Skyhour: How we branded a start-up and helped it raise $2.5M in pre-launch investment

In early 2016, a couple of young guys from Portugal came to us with a new business idea. Fernando had come up with TimeJet: imagine with the swipe of a finger being able to give someone flight hours, which they could use to book any flight — on any airline — to anywhere — in seconds.

Fernando (CEO) & David (CTO)

Imagine being able to give someone the powerful gift of air travel with unprecedented ease, and with those flight hours, imagine booking a flight in seconds without any hassle.

A slide from Fernando’s first TimeJet pitch deck

In other words: imagine reinventing air travel like Uber reinvented the taxi, like Airbnb reinvented accommodation.

The guys had our attention, and we were already looking forward to the challenges ahead. What do we call it? How do we get the domain? What does it look like? How do we educate and entice people to buy into a totally new idea? How do we get investors to buy in so it can actually be made?

This is the journey of how we’ve helped define the most ambitious start-up we’ve ever worked with.

We spoke to the founders and did our usual workshop (we’ll fast-forward here, but take a look at our Engström story for our Brand Circle and Brand Pyramid process). What stood out at the end of a long day of writing onto the wall was one simple phrase:

The founders were a restless bunch by their own admission, constantly moving forward and pushing boundaries, and the phrase also embodied the kind of person TimeJet would appeal to: the restless traveller.

But one thing continued to weigh heavy on everyone’s mind during the workshop… What do we call it?

So we strapped in for one of the hardest, most divisive, and one of the most important steps in creating a new brand: naming it.

There’s no getting around it. Countless hours are spent coming up with relevant words and ideas until the elusive lightning bolt strikes.

And when it does, there’s the inevitable disappointment of finding out the name is already taken, the domain isn’t available, or a member of the team just isn’t quite feeling it. A name is easier to dismiss than it is to embrace.

TimeJet was already on the table, but it wasn’t giving off the right signals. It made us think of private jets and businessmen. This was meant to be a brand for everybody.

The more we thought about the name the more obscure the suggestions became. Flewell? Flybeam? Leap-Fly? Winglet? We were losing the plot. We reminded ourselves to focus and keep it simple.

At the heart of the concept was the switch from money to thinking about flights in terms of the new currency of commercial flight hours. Could we stick to that idea and put a small twist on it?

Then it clicked.

The name Skyhour brought the concept to life.

Not only did it serve as a name for the brand, but also for the new currency of flight hours. 1 skyhour… 2 skyhours… 3 skyhours… We knew we were on the right track.

A flight hour sounds like a tedious hour sitting on a plane, whereas a skyhour represents an hour in the sky, open and free. The name also sparked our primary brand message: the sky is ours, reflective of the founders’ defiant determination to reinvent the industry, and equally fitting for a brand that seeks to make flying more accessible, social, and giving.

Our clients will tell you that we love to rationalize, but ultimately what mattered was that the name felt and sounded right. The Skyguys (what we now call the founders) agreed, and was available. We had a name, and it gave everyone on the team a lot of energy.

We knew that just as the name worked for both the brand and the currency, the visual identity system needed to do the same.

It also needed to work as an icon and stay true to our guiding design principle: less is more. Doing something simple looks easy once it’s been done, but in our experience it’s always the more difficult route.

We came up with a system involving a pair of wings that run across the identity, whether it’s the full logo, the icon, or to denote a number of skyhours. It probably seems obvious, like it took a few seconds to come up with, and we liked it that way. It seemed natural.

When we design for a brand, we often look for a sense of permanence. It needs to feel dependable, like it’s going to be around for a while.

This is especially true for tech start-ups that don’t have any history or reputation to fall back on. We wanted Skyhour to look and feel like it could sit next to companies like Facebook or Airbnb and belong there.

If you’re branding a new smoothie, you look at what other smoothies are doing. Skyhour wasn’t quite that simple because it didn’t have any direct competition. We needed to look at currencies like Avios points and Bitcoins, gift apps like LuckyTrip, airlines and airline gift cards, and challenger start-ups like Transferwise.

As a channel for booking flights it was clear we needed to also set Skyhour apart visually, and in spirit, from the many other flight booking platforms that were out there.

We like to look through a lot of sites pretty quickly. We weren’t looking for academic reasons about why one was better than another, or whether a particular button should be on the left or the right, rather we want to get a general gut feeling about the sector as a whole. We were looking for a way to stand out.

So we browsed and we squinted. What did we see?

1. Clutter, lots of clutter

2. Boxes, lots of boxes, big and small

3. Cheesy travel stock photos

And all of this made us feel very stressed. This simple exercise gave us a clear direction for Skyhour. We decided to avoid these three things as much as we could. Instead we would turn our gaze upwards and focus on the big, spacious sky. Skyhour is starting life as a gift platform, and what better gift than the sky itself, with the freedom, possibility and awe that it inspires?

In our research we found Jack Borden, who started a non-profit group in the 80’s built around appreciation for the sky. He embodied the spirit of Skyhour. Take your eyes off the screen for a moment and look up. Think of where you could fly. Even though Skyhour is an app, one of its goals is to get people to spend less time on their phones, not more.

Once the spirit of the brand had taken flight, our priority was the investor deck. Skyhour needed funding to stay airborne.

This happened in two phases: first a 10-page intro deck to be sent by e-mail to select investors, followed by a lengthier, detailed and animated keynote presentation to be delivered by the founders in person. The e-mail needed to whet the appetite, and the presentation needed to seal the deal.

Usually founders will put these together themselves, and frankly we couldn’t find a single investment deck that inspired us.

Maybe we’re just petty designers, and admittedly we don’t see the world like venture capitalists do. We lost count of the number of times during this process that we said the words: “I’m not an investor, but…”

Still, we felt documents this crucial to the life of a business could benefit from being a little more inspiring. You’ll find a hypothetical chart showing optimistic year-on-year growth in every start-up pitch deck, but few that made you really believe those numbers were attainable.

Select slides from the 10-page intro deck

There’s an abundance of start-up advice and wisdom out there (probably a little too much). Some we followed, most we ignored. The one that most of us have heard is that people invest in people, not products or ideas.

With that in mind, rather than a normal team page with the usual generic bio blurb about the founders, we decided the chances for securing a meeting were better if we could bring the team to life in the e-mail deck. We created a short team video on youtube and linked to it from the PDF.

The PDF only gave limited information, and the video didn’t win any Oscars, but things worked out. The meetings came and continue to come, and feedback about the presentation continues to be overwhelmingly positive. Several investors even remarked that it was the best deck they had ever seen, and while looks alone will never secure venture capital, they do contribute to an overall impression about the brand and the team.

So when the guys actually showed up to their meetings, they needed something to leave behind after the killer pitch was delivered.

Every start-up puts a lot of pride in their business cards. We figured investors must be pretty sick of getting start-up business cards by now. Skyhour had to do something different.

Luckily the concept of Skyhour was also the perfect reason to reinvent the tired old card. Since skyhours are meant to be gifted to others so they can fly anywhere on any airline, it’s only natural that someone who invests an hour to meet the Skyguys should get a skyhour back in return.

We had to design a business card, but also a card that represented — and gave the recipient access to — 1 skyhour. Since 1 skyhour is worth $50, the card had to feel more like a credit card than an ordinary business card.

We printed hard plastic cards with rounded corners, and applied a spot UV varnish code to one side. Once Skyhour launched, the recipient of the card could plug their unique code into the app and claim their skyhour.

“”We are aiming to be the in the top 1% of the top 1% companies in the world, we need to look and act like it.”
— David, Co-Founder of Skyhour

Skyhour App & Website

As you might expect, the bulk of our efforts went into designing the product itself. That’s where the value is. We’ve spent many months putting our big skies, no clutter, no cheesy travel stock photos, and no boxes approach into practice to the best of our ability, while diving into the nuances of user interface design.

This has been one of the greatest challenges of Skyhour for us as creatives: going from big skies and big ideas down to individual pixels, and back again. Keeping your eye on the big picture while working on the anal details of a payment screen is nearly impossible, and this is where a solid team of designers, developers, and decision-makers really comes into its own.

The other challenge has been adjusting the product from a small iPhone to a huge desktop screen, and everything in between. Layouts change, physical user interaction changes (touch vs. mouse), and it’s far from the kind of copy-and-paste job that some people imagine it to be.

Website Home Page

To anyone looking to create their first digital product, keep that in mind. Prioritize. Be realistic with your time and budget. If possible we always recommend starting small, doing one thing well, and growing gradually (both in terms of device compatibility and functionality).

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Every design we create for Skyhour is built around space and freedom. For a long time we tried to make the design work using only sky backgrounds with minimal white graphics and white Helvetica on top. This purism had to eventually give way to some variety. We created hand-drawn illustrations, introduced color, hand-written typography, and photography of people to bring humanity into the brand.

Every creative agency has a different process. We like to approach each new manifestation of the brand with a clear head. Sometimes the guidelines that worked for the app don’t work so well for a website, so they need to be constantly reviewed. Until our relationship with a client is over, we consider the brand guidelines to be a constant work in progress. Consistency has value, but Stefan Sagmeister (one of our favorite branding guys) has a point when he says:

“Sameness in branding is overrated.”

The work has paid off so far. With our help Skyhour has already secured $2.5M in early-stage investment, which will see it through well into launch. We wish the Skyguys the best of luck.

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