We recently interviewed Freebird CEO and Founder Ethan Bernstein. Check out the interview below!
What is the prologue to your business, the smaller things that lead to Freebird?
Ethan: My background with travel industry came from four years at Expedia on the Mergers & Acquisitions team, so I got exposed to some big deals, liker Expedia powering Travelocity, Hotwire’s new rental-car business, and the VIA Travel Group acquisition. So I quickly got insights to understand how the travel industry worked.
What was the turning point in your life when you realized that the world needed your service?
Ethan: In February, I was returning to Boston after a weekend trip to Colorado — most of my friends were booked on one of two non-stop flights leaving at the same time (around noon) on the same route (Denver to Boston) on the same day, operated by different major airlines. One flight was cancelled due to maintenance issues. I needed to be home on time, so thankfully I wasn’t on that flight — I arrived home without any problem — but many of my friends weren’t so lucky.
The cancelled airline notified passengers that they had been automatically rebooked on a red-eye flight the next night — nearly 35 hours later! Mayhem ensued. One hundred and fifty people jumped out of their seats and ran to stand in line. My friends, along with other passengers, tried desperately to reach the call center, without success. One friend eventually paid thousands of dollars out-of-pocket to switch airlines. Another walked away and booked a hotel room, also paying out-of-pocket.
When the dust settled, two things were clear: (1) everyone on the cancelled flight had a stressful experience that lasted for hours; and (2) there were available seats across many different airlines to get passengers to Boston, but those flights were difficult to find and even harder to book without paying a small fortune.
I knew there was a better way. That’s why I dropped out of Harvard Business School to build Freebird.
Did your previous experiences or education affect your decision to start Freebird?
Ethan: I had a unique situation that I came up with the inspiration for Freebird while in the Harvard MBA program, so it was obviously a tough decision, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about Freebird and the potential there, and I wanted to give Freebird all my attention, so I left the program.
What was the biggest difference between your service and the competitors?
Ethan: Like technology disruptors in other markets, Freebird offers something different than traditional offerings, in this case travel insurance is a reactive approach that involves filing claims after disruptions, not actually getting you to where you need to be. At Freebird we’re using mobile technology and data science to offer a proactive solution that doesn’t really have direct competitors.
What were some of the biggest hurdles when you were first starting your business?
Ethan: Most important to me was to find a co-founder who knew what I didn’t know. I was fortunate to get introduced to Sam Zimmerman thru a friend, and Sam is a brilliant data scientist who has built the data model and deep learning that drives our business. We’ve also been fortunate with our early investors and advisors believing in us, and finding an incredible group of employees to help grow the business.
As someone interested in marketing, were there any creative marketing techniques that you used?
Ethan: In 2016 we worked with a brand agency that gave us some creative insights into our current branding, as well as a marketing advisor who helped us quickly test the leisure market and discover that business travelers were a better target, so my learning was more about the importance of business focus before working on the creative platform.
What is one interesting thing that is not well known about your business?
Ethan: Freebird is tracking and predicting the disruption status of the over 30,000 flights every day in the US in real-time, combining data about airline status, airport conditions, weather, crew, equipment, pricing, etc.
Has your focus changed from the beginning to now?
Ethan: Probably similar to other founders, when you start taking on investment and bringing your product to market, you get more focused on helping to sell and implement the product to customers, so you can deliver the vision you planned.
What is your vision for the future?
Ethan: Freebird trip protection should be an option for any business or leisure trip, no matter where they book.
Do you have a message for any aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Ethan: Learn as much as you can about everything. Eventually discover something you’re passionate about solving. Find good people with complementary skills. And focus on solving one problem really well.