Azai Studios’ Harji Singh on leading a small studio, intelligent risk-taking and pushing boundaries
Founded by Harji Singh, Azai Studios are a small team that aim to be as agile as a startup while delivering enterprise-level results. Their diverse creative skillsets give them a unique capacity to help organisations lead projects from end-to-end, including research, strategy, brand identity and content production. ‘Autodidacts with a polymathic attitude,’ their work spans industries ranging from real estate, consumer packaging, financial services, hospitality, fashion, automotive and luxury goods. We caught up with Harji to find out more about his journey as a creative, leading a small team and the future avenues he has in mind for the studio.
PT Hi Harji, how’s things?
HS Hey there! Things are going quite well. The last few years have been a rollercoaster. I feel like I’m balancing 50 different things at once, but the chaos keeps things interesting.
PT What inspired you to start your agency?
HS I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family, so starting a company was always an underlying calling, but other variables were in play.
Believe it or not, my background was in real estate finance at first. I was always a numbers guy, but when I took off the suit, you would find me producing music, performing at shows on the weekends, out shooting with a camera in my hand, or working alongside other creatives. Then, one of the vendors we were working with wanted me to ‘jump ship and try out the creative agency world,’ and the rest is history.
I worked my way up to Creative Director and learned the ins and outs of running an agency, what to do and what not to do. I learned how to sell ideas and get paid to create them. By this point, I had a solid business background and now was equipped with process-driven agency experience.
Before starting Azai Studios, I was fortunate enough to work with a wide range of brands, from startups to organisations like Microsoft. Once I left the larger agency world, the clients I was already working with were curious to see what I would do next – starting Azai Studios felt natural. Things just fell into place.
I think the ‘hustle culture’ is toxic.
PT Is having a small team a purposeful choice? Or do you foresee a future with a wider team?
HS It was a purposeful choice. Our model has always been to have a core team in-house and a trusted network of freelancers. It allows us to scale up and down when needed and avoid unnecessary overhead. It also lets the core team have their hands in things outside of their roles, which is essential as it allows them to continue challenging themselves. This approach lets our core team understand both the business side of the agency world and the creative side. I always try to inspire our team to push their limits, and by doing so, I hope to spark their inner entrepreneurial spirit. We’ve had some people leave our studio to start their own ventures, from startups to creative asset marketplaces, and I love seeing that.
Since we launched, the model has been impactful for us, so I don't envision us becoming a massive 100-person agency anytime soon.
PT What is your favourite thing about running a small studio?
HS We can say no to many things that come our way, and I think being small gives us the flexibility to do that. We can be as agile as our clients need us to be. One of our partners said something about us which resonated with me, ‘startup vibes, enterprise results.’ I’ve been using that in our pitches lately, hah.
I think, more importantly, being small lets us take more intelligent risks as a company. We can take on a lower budget project sometimes if it's something the team thinks would be fun to work on, or do an equity deal with an ambitious founder coming to us for help getting their startup off the ground.
PT What is the work setup like for your team at the moment? Are you working from home or back in the office?
HS Since the pandemic, we’ve been primarily remote, but working remote was nothing new for us. Our core team has collaborated with talent from all over the globe and have pretty good workflows and systems that make the studio feel like a well-oiled machine.
We recently snagged a beautiful space in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the team meets a few times a week to collaborate and hang out.
PT How does the workload and communication work between your studios in NYC and Dubai?
HS It's been quite efficient. We also have our partnerships and new business lead William on the ground there in Dubai. He’s been an incredible part of the team when it comes to onboarding new clients from that region of the world and managing creative teams to get things across the finish line.
Our team from NY will also go there three-five times a year. The time differences do get a little crazy sometimes. There have been meetings I’ve been on at 2 AM, which is something I can’t say I love.
Lastly, there can be a lot of friction when working in that region, so we’re currently discussing merging our Dubai arm with another smaller studio like us, which is exciting!
PT Have you found a good work/life balance is achievable as a business owner?
HS Let me start off by saying that I think the ‘hustle culture’ is toxic. I finally learned to shut off after a specific time to do things that aren't work-related. It took me almost ten years to realise those emails can wait. The world won't stop spinning.
Any other business owner can relate and say that ‘we’re technically working 24/7,’ but the reason you started your own business was to have freedom. So to answer the question, yes, I do think it's achievable.
PT How do you typically find new clients?
HS We’ve been quite fortunate to get a lot of requests sent through our website alone each month without any real marketing or advertising. We’re also really grateful for our network of companies, organisations, and entrepreneurs who often send us referrals.
Those feel like slam dunks for us.
PT You’ve has worked with clients across a range of industries, is that diversity something you strive for?
HS Yes, for sure. I’ve read many books, articles, blogs, etc., that say agencies should specialise in an industry, but I disagree. That approach hinders growth. When we first launched Azai Studios, we focused heavily on the real estate industry. Given that was my background, I understood the ins and outs of that world. Still, after branding the 10th new condo residence or the 20th RE investment firm, it got so boring that no one at our studio seemed to be enthusiastic about the projects. I knew that model had to go.
Spreading our wings across multiple industries lets the entire team gain exposure to new brands, business models, technology, and processes. It allows us all to be polymaths, which is a trait I look for in people working at or with Azai Studios.
PT What type of projects do you find the most rewarding to work on?
HS The ones where a brand/founder/team is ready to push some boundaries and trust our judgment, process, and creativity. Those feel like slam dunks for us.
PT Are there any industries that you’d like to work in?
HS Is it too cliche to say Web3? I’ve been involved in the space since around 2016; I guess before, people called it ‘Web3.’ It's beautiful to see what's happening in the crypto/defi space. MetaMask alone has grown over 1,800% in just one year, so it’s safe to say more people are getting onboarded into the space. With that in mind, we launched www.futurestandards.xyz earlier this year, which has been an internal project and has already begun helping organisations figure out what it means to be a brand in the Web3 space.
PT What’s the future looking like for the studio?
HS Our core business will always be branding (whatever that still means in today's world lol). However, we’ve always had hands in other industries, from producing events to startups to hospitality.
Our branding studio has gradually been pivoting into a ‘venture studio’ model. We’re teaming up with brands and bringing new products or services to market or spinning up brands/products ourselves. Some of our past clients have been both venture capital firms and startups, so to get an insider's look at how these businesses function was eye-opening for us.
The next move for the studio is to invest our time, resources, and sometimes capital to partner with brands. It's risky, 9 out of 10 startups fail. It's essential to have a really deep conviction in why that brand is likely to succeed and why our studio’s contribution will be impactful and move the needle. This all ties back to us being a smaller company, which allows us to take on such risks. There's a great article by Chris Dixon from Andreessen Horowitz that talks about choosing which hill you want to climb. That article is what struck a chord with me and took us down this path.
LOKI Seltzers was a great example of this business model. We were there from day one and helped them launch, scale, and gain market share. They are now one of the most established brands in their niche, revenue-generating, and on track to raise a Series A round, which is quite exciting. This is an excellent step in the right direction for the studio, where we also have skin in the game for the brands we help create and grow. It also makes the company more attractive to talent since we’re structuring things so they can also get a bite of the apple!