10 Questions With Patrick Llewellyn, CEO of 99 Designs

Australian startup 99designs is a company dedicated to connecting designers with clients around the world. It’s the freelance world turned purely digital. The company initially thought of itself as a marketplace, and is now evolving to a platform perfectly primed to handle the swift changes that covid-19 has brought to the tech space.

Patrick Llewellyn, the current CEO, has overseen the small startup grow into a payments company, a community, a support company as well as online collaboration and e-commerce. It’s a marketplace, but it’s much more sophisticated than that just bringing people together to transact.

We sat down with Patrick (not literally, obviously!) to chat about his role in the brand, how a global creative platform can change an antiquated industry, and how they focus on bringing designers and entrepreneurs together in a way that was impossible in the past.

Jenna Bostock: For the uninitiated, can you explain what 99designs does?

Patrick Llewellyn: 99designs is a global creative platform that connects clients with freelance designers, and gives them the tools to work together online. We are here to champion creativity and bring opportunities to people around the world. What that means in real terms is connecting designers in our really active and engaged community with great clients, but also empowering entrepreneurs and businesses who need creative help in bringing their brand to life.

Anyone who’s started a business knows how huge a moment it is to see your logo or website for the first time, and our designers make this journey a reality for founders all over the world. It’s a really special moment that we’re lucky enough to see happen every single day, and then grow into strong working relationships between clients and designers on the platform.

Jenna Bostock: Tell me a little about 99designs, the inspiration and inception.

Patrick Llewellyn: 99designs actually spun out of another company called SitePoint. It began as a forum community, where designers were creating fictional briefs for each other to use as a resource for learning, self-expression and feedback. One day, someone reached out to this community for ideas for a website logo design, and offered to pay for the best idea. This organic behavior led the team to build 99designs out as a separate business and platform, and it evolved from there.

Jenna Bostock: You came onboard after the inception – what drew you to the company?

Patrick Llewellyn: What drew me to 99designs immediately was a kind of pattern recognition. At the time, I was working with a client in the old school stock photography space, and they were doing some pretty exciting and disruptive things with micro stock that were provoking similar reactions in the market – both with consumers and from incumbent players within the creative industries. The more I learnt about 99designs, the more signals I was getting that really resonated with me in terms of a company setting itself up for success.

Jenna Bostock: What were some of the challenges you faced taking a traditional industry and introducing it to the platform economy?

Patrick Llewellyn: In the early days there was backlash from established players in the industry, that we were devaluing design and so on. We have always believed strongly in equal opportunities and that design has no borders – and in truth that doesn’t always suit people.

But this has definitely changed over time.  After all, freelancers have always powered the heart of the design industry – it simply wouldn’t function without them. Equally, the idea that creative opportunities should be available to everyone – no matter where they’re from – has become much more widely accepted in recent years, and we’re proud that our community has earned more than $300m on 99designs to date.

Jenna Bostock: Who is the typical 99designs client? What sort of company benefits from your services the most?

Patrick Llewellyn: From entrepreneurs and small businesses, to agencies and in-house marketing teams, we connect talented freelancers with businesses who need creative help with everything from brand identity and everyday design work, to web design, packaging, and more.

Jenna Bostock: How does being a globally accessible company change the logo/branding process for customers?

Patrick Llewellyn: 99designs offers unique access to creativity from all over the world, and our platform unlocks a network of professional talent that is available 24/7. With most clients operating online at least to some extent, and therefore being visible far beyond their immediate locale, there is real value in approaching the branding process from this global perspective.

Jenna Bostock: Tell me about the problem solving aspect of what you’re doing – bringing designers and entrepreneurs together in a way that was impossible in the past.

Patrick Llewellyn: We solve a lot of problems by connecting people with creative talent at the moment they need it. We enable ideation and creative talent matching at a scale that wasn’t possible before. We are working with an increasing number of partners like Squarespace who are leveraging 99designs’ infrastructure and expertise in managing online communities to build a creative ecosystem around their core product.

Jenna Bostock: 99designs has moved its headquarters internationally from Australia to California and then back to Australia, again. What was the motivation for these changes?

Patrick Llewellyn: Melbourne has always been our engineering and development hub, and the product itself is built mostly in Australia. When I moved to California, it was originally to be closer to our customers, 80% of whom were in the US at that time, and closer to investment opportunities as the VC landscape in Australia was in its infancy then. Today, our Partnerships team is predominantly in the US, along with customer facing teams, and we also have an office in Berlin that is a centre for creativity and designer community support.

Jenna Bostock: We have to talk a little about the current global pandemic. How are you handling the coronavirus situation?

Patrick Llewellyn: Like most businesses, we’ve had to adapt and move to working remotely fast. We spent a bit of time just taking stock, looked deeply at the data and ensured the business was secure through a variety of eventualities. We’ve also focused on the wellbeing of our people, and upped the ante in terms of communication across our teams and community.

From a business perspective; the future holds significant opportunities as the world becomes more comfortable with the reality of remote work. After all, our global designer community has worked this way for years, and it’s exciting to think that people around the world are experiencing the huge potential in distributed creative teams for the very first time.

Jenna Bostock: What is the best and worst piece of entrepreneurial advice you ever received?.

Patrick Llewellyn: The best advice was to never stop refining your business pitch: whether you’re speaking to investors, your team, your customers, the media – being able to tell your story well is one of the most valuable skills an entrepreneur can have.

The worst? Hire fast, fire fast.  Whilst there is some truth to owning a bad hiring decision as quickly as possible – the notion of churning through people until you find the right fit is not a strategy that I can align with or would prescribe.

Something that has been playing on my mind recently is this idea that crisis brings the opportunity for reinvention, new beginnings and innovation.  Human resilience, ingenuity and creativity constantly amazes me.