Tracing 99design's Growth from Australia, the U.S., and the World

    Australia and Northern Europe are in the same boat when it comes to startup companies. We both have small home markets, and are a long ways away from the U.S., which seems to be the bullseye due to it being a big rich homogenous market full of customers and investors. With internationalization on our mind, we’re taking a look at 99designs, the Australian-founded company that allows anyone to run a crowdsourced contest to get the best design possible for whatever you need. We used it to source our coworking space logo (which is goddamn gorgeous to us) and through the process we got in touch with Patrick Llewellyn, CEO of 99designs.

    As a brief history, 99designs got its start actually as a spinoff of the SitePoint forums, where occasionally web designers would compete on fictional logos, just for fun. Eventually one day someone came in and basically said, “hey you guys like doing logos, so how about making one for my company?” SitePoint capitalized on that self-generated activity by starting 99designs and was able to internationalize quickly by harnessing their already-present U.S. traffic.

    Since then the U.S. had always been 99design’s largest market, but they decided to keep their development team in Australia. Even though there is a lot of great talent in California, they’ve kept their development in Australia because they already have the networks in place to source great talent – something that would take time to build up in San Francisco.

    Llewellyn explains that localizing in additional languages isn’t as easy as you would hope, as it adds a lot to the development cycle. So before doing so, what you have to do is find product-market fit in one market, do that market well, and then take what you’ve learned to other markets. For the first three years, 99designs was only available in English, but they were still able to find customers in over 150 countries. “Early adopters will find you,” says Llewellyn.

    99designs opened up their European office in Berlin, selecting it for its startup scene, and because they were facing two competitors with a larger market share. German was the first language they localized into, and have become the dominant player in that market. Part of that growth was through an acquisition of 12designer, which was localized into 5 languages when they moved in, which was stretching their marketing budget.

    “Making this decision to go into multiple markets is not one you should go into lightly,” says Llewellyn. “You should really focus on your home market and product market fit, because I think as soon as you go into international markets it stretches you thinly. If you’re not well capitalized it can be an issue. It’s a choice. You can be great in one market or be mediocre in many.”

    They’ve applied the same overall strategy to their new product, Swiftly, which connects users with designers for smaller design-related tasks. For example, if you just need a little tweak to a family photo, or if you need the colors changed on some design element, you can get little design fixes taken care of. Right now, they’re validating the product in U.S. dollars and in English, and won’t think about localizations until they feel they’ve gotten it right.