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Matt Mickiewicz: How I Started 99designs

The 27-year-old entrepreneur discusses trusting his instincts, scaling growth online and driving revenue with user feedback.

Name: Matt Mickiewicz, 27
Founded: 99designs Pty Ltd, 2008
Business: Marketplace for crowdsourced graphic-design services
Location: Melbourne, Australia

Matt Mickiewicz
Matt Mickiewicz
Founder of 99designs Pty Ltd.

Matt Mickiewicz started his first business at age 14, filling a need he had for a directory of web-development tools and resources to help him learn how to create the websites he built as a hobby. Within two weeks of launching the company, now called SitePoint Solutions Pty Ltd, the self-described computer nerd was featured by USA Today and the Washington Post. After the site’s users started holding informal design contests, it spun off a separate online marketplace for crowdsourced graphic design, launched in 2008. The new company, called 99designs, took off. It has $15 million in annual revenue and has hosted design contests for such high-profile clients as the South by Southwest (SXSW) music, interactive and film festival, Esquire magazine and pay-TV provider Dish Network Corp. It was among the companies spotlighted on Entrepreneur magazine’s annual "100 Brilliant Ideas" list for 2010.

Here, Mickiewicz shares his top three startup challenges -- and how he overcame them.

Challenge No. 1: Trusting our instincts to create a new brand and company around the idea of crowdsourced graphic design.

Why: Business owners were posting requests for design work along with monetary prizes on SitePoint.com, which was a site for educational resources for web developers. These postings turned into informal design contests, with artists uploading completed designs, and winners being paid for their work. My business partner, Mark Harbottle, and I felt strongly that creating a new brand would propel word-of-mouth and help us reach a wider audience of small-business owners, so we spun off a new site and called it 99designs.com.

Solution: After reading the book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Reis, we were convinced that using the SitePoint brand for two different lines of business would be a big mistake. That's when we decided to launch 99designs as a marketplace to connect businesses with graphic designers. We couldn’t have SitePoint stand for web-developer education and design crowdsourcing for small-business owners at the same time. The easiest way to destroy a brand is to put its name on everything. By creating the spinoff, we had a brand with a singular identity and clear purpose. Small-business customers were no longer confused by everything happening on SitePoint and, thanks to the increasing customer referrals and word-of-mouth, our revenue started growing rapidly.

Challenge No. 2: Building out our infrastructure to scale quickly, without huge upfront investment.

Why: We had an inkling that we were onto something big with the idea of crowdsourcing graphic design, and we knew we had to be able to handle a high volume of traffic and data storage if 99designs took off. Dealing with extended outages, slow loading times or huge hosting and bandwidth bills -- an estimated cost of $20,000 per month -- would have been disastrous in our early days.

Solution: In late 2007, when we began building 99designs, I stumbled across Amazon Web Services, a collection of internet-based computing services from Amazon.com Inc. This service enabled us to gain access to servers, storage and bandwidth without having to incur the cost of leasing dedicated servers.

In 2007, Amazon Web Services was the only cloud-based hosting solution available. Today, tens of thousands of successful internet companies and retailers rely on Amazon Web Services. But back in 2007, it was a big risk. It took some convincing and a lot of additional effort. Documentation and management tools for Amazon Web Services were sparse. But it paid off big time. It allowed us to scale up smoothly to accommodate growth, while saving us a massive amount of money along the way.

Challenge No. 3: Deciding which features and user suggestions are the most important to work on.

Why: We have a very involved and passionate community of designers who are the backbone of our company. They love giving us feedback, but we needed a way to manage the influx of requests to decide what to prioritize.

Solution: From the very beginning, we installed the free version of UserVoice on 99designs, which allows our community to vote on the suggestions and ideas they think are the most important. We’ve implemented dozens of ideas, such as a $99 logo store, the ability to award multiple winners and upfront payment from customers, resulting in massive revenue increases to the business. 

The Young Entrepreneur Council is an advocacy group dedicated to fighting youth unemployment and underemployment by helping young people build successful businesses and offering alternatives to traditional career paths. Its members include successful young entrepreneurs, business owners and thought leaders. It was founded in New York in 2010 by serial entrepreneur Scott Gerber, author of the forthcoming book, Never Get a 'Real' Job.

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