When a 21-year-old Sergey Petrossov found himself on a private jet for the first time, he didn't anticipate he'd one day make it a regular occurrence — not only for himself, but for thousands of others.
Eight years on, however, he sits at the helm of JetSmarter, the billion-dollar, celebrity-backed private jet booking app commonly dubbed the Uber of the skies.
"At the time, I didn't know it was going to be a business," Petrossov told CNBC Make It, recalling his first trip in 2009.
It wasn't an obvious journey for Petrossov, after all. Back then, he was newly graduated from the University of Florida and cutting his entrepreneurial teeth on a start-up for schools in his native . A chance encounter with the owner a private jet company saw him offered a ride.
Petrossov was quickly struck by what he called the "archaic" nature of the industry, which at that time relied entirely on analogue rather than digital management systems. Coming from a background in tech start-ups, that was foreign to him.
"I saw an opportunity early on. From 2009 to 2012, I kept private aviation close to my chest. I went to private trade shows and did some advising," he said, explaining that he thought he would create a digital tool to make it easier to locate and book jets.
But it was in that process he stumbled across the real money maker: "I learned that (the industry) was highly underutilized," said Petrossov.
It was now 2012, and the sharing economy was gaining traction with the advent of Airbnb and Uber, yet private jets continued to fly at an average 10 to 15 percent capacity.
"It was an ineffective use of the plane," said Petrossov. "There needed to be a sharing medium."
Despite being an asset-less concept, however, Petrossov and his new chief technology officer knew that it would be a costly endeavor. They decided to launch JetSmarter first as a digital data platform in 2013, with some initial backing, before going in search of additional funding for their sharing business.
"First, there was a digital theme, but sharing required more resources and capital. We always knew that sharing is how you can broaden the market," Petrossov said.
That funding soon came, and since launching its sharing platform in 2015 JetSmarter has received investments from several high-profile backers including rapper Jay-Z and Saudi Arabian royalty. Positioned as a "hybrid" to lower costs for existing private flyers, while providing greater convenience for new users, the platform allows members to both schedule flights and book empty seats on existing private jet routes.
"It evolved into a concept that provides a solution for existing jet users, but also for people who fly commercial and want flexibility," said Petrossov.
Over the past few years, membership packages have gone through several iterations, prompting criticism from some users who now face add-on fees for private hires. But Petrossov said he is focused on "democratizing access to private travel."
Today, basic membership is available for $5,000 per year, with varying additional fees for chartering flights and booking empty seats. A higher tier of membership is available from $50,000.
"We want to set a new standard. It's not about exclusivity, it's about providing more efficient travel," he said.
JetSmarter says it currently serves 15,000 members, primarily business travelers, across the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. In the next few years, Petrossov said he hopes to expand this customer base by offering lower costs for short journeys.
"Our goal is to take massive market share against commercial airlines, specifically business and first class, especially for routes under five hours," he added.
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