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99designs - Connecting Designers from Around the World

Today we showcase an exciting and successful venture co-founded by, Mark Harbottle in 2008 from Melbourne, Australia, 99designs - it connects thousands of designers from around the world with clients who need design tasks completed fast, and without the usual high cost and limited choices you get from most traditional design firms.

In a recent email-based interview with Mark, he gave insights into his venture and how he is progressing with it. This is what he has to say:

• Please tell us about yourself, your background and interests?
I’m 34 years old. I have a degree in computer systems engineering. I started my working life as a programmer, but I eventually found I was much better at online marketing, which back in 1995 was an area not many people had explored.
I’ve worked with pure internet businesses for 13 years now. The first 4 years after I graduated I worked with one of Australia’s first internet companies, and the last 9 have been spent working on my own businesses. I started Sitepoint in 1999 with a business partner in Canada, and I launched a new company earlier this year called 99designs.
I live in Melbourne with my wife and two little girls. When I’m not running around after two kids and two businesses (I’m not sure which is harder) I’ve usually either escaped to the footy or I’m at the gym battling to keep fit.

• What services do you provide for your customers?
99designs can be used to source any custom design work, so logo designs, business cards, web page designs, brochures, t-shirts, banner ads and so on. The difference between 99designs and your typical design firm is that we have access to a large community of designers who contribute to the outcome of your design rather than a single person.
The way it works is like this…
Say you want a logo designed for your business - you post your requirements on 99designs.com for $39 USD and nominate the amount you wish to pay for the finished design, say $300 USD. Designers from around the world view your requirements and start producing designs for you. Over the course of a few days you guide the designers by communicating what you like and dislike about their work. At the end of the process you choose your favourite design, pay the designer the amount you nominated (in this case $300 USD), and you walk away with a finished design.
We currently have around 16,000 registered designers, growing to 100 a day, so there’s no shortage of creative inspiration and variety.

• Who are the people behind this and how did it get started?
The original concept that 99designs is based on was founded by a group of passionate designers within the sitepoint.com forums. These particular designers needed an outlet for their work and they loved challenging each other so they would seek out small design projects and compete to produce the best design.
We noticed that this activity was gaining in popularity within the forums so we invested in building an online platform to better manage the design process and help bring new projects to the table for the designers. We ran a proof of concept for 18 months before deciding that it had enough legs to spin off into a new company.
So you could say our users founded the idea, we just crafted it into a business.

• What is the main objective/mission behind your venture?
Our objective is to build the biggest designer community on earth. The designers really are the core of our business, so our goal is to provide them with a friendly, professional, and secure environment where they can compete on a level playing field, show off their work, improve their skills, communicate with peers, and build relationships with new clients. We already have many designers from around the world who make their living through 99designs.com.

• What type of customers you are targeting?
As I mentioned 99designs is a community of designers but when business is transacted it’s also an online marketplace, and like every marketplace you have two sides to target – buyers and sellers. For 99designs, the buyers are the clients seeking design work, and the sellers are the designers selling their services - so we obviously need to cater to both.

• How many people are using your services?
In the 4 months since we launched 99designs has grown to over 35,000 registered users, and around half are designers. Traffic has grown from just 1.5 million page views per month in February 2008 to over 6.2 million page views a month in July 2008. It really is going gangbusters.

• What sort of marketing you are using to spread the word?
Apart from ad hoc promotions on our sister site (sitepoint.com), we haven’t done any outbound marketing at all – the uniqueness and simplicity of the service we provide and the fact that we’ve to disrupt the multi-billion dollar a-year design industry have meant that word of mouth has largely been responsible for our growth to date.

• How are you measuring the success of your venture? Are there any special mechanisms/tools in place to monitor the progress?
Yes, we measure the success of our venture based on a number of key metrics. We have an online dashboard that’s linked to our user database via a number of reports and graphs that provide an instant view of everything that’s going on in the business. We also use third-party tools like Google Analytics to measure traffic and track referrals.

• What is the monetizing/revenue model? Is there any new model, which is being tried?
We charge a $39 USD listing fee to upload your design brief to 99designs.com. That gives you access to our design community who will view your brief and decide if they want to participate. The designer is paid directly by the customer once they produce a design they’re happy with. That’s the way it works now, but we’re moving towards a slightly different model where we charge a small success fee at the end of the process and handle the whole transaction. This will simplify things a lot for everyone.

• Which are the main competitors or major players in this market segment?
There are a few competitors popping up and drawing inspiration from 99designs, however, by being first to market we’ve very quickly established a critical mass of both designers and clients and claimed the #1 spot in this space. Obviously, we’re working hard to protect our position and continue to grow.

• What are the main technologies used behind this venture?
99designs is built using commodity open-source tools, Apache, PHP and MySQL. The site is hosted on Amazon's virtualized clustering product, EC2. Thanks to a number of cutting-edge tools, the site can scale up or down virtual server resources based on time of day and traffic demands. This has allowed 99designs to survive a sustained growth that would have outgrown conventional setups several times.

• What is your operating environment (operating system) and what type of database you are using?
The development and production servers run Linux. The database servers run MySQL 5 with Innodb.

• The conventional computing model is shifting to Cloud computing. How do you see the future of business changing with the use of this technology?
I see the major change being the lower barrier for entry for small startups. Garage-based companies can now develop applications in weeks that can handle huge volumes of traffic and only pay for what they use. Avoiding significant infrastructure costs upfront means less risk and more funding for innovative ideas. The ability to scale on demand means smaller outfits can hope to deal with the volumes of traffic that sites like Digg and Facebook can deliver without having to provision entire server farms ahead of time.

• What do you think the government (federal and state) should do to improve the culture of innovation?
At a federal level, they shouldn’t be removing access to key government funding initiatives such as the Commercial Ready Grant. Start ups need all the help they can get and grants such as these are vital for their survival.
In terms of encouraging established businesses to innovate, I think if your company has a proven history of success there should be more in the way of incentives to encourage you to do more to drive innovation, whether that be via new grants, tax offsets, or rebates.
On a state level, they should be providing incentives for businesses who hire more people not penalizing them – so abolishing payroll tax would be a good start.

• If you were given an opportunity to change the nation, what 3 things would you do?
I would improve our healthcare system by looking at examples of what’s working and what’s not working overseas. I would do something about the rising cost of living and housing affordability. And lastly, I would build desalination plants around the country, funded by introducing a ‘water tax’ for excess water usage. Seems logical to me.

Thanks, Mark for sharing your thoughts with us. All the best for future.

For coverage on other Australian startups, innovation, and tech trends check this out and our coverage on interviews can be found here

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