"How I Got Here" Interview with Rob Wiesenthal, CEO of BLADE
Our very own Rob Wiesenthal recently participated in How I Got Here, Focuswire and Mozio’s weekly podcast about travel and transportation start-ups. Enjoy some of our favorite highlights below and listen to the entire podcast here.
How did you get here?
I’ve had a pretty long career starting, actually going back to when I was 19 in investment banking where ultimately I was at a company called First Boston and ran what was then called Digital Media and Entertainment, and joined Sony Corporation in 2000 as Chief Strategy Officer and Chief Financial Officer, and when I was at SONY, they had an aviation department that reported to me...What was interesting to me because private aviation wasn’t something I never really knew anything about or had any interest in in my prior life was the lack of branding, the lack of use of technology, specifically mobile, the lack of an emotional connection between any kind of company in that space and the consumer.
A lot of it just didn't make sense to me, and the thing that really tilted me towards saying ‘You know, I feel like there’s a business here’ was the fact that on the helicopter side it would cost $6,000 to go 90 miles, and that the average utilization of a helicopter is 1.7 people, even though they usually have six seats. I really didn’t understand why you couldn’t aggregate, over mobile technology, people going to common destinations at near common times. And that really was the impetus for BLADE.
Also – to take away the intimidation factor by getting that price lower because it was very intimidating in the sense that you really didn’t know who to call, and it would seem like something that was really above you and it was for CEO’s and it wasn’t really a consumer product. How do you market that and create something that is really enjoyable? How could we give them an experience that resonated with them? And that is why we started building our own lounges, we embraced mobile technology for booking, and we taught customer service to not only our people, but to pilots. We learned about aggregation and spent a lot of time dealing with redundancy and making sure that trips go as smoothly as possible.
What was your own personal thinking about going from a corporate exec to an entrepreneur?
When I decided to join, I saw the opportunity to use muscles that I really wasn’t given the opportunity to use in my former lives – namely building brands, creating an emotional connection between consumers and your product and to be able to make decisions quickly and with as minimal bureaucracy as possible. I’m third generation entertainment to a certain extent – my son is fourth. The one thing about spending a lot of time in entertainment, despite the fact that I was more financially-oriented and more business-oriented, was that a good song, a good film or a good TV show, it’s about the story. A great story. We tell stories in entertainment – a great song, film or TV show. I wanted to tell a story in the customer journey. From the moment you see a BLADE ad, to when you walk into one of our lounge, to the way our staff is dressed, to the way they greet you, to the way you experience on-board, to what happens when you land, it was about creating a narrative that resonated with consumers, and creating these unique moments that people would share. We turned BLADE into a verb. You BLADE-ed to Nantucket, you BLADE-ed to the airport, and it meant something to people and that was really exciting.
How do you view expansion and your network effects? Do you feel that you’re creating this moat right now?
The fact people can have a choice of east side, west side, downtown, amphibious, and the fact that that we are also on the west side, across from Hudson Yards where 50,000 people work and live 1,000 feet away from a vertiport, that is the EVTOL story. That is the idea of transportation coming together to serve that population. This was the perfect nursery to build this company and hopefully transition to EVTOL when the equipment is there.
What’s the difference in the process around mass investment that they took on before they listed and your arguably more modest efforts?
We wanted to be, on a measured basis, the fastest growing short distance aviation company out there. We fly more people in and out of city centers than anyone else in the country. And I said measured growth because you can’t grow in a way that provides the level of service that we provide, the level of safety that we provide, the integrity in the brand deploying so much more money than we’ve already deployed. It would be, in our view, irresponsible.