Recently, a gentleman e-mailed me who had invested a ways back in an LSA company, not because he expected to become the next Piper, Flight Design, Rans or Legend Cub, but because, in his own words, "I just love airplanes." A lifelong financial professional, he wasn’t after a fortune—except maybe the proverbial small one from a big one. He just loved airplanes. Sounding very much more like a romantic than a financial pro, he confessed to postponing his own sport-pilot training until his LSA design was ASTM-certified—so he could earn his ticket in the very airplane he hoped to produce.
Alas, after four years that day never came. He and his colleagues recently shut down the project, citing prototype production costs and the 107 competing LSA designs—all chasing a paucity of consumer dollars. His company would have needed to sell 40 airplanes just to break even on its initial investment.
The investor also lamented that publications tend to focus on market leaders. I heard the disappointment within the lament. And, in truth, we and other publications strive to cover everybody out there. We love the whole industry and are as motivated to tell the rags-to-riches stories as much as we herald the biggest name players.
Still, I didn’t take the investor’s caution lightly. But as my publisher contends, “Companies that can weather this trial by fire are the ones that survive.” Indeed. One of the fascinating things for me about the LSA industry has been how long the fire of trial has continued to burn for so many companies. Clearly, many outfits have figured out how to hang in there.
Magazines don’t and shouldn’t bear the brunt of getting the word out. There’s no shortage of promotional opportunities today, starting with the biggest game-changer, the Internet. So the question then becomes, how important is it to our readers that we spread coverage as broadly as possible?
Personally, I so believe in the considerable resourcefulness and pluck of everybody in the LSA industry that I sometimes err in the “positive spin” direction, even though in this economy it hasn’t been easy to always wave the pom-poms. And I remain convinced that if we stay optimistic, stay flexible and stay creative in finding ways to build, publicize, own and fly light-sport aircraft, we’ll also stay the course and become an enduring aviation movement.
Surviving as one of the “little guys” with negligible market share and no deep-pocket backers to fund their promotional play is a catch-22 challenge. Investors won’t continue investing without some sales. But more sales won’t come without continued exposure. But continued exposure won’t come without money, which goes back to investors and sales.
And how do you hear that special note in the penguin horde of 100-plus models crying for your attention? We can’t fly every single LSA out there, fun though that might be. I’ve been on the LSA side of the game for two years now—and I’ve flown maybe 25% of certified LSA!
Survival always will reduce to homilies such as, “The cream always rises.” Good products become popular through word of mouth. And big names will garner at least strong initial attention by virtue of long-standing reputations, or if they’re willing and able to pay for it. It isn’t hopeless for smaller companies. There are many ways to “go viral.”
Take the three American air shows that draw large crowds and market attention every year—Sebring (LSA only) in winter, Sun ’n Fun in spring and Oshkosh, the Big Daddy, every summer. And don’t forget local airfield weekend events where you can discover your dream ship.
Air shows are no picnic for the marginally funded. The logistics of transporting planes and people and getting everybody housed and fed isn’t an enterprise for the faint of wallet. Likewise, renting an air show display area can run to thousands of dollars for a location close to the action, rather than one out with the alligators where buyers need a GPS to find you.
Even with big budgets, there are no guarantees. One LSA company dropped nearly $100,000 on a big display recently, but didn’t have a single at-show sale for their troubles, although companies typically convert good leads into sales a month or two after shows.
One low-budget equalizer is Dan Johnson’s LSA Mall, sponsored by LAMA and Aviators Hot Line. Many airplanes are displayed in one common area (at Oshkosh and Sun ’n Fun) where enthusiasts quickly can compare models without wearing out a lot of in-shoe gel pads. Companies also make demo flights to promising prospects. Given the relatively low operating costs of LSA, that’s another economical way to get the word out. Small companies will always find their noses up against the “gotta have money to make money” wall until they grow weary of the chase or break through.
All this cruised around the back of my mind as I wrote “Best LSA!”—the 2010 LSA buyer’s guide for the August issue of P&P. The purpose of guides is to help you find who’s driving the industry, who we suspect is likely to do so and who we think is worthy of a closer look on innovation or quality alone. For the article, I narrowed the field to 35 top sellers and up-and-comers. Even then, there were many airplanes I wish I could have included.
Against the list of all 107 ASTM-certified LSA, those 35 represent just 33%, which leaves us with a goodly number of companies worthy of attention. What to do? How to get at least some coverage to those riding in the peloton?
And why should you, the reader, care? After all, the “underdogs”—the roughly 87 models not in the top-20 sellers—represent a mere 13.5% of all sales. And there usually are good reasons airplanes don’t catch on: lack of sex appeal, insufficient dealers for service and support, cost.
But what the heck: This is America. And I say everybody deserves their moment in the sun. Call me a Pollyanna, but history is full of garage innovators working in obscurity who broke out, such as Wilbur and Orville, and Jobs and Wozniak (Apple). So I’ve decided to spend more time in my column and blog to make sure I bring the bench players to your attention.
All those hardworking dreamers out there, those folks who “just love airplanes,” like the investor who started me down this path of contemplation, deserve a chance to share with you their aviation dream. And you deserve the chance to at least know they exist.