Neglected homebuilt niche?

Discussion in 'Hangar Flying' started by cluttonfred, Dec 8, 2017.

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1. Dec 19, 2017

Topaz

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You've got exactly the right attitude, IMHO. Where people fall into the really common trap is that they are the opposite of you: They are absolutely in love with their product, and "like" their business. Which is completely and utterly backwards, and is root behind the lack of administration, marketing, and bookkeeping that's the end-cause of most small business failures. People "in love" with their product take too long to develop it, until it's "perfect", or won't make changes that their customers are clearly calling for. The product is "perfect", and those fool customers just don't understand...

If one is to successfully run a business, you have to like your product and love your business. I like graphic design. I really enjoy it. My business started out pointed mostly at doing design. But I discovered over the years that I have a particular knack for layout and production of long documents (books, large brochures, and catalogs), especially from structured data that needs additional processing, and that I can make more money, more consistently, doing that than by focusing upon design. Design has a starving artist fresh out of art school on every street corner, and they all think cutting their prices is the way to get more work. They're right, except that there's always someone willing to cut their price more than you, and so you can't make a living that way and it kills the market for everyone else. It becomes a race to the bottom. So, even though I like graphic design (and absolutely do it if the customer is willing to pay for quality work) I do a lot more production and layout work, because that's where I can earn a good living. I love my business more than I love design. I'm passionate about small business. Can you tell? :grin:

It needs to be the same with airplane kits. If you're in love with your "baby", you'll take extra months and often years getting it to market, so that you can make it "perfect" before it goes on sale, bleeding money (and not making any) the entire time. You'll get suggestions about changes to the kit from your customers, and you'll ignore those suggestions because your "baby" is "perfect as it is." And, eventually, you'll sour on your business because it brings you "hassles" when all you want to do is fly and build airplanes. Running a small business is hard enough when you love it. When it's "getting in the way of what you really want to do", it's going to end up being another statistic. Of the, "95% of small businesses fail within the first five years" variety.

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2. Dec 19, 2017

Turd Ferguson

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Just make sure it's a viable product. Lots of examples where aircraft failed because designer was in love with the concept and tuned out the realities.

3. Dec 20, 2017

tspear

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Do something like the AirCAM; except side by side seating, and clean up the aerodynamics a bit.
Use a couple of 1L auto engines from Susiki or whomever.
A super simple design, small cheap twin engines allow you to put the props where you want....

Tim

4. Dec 21, 2017

Vigilant1

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This is intriguing. Is there an example of how this could be done effectively? In the present "model," customers (I think) understand that if they buy a carburetor, they can expect some limited level of help to get it working right, and that this level of support is included in the price. Same with a set of plans. But if the plans/carb is sold as "goods only," there would seem to be potential for bad PR as users can't get their questions answered in the normally expected fashion (despite all the advisories that "support is extra"). On the other hand, if they purchase a support subscription, surely there will be an expectation of very "deep"support. ("attached find link to a 75 minute video of my attempts to get the carb running right. Please call me to discuss the problems, particularly the "stumble" at 12:19, 22:43, and the . . . .").

On a tangential note: From what I've seen in the Sonex world, builders/owners with questions tend to ask for help from both the factory and the online user community, often simultaneously. This is natural (we all want more information), but it is not especially efficient from the perspective of those providing the info. It also results in more work for the factory, since they then (sometimes) have to get online and swat down the advice from builders/users that is less-than-optimum (or even less-than-safe). On the flip side, this is 2017, and the idea of a single infallible source of info "from the top" that trumps all other input from thousands of those in the crowd is unrealistic.

5. Dec 21, 2017

tspear

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Make the community and factory support a single forum.
The factory only replies to those who have paid for support, and the customer has the option to make the request public or private.
If marketed as an "a la cart" solution it would work very well; especially if there is minimal markup on price for the hardware. Further, it would be a way to allow the factory to get revenue from the second owner of the plane; and with more E-AB going to the used market, this would be critical.

Tim

6. Dec 21, 2017

Vigilant1

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This could work, but it would require a site different (and more structured) than a typical "forum" (like this one). In a forum like this one, you'd have "subscribers" and "nonsubscribers" commenting on the same issue, some with defined questions, some with advice, and some with just humor or random snark--if a "subscriber" gives advice and asks a related question, does the company have to chime in?
If the company "owns" the site, and it is their defined means of providing support to customers, are they responsible for correcting bad info that is posted by others?
It would be a lot easier and more straightforward to just have a "subscribers only" site. But, of course, that will encourage the establishment/development of a non-sanctioned free site set up by others.

Last edited: Dec 21, 2017
7. Dec 21, 2017

ScaleBirdsScott

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You can have a simple 'premium support' section of the otherwise public forum that is just closed to members only, where you could ask the questions and where you're guaranteed certain daily review by the company as well as responses within a given timeframe. There would be nothing against putting your question into the main forum but the company would basically only say "this is incorrect information" in those situations and save the longer-form responses for the premium section.

The other thing I'd say is that many questions that are answered and resolved thru this premium section could become encapsulated into an archive which eventually forms an in-depth FAQ for premium members (and also that information would obviously trickle down into the kit/plans itself over time.) But the value of the archive is a big one. And in part it is because, (Not that I'm particularly interested in this lane of monetization) if I were to go this lane, the one thing I'd do is include a free trial to view the archives for those who get the kit/plans. It shows exactly what is on offer without compromising live info where incorrect data might be.

Personally I'd be more inclined to make anyone who buys the kit/plans a member of the support forum automatically however, and that's where live support happens. For those who are simply curious (or pirates) they can also elect to buy access, for a set fee. (And doing so may open them to discounts and special offers). Once the problems in the support zone are resolved, I'd have archives public so anyone can view the final 'official' resolution to a given problem. And then in the forum anyone posting public questions is welcome to do so but there's a certain level of moderation and disclaimer required.

Last edited: Dec 21, 2017
8. Dec 21, 2017

TFF

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Buyers should get some amount of time for help off the bat; they just spent a chunk of money. Maybe after 5 years on a kit or one year on a set of plans. After or someone wanting to get inside a design have a signup fee. You are not going to make money at this, but if the price is reasonable to keep it going, reasonable info can be distributed to people who really need to know something, and keep the speculators somewhere else. It would have to be monitored by the designer/owner and be draconian for stupid stuff. Essentially a fast response service builitin. You want the real people to hang around, but there might be only 10-20 so it cant be punishing for buying the design. I work for a small aviation company; not a kit one. Profit margin is 0. It costs close to a million dollars a year to do this. What it does is an important service and the byproduct it lets 5 guys support themselves doing aviation. For the company starter, it meant guaranteed seat time of 500-1000 hrs a year. That was his motivation primary. If your motivation is purely money first and them aviation, its going to fail. You bleed the aviation; you hope it supports you. Scott up there can have that attitude as the bleeding aviation is his fathers passion; he is really doing work on his father's dream, so he can call him divorced of aviation but that passion person is still in the picture that has to be there.

9. Dec 21, 2017

BJC

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Subscriber only sites have been very successful for the Glasair and GlaStar / Sportsman. Originally they were separate sites, each of which had participation from factory support people. Following the death of the Glasair site owner, the two were merged. There is no factory participation, but the builder to builder support is excellent. The site recently adopted a new format and has advertising. Although I prefer not to have advertising, having it, hopefully, makes all the work of the site owner worthwhile. Better to have a site with ads than to have the site abandoned.

BJC

10. Dec 21, 2017

BJC

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Stoddard-Hamilton hired a technical writer to polish their instruction manuals. He was worth his weight in gold. He left when they were headed for bankuptcy, and some of their later instructions were abysmal. As an example, the slotted flaps option instructions were 64 pages of a very experienced factory builder trying, unsuccessfully, to explain the construction procedure. A clear, concise set of instructions only required six pages.

The GlaStar instruction manuals were excellent. A friend, a retired engineer, built a GlaStar, flew it a number of years, then built an RV-9. He complained loudly about the poor instructions for the RV.

Glasair Aviation, the successor to Stoddard-Hamilton, commissioned the development of the Sportsman. They also developed the Two Weeks To Taxi program. Feedback from that program led to real-time corrections and enhancements to the manuals. Lots of photos are included, and are extremely valuable.

Today, Glasair Aviation provides no technical support, although some of their former employees do provide some limited support.

BJC

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11. Dec 21, 2017

Toobuilder

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The owner of the VAF site has turned it into a business unto itself. For the last several years, the site is his family's sole source of income (and he's not retired yet). It's his "job". He has yet to create a "subscriber model" for the site - its still 100% free if you choose.

12. Dec 21, 2017

tspear

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Tim

13. Dec 21, 2017

Toobuilder

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Absolutely. And from what I've heard about his ad rates, he's not doing too bad income wise.

14. Dec 21, 2017

cluttonfred

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There are certainly lots of ways to approach this as long as you recognize that the world of communication is fundamentally different than it was even 20 years ago. I absolutely agree that some degree of support is to be expected if the customer spends a lot of money, but there are trade-offs. If someone spends $20,000 to buy a kit then it damned well better come with complete manuals and customer support. If someone spends$200 on a set of plans, not so much. One concept that was mentioned here earlier is going back to the plans + components model rather than offering full kits for a smaller, leaner operation. I could see that combined that with a subscription-based, members-only support forum.

The one snag I see is that if you offer complete plans that would allow someone to build an aircraft without your components, what's to prevent other small shops from undercutting the "factory" component sales? A middle ground might be a limited component kit + plans in which you don't supply the basic materials, instruments, motor, etc. that the builder can got from other suppliers and the plans become more assembly instructions rather than fabrication plans. It's still possible but harder and less likely for someone to reverse engineer and undercut your component sales, but then the plans purchaser is dependent on the factory's enduring operation for those components.

15. Dec 21, 2017

BoKu

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Right now I am finishing off the assembly manual chapter and blueprints for the HP-24 rudder kit. It is among the hardest technical writing I have ever had to do, and I've been doing it for about 30 years. Anybody who does well in this arena must be very good indeed.

--Bob K.

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16. Dec 21, 2017

BJC

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Before complete kits - the Christen Eagle was the first - some suppliers offered “material kits” that included the materials needed to build the unadorned airframe. People who bought those were scoffed at by the scroungers. Later, people who bought full kits were scoffed at as spoiled rich guys. Van’s early kits were nothing like today’s kits.

An all metal or wood design could create a demand for all weldments from the plans supplier. There could be a small profit there.

One problem with technical support today is the customer who does not have the skills or background to build without requiring an inordinate amount of support time. But trust me, he knows how to criticize on the www.

BJC

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17. Dec 21, 2017

Victor Bravo

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BJC thanks for mentioning that a technical writer was "worth his weight in gold" regarding building instructions. I've been that kind of technical writer, albeit on R/C and free flight model airplanes. Would LOVE to be doing that for a living on full size aircraft kits

As this discussion has spun off from the aircraft itself to the instructions and builder support, I would like to suggest that one of the more successful companies, Zenith, has two types of support - factory tech support (primarily Roger Dubbert) and a large online builder community. This two-sided support model has further been developed by a couple of third party builders, who created a series of successful videos (Homebuilt Help).

Despite my having a strong personal interest in the Zenith STOL designs, the more relevant reason I am mentioning Zenith here on this thread is because they have one of the highest completion rates and number of aircraft in the field. Probably second only to Van's. So Zenith's builder support system WORKS and works well enough that it is probably a major contributor to the company's success.

I have no knowledge of VAF or what Van's does for factory tech support, but whatever they are doing works well, and it sure as hell is not holding back Van's success. So in regards to this discussion of Matthew's "niche" homebuilt, and all of the various ideas that were discussed in terms of builder support, using the Zenith and Van's support model would be a pretty good starting point.

On a personal note from the perspective of someone who has done technical writing, and from the perspective of someone offering an aircraft product for sale... those of us who live, love and breathe aviation owe the aviation customer a lot better tech support than if we were selling doghouses or iPhone apps. Somebody's life and safety is on the line here. A year or ten years of someone's time is on the line. Someone's hopes and dreams of flying (that have been there since childhood) are on the line. Someone's wife and kids looking at you with tears in their eyes at a funeral is on the line. Some rodent attorney taking your house and your kids' college fund away in a lawsuit is on the line here. Ammong 500 other reasons, this is what separates a business in aviation from a business selling waffle irons or furniture.

I may be an extreme example, and I'll plead 100% guilty to being the poster child for Topaz' ezample of someone loving his product too much (I paid the price for that, BTW, and was thrown off of two other aviation internet forums because of it). BUT... my personal cell phone number is printed in the instruction manual for the product I sell, and I've sat at the dinner table in a restaurant with my wife everyone else looking at me while I talked someone through a problem or question. Not everyone would do that, but I feel that I owe the very best effort I can make because this is aviation instead of toys or clothing.

For whatever it's worth to any of you potential airplane kit manufacturers, I always used to tell the R/C model manufacturers the same thing: The instruction manual is the only communication you will ever have with most of your customers. All other communication will be from unhappy customers calling tech support, complaining that they don't understand how to do something. A good set of instructions is the biggest improvement, at the lowest cost, of anything you can put in your product. A good instruction manual can make a marginal product into an average product, and it can make an average product into a good product.

Sorry... rant switch off.

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18. Dec 21, 2017

tspear

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In this model, change your thinking. Your are a service company that sells support services. The plans and components are to facilitate your customer's requirements to purchase your support services; as such all components and materials are sold basically at cost.

Tim

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19. Dec 21, 2017

Topaz

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Build support is labor- and time-intensive work. In short, from the perspective of the business, it's VERY expensive as a cost. It has to be paid-for somehow, or you go OUT of business.

That cost can be built into the kit price, or it can be sold a la carte to those who want or need it. A lot of customers won't. Why should they have to pay for it if they're not going to use it? Why should they pay for a LOT of it, if they're only going to use it once or twice?

The cost of build support is going to be paid for by the customer somehow. Make no mistake about that. Personally, I'm a big fan of "choice", where the customer gets to decide how much they want to spend on it, or if they want to spend any money on it at all. Tying the revenue from build support directly to its actual cost to the company, by charging for it directly, means I can charge less for other stuff like parts and plans, since those are no longer having to cover the costs of "free" build-support. YMMV, of course.

Me, I dislike "community" build support, too. I see that as a company trying to get out from the responsibility of supporting their product. Having seen the kind of information and misinformation that floats around the internet, I wouldn't want my customers relying on that kind of resource for their safety, either. I think a company has a duty to provide build support. I have no issue with a company offering it as an a la carte item if they're giving me a deal on the rest of the kit.

Last edited: Dec 21, 2017
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20. Dec 21, 2017

ScaleBirdsScott

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One issue with the support model is that you're trying to sell 'gimmies' to the DIY crowd via 'gotchas'. Even if that isn't how it feels to you the seller. Yes there is market there but fundamentally people in the DIY crowd are almost by default not interested in the 'gimmies' and willing to put up with a lot of personal labor to avoid the 'gotchas' of going with a complete solution.

Personally I'd be inclined not to pay for support if I think I can figure something out. Putting up a paywall even if it offers me choice is almost forcing my choice; out of some level of personal pride, apathy, and principal. The same guy who will gladly spend hours researching for free is going to go find some other thing to do when it suddenly requires paypal or credit card or bitcoin credentials. Unless it's part of a bundle or something. Then maybe. I'll tell myself I won't use it but be glad I did when I need it.

Also, at the same time, keeping track of customers can be a pain. If you get a random phonecall while out and about, is that person a paying support member? Or just a friend of one who is?

Given the choice many of the people in this market may well try and save a buck. But then still go in for the ask when they need it. So it's a valid question of whether forcing the choice of paying for support into the price is a better long-term investment in sanity when you can just assume all customers the same level of service and prevent people from trying to get your attention without paying for it.

My thought with all of this is just stick with a kit model, but design the airplane around a simple to assemble kit. Make it so your 'quickbuild' has minimal parts labor for your factory, and yet still put the end user way ahead. (This is where something like a riveted tube and fabric design is great) Then make the choice for them: it's this way or no way. As a result the alum tubeReduce the options in terms of what the product is. We can have 20 different options for how the product is configured, offer tons of different styles. But the product is such and such level of kit; you either bought in or not.

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