99designs Crowdsources Its Own New Website Design

Crowdsourcing design startup 99designs is putting its own product to the test with a competition to redesign its homepage. The company, which connects businesses in need of design help with freelancers willing to compete for design work, wrote a request of its own, asking its 158,000 registered designers to revamp its site for a chance to win one of three $1000 prizes.

To company CEO Patrick Llewellyn, using 99designs is a great way for any lithe start-up to get design help without stretching its resources. “We’ve got lots of different projects on the go, and not enough design resources internally,” he says. “What better way of thinking about how we can do this than running a contest for our community?”

Each contest on 99designs works like this: customers can create a brief to give designers a clear, detailed idea of what they’re looking for, from logos to websites to stationary, mobile apps and more. Depending on their budgets, they can choose between bronze, silver and gold packages (for example, between $299 and $699 for a logo, or between $599 and $1,499 for a website). Then, as designers submit ideas, customers can collaborate with them, explaining what they like and don’t like. Once users find something they want, they pick the winner and get the final design and a copyright for the original work. 99designs gets a cut that averages between 20and 30 percent of the fee, and the rest goes to the designer. Simple.

99designs CEO Patrick Llewellyn

This isn’t the first time 99designs has started its own contest. In the past the company has hosted light-hearted challenges, like a contest to invent a new hairstyle, and more timely ones, like designing a new logo for The Gap after the retailer’s revised mark was widely panned back in 2010. But this time, contest entrants will be putting their work in front of famous guest judges, including lean startup guru Eric Ries, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, and 99designs co-founder Mark Harbottle.

Though bringing in such heavy hitters could be seen as a move to push back against 99designs detractors who have complained that high volume doesn’t make up for low-quality design work, Llewellyn says it’s simply a smart move by a smaller company in need of design help.

“The driver for us is that we need this work done,” Llewellyn says. “It’s less about what other people think. But if that’s an offshoot and we get to show off some cool work, that will be great.”

99designs has a transoceanic origin story. Back in 1998, a Canadian teenager named Matt Mickiewicz needed to build a website, so he documented his experience online, giving advice to others. As Mickeiwicz’s Web design forum grew, Harbottle, who lived in Melbourne, began selling his software through the site. Eventually, Harbottle realized that it was a great business opportunity, so he reached out to Mickiewicz and suggested that they go into business together.

Despite his Web prowess, Mickiewicz was only seventeen. So he stayed in Canada, and Mickiewicz and Harbottle built their company, called Sitepoint, via long-distance collaboration. At the time, Sitepoint distributed books on design and development and hosted different forums including a Web development and designer forum. Soon, designers took over the threads, inventing a sort of design tennis match where people would post fictional briefs and hold contests to see who could come up with the best design. At first it was just for fun, a way for designers to bounce ideas off each other. But then a designer building a website in need of a logo asked the forum to submit logo ideas, and offered to pay them if he picked one.

“All of this was just happening in a forum thread,” Llewellyn says. “Mark saw all of this activity and said, ’I wonder if there is a business here?’”

Harbottle decided to start charging a listing fee to see if that killed off the forum. But people were willing to pay $10 to post a brief. Then $20. In 2008, Sitepoint spun out 99designs as its own product.

“It was essentially observing a naturally occurring behavior inside this designer forum, then creating a minimally viable product,” Llewellyn says. “It was a wacky start-up in this little business called Sitepoint.”

Four years after it was founded, the company has grown to more than 55 employees, relocated its headquarters from Melbourne to San Francisco, hosted 136,000 design contests, and paid out $33.8 million to designers. In 2012 alone, the company expects to pay out $25 million.

“It’s been a really interesting ride,” Llewellyn says. “The most interesting thing is that for the first 3½ years of existence, we didn’t spend any money on marketing. We were all word of mouth. We had a really big viral growth, which was important because we were a bootstrapped kind of business. We were very focused on spending money on product.”

The owners secured their first-round funding in April 2011, raising $35 million from Accel Partners and angel investors including Michael Dearing (an alum of eBay), Stewart Butterfield (Flickr, Tiny Speck) and Anthony Casalena (Squarespace).

Being in Silicon Valley has been helpful to the company, which has a lot of startups in its customer base.

“Silicon Valley was a very early adopter of our service, because there’s a shortage of designers and the Eric Ries rules of starting a scrappy business suits the 99designs model,” Llewellyn says. “We’re a great way of getting your minimum viable product up. “

In the few years since 99designs has been in business, it’s created designs for some former scrappy startups that have gotten a lot of attention, including TaskRabbit, and for some huge companies like Adidas and TiVo, sometimes in conjunction with an agency.

Llewellyn says the service is a great way for fledgling designers and freelancers to get their work in front of clients and build a bigger portfolio. More than a third of contests lead to follow-on work for the designer selected as the winner, he says. “We think of ourselves almost as a speed-dating site for designers and small businesses,” Llewellyn says.

But he doesn’t see it as a disruption of the typical relationship between companies and design firms—99designs isn’t stealing market share from bigger shops. Instead, it’s giving tiny companies that could never have afforded expensive design work a way to get a new logo for a fledgling business. “We’re creating a new market segment and an entry point,” Llewellyn says. “And I actually think our customers go on and engage agencies or other people as they get bigger and move on. I think they see the value of what good design does for them.”

But for now, 99designs will stick to sourcing its own design needs through its own contests. Finalists still have a couple of days to submit designs, and the company will choose a winner within the week.

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2 responses to “99designs Crowdsources Its Own New Website Design”

  1. Interesting to learn how 99designs got it’s start. I’ve never heard that before but have come across their site many times. If I was a designer, I would definitely be a member and try it out.There are always detractors to this kind of innovative thinking and it’s usually the people who wish they’d thought of it first.

  2. Sue says:

    99Designs actually take 48% of the prize money, not 20-30%