By Luke Kelly
It was another oppressively hot day in Shanghai. My good friend Ami was standing by a whiteboard in his Xuhui apartment, marker in hand, wide-eyed and excited as we went down the rabbit hole of possibilities.
“Every talented designer should have access to good opportunities”
“There could be courses to give new designers access”
“It could turn the digital nomad idea on its head”
“You could partner with co-work spaces”
“The business could be a co-op!”
This was in 2013. I’d been freelancing remotely for just over a year having left a fairly comfortable life in London’s design industry behind. My journey started in Brazil, led me through South America and 18 months later I found myself in China collaborating in this brainstorming session. Shanghai in 2013 felt like a city where anything was possible. So much was going on. Ami is a super-creative photographer with a smart mind for business. We met in a lift on day one and it didn’t take us long to start scheduling sessions like this.
At this point in time I was hustling for remote clients, doing what I knew, which was branding and graphic design. It was the early days of web-enabled remote work and most of that hustling was being done on Elance and ODesk (later to merge to become UpWork). These early marketplaces were based on pitches against a brief, which inevitably descended into a soul destroying battle on price, often with rivals in much poorer economies.
There were two big problems with this as I saw it:
It commodified design in the worst possible way
Collaboration was almost impossible
I’d come from a design agency background. I was used to working on bigger projects with teams collaborating. Writers, designers, strategists, artworkers, illustrators, developers. Creators and builders of different types tackling big challenges as a collective. My goal was to unlock more freedom for myself, travel and adventure primarily at that time – but what good would that be if I couldn’t find work that felt valuable and inspiring?
There were basically no serious agencies open to remote freelancing at this point, so I became obsessed with the idea of a ‘cloud agency’ (cloud as an idea was still pretty hot in 2013). An entity that would allow experienced and talented creative people to connect and collaborate in ways that a competitive marketplace like Elance could not. I was also conscious of the exploitative nature not just of the marketplaces, but also this idea of being a ‘digital nomad’ that I was pursuing.
Much of that freedom myself and others were grabbing with our location independence was actually coming from taking our European or North American income into much weaker economies. Surely this technology and connectivity could also do the reverse and open up more affluent economies to those working outside of them. It could be a democratising force rather than an exploitative one.
From these early sessions, The Airborne Network emerged as an idea. I had lots of conversations, found collaborators, built websites, hustled as best I could at that time. But with very little resource behind me, it didn’t take off (pun intended). Chipping away at that idea over a couple of years did connect me with more and more like minded people and opened me up to exciting work opportunities with start-ups.
This seemed to be the sweet spot at the time. US based tech start-ups were some of the earliest open to serious remote teams, so I spent time working intently in this world. Sharpening my UX/UI, building relationships, learning as much as I could.
In the end this became the blueprint. The Airborne Network became Airborne Studio in 2017. Rather than complicate things trying to be a platform, I went back to the cloud agency idea and Airborne simply became a vehicle to take on bigger more collaborative projects, primarily working with tech start-ups, and utilising the network I’d spent the previous few years cultivating.
With very little promotion we have grown steadily in that time, the scale of the clients and projects growing year on year to the point that ironically, we now also have a full time team supplementing the network in a beautiful office on Leeds Dock. Fear not, the majority of the crew remain impressively remote.
Why does this matter to anyone but us? What advantage does operating an agency on top of a community offer our clients? It offers a lot, actually.
The most obvious benefit to our clients is the range of services and adaptability we can offer. We have a tight group at the centre of our collective but a much wider secondary network. Members of the group will link people with particular specialisms as needed. This allows us to work on all sorts of projects, from emerging technologies like AI to Web3 and NFTs through to deep research and strategic work. We are able to pull together highly expert teams, already closely connected, around almost any creative or development challenge.
It’s the superpowers our network provides that allow us to work at the intersection of strategy, brand, design and technology.
On top of the availability of different skills, there is also a certain mindset that independent experts working this way have. Everyone in our collective is somewhat entrepreneurial. There is a start-up energy that runs through us, forged in the experiences we’ve had with clients and also establishing our own independent practices. This translates into a different type of experience for clients (or so we’ve been told). We tend to work very much as partners with our clients, very much as a result of the compatibility of mindsets – which is all born out of the way we’re set-up.
Our unique combination of broad skillset, startup mindset and fluid setup allows us to trim away a lot of the fat other agencies carry. We’re not cheap, but we work lean. We don’t cut corners but we are able to adapt and work smart. All of us are highly motivated by the work that we do and we’re selective about who we work with (that is kind of the point of Airborne) – all of which allows us to get incredible results from many different scenarios. Was a result we can work with clients at different stages of growth and offer transformational impact
For those we work with the goal is allow everyone to realise that ambition I had a decade ago – freedom to control your own destiny and work on your own terms, along with access to motivating and rewarding work.
The next step for us as we grow Airborne Studio is to formalise and empower this collective further. We have been working on this in the background, very much inspired by our work with several pioneering Web3 clients. More to come later this year. Watch this space.
If you’d like to be a part of our collective, email us at email@example.com or if you have a project you want to discuss book a discovery call HERE>