How did the company start?
The company originated from a how-to site for people to learn about design, with a large community of designers and developers onboard. It was within that community that our business model started.
The designers were playing a game for fun they called Photoshop Tennis, where one designer would put up a fictional brief and others would provide their own ideas and concepts for the design. One day a designer asked the community to come up with a logo for his website client, with the designer of the winning logo getting paid. And that was essentially how our business as it is today started.
Talk about how the business expanded.
99designs was spun out in February 2008 and we spent the next three years building the business as a bootstrapped company. Australia is pretty bereft of venture capital so a lot of start-up entrepreneurs don’t think about raising money; it’s just too hard. So we built a business on the cash flow we could create.
We spent no money on marketing, we just hired developers and support staff when we could afford it, and really focused on delivering a good-value proposition to our community. We were lucky that we captured the attention of a lot of start-up entrepreneurs, particularly in Silicon Valley, who were our first customers. Those tech early adopters like to talk, so we were able to grow strongly on word of mouth and before long we had interest from US venture capital.
I joined in September 2009 and then moved to Silicon Valley in January 2010 to open an office there, and over the course of the first year I became CEO. Then in April 2011 we took a series A funding round which we then used to fund our global expansion. Over the last two or three years we’ve been aggressively internationalising our marketplace, so we’re no longer just a .com but providing local services around the world in nine different languages.
How powerful can a good logo be for early-stage companies?
Our average customer is a company of one to five employees; we’re helping people to start and get their first brand identity. What you’re looking for out of a logo is something that represents your business and the market you’re seeking to attract. It really gives you a chance to say what is it you’re trying to achieve and who you want to sell your product to. And then what you’re looking for from a logo is something that builds trust and respect for the brand you’re trying to create.
Do some deep thinking about your product, customer and the problem you’re solving and put those notions into the hands of a designer.
What should a UK business owner do if they are thinking about re-branding their business?
It’s really important that before you undertake any rebranding exercise that you understand how your brand is being perceived by your current customers and also potential future customers. You can use relatively cheap surveying tools, do a quick survey of potential customers and see how they perceive your brand, you can do the same with your current customers and determine if you have a brand issue and, if you do, what you need to do to address that.
Sometimes it can be as simple as cleaning up the logo design, a cleaner font type perhaps, removing shadowing or looking at a new colour palette to represent your brand in a different way and perhaps move the target segment a little bit one way up or down depending on what you’re trying to achieve.
Is branding the be-all and end-all for a small business?
Well, sometimes you can overthink branding. What’s most important is how you run your business and the integrity in which you deliver your service or products. Your brand will help represent that and communicate but it’s all about the service you deliver. You can make your mark mean anything.
Airbnb is a classic example, their last mark was something they threw together quickly. They still built a really big business on the back of it as people really identified with the service they provided. They have been through an extensive rebranding process and ultimately they’ve done a good job.
While it’s more about the core business more than the brand, a well thought out branding helps you get out there and it’s important to have something when you start. That’s one of the things we do well, we can get a small business up and running very quickly with quality graphic design. I strongly encourage small business owners to get started, get testing, get talking to customers and understand who it is you’re trying to address.
What’s next for the business?
We are looking at the ways we can better provide end-to-end solutions for our small business customers. One of the things we do today is we give everyone design files, but design files don’t necessarily help you get immediately on the web, or a business card in your pocket. We are constantly evolving in our marketplace to better serve our customers and community, so you can expect more big things from 99designs in the near future.
Patrick Llewellyn is CEO and president of 99designs.