Needless to say, these are challenging times for the air travel industry. But a number of airports around the world are taking advantage of this slow time to upgrade their technology infrastructure. They know air travel will bounce back strongly at some point, and they want to be ready for that.
Two decades ago, technology didn’t even exist to help airports manage key aspects of their operations, including ground transportation (taxis, limousines, and shuttle buses then; those plus Uber and Lyft drivers now) and airfield inspection.
Lynn Richardson was an experienced, forward-thinking airport executive who was frustrated by the lack of tools to manage these functions. So, he decided to do something about it.
Today, more than 110 airports rely on software from the company he started, GateKeeper Systems, to manage these critical functions. Having achieved this success, Lynn is now turning the controls over to his son.
Brian Richardson, who spent five years working at the Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) airport and 15 years as a project manager for the company, is ready to pilot the organization through its next phase.
Here’s their story of the founding, growth, and transition of GateKeeper Systems.
GateKeeper Systems provides “business improvement” software to commercial service airports, focused on two areas of airport operations: ground transportation and airfield inspection.
The company provides a software product that helps airports to manage the flow of ground transportation vehicles—taxis, limousines, shuttles, Transportation Network vehicles (Uber and Lyft)—through the airport.
The software helps airports reduce vehicle congestion, maintain regulatory compliance, and allocate and collect fees for use of the airport by these vehicles/drivers.
GateKeeper’s App-139 software package automates the collection and storage of data related to the required daily airfield inspection at each airport.
The inspection is focused on safety and security issues such as holes in the concrete, fencing problems, faded marking on the runways, lights not working, etc. The software uses mobile devices to record problems, automatically generate a work order to fix the problem, and to permanently store the information to track the inspection and repair data.
GateKeeper provides off-the-shelf software that is reliable, efficient, and affordable. The company has a track record of more than 20 years of successful implementation projects at about 110 airports, all of which are referenceable.
The GateKeeper team includes several members with airport management and support experience, giving them intimate knowledge of the mission, purpose, and operation of airports
Year founded: 1997
Funding rounds: Funding came from personal cash and two software support contracts. Over the first two years. we obtained some investor funding from several outside investors.
Current size: 110 airport systems implemented in 41 states and three foreign countries. Between 10 and 20 employees.
Webbiquity: What inspired you to work on a solution to this particular problem?
Lynn Richardson: After 20 years of airport management experience, it was time for a change. I had observed that airports did not have any type of “tool,” technology-based or otherwise, to help with the problems that were common at airports in managing ground transportation.
I had led a team that created a pilot project which proved such a tool was feasible, and potentially marketable to airports. I spent four months researching the market and technology, created a business plan, and recruited some of the development team I had worked with during or pilot project to start GateKeeper Systems.
Webbiquity: What were the most effective channels or methods for you to get the word out to prospective customers when you first launched your product?
LR: Airports are the center of a very small niche market. There are perhaps 200 airports in the U.S. that have a need for our ground transportation software. That makes identifying and contacting each airport very simple; all are public entities that publish staff lists, plans, and contracts.
My years of work with those airports gave me a reasonably good list of contacts, and some personal relationships to use as a start. Once we had our first few customers, word of mouth communications was a big help.
Webbiquity: How did you decide taking over the company was something you wanted to do?
Brian Richardson: Taking over the company was a decision made over time, and was not my goal when coming to work at GateKeeper. My initial role within GateKeeper included office administrator duties, such as basic accounts receivable and accounts payable responsibilities.
As I eventually became familiar with our software, my role transitioned to include project management responsibilities. These wide-ranging tasks allowed me to gain significant experience within GateKeeper with the guidance and assistance of Lynn—my father.
(From the day I became an employee of GateKeeper, I have always referred to him by name in conversations that pertained to GateKeeper. I wanted to earn the respect of co-workers and customers based upon my skills and experience, rather than from a family relationship.)
The experience and knowledge I gained from the many years with these responsibilities gave me the confidence that I understood our software, the industry, and the direction for our software, though being less certain on how to “operate” a business.
Webbiquity: What has been your biggest challenge in taking over the leadership role?
BR: My role as a project manager for 15 years trained me to focus on the smallest of details. I would routinely need to analyze an airport’s ground transportation operations, review their requests for our software, and work with our team to provide the configuration of our software that accomplished the goals the airport required.
As my role within GateKeeper expanded to include being responsible for the day-to-day operations, I then became more involved in the details of the company, which triggered a change that was needed in my approach.
Assuming more responsibilities while maintaining my previous responsibilities became a time-management issue. My initial approach was to work more hours in order to complete both my project management responsibilities as well as the operational responsibilities – but that approach was not sustainable.
We have since hired more employees, and my approach has been to get the best people in the right position…and trust them. I trust that they are making the right decisions and have empowered them to do so.
This has allowed me to work “on the business” rather than “in the business.” Now I am able to analyze the company from a higher level and provide direction and work on our roadmap, rather than focusing on day-to-day decisions.
Webbiquity: Finish this sentence: “Knowing what I know now, if I were starting over today, what I would do differently is…”
LR: My answer to this question is very much related to the question below about advice. Funding is key—it is impossible to have too much cash to start a business. Fundraising is hard, difficult, and frustrating work. It is work most of us do not want to do, but it is the first reason a large number of companies fail.
So, you need a good business plan and budget. Then cut your revenue estimates by 50% and increase your expense budget by 100%. Plans will always take longer than you can imagine.”
Find a way to assemble a “team” that has skills and experience that compliment yours; you need more than one view of the world. Find a mentor or someone who has been successful in your industry and is willing to give you some time and advice. You will need lots of help to start and maintain your business, so find people you trust.
I have been successful enough to still be around after 20 years, so my knowledge is more a matter of degree. I knew/expected most of these issues, but I frequently got “off-track” looking for “easy” solutions.
My last item is “time management.” As the owner of the business, you need to know what you should spend your time doing. Some tasks can only be done by you, some have to be done today. Be jealous with your time decisions, and make sure the important tasks do not get buried by the urgent tasks.
Webbiquity: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned or experienced since taking the helm?
BR: We have continued to grow as a company and with that has come many more external business requirements. Operating in more U.S. States, Canada, and Sweden has brought more tax, registration, legal, and data protection requirements.
With more customers, these requirements have steadily grown, and we have found the need for additional resources to provide consulting and assistance to maintain compliance as well as plan for more growth.
These types of external business requirements require significant additional effort and we are now realizing the time savings that outsourcing these responsibilities will have.
Webbiquity: What’s the most important advice you could offer to an entrepreneur starting out today?
LR: Not an exact answer to your question, but here is what you need (in my opinion) to succeed. The easy part is adequate financing. Never enough money, but it is necessary to stay in business long enough to start generating customers and cash flow.
Next in line, and perhaps most important- persistence. Starting a business is a life-style, not a job. It will take as much time as you can give it- 80 – 100 hours per week at some points. Continual frustration with things you cannot control- economy, competitors, employees, government- and on and on.
This means that you need strong, and continuing support from your family. You need their support and understanding if you are to succeed. With those tools…you can figure out the rest.
Webbiquity: What’s the most important advice you could offer to anyone taking over a family business?
BR: Acknowledge your own weaknesses and learn from your predecessor’s strengths. My weakness was not being able to plan and predict at 30,000 feet and look towards the future. My strength was handling the smallest details and being able to see the next immediate issue, not the issues that were on the horizon when I wouldn’t pick my head up to see those that were coming.
Lynn’s strength is just the opposite— it comes naturally to him to be able to look toward the future and plan for what’s to come. He has helped and continues to help me look towards the future of GateKeeper. I am grateful to have been able to work side-by-side with him for over 15+ years and continue to learn from his experiences.
You can connect with Lynn Richardson and Brian Richardson on LinkedIn, and follow GateKeeper Systems on Twitter.
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