Visiting 99Designs Berlin Office: How To Grow (And Have A Party)

I hate press releases.

It’s neither the fault of specific releases nor the people crafting them. It’s about what they represent. They represent corporate – and I’m not a corporate guy.

We recently got a party invite by 99Designs celebrating their new look and design. The invite was accompanied by a press release and an invite to chat with their CEO. My mind clicked… corporate. I was in for a surprise.

Sidenote: I fully understand the need for press releases. And I know there is no way around them in many circumstances. The invite to the party was absolutely appropriate – and including the release was totally fine too. I know a lot of bloggers would understand this as “finally being taken seriously,” my personal sentiments against press releases are my own. I just love startups – and corporate just makes me shiver. Gladly, 99Designs turned out to not-be-so-corporate.

What’s 99Designs Again?

99Designs is an online crowdsourcing platform around design – companies of any kind can create competitions for their design tasks and the designers on the platform can hand in their drafts. Only the winner of the competition get’s money.

99Designs new design is hip and monochromatic - the company followed its own advice and went for crowdsourcing.

99Designs new design is hip and monochromatic – the company followed its own advice and went for crowdsourcing.

The most common example is when a company needs a new logo: They create a competition and decide which design they pick. The price for a logo is at €279. Great deal!

99Designs was founded in 2008 in Australia. They hired their current CEO Patrick Llewellyn in 2009 to head their move to the US and in 2010 they moved to Silicon Valley – which included a medium 8 figures investment round. The founders left the company – and Patrick became CEO. The next years brought the expansion to Europe.

99Designs mission, in the words of their CEO, Patrick, is “to own design online.”

Today, 99Designs has over 50 Million Euros in yearly revenues, over a hundred employees spread out over various countries. In 2015 a series B funding round was raised for an expansion to Japan.

The Surprise – Not So Corporate

As said before – I expected corporate. I got the drive and energy of a startup.

I once walked into a party at Scout24 in Berlin by mistake. People were wearing suits there. To a party. There was a stage, lot’s of speeches, etc… But that wasn’t happening here at 99Designs.

(Scout24 is a German company running a couple of web portals including Immobilienscout24. They are huge in Germany.)

Sol Fauquier, 99Designs PR and Communications Manager, had set up a meeting with Patrick (the CEO) just before the official start of the party. We arrived slightly early and got to witness party preparations – which mainly consisted of moving the chairs and tables out of their offices, putting a little bit of food on display and putting huge loads of beer and ice into the bathtub (99Designs Berlin office is in Kreuzberg in a former flat… Berlin style).

Who We Talked To

Who We Talked To

Well, this meeting with the CEO didn’t happen just then… it turned out that Patrick, who had flown in from the US just for the party, was fighting the side effects of jetlag and had gone to his hotel for a nap. I got a feeling that Sol was uncomfortable about the fact she had invited us to a meeting and the CEO wasn’t there.

She shouldn’t have been. The slightly chaotic atmosphere made me feel right at home.

Instead, we got to chat with Sol and Eva Missling.

Eva founded 12Designer back in 2009 – 99Designs largest competitor in Europe until 99Designs acquired her company in 2012. That she is still with 99Designs, almost 4 years after the acquisition, says a lot of good things about the company!

99Designs – The Logical Next Step To Europe

According to Sol, in 2011 and 2012, Europe was the next logical step for 99Designs – Australia was covered, the US was going well, so the question was “Where is the next big market?”

Key to the expansion to Europe was the acquisition of 12Designer. While only a company of 4 – 5 people, Eva’s company was already 99Designs biggest competitor in Europe, and Germany was a key market for 99Designs. While being small, a key factor for the acquisition interest was also 12Designer’s team – which albeit small, had knowledge about working in the fragmented European markets.

The Marketing Approach For Europe

99Designs Marketing PartySeeing Europe as one “market” may seem logical to outsiders – but not surprising this is only a good approach on paper. Unlike the US, Europe is very fragmented. And while it may be true that the US market is also fragmented in some ways, and there are a lot of cultural differences there as well, Europe is a different kind of beast: Different languages, cultures, and mentalities spread out over several countries that are sometimes smaller than the average state in the US. In some countries (like Germany) selling online, for instance, works entirely different than in others because credit cards are far more uncommon.

This problem is very often the cause for startups started in Europe staying small or failing… I’ve underestimated this in the past as well.

99Designs approach may be the best one I’ve seen yet: Tackle every single country by itself. As Sol put it: “We would have campaigns that were running well in Italy, but weren’t performing in Germany. And then others would be running exceptionally well in Spain but not in the UK, …” “So the way we did this is to think of Europe as a whole but have a country manager for every country who would know what can work and what cannot work. …”

So in the early times of making 99Designs growth in Europe, the team wasn’t separated by marketing channels but by countries – and every country was run by exactly one person. Only when growth kicked in this structure flipped and the European team began to separate itself by roles and marketing channels. For instance, Sol’s role used to be Country Manager Spain – but later changed to PR & Communications Europe. Others would then become Head of Social Media Marketing, and so on.

For people from other markets or even just from an older school of marketing this might sound like a chaotic approach – but having faced the problem myself, it sounds clever to me.

How Important Is Social Media Marketing For 99 Designs?

“We’re still struggling there.”

Sol’s honest answer to this question. One of the main problems for 99Designs social media accounts in Europe have is evaluating the importance of localized accounts vs. the international accounts. Which is a big problem – not just for them. People will often follow the mother company, but not go for localized social accounts anymore. Language in today’s business world is far less important than it was 30 years ago.

The problem is not that there are too many accounts, or that they don’t know what to post on these accounts – the problem for international companies is that there are no tested and foolproof ways to deal with the situation.

99Designs – A Company Fueled By Growth

I already said this, but I need to say it again: Maybe the most impressive thing for me about 99Designs is that they are still a startup. They are still fueled by development and growth.

This became more apparent when we finally met the CEO, Patrick, at the party.

Patrick is maybe the most founder-like CEO I have ever met. In a good way – and that is even without being a founder. What do I mean by that?

Patrick is still focused on growing and expanding the company, not on just running it. It almost seems as if he didn’t even realise that he is already running a successful company – he is too focused to identify new markets and market segments, he won’t look back and say “well done.” At least not yet.

This is a typical characteristic of a founder. When it’s your company you are running, you often have trouble seeing what you’ve achieved and only see what you still can and want to achieve. You start with a vision – and only when you achieve that vision, you will rest.

Patrick is actually not a founder of 99Designs – the founders both left early on. But Patrick is a founder by heart and characteristics. He is the guy that knows the vision of the company, the opportunity they have to be great and overperform.

The Takeaway

The rest of the party was a party. A real one there was a band and later a DJ. In between a short presentation of the new design on an improvised stage.

It was a fun party – and when we finally had to leave (it was Thursday), I was sorry I would have to work in the next morning and couldn’t stay longer.

In our chat, Sol and Eva said they were currently accessing new market segments with 99Designs – fewer startups and more corporates.

Luckily 99Designs didn’t lose their startup DNA. It is a company I would still enjoy working at. Just don’t wear suits to work, please?

Sidenote: While at their office may not happen so soon – working with 99Designs will happen very soon. The evening lead to a cooperation with them for one of our new projects. You will read more about this on here soon. So stay tuned!

Below is a short video with impressions of 99Designs Berlin office, staff and the party!