American Airlines doesn’t have a startup “fund” as a former official previously suggested, but a five-person team within its small and midsize business unit is backing incubators, providing free flights, and opening doors.
In fact, it’s hard to verbalize the importance of the help that a travel startup can get with the backing of an airline the size of American Airlines, with its large leisure and business traveler customer base.
For example, consider year-old VerbalizeIt, a New York City-based startup that provides human translator services and mobile apps to travelers and businesses.
VerbalizeIt, with $3.22 million in funding, was just featured in the August 15 edition of the airline’s American Way (pg. 73) in-flight magazine.
The startup occupies some prime real estate in an AA.com/innovators small-business spotlight, and, perhaps more importantly, American is promoting VerbalizeIt to leisure travelers and businesses.
With an AA promo code, travelers get a 10% discount off VerbalizeIt plans for individuals, and another promo code delivers the first month for free on business accounts.
Ryan Frankel, VerbalizeIt’s co-founder and CEO, says American Airlines supported Techstars in 2012 when VerbalizeIt took part, and through Techstars he met members of the American Airlines startup and small-business team in April 2013.
That opened more doors at American, Frankel says, and led to a meeting with members of the American Airlines marketing team in July, which spreadheaded the new-found relationship.
The promotional activities with American just began, but Frankel says he’s already seeing orders for the service beginning to come in.
Frankel says American is committed to working with startups.
“They are getting themselves very close to agile and up-and-coming business startups, and that gives them intel and enables them to check the pulse of the marketplace and where it is headed,” Frankel says.
Frankel calls the American Airlines relationship a “partnership.”
“Yes, I call it a partnership and no, we don’t give them anything financial,” Frankel says, adding “just the association with our business and open communication on opportunities to collaborate in the future. We also encourage our employees to fly AA whenever possible for business and personal travel.”
Jason Oshiokpekhai, who was American’s manager of business development and strategic partnerships when news of the airline’s startup initiative went public, has left the company and now serves as manager of strategic sales and special projects at Delta.
Claudia Granda now heads the startup project at American as strategy manager of startups and SMB (small and midsize business).
The unit, which has staffers in San Francisco, Boston, Dallas and Miami, and is looking for someone to replace Oshiokpekhai in New York, supports startups and entrepreneurs through entities such as Techstars, MassChallenge, Tech Wildcatters and other tech events, Granda says.
Startups are featured twice a month in American Way magazine and on AA.com, and we “help select founders fly to their face to face meetings to pitch their next big customer or investor,” Granda says.
As it did with VerbalizeIt, American’s startup and small business unit can help open doors “by connecting companies with different groups at American, and possibly even becoming their customer if there’s a good fit,” Granda says.
So American is not going around funding travel startups these days, but the airline’s small business team has a lot to offer.
Says Granda: “We are like the entry door. We evaluate the company before making an introduction.”
Dennis Schaal is the news editor at SKIFT.