Saturday, May 15, 2010

A low-cost experiment that crystallized Deccan Aviation's vision

I have mentioned earlier that experimentation is at the heart of systematic innovation. We can imagine building prototypes when it comes to new products such as iPod or Nano. But what kinds of experiments are involved when you are launching a new service? Well, one dimension where you need to experiment is called “customer experience”. How does an experiment for a service look like? Let’s see one such experiment that crystallized the vision for Deccan Aviation – a pioneer in low-cost airline business in India.

Deccan Aviation was registered in Bangalore in May 1995 by Captain Gopinath and his friend Sam with a vision of, “Getting a helicopter easier than finding a taxi”. There were a number of questions yet to be answered. Can helicopter be brought to the sphere of public use? Could we make it possible for just about anyone to fly – and at a short notice? Gopinath soon got a chance to verify this assumption.

One day an old army friend Capt. Vishnu called Gopinath. Vishnu was nick named “Flying saucer” because of his passion for flying. After 15-20 years of service typical pilots do 1,500 to 2,000 hours of flying. Vishnu had done 6,000. He had quit the army and joined the UP government as a helicopter pilot. Vishnu was in Bangalore to fly a UP government helicopter that had been brought to HAL for routine maintenance. He was to take off the following day and offered Gopinath a joy-ride. Gopinath asked him which route he was taking to go back. Vishnu said he would be doing a zig-zag detour – Mangalore, Goa, Pune, Nagpur and on to Lucknow. Gopinath realized that the route is going over his village near Hassan. Gopinath requested if Vishnu could drop him to his farm-house on the way and whether he could get his wife Bhargavi and as well as his friend Jayanth and his wife Ponnu with them. Vishnu happily agreed.

In preparation for the landing on the farm, Vishnu asked for a field to be cleared and a fire lit up to help him locate the smoke and find the landing spot as also the direction of the wind. Gopinath called his village friend Raju in Javagal and asked him to make the necessary preparations for their arrival the following morning. They all took off at 9:30 am in Chetak, a helicopter made by HAL under French license and offering 180 degrees aerial view. Vishnu asked Gopinath to sit next to him in the cockpit to help with micro-navigation when they approach Javagal. He sat with his map spread out on his lap.

Within fifty minutes the helicopter reached the farm-house. Raju had lit a fire in a nearby ragi patch from which smoke was visible. A host of neighbors and many others in the village were crowded around the patch. It was the first time in their life they were going to watch a helicopter from such a close distance. As soon as they alighted Raju brought them tender coconut to drink.

Vishnu left after a short break and a meal. Gopinath and the rest headed back to Bangalore in Gopinath’s Tata Mobile pick-up truck. The journey back took six hours. Gopinath recalls, “I knew after the aerial journey in the helicopter that there was no going back.”

What happened here? First one is that an opportunity landed on Gopinath’s feet for a joy-ride, a lucky break. But what Gopinath did was to convert the opportunity into an experience that will validate his assumption about “flying to a small village on a short notice”. This was no ordinary experiment. For a person dreaming about starting a helicopter charter service, it was an ultra-low cost experiment. Low cost experiments like these are extremely important in systematic innovation because they help you validate various assumptions about your idea. They help you course-correct and they enable you to fail and learn from the failures.

source: Simply fly by Capt. Gopinath

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