Australian entrepreneur Mark Harbottle took a rather strange decision in 1999 when he decided to go into business with Matt Mickiewicz, a Canadian who was in Year 10. But the move paid off in spades.
“I was 26 and he was 16 (but) age didn’t come into it,” Harbottle says. “I saw that he was a smart kid that knew what he was doing. He was making a few thousand dollars a week through his site. Matt put in a few thousand dollars to fund it and I put in $400.”
The web developer business, Sitepoint, was hit by a severe downturn in ad dollars during the dotcom crash. Harbottle and Mickiewicz came up with the idea of providing high-quality content to web developers in print form.
“Our customers were printing information off the web, so we thought, let’s do something here,” Harbottle says. “The idea was spawned through that. You could call it crowdsourcing, in a way. It was about working out what the customers wanted and responding to that.”
“We printed an on-demand book and it went gangbusters. We have about 60 books now.”
SitePoint may have altered its business model to become a traditional publisher, but it was its continued online innovation that was to spark the launch of 99Designs.
The large community of developers and designers that gathered online at SitePoint’s forum regularly played what Harbottle calls “Photoshop tennis” in working on logos for fictitious projects, for a bit of friendly competition and to hone skills.
The dynamic changed when a small business owner asked the community to create branding for him.
Mickiewicz recalls: “It was a revolutionary way of outsourcing graphic design work and, quite literally, dozens of times better than the next best alternative.”
“After a while, when it was clear that this organic model had lasting power, we began charging each ‘contest proctor’ $10 to post a request for design work in our forums and we quickly started generating thousands in revenue.”
Harbottle adds: “There was just a huge groundswell of interest in the idea so we thought, ‘We’ve got to build a site for this, it’s not right to have it in a forum.’”
The site allows businesses to post design jobs online, with freelance designers competing with each other to create the best solution and claim the commissioned payment.
Five years since launch, more than $45 million has been paid out to 99designs’ community. The business has 70 staff in Australia, the US, Germany, France and London and raised $35 million in funding in 2011.
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