How a new CEO grew a small Melbourne startup into an $80 million global company

The CEO of a global Australian startup turning over more than $80 million a year says being able to trust employees quickly is one of the most important leadership qualities when rapidly scaling a startup.

Beginning as a small operation in Melbourne, 99designs is now the world’s largest marketplace for designers and has offices around the world, including in the US, Europe and Asia.

Now based in the US, 99designs CEO Patrick Llewellyn says the startup has gotten to where it is now because of its employees and their role in leading and driving its growth.

“That’s been an important part of our success – it’s really a team pursuit versus an individual’s,” Llewellyn tells StartupSmart.

Since entering the role in 2010, Llewellyn has grown 99Designs from a small team in Melbourne to an international organisation with more than 100 employees.

“I’ve really empowered the team that I work with because I wasn’t the founder with a specific skill, I’m more of a generalist,” he says.

“I really did rely on the skill and the capability of the team around me to help us build the business together.”

While some founders and CEOs make strong directive leaders and stick to telling their teams what to do, he says this approach doesn’t always work when scaling a company.

“Some founders manage to do it but others struggle because everything is reliant on them,” Llewellyn says.

“If everything was reliant on me it would be a basket case.”

By trusting his employees and managers to adopt leadership roles themselves, Llewellyn says he has created a strong culture of growth within 99Designs that translates into quick external expansion.

“Those managers are starting to do a better job of growing our next level of management and that makes you collectively strong and I think makes scaling easier,” he says

Taking over leadership

As a startup grows founders and even CEOs get to a point where they must decide whether they’re still the best person to scale the company from “size X to Y”.

When a founder decides to hand over the reins to someone else, Llewellyn says one thing is fundamental.

“The key thing is whoever you bring in, if you’re going to bring someone in, is making sure that relationship is built on trust,” he says.

This was crucial for 99Designs when Llewellyn took over from original founders Mark Harbottle and Matt Mickiewicz.

As CEO, Llewellyn regularly questions what he’s doing, what the company’s doing and where it is heading.

“You just care so much but ultimately you are constantly trying to evaluate, ‘am I making the right decisions? Do I have the right knowledge?’” he says.

Llewellyn says he is incredibly lucky to still have Harbottle there for support.

“He helped me grow, I’m a first-time CEO,” he says.

“We figured this out together.”

Staying innovative

Llewellyn says 99Designs has maintained its startup spirit by having small, autonomous project teams to help keep them agile.

“When we see a problem or an opportunity we put a small team on it,” he says.

“Just like you would with an MVP, you’re sort of MVP-ing your way into that solution.”

This enables the company to quickly develop new products and features while empowering employees with the ability to directly influence 99Design’s long-term direction and decision-making.

“By having small teams, people have a really strong sense of ownership,” Llewellyn says.

In addition to building company plans from the bottom-up and encouraging workers to put forward ideas, 99Designs also runs R&D days where its engineers and UX employees can spend office hours working on their own projects.

“They have some time each month to work on projects they’re passionate about,” Llewellyn says.

Designing diversity

While the 99Design’s workforce is a near-even split between men and women, Llewellyn says there’s a lot more to be done so its team becomes more representative of the global community it serves.

“Where we need to improve our diversity is at the board level,” he says.

This is particularly important for Llewellyn, who hopes to make 99designs a public company in the near-future.

“We believe if we can be more inclusive, we’ll certainly have a better chance of getting the best talent,” he says.

As he transitions 99designs into a larger company, Llewellyn says they are working on ways to create an environment with fairer access to employees regardless of who they are or where they’re from.

“We’re starting to think more about how we can improve our parental leave and flexi-office hours so we can support folks with families so that you don’t even get age bias, which sometimes happens in startups,” Llewellyn says.

“There are so many elements to what makes a diverse workplace.”

Planning to last

By continuing to develop a rich user experience and providing tools to empower and grow its design community, Llewellyn says he hopes 99designs will have the best designer community in the world by the end of the decade.

“We want to own design online, period,” he says.

“I want you to feel like working with a designer on our platform is as good, if not better, than working with a designer next to you.”

He also plans to make 99designs a billion-dollar, publicly-listed company so it can continue to help creative professionals around the world build careers in design for decades to comes.

“It brings a lot of joy to us to see entrepreneurs who have used us to get their businesses started,” Llewellyn says.

“It’s the careers and lives that we changed by creating access to work where ever they may be in the world.”

To others dreaming of running or founding a business, Llewellyn offers a simple piece of advice.

Though it’s only one word, he says it’s a difficult move, often underestimated, but it’s what ultimately gives an idea its value: “Start.”

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