Bringing transparency to the pilot training industry – Interview with Donal O’Connor, CEO of Pilot Menu

Bringing transparency to the pilot training industry – Interview with Donal O’Connor, CEO of Pilot Menu

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Pilot Menu is a knowledge-based platform that helps guide future pilots to their dream job. By offering advice, detailed articles and a break down of offerings from some of the best training providers in Europe, Pilot Menu will be the one-stop-shop for anyone who wants to become a pilot. They aim is to bring transparency to the pilot training industry.

I’ve met with Donal O’Connor, founder and CEO of Pilot Menu, to talk about his company, being an entrepreneur and some ups and downs of founding a startup.

Donal O'Connor

How did you come up with the idea of Pilot Menu?

Having worked in the Pilot Training industry for a period of 18 months with one of the highest quality trainers on the market, I saw that there was a niche for a website to be able to share our excellent services with a wider audience, at a competitive price point.

Information in this industry is scattered across a number of different websites, some ageing and tough to navigate, meanwhile others aren’t coming from a fully transparent and independent perspective. Pilot Menu is a solution to this.

Why is now the time for your company to exist?

The aviation industry is growing year on year. Supply isn’t meeting the demand for pilots, especially for experienced pilots. This is expected to filter down to graduates at a growing % YOY. There is a significant growth predicted in the market over the next 20 years (Boeing say that there will be 790k more pilots needed globally by 2037 (between retirement and industry growth)).

Pilot Menu is part of the solution to this for students, training providers and airlines. The industry has a lot of informative live bricks and mortar events. Pilot Menu is digitally focussed, reaching potential students and current students through mediums they use daily (primarily Instagram) to compliment the other current offerings on the market.

What is the potential total market size for your product today? What is its growth rate?

There is €400m spent each year in Europe on pilot training, with Europe taking up 16% of the worldwide market. The immediate TAM (Total Addressable Market) based on a referral model in Europe is anywhere up to €20m p/a. With plans made for a detailed digital build, the blueprint will be there so that geographical expansion in Yr 2 is possible and plausible.

There are also other verticals of revenue, further down the life cycle of the student that could and will be explored for revenue. I must add though, that after 4 months since the launch of this project, these future expansion plans seem very far away on the horizon,  but they exist nonetheless 🙂

What was the biggest challenge in running your company so far?

The biggest challenge running Pilot Menu to date has been the age-old problem of cashflow. It can’t be emphasised enough how tough this is at the start of a business. You may have the best plans to spend on marketing, hire staff, fly to meetings, take a wage, but things never go as planned initially.

Selling an online product to an industry that is primarily used to Bricks and Mortar live events, presented a challenge in itself. Uptake will always be slower than expected. I’ve tried to counter this by focussing on those who are early adaptors and to “under promise and over deliver” with these, and grow gradually.

Regards the cash flow, I’ve invested more of my own capital in than was initially budgeted for. I’ve also adjusted the timeline for monetising different aspects of the business.

Finally, I’ve sat down with two different parties to discuss the possibility of investment. The SEIS and EIS investment schemes within the UK present a great opportunity for investors with some very attractive tax breaks. I’m exploring SEIS investment at the moment (up to £150k). 

A tip would be to do out a financial forecast, allow for “Worst case scenario”. Be real what this figure is. Having worked out what this figure is of cash needed, add 20%

What type of marketing does work the best for you?

I find Instagram marketing to work the best for Pilot Menu at the moment. Facebook is very saturated and has little to no organic reach. Instagram paid advertisements also perform roughly 4 times better than Facebook does. For this reason, Pilot Menu is present on Instagram alone at the moment.

With limited bodies and hours in the day initially, I wanted to double down on what would return the most initially. A very active following of 5500+ on Instagram is the sole social media presence, I will be adding LinkedIn for B2B enquiries and interactions very soon. I’m also very interested in TikTok, and exploring how that can be best leveraged for the brand. It’s on the “to-do list” to explore. Anyone young enough, hip enough or up to date on this a little more, please reach out and let me know what you think.

Did you have a backup plan just in case you fail?

Did I have a backup plan if I failed, great question! Well, this is the fourth startup I’ve been involved in. The previous three have been very successful failures (if there is such a thing?).

Going into this startup I was well aware of the potential of failure and the downsides it brings. I think that learnings I’ve had in previous startups and from working alongside or reporting to some extremely smart people (particularly in my previous role) have put me in the best position to avoid failure this time around.

Also, your definition of success also defines whether or not it is a failure. Will it reach the potential based on the TAM and the market growth potential of the aviation industry? Or will it be a business I can live comfortably off and enjoy the challenges and trials and tribulations it brings? To answer the question, I believe I could go into consultancy or working with the start-up community (which I absolutely love) if this doesn’t work out. So there’s always the next step. But, I’m not preparing for failure or considering it a probable outcome.

What were your greatest failures and what did they teach you?

My greatest failures in a business sense were all were involving personal growth. Making naive mistakes. Thinking I knew best and not properly considering advise. I was definitely guilty of this in the first startup. The founder’s ego can be a bullish one. Sometimes this can be a good thing, often it’s not. It took me a lot longer than I’d like to admit to get over this and really value the opinion of those who knew better than me.

When I turned 30 a light bulb moment went off that completely turned my attitude on its head. I was seeking out startup events to attend, just so I could learn something. I loved being in the company of those who were talking about their experiences, whether successes or failures. Always something to learn, understand. Following on from this, listening more talking less is one important aspect that I’m still working on.

What drives you to keep going when it’s really tough?

A competitive nature to want to win/complete drives me. Also the belief in the product and that the market needs it. Finally, there’s a fear of failure that can be healthy once harnessed. Most who start their own business can relate to this. A want to achieve. It’s a mixture of all of these factors that drive me I suppose. The freedom of being your own boss is a bi-product of it all and a benefit the majority of the time.

How do you manage stress and keep a work-life balance?

This is another great question and one that I feel I could improve greatly on. I think routine is so important to manage stress and to be productive and successful. In a world where there are no constraints on you, it seems counterintuitive to place them on yourself, but vital. I think routine helps you keep going in the days you don’t want to.

A team around you and a sense of purpose with them is also great, but not always possible from moment one with early-stage businesses. These routines limit stress as you are actioning more items and too busy to over-think and worry.

Structuring a to-do list is very helpful also, although it may seem mundane, it isn’t. Building in time for physical activity is vital also. I’m saying this and not doing it as much as I’d like recently, but a gym session or a football game is a great way to release stress and also bring positive endorphins.

As far as a work-life balance goes, I believe that enjoying life and those around you to be key. These days, events and occasions invigorate us for the challenges that lie ahead. 

If you weren’t building your start-up, what would you be doing?

I interviewed for a role with LinkedIn last year and didn’t get it in the end. They were a company I’d have enjoyed working for and learning from. I suppose, if I were not working on Pilot Menu I would be in a commercial role with a company like that, or working with a Venture Capital company in the start-up world. Both would be massively appealing to me, in different ways. 

Who is your business idol and why?

I think Idol is a very strong word, but there are certainly people I admire in business. From those bringing in 7-8 figures to those making ends meet but never giving up. The list varies from the Collison brothers to Jack Ma. To Kieran Walsh, a friend of mine smashing the beauty distribution world in Ireland, to Irelands most renowned businessmen such as Jp McManus or Denis O Brien. The person I look up to most in business though would be my father.

What advice would you give to an entrepreneur just starting to build a start-up?

I don’t particularly feel that I am in a position to give advice to others just yet. I’d happily share learnings or shortcomings I’ve had myself in business to try and inspire someone to avoid the pitfalls that I didn’t. These would be along the line of 

  • Be real with your projections. Take the worse case and half it. Can you survive? Can those around you? Doing this prevents unfortunate situations that we hear of too often.
  • Research grants, tax breaks for investors and other such assistance that is out there for you based on the country you are operating in. There is help available, although perhaps not always evidently clear what it is. Spend time to search for this and see if you and your business can avail. Every bit helps.
  • Do a business plan, even if you don’t think you need it. There’s a lot of added benefit in having your words down on paper. Adjust it as your situation adjusts and the market adjusts. Attempt a financial forecast also, month by month break down of incomings and outgoings.
  • Try and retain at least 51% of your business, whilst remembering you are better to have 55% of something successful as opposed to 100% of something that failed

Thank you for the interview, Donal. I hope to hear more about your company soon!

Thank you.


If you’d like to learn more about Pilot Menu, please visit their website: https://www.pilotmenu.com or follow Instagram https://www.instagram.com/pilotmenu/.

You can also connect directly with Donal on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/donal-o-connor-0b4b6aab/

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