It was time to board the plane, and Julie Melnick needed an extra hand. She was carrying a car seat, a stroller, a diaper bag. And, of course, there was her son. Unable to carry it all, she asked for some assistance. But the gate agent said they couldn’t help because Melnick was carrying personal belongings.
“I couldn’t believe that people weren’t nicer and they didn’t want to help,” she said. “I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a service dedicated to helping moms at the airport.”
So she set out an entrepreneurial journey to bring a service to airports that would help parents, seniors and others who need assistance to get through the airport, and make the whole experience easier. Now, she is CEO of SkySquad, a Bethesda-based company that connects travelers with in-airport assistants to help with luggage, or other needs for getting through the airport. It’s currently working at Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport in the D.C. area, as well as Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport.
Operating on airport grounds via a concierge permit, the company currently works with 34 independent contractors, who are badged to go through security, and are often off-duty airport employees. With appointments booked at least 24 hours in advance, the assistants meet travelers at their car or when they get off the plane to provide helping hands.
The company is looking to expand, and will be helped in that effort by a new investment from TEDCO’s Builder Fund, a pre-seed fund of the Maryland-backed agency that supports companies founded by women, people of color, and other groups deemed economically disadvantaged. The company is looking to grow marketing, test in more airports, and expand on its current web platform with a mobile app.
“We want to use this time to expand and make sure we can be at more airports to help more people,” Melnick said. “People struggle to get through the airport and we want to make sure we can be at airport to make it easier.”
As with all things in entrepreneurship, building the service has been a learning experience. Melnick’s first iteration, launched in 2012 while she lived in California, was called Nanny in the Clouds. That service helped connect travelers to in-flight nannies. Launched for flights everywhere, the service didn’t have enough matches to propel the business. But it did establish a community, and Melnick continued to receive messages asking for the service after moving to Maryland. It made Melnick realize that working on reducing stress in travel is her passion, and she launched SkySquad in 2019. In doing so, the CEO also took a few lessons from Nanny in the Clouds that she said proved “priceless.”
For one, she wanted to have a strong team, rather than piloting alone. In turn, SkySquad has a cofounding team, as Melnick connected with leaders who brought industry experience: CMO Chris Tomseth brings operational and product development experience from a range of hospitality and travel companies, startups and government agencies. CFO/COO Dave Osborne held key leadership roles amid growth for Instacart and Redbox, and also worked in corporate development in United Airlines. A fourth team member, VP Megan Smith, brings experience in operations, finance and strategy, including a role leading Redbox’s field workforce.
And the company is taking an approach of expanding airport-by-airport, instead of launching a platform that’s available everywhere at once. It began in Dulles in December 2019, and has grown from there. With the investment from TEDCO, the company will seek to keep that going.
“Our pre-seed Builder Fund invests with the goal of helping Maryland tech-based companies reach meaningful milestones and becoming attractive investments to larger institutional investors,” said Jack Miner, TEDCO’s chief investment officer, in a statement. “We are pleased to invest in the SkySquad team to help position them for improving travel experiences for everyone who would avail themselves of their service.”