Ten Weeks With JetBlue Technology Ventures: The Future Of Distribution Technology, JetBlue University, & Embracing “In The Weeds”
This is the second of a two-part interview series featuring the two summer associates of our JetBlue Technology Ventures team. The associates spent ten weeks supporting our investment team with sourcing and analysis of new investment opportunities and also completed a capstone research project on a topic of their choosing. For our second interview, we spoke with Sloan Rudberg, who is currently an MBA candidate at London Business School and focused his research on distribution technology in the industry.
Q. You have a background in travel. What interested you in VC?
Travel and transport are among the most dynamic, fascinating industries. I love how global they are, how much process, data, and thought are involved in getting people to where they need to be.
Technology plays a massive role in improving travel. As a traveler, as an airline employee, as a management consultant, and as a student, I have seen many areas where we know that some processes are not as smooth or efficient as they could be. Venture capital, particularly the way JetBlue Technology Ventures approaches the practice, can help entrepreneurs build tools and solutions that lead to a smarter, more efficient travel industry.
Q. Where was your favorite place you traveled to during your time with JTV?
Orientation at JetBlue University (JBU) in Orlando, Florida was an incredible way to learn and live JetBlue’s values and culture alongside over 100 new Crewmembers from across the airline. Over the summer, I had the privilege to travel to other JetBlue destinations — for work and leisure — and it was fun to reunite with Crewmembers at the airport or onboard an airplane who were a part of that orientation.
Q. Can you describe a typical day for you as a JTV summer associate and how your role fits into the team’s mission?
The summer associates at JTV are granted a ton of autonomy to contribute. Each week is a mixture of supporting and working with companies already in our portfolio, helping to spot trends and rising entrepreneurs, and expanding our ecosystem of partners in the tech industry.
One of my favorite things about this summer experience has been the fact that there’s not a single typical day. Every week is bookended with an all-team meeting and an investment team meeting. These help me stay on top of the issues that are affecting our portfolio companies. On any given day, I might be working with an entrepreneur to evaluate their business for a potential investment, working with a portfolio company to think through their next phase of growth, or working with JetBlue colleagues to think about how an emerging technology could help get 45 million people to their destination safer with more quality and choice.
Q. You spent a big portion of the summer digging into distribution technology and related startups. Where do you see distribution in the travel industry going in the ten years?
Distribution technology is going to become much more diverse and complex. As travel providers create direct connections — i.e. the ability for an airline system to use APIs to directly share data, offers, and bundles — the product of travel continues to evolve. With the application of artificial intelligence and an increased focus on user experience, technology can help us make more educated guesses on what to show a traveler and how to better fulfill requests for shopping and ticketing.
Also, with increasingly sophisticated data and computing power, we have the ingredients to make industry-changing opportunities. Data can give us the most robust feedback loop ever, tying what customers are shopping for into how we create the airline network. Today, for a number of reasons, airlines create schedules that are relatively similar for months at a time. Planning is centered around supply constraints — slots and assets — whereas you could see a future where airlines can adapt to shifting customer interests and change the destinations they serve or the size of the aircraft based on what they’re able to see from demand channels.
Q. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing distribution in the industry?
For decades, airlines have had the technology to sell tickets across multiple carriers and in almost every country in the world. This technology was built long before the World Wide Web was invented. However, now both customers and travel providers want more detail on products than old technology can easily create and sell. For example, there are airlines that offer five classes of service on the aircraft, or maybe they want to bundle meals, WiFi, baggage — all the different product attributes — in a fundamentally different way. What used to be a very simple “I want to go from A to B and have a ticket” is increasingly complex and challenging to support given the legacy technology underpinning the industry.
Scarcity of screen “real estate” is another issue. 80% of customers use mobile devices to search for at least part of their trip before they book travel. Nearly half of all travel transactions are taking place on mobile or tablet. Despite browsing more complex product choices, customers use smaller screens on mobile devices to do their shopping. There’s this mismatch that creates a need for travel providers to give a traveler all the relevant options in a way that customers can sift through them efficiently.
Both of these areas are challenges startups are tackling and at JTV, we have a front-row seat to new solutions being reimagined.
Q. What advice would you give to the next person taking this role?
Explore as much as you can. JetBlue Technology Ventures’ platform gives you the license to explore the best of what’s developing in the industry and see the trends and the entrepreneurs that are going to make their mark on travel. Beyond our portfolio companies, the fund reaches and engages with subject-matter experts within JetBlue Airways and JetBlue Travel Products as well as across the industry. Diving deeper into technical product specs, details of an investment prospectus, and trends across the industry can reveal rich insights and help you as an investor make the right calls.
I would also say to not be afraid to get in the weeds. Embracing the detail — by learning how the code of an NDC API is created or taking part in a BlueUnity volunteer shift to support JetBlue Crewmembers at an airport — informs how we think about the future of our industry and the technology supporting it. (BlueUnity is a JetBlue volunteer program in which JetBlue Crewmembers work alongside our airport operations team to assist during the busiest times of the year).