massive productivity improvements and serious competitive advantages.


How would you describe your value proposition?


SHANE: We are “frustration-free” aircraft maintenance software. You’re not going to beat your head on the table trying to figure out what’s going on with the health of your fleet.


BERT: How are you different from some of the bigger aviation companies the airlines and NetJets use? We used to have continual maintenance feedback between the aircraft and the maintenance base. Is that something that you would improve upon or is that something that is already in place for companies?


SHANE: Are you talking about direct communication with the aircraft like an ACARS message?


BERT: Yes.


SHANE: Yep, we definitely can do that. We don’t do that today only because the customers that we’re targeting right now don’t utilize ACARS.

One of the things we are doing is integrating with flight dispatch systems. We’re automatically keeping track of the hours for an aircraft so you’re not having to go in and manually calculate the next maintenance due dates. None of this “This aircraft had 9 cycles today in 12 hours, so let’s go update the Excel spreadsheet to show when the next phase check is due.”


There are certainly other companies that do that today, but we’re different in that we’re using modern concepts like push notifications on phones, to tell the folks that, “Hey, schedule change – this aircraft is now coming in tonight at 1850Z.”


In that message we can also relay useful data like “These 5 maintenance tasks are dropping dead within 50 hours so you should go ahead and do them now,” so you don’t have to route that aircraft in later to do this maintenance and potentially interrupt your revenue.


There’s a lot of secrets hidden in your data, too – what’s the best vendor to use to overhaul this engine core based on their previous ability to turn that part and get it back to us? Who’s the best on-call maintenance team at KDVL based on previous history of estimating and then hitting the target for repair time for an aircraft? Are you not reaching your TBO (time between overhaul) on aircraft components if they were serviced by a certain repair station?


These are all things that you can certainly figure out today, by manually crunching a lot of data… but why should you have to?


And another thing that nobody else is doing in the industry today is automatic communications.


When you’re using Facebook or Linkedin, you have all these little status updates of so and so; you share this little funny picture, they shared a comment about their week, etc.


Your maintenance software can tell you what’s going on in a very similar way – if you wanted to see it. Let’s say you’re a DOM (Director of Maintenance) with four hangars across 3 states. How useful would it be to see “Mike Smith just opened the maintenance visit on N12345 (KDVL),” “Tim Johnson just completed the ELT check on N27631 (KPDK),” and “Gear swing task added to maintenance visit on N8746G.”


BERT: So the system knows the status of these things, why doesn’t it tell people?


SHANE: That’s exactly it. We’re able to push those things out to the people who care about them. Imagine this: you’re grilling in the backyard, your phone dings, and you find out that airplane was just returned to service and here’s the breakdown of how long it took, the notes that were entered, etc.


You didn’t have to call anyone to find that out. You don’t have to go dig out the laptop, wait for it to boot up, connect through a VPN connection, log in to the company’s portal, all that sort of thing. And you definitely didn’t burn your dinner while trying to juggle both things.


The info is secure, it’s real time, and you can quickly figure out what’s going on without disrupting dinner with your family.


BERT: You mentioned a buzzword that rang with me. What do you mean by a servant’s heart? I know what that means to me but please explain. How can that set you apart from any other maintenance business?


SHANE: So AirTran was acquired by Southwest a few years ago, and I stayed with Southwest while all the tools we had built were transitioned over. The concept of a servant’s heart is one of the core tenants in how Southwest conducts business that stuck with me after I left to start SynapseMX.


They really do go above and beyond to take care of their customers as people. You’re not a piggy bank. You’re not a short term gain. They care about building a real relationship, not just for this immediate transaction. They have drawings from customer’s children decorating their corporate offices. Letters from raving fans. They hold aircraft for people who are desperate to get to that wedding, or a funeral, or home for R&R after serving our country.


I think there’s an incredible amount of value in treating someone like a fellow human being. In fact, there have been some folks that I’ve talked to recently that are looking for maintenance software and they would be great for my business, since we all have to make money to stay in business and I’d love to have the revenue.


But we would not have been a good fit today for these people.


I actually told them “You’d be better served by my competitor’s product. That fits better with what you need.”


BERT: It fits better because they aren’t able to receive or appreciate that kind of servant’s heart relationship?


SHANE: No, because their business needs are such that we just don’t have the software capability today. I don’t want to sell them just to get the sale and then let them down afterwards because we misrepresented what we can deliver.


I have to say, “I’d love to help you but we’re not there yet and I don’t want to hurt your business.”


At the end of the day, this is a small industry and it’s all about the relationships. As the saying goes, “It takes a lifetime to build a relationship and 20 minutes to wreck it.”


What might prospects say to trigger me to refer them to you?


How about, “Let me run a report and export it so we can look at that” Or, “Every time the maintenance manuals are updated I have to go update the Excel sheets.” Or, “I can trade stocks on my phone, why do I have to use this clunky software to manage my maintenance?”


“There has to be a better way to do this.”


BERT: “You mean you would eliminate the need for people to use their computers because of your push notifications? Is that what will happen?”


SHANE: It’s not so much about the push notifications, it’s the overall concept that software should make it easier for you to do things. You shouldn’t have to fight to get information that you need to do your job. Give me the information I need to do my job and get out of the way.


We actually have this driving philosophy of “Don’t make me think.” If I have to read something and then figure out what it means, what’s the screen trying to tell me… then that’s a problem.”


BERT: I used to think the same thing when I was flying glass cockpit for NetJets. With certain displays I had to sit there and look at it and try to decipher what it was trying to tell me rather than me being able to look at it and know immediately the information I needed to make a decision.


Different manufacturers had varying levels of success – some were much better at displaying information intuitively than others. They made it much easier to read and interpret information at a glance than the others did.


That was especially important for a guy like me who had flown steam gauges, round analog dial instruments all his flying life. That was a big transition for me, at age 60 plus, so it had to be easy.


What’s your marketing process once you receive a referral?


SHANE: Since we’re in a very relationship driven industry, I approach people like I would prefer to be approached. I ask them, “What problems do you need solved? How can I make your life easier?” Not “Let me tell you about your business.” So we reach out in a variety of channels.


As a very high-touch industry, I don’t want to come across as some high pressure, used car salesman. We ping folks in email, we try to have conversations with them via direct mail, phone calls, we’ll even do face to face meetings.


I’ve even flown somewhere and talk to them as part of that relationship building process. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not interested in getting the short term sale at the expense of long term damage to the relationship.


I’m a firm believer that if you treat human beings like they have their own hopes and fears then you can help them achieve the first or address the second. What keeps you up at night? If we help people with those kind of issues, then they win and we win.


Even if it’s not a sale today like some of the prospects mentioned earlier, in 18 months they might go somewhere else and say, “You know, I know this guy Shane…”


How did you get where you are in your professional life?


SHANE: I was born in Baltimore and raised in Florida. My dad worked for AT&T, so we moved around a bit, flying to a lot of different places, doing business. And that’s where I got the flying bug.


Both my father and grandfather flew for fun, so I naturally became a third generation private pilot. I still fly in my spare time, which is happening less and less now with a new business.


I went to Embry-Riddle, got a business degree there, and, since I loved aviation, got my foot in the door as a gate agent at a small 737 Classic operation that hubbed in central Florida. I worked my way up through the customer service side of the business and became an assistant station manager.


After that, I moved to AirTran in the dispatch office, routing aircraft for maintenance and interacting with the maintenance folks on the ground. The director of maintenance planning discovered me and moved me into that side of the business where he started out as a maintenance planner, and then moving into a supervisory role there.


When they figured out I knew my way around computers, I found myself managing the entire maintenance system for all of AirTran. So I did what any self-respecting geek does – I built stuff to make it better.


I spent 15 years working for several Part 121 companies and learned a lot in that space and the kind of regulations that need to be addressed.


Large operators like AirTran and Southwest can afford to throw money and people at problems in a brute-force kind of way… and then there’s the smaller companies who can’t afford to do that.


The local POI or PMI don’t really care about that part – that smaller operator still has the same regulatory hurdles to operate within.


That made me think about how to better run a maintenance organization. AirTran was all about staying lean – they had the leanest number of maintenance staff for a major carrier, and they used technology in such a way that they could run an operation without a lot of people.


In the process of building new technology tools for AirTran, other operators would come through to see what we were doing and take a look at the technology I had built. I realized there might be a market for people who want to do smarter maintenance.


When Southwest purchased AirTran, it was a good opportunity for my business partner and I to set the wheels in motion to launch our own company.


We started our aircraft maintenance software company to help the companies who need the most help, the small to mid-sized operators who couldn’t afford to pay $5 million plus price for the big maintenance software packages.


Then we attracted the attention of some Silicon Valley folks who have invested in our vision. In fact, I’m in the bay area right now working with them to build our organization to be able to handle more and diverse customers while still providing exceptional service to people.


BERT: How did you come up with your company name, SynapseMX?


SHANE: Our company, and the name SynapseMX, is born from the fact that a maintenance organization is like the human brain – there’s all these little bits of information flying back and forth: status updates, phone calls, paperwork, etc. In the brain, those nodes that transmit and receive information are called a synapse. And MX is, of course, an industry acronym for maintenance.


So collectively, SynapseMX is like an organizational brain for your maintenance.


BERT: Is there anything else you want to add Shane?


SHANE: Just that I’ve enjoyed talking with you. Thanks so much for asking me to do this. I’m humbled. It’s impressive the number of talented people and the backgrounds in our group.


It’s true with aviation as a whole but our marketing class is such an interesting mix of people.


Thanks again for asking me to do the interview.


BERT: You’re welcome. It was a pleasure for me as well Shane.


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