From the July 2001 issue of Startups

What kind of a man grabs a set of artificial wings and charges full-blast off a cliff? Turns out, a smart businessman.

Bodhi Kroll's business sense happened to be 2,000 feet off the ground, not in some office, so he started the San Francisco Hang Gliding Center-ahem-from the ground up and has seen profits soar since opening in 1997. Together with his wife, Hayley, Bodhi has watched sales climb from $18,000 his first year to $210,000 last year.

Plug in your pun of choice: In this business, the sky's definitely the limit. "I must say, the first two years we've seen nothing but growth. And it's so easy. People love it," says the 35-year-old Kroll. "All you need to know for hang gliding is, run like hell and don't touch anything."

Kroll earned his college degree in music, of all things, but started hang gliding in 1984. After doing a few instructing gigs in Australia, he decided to take a shot at starting his own business. After all, the closest hang-gliding company to his Bay Area home was in San Diego. "I noticed that my boss in Australia paid off his house at the beach in three years," Kroll says. "I started thinking, if that guy could do that well in Sydney, I can do well in San Francisco."

He has. Kroll, with his introductory tandem lessons, takes his customers up to 3,000 feet over the San Francisco Bay after just five minutes of instruction. That's all it takes. His hang-gliding tours leave from Mt. Tamalpias State Park, 10 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and his introductory Aquaglider lessons soar over Alcatraz and the rest of the Bay and last for about 30 minutes. The cost is about $250 a pop, and Kroll even straps a video camera on the wing so the hang gliders can have a souvenir at no extra charge.

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Jim Stephenson, founder of the Aero Sports Connection in Marshall, Michigan, the nation's largest training exemption with 1,600 instructors worldwide for ultralight flight (which includes hang gliders, paragliders and helium-filled balloons), says hang gliding's boom all boils down to the dream of flight. "There are many people in the world who have this dream [to go hang gliding] but have put it aside, thinking it's too expensive. But there's a way for people to fulfill this dream fairly inexpensively."

Such extreme sports have boomed over the past 10 years, and hang gliding could very well be the next big business venture. "It does seem to be a trend," Kroll says. "People are feeling adventurous . . . I think hang gliding is slowly crawling out of the hole it dug for itself in the early '70s when it was just deadly. It was not sound or safe, and the equipment was bad. It's all much better now."

Stephenson can testify. Based on an industry survey, he estimates 2,400 ultralight-type vehicles will be sold this year alone in the United States to both business owners and consumers, more than double what it was a few years ago. "It's a remarkable growth period now," Stephenson says. "And there are all sorts of different versions of these businesses. Dealers are being trained by the manufacturers to sell equipment and train their customers."

Demographics are changing as well, says Jayne M. DePanfilis, CEO of the United States Hang Gliding Association Inc. (USHGA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. According to DePanfilis, although pilot membership in the USHGA is currently not growing, awareness of the sport is. This is best seen when you stack up hang gliding against paragliding. "There are more hang-gliding pilots and hang-glider-business owners than paragliding pilots, who fit a different profile. [Paragliders] are younger, trendier and have more disposable income at their age than we did when we got started," says DePanfilis.

3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . Takeoff!

Some entrepreneurs-like Kroll, who has spent much of his life soaring like an eagle-are able to jump right into this business. However, there are obviously other considerations. "You also need to know how to be a proper [businessperson] and how to charge and properly serve the client," says Stephenson.

"It's rare you'd talk to someone in the business who has an MBA, but it certainly helps," adds DePanfilis. "There's a new breed of owner out there now."

Whatever the breed, an up-and-coming hang-gliding entrepreneur has a few options as far as getting involved in the industry, be it selling gear, opening a pro shop or a flight park, or offering lessons or excursions. According to DePanfilis, one way not to go is equipment manufacturing, as Orange, California-based Wills Wing Inc. and Altair in Draper, Utah, have had a stranglehold on the industry for years.

The concept of flight parks-designated areas for gliding and other recreational activities-has taken off, too. Typically, these resort-like spots are found in parts of the country where there are no training hills or mountains for gliders to take off from. DePanfilis points to 44-acre Lookout Mountain Flight Park in small Rising Fawn, Georgia, as the ultimate example of a full-service flight park and school.

"Just because there's a possibility that someone might get hurt does not mean that we should legislate the possibility of someone having fun."

As for Kroll, he's content knowing he's not only started a profitable business, but he's also successfully cut through plenty of political and legal red tape to make his the first business of its type to offer tandem flights to the public in the Bay area. Such struggles can spell the end for a non-business-savvy hang glider.

"It was like a miracle," laughs Kroll, who also won the FAA over, "not only that I was able to convince the Marin County politicians to side with me over the protest of their own lawyers who were saying no, but because I convinced them I was right.

"Just because there's a possibility that someone might get hurt does not mean that we should legislate the possibility of someone having fun."

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