In with the new

Today is the day. The papers are signed, the proverbial keys are handed over, and I’ve now re-entered the workspace as an employee. Today is the day that John Howard no longer controls the sole fate of Blackairplane.

Nah, it’s not all that dramatic. However, I have sold my company. I’m excited and I’m nervous. This has been one of my children (a demanding one at that) for the last three years. Over this time I’ve spent countless hours, nights, and weekends pouring everything into Blackairplane. Trying to make it the best, the most innovative, the most loving, the most effective — and the absolute best product design agency out there. Have we succeeded? I’d like to think so. I’m a little biased though.

You see, three years ago when I started Blackairplane, I had no plan. I didn’t set out to start an ‘agency’. I’ve always been interested in design, particularly user-experience design — but more than that I’ve always wanted to create my own product. Over the last eight years I’ve worked on Choicr (decision making site), Devbox (leads for freelancers), FuelFetch (on-demand fuel delivery), ProudStocks (clothing by designers), and now Slingshot (File delivery for designers). So naturally I always thought that went I went out on my own it would be to build a product.

As things normally go, it didn’t go as planned. When I was let go from my last job, I didn’t see it coming. I had just announced the day before that I was having a baby boy and losing my job hit me like a ton of bricks. I was stunned. The company I previously worked at was having ‘fun’ growing pains and the user-experience design wing of the company just didn’t make sense anymore. That being said, they are awesome people and we are still super cool with each other. They gave me a macbook pro, a month’s severance, and I was gone. (below is the day that Instagram video launched and you can see my pals back at my last agency)

On the way home I started working on what would now be Blackairplane. I hopped on a call with my brother Jamie where I asked (okay, begged) him to let me have his un-used, registered corporation called “Blackairplane”. He generously gave me the name, and I was off to the races.

Getting started was hard work. It meant working 60–80 hour weeks to build our website, brand and all of our auxiliary materials and promotions to start grabbing business.

Our first website was a basic WordPress site based on a theme. It was modest… a contact us page, a few samples of our work, and a list of some of the consulting services we offered to businesses. Blackairplane officially launched in June, and in our first three months the business only pulled in $8,000. I was doing any job I could for any amount I could.

My wife worked up a required budget for our family, and it became clear what the business had to make for the numbers to all make sense. It was scary… and it was exciting. I was building something that was my own and something I had total control over.

In August of 2014, everything changed. I had been receiving a few offers from incredible startups… and the salaries were crazy tempting. I remember talking to my wife in our kitchen and watching the expressions on her face as I told her about one of the offers. In our situation, I remember feeling like I would be crazy not to take it — but I also felt like Blackairplane had real potential. I remember my wife looking at me and saying, “you might not ever get another chance to start something like this, so go do it.”

Now having the emotional and mental support I needed, I took the month rebuilding my billing structure, overhauling our website, and rebranding the company. We also leased out and moved into a super cool space in downtown Acworth, Georgia. It was one of the hardest months I’ve ever worked in my life.

Everything felt like it was in place, but still only small to medium jobs were coming in and I was feeling the pressure.

But it felt real.

Every day I was trying to make Blackairplane just a little better. On October 30th, 2014 I got a message in Gmail that said “Dribbble Work Inquiry”. The message was from Coca-Cola.

Hi John, 
I lead the group at Coca-Cola focused on UX and am looking for design help with some upcoming projects. I like your work and wondered if you have some availability?

I couldn’t believe it. I figured — they probably sent this to a bunch of people and I’m just in a giant pool of other designers. I took the bite though and replied back immediately with my phone number, email address and all other contact info. The next day we were on the phone discussing rates, touring my new office space, and project specifics.

It was surreal! I was doing work with one of the largest brands in the world! That January after the project was fully underway, I got to take a tour of their HQ in Atlanta. This was nuts, and it was my first taste of real success under the Blackairplane name.

Looking back, it seems crazy how things just started to work out. After our first project with Coca-Cola it was like the floodgates opened up. We were receiving tons of work inquiries (gotta thank Dribbble for all the work over the years and for this super cool writeup they did on our success.) If you’re not a Dribbble Pro member as a designer, you’re missing out.

Around that time I started working with John Anderson (yes, two “Johns”, and yes it got confusing). John originally came in to help with some project management, but ended up helping me redefine how and when we charge clients, what type of work we should go after, and the types of clients we should target when acquiring new work. It was a game changer and eventually he came on full-time to help me build out the rest of the company.

We eventually left the Acworth office and moved into Switchyards, located in downtown Atlanta. We now had the energy of all of these startups surrounding us, with nothing but urgency and intention in their minds. A majority of them were really hungry for success and in-turn it provided a place for Blackairplane to have consistent urgency surrounding our brand and where we wanted to go.

Since then, there have been a myriad of changes, bumps, bruises, wins and excitements and we are still chugging along.

About 4 months ago I was approached by David Leggett & Michael Caldwell. They were coming off a few successful company exits and were looking to start a new design & development agency where they needed a VP of Design. While I was truly honored, I declined due to the fact that Blackairplane was really catching a good wind and I felt we were stronger than ever.

They convinced me to come meet for lunch to discuss a possible partnership of our agencies where we could pass each other work if and when those opportunities arose. That lunch meeting changed everything. Once I got to see and hear about their individual strengths, and their passion to build something that would position their new company as a leader in user experience design and development in Atlanta, I was hooked. I told them that I wasn’t interested in just working for a company and getting a salary, but that I would definitely be interested if we came together to allow the Blackairplane brand, name, and company lead that charge.

I went home elated, and a little nervous... This was something that Anderson and I had worked tirelessly on, and giving it up meant possibly giving up something that I really had put everything into.

I sat on it for the weekend, talked to the wife, talked to Anderson and made my decision. I received an offer email that next week with an intention for Leggett and Caldwell to acquire Blackairplane. I agreed, and within the month we had signed all of the legal docs. Today (May 16th) this is all made official.

Why did I do it (aside from financial compensation) and what does this mean for Blackairplane and our future?

I want Blackairplane to grow. And when I say grow, I don’t mean just in numbers and/or employees. I want our strategies, our culture, and our brand to become more solid and more visible around Atlanta. I absolutely 100% believe we have the best user experience design product in Atlanta and now we have a true platform of gifted individuals to get that “product” in front of more faces.

For the last three months since I signed the papers, we have been working terribly hard on rebuilding all of our internal processes, brand, our culture and how we are going to be known once we step day one into the market as the new Blackairplane. I’m proud. I mean, really proud of this team; of our collective vision, and how we can take a product now from conception to delivery under the same roof. Our design capabilities can now be matched with our ability to nail (and not just get close) development to the exact specs we started out with.

I know this has been long, but this last three years have been a wild ride. I love that I have been able to be a part of this story and I know I’ll have so much more to tell in these next few years. If you have any questions or just want to discuss Jesus, shop, or design — hit me up. I always love exploring Atlanta and meeting up for some good lunch & conversation.

For the official press-release, go here.

— John