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Full Q&A: 99designs CEO Patrick Llewellyn on Recode Decode

Llewellyn’s company makes it easier for designers and clients to find each other, but he doesn’t think design will ever be totally done by computers.

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99designs CEO Patrick Llewellyn
99designs CEO Patrick Llewellyn
Courtesy 99designs

On the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, Kara talked with Patrick Llewellyn, the CEO of Australian startup 99designs, which connects designers with clients around the world. Although the company initially thought of itself as a marketplace, Llewellyn explained why it now has to think of itself as a “platform.”

“We’ve had to become a payments company, a community company, and a support company as well as online collaboration and e-commerce,” Llewellyn said. “We are a marketplace, but we think it’s much more sophisticated than just bringing people together to transact. We’re actually providing, as we’ve said, all of those tools. We’re also thinking about what’s our place in the broader ecosystem.”

You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Overcast.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Patrick.

Kara Swisher: Hi. I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large at Recode. You may know me as someone who has a lot of great design ideas for Apple’s AirPods, but Jony Ive won’t return my calls. But in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.

Today in the red chair is Patrick Llewellyn, the president and CEO of 99designs, who I met while I was in Australia recently. The company started almost 11 years ago, and he’s been CEO since 2011. Before that, he was an associate director of the banking firm, Nextec Strategic Capital, in Sydney, Australia. Patrick, welcome to Recode Decode.

Patrick Llewellyn: Thank you for having me.

Thank you. What are you doing here in San Francisco?

We’ve got a big team in Oakland.

I know you do. You do.

Yeah. So, we’ve got 50 people over there.

So, explain ... I don’t have nearly enough international CEOs on my program, I really don’t. I have too many San Francisco CEOs and stuff like that. So, when I met you, we had such an interesting conversation about things and where things were going, I thought it’d be great to have you on the show to talk a little bit about what you guys do at 99designs. What I’d love to do is for you to sort of explain for everybody what 99designs is.

We’re a global creative platform that makes it easy for designers and clients to work together wherever they are in the world.


Over the last 11 years, we’ve paid out $250 million to that community, helping over 500,000 clients get access to the design they need to make their work work.


For us, we evolved. I think our founding story’s fun, the fact that it was a forum thread where designers were playing a game called Photoshop Tennis. They started using that interaction as a way of sourcing design from each other, and that turned into our first model, which was design crowdsourcing on a global scale.

On whatever someone had.

Exactly. So, we’re helping you get logos designed, websites designed, book covers, illustrations, whatever it is.

Right, right. So, you were trying to digitize the design process, essentially.

Yeah. Essentially, what we were trying to do was take this organic behavior where designers were literally submitting to a forum, putting designs up, posting briefs, collaborating and using it as a way of sharing and learning, and then as a way of sourcing work from each other. There was no, “Cool. What are we doing here?” We’re like, “This looks really interesting, and a great way to source design. Let’s see if we can turn that into a business opportunity,” and that’s really how we started. So, at first it was just like, how do we help champion creativity, facilitate this behavior that we’re observing and turn it into something? And ultimately, we were successful with that.

Right. So, talk about sort of the design process first. I mean, the way that design is done has sort of been very artisanal, in that you hire a designer and ...

That’s right.

Talk through that, about what ...

Yeah. So, we’re breaking down those borders. Typically, if you think about the classic design process, it was like you knew a friend, or a friend knew a friend who connected you, or you worked in a workplace and there was someone in the corner who was the designer and you connected. At 99designs, what we did at first was a brief was posted. Designers would read that brief and think, “Do I have an idea that I think is appropriate for that?” Then they would engage by submitting their idea. You’d get an opportunity to collaborate, commit, learn, understand each other, and then work together.

Right, right.

So, we really just broke down those borders. No longer did it matter where you lived, who you knew, what your background was. It was all about was your creative idea a match for what that person was looking for from their design brief? So, over time, we’ve invested a lot in how do we get a brief off someone online, what’s the sort of information that helps drive good design, how do people collaborate online?

Let’s talk about that. How do you do that in that digital format? Because there’s a lot of great design ideas out there, but how are people shifting the way design is done? It’s just like, because we don’t think about design as much as we do the product itself. So, talk a little bit about where design is going.

I mean, design is ever-evolving and touching more and more of our lives. I think we’ve seen almost a design revolution. It’s the Apple-ization of the world. Design’s become important. So, no, there’s no doubt, right here in this city, designers are revered, and I think we’re seeing that sort of move down right across small businesses of all type.

Entrepreneurs, wherever they are in the world, are realizing that to stand out, differentiate their brand, to build trust, they need something. So, we’ve kind of benefited from that movement, and then what we’ve had to do is think about, “All right. Well, what are the things that are important? What are the important inputs? How do we get people that are perhaps new to design thinking about design?”

So, there’s lots of ideation, lots of style, lots of questions around who are you targeting, who’s your target audience, trying to get our community of entrepreneurs to think what is it they’re looking to express, what is it that they want their business to stand for? Typically, if we think about branding or who is their book targeting, and then our designers interpret that, do a lot of rapid ideation classically, and then that helps them refine what they’re looking for.

Yeah. When you think about design, though, when you think about doing it, what you’re doing ... These are a lot of people who are ... They’re not entrepreneurs, precisely, but they’re individual contractors, I guess, in terms of having to do their work, and then there are the big design firms that people hire, and stuff like that. The breaking down of this and making it ... democratizing of it ... You have to have a platform for doing that.

That’s right.

Which is what 99designs is. So, explain your business.

Okay. So, our business is exactly ... We are all about being a platform. It’s all about how do we take all of these customers all over the world, we’re in eight languages ...

Who are looking for blank. Give me an example.

Design. A logo for Recode.

We just got one.

A new book cover for your next book, illustrations. We were just talking before with Eric about new merch ideas. He wants pod merch. He’s not getting a lot of love from the marketing team. He’s like, “All right. We should be talking to 99designs,” and that’s exactly what would happen. He would actually rogue it, come to 99 and say, “Hey, I want to create a bunch of these illustrations or some t-shirt designs.” He would submit his brief. Our designers would read his brief, and then they would start to submit their ideas.


So, our platform has evolved so that we can ... We kind of had to build a really big piece of software that essentially sits in the cloud that allows 10,000 designers who are online right now, engaging with over 10,000 clients, and doing that all in realtime. Right? So, they are interpreting briefs, they’re submitting designs, they’re collaborating, they’re communicating, and then we’re also handling payments. We’ve paid designers in 192 countries.

Right. So, explain the business model. You are between them.

The business model is like ... That’s right. So, we’re like most platforms. We take a cut between what they pay and what the designer gets. Yeah.

Mm-hmm, and to attract people to the platform, much like TaskRabbit, I guess, it’s the idea that there’s somebody to do something. You bring them to the platform because they can’t do this one their own.

Designers or customers?

Yeah, both.

Both, exactly.

Yeah, yeah.

We’re solving a really hard problem. Being a freelance designer has traditionally been a really hard road. How did you break into it? In the early days, most of the people who served our coffee came from the creative arts. Right?


It was like you went into an agency and said, “Hey. I’m looking for a job straight out of school,” and they’re like, “Great. Show me your portfolio.” You’d have some work you did at school. They’d be like, “Where’s your real experience?” Well, we solve all of that. Right?


We’ve aggregated all of this work that sits there that’s ready for someone to do in our creative community, and then they are able to choose projects that stimulate them, explore design styles that stimulate them, and then practice their craft, build a portfolio, get real experience working with real-world clients, which a lot of the time they then turn into either a sustaining freelance career or an opportunity to go and take a full-time job somewhere else.

At one of these places.


Right. So, you’re trying to link those two together.

Well, what we’re trying to do is get people to work the way they want. For us, it’s about creative choice. It’s about giving people opportunity wherever they are and wherever they reside, no matter of who they are. I mean, one of the things that we’re most proud of is the fact that most of the work on 99designs is based on the quality of the work, or someone’s interpretation of your idea. It’s not what school you went to, what postcode you live in, gender, whatever.

Right. Well, talk about that because you operate in Australia, which is not here in Silicon Valley.

That’s right. Yeah. We operate ... We’ve got offices in Berlin, Oakland and Australia, but we started in Australia. But we started very ...

I noticed that from your accent.

Yeah. Sorry. Yeah, it’s a bit obvious.


So, we started in Australia, but with a global viewpoint. We were a dot-com with ... We only took U.S. payment. Our forum was based out of a U.S. information site. So, we were very much started with a global viewpoint, and very quickly, our community represented that. Designers, from day one, were from all over the world. Customers from day one were from all over the world, and so we embraced that, and I think coming from Australia, you kind of have to. Right? You’ve been there.

Mm-hmm. It’s far.

It’s a far place, but it’s also amazingly international. Right?

It is, absolutely.

Twenty-eight percent of the population is a brand-new immigrant. Right?


Fifty percent, first generation. So, everyone’s from somewhere else, and we also love to travel. You can’t go anywhere in the world without meeting a bloody Aussie. Right?

No, I know that. Yeah, that’s true. They’re everywhere.

So, we’re everywhere. So, we go ... I spent seven years living here. I came and opened our office. We’ve grown that. We engage with all that Silicon Valley has to offer, and then I’ve retreated home.

How do you like the contrast between Silicon Valley and here, when you’re creating a startup like this?

I think we have to have very different mindsets. I mean, I think there’s a level of confidence that comes from being a Silicon Valley entrepreneur that I don’t know if Australians have. Right? I think we’re getting better at embracing entrepreneurship. The reality of it, lots of Australian companies just like us don’t have access to funding early on, so you have to bootstrap. You have to think about models, so making money’s important. I know you’ve spoken to Mike from Atlassian.

Yes. There’s about four companies that you all have.

That’s right.

There’s you. Who’s the other one?

I mean, we are very proud of Canva.

Yeah, Canva.

You’ve spoken to Mel. You know I like it.

Mel from Canva.

That’s right, but there’s lots of companies coming out of Australia that I think are doing really interesting things, but generally, they do start, a lot of them, especially in the old days, started with this bootstrap mentality.

I think now — and you’ve met a bunch of them — the VC community in Australia is evolving. There’s a lot of quality there. There’s firms like Blackbird Capital and Square Peg Ventures who are doing really good work with a fair bit of the capital, so I think no longer do Australian startups think, “Oh, I have to make money from day one.” There’s actually a path to raising capital, but Silicon Valley still is the beacon. Right? This is the biggest pot of money in the world, and so much of us end up ...

But Silicon Valley hasn’t done that many design startups at all.


It hasn’t, which I think is interesting, the idea of anything around the creative arts. They’ve been elsewhere. Framebridge is in Washington. Anything that’s creative seems to be somewhere else.

Yeah, except for the biggest creative company in the world, which is Adobe.

Well, Adobe. Right. Yeah, yeah.

So, apart from that.

Apart from that, yeah. Okay. All right.

Yeah, that’s right.

That’s a fair point.

But yes, I think that’s right. We’ve seen design in Australia. We’re over-indexing a little. Right? There’s 99designs. There’s Canva. There’s a bunch of businesses thinking about creativity and how that can be applied on a global scale.

We’re here with Patrick Llewellyn, he’s the CEO of 99designs. We’re talking about ... It’s an Australian company that specializes in putting together clients of design with designers themselves, which is a basic platform play. Right?


That’s all it is.

We think about it as a very sophisticated platform play because design is actually very nuanced.

Well, explain the difference between ... It’s not unlike Uber or anything else, like putting together drivers with riders.

That’s right, because all of the collaboration and work happens online, on our platform, across language, across time zones, and across this fairly eclectic medium, which is creativity. Right?


So, at the heart of what we do as humans, and we’re trying to make that happen on a global scale. Now, yes, Uber is doing it, but it’s localized. Right?


TaskRabbit does it, but it’s localized. I’m bringing people together, but typically the interaction is happening there. We’re bringing people together and making that interaction happen online.

Well, talk about how you do this, because creativity done online is harder.

Yes, it is harder.

Most of the successful companies are transactional companies.


So, talk about getting creativity in a platform manner.

Yeah. I think for us, we’re very passionate about this notion of future of work. Right? If we can all get good at working online, that I actually think society’s gonna be better placed. Right? Eighty percent of our designers live outside the major metro areas in which they reside, so we’re already seeing that it can decongest cities, create opportunity wherever it can find itself.

So, you’re saying talentism. Yeah.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But there’s no doubt that what we’ve tackled is actually pretty hard. Right? We’ve actually had to take a fair bit of time with doing it because it is nuanced, and there’s lot of components. We’ve had to become a payments company, a community company and a support company as well as online collaboration and e-commerce, right?

So you’re right, there is many factors to what we’ve had to build, but we are really excited about what we have done, and our evolution is really all about taking that now and really thinking about it holistically as a platform. I think if you’d asked me four years ago, “What is 99?” I’d say, “We’re a marketplace.”


Today I’m like, “We’re a platform,” and we’re actually opening that platform.

Well, explain the difference. What do you mean you are a marketplace? You are a marketplace.

Well, we are a marketplace, but we think it’s much more sophisticated than just bringing people together to transact. We’re actually providing, as we’ve said, all of those tools. We’re also thinking about what’s our place in the broader ecosystem. So starting to open up our platform for partners thinking about how can we API all of these components and give others access to this amazing, creative pool so that they can help them advance their tools.

But how so? Explain that.

Well, if you think about DIY design tools or website builders, creative communities like video or photography, having access to designers who could augment that work and turn it into something would be really valuable, right? And all of us can go to a DIY site, and hopefully, with time and effort, put it in, but a lot of us are time poor, and so that notion that if we could actually have the right creative at the right time ready to do work, then that can actually benefit the platform and benefit their customers and our designers.

So when you’re taking the thing between it, when you’re trying to move an analog business into the digital space, especially around creativity, talk about some of the tools you use to do so. Because creativity is very different than, like I said, a transactional ... ordering a pizza, whatever you order from Amazon, or however you bring together different groups of people.

Sure. So yeah, it’s a lot about community development. It’s a lot about finding the right audience. So we’re building a lot of rich content to make sure that we reach a broad audience where they’re thinking about that connection. So we’re taking lots of data. We’re using everything that we can see.

One of the beauties about being a platform is I know that Eric worked with Kara. Right? I know what designs he submitted, and I know what you thought about them, and if I see you work together, then I can say, “Well, these are actually great signals that design is being done well between the two of you,” and therefore, I can think of Eric as a quality creative. And so then I can start to better match Eric with future opportunities.

And so for us, it is this sort of holistic view of all of the components. We’re not in the business of building tools for people to create the design. We’re in the business of trying to facilitate the most efficient ways of matching the right creators with the right ...

Well, can you digitize creativity? Can you do that?

I think we’re seeing a lot of people attempt it. I think creativity is very much a human pursuit. I think we can support creativity through digitization. I think using data, using influences, taking all of the feedback loops and applying that.

But I actually still think that at its heart, humanity wants to connect with each other to pursue something creative. So I’m a big believer that, in fact, it’s probably the last bastion now that robots may take us all over at some point.

Yeah. We’re going to get to that.


But I want to get to that idea of digitizing creativity in terms of ... There are marketplaces where you just meet, which is what you are essentially are, really.

That’s right. Meeting online.

Right. Meeting online. Talk about the tools you need to do that. What makes you different from a platform compared to any other marketplace?

It’s all of the components. It’s making sure that we ...

Because how are you different than Angie’s List, or ...?

Because we’ve got tools that allow you to annotate a design and give feedback and poll your friends and get feedback from your friends and build specific tools for agencies so that they can show off their work, get NDAs, engage with their clients, get that feedback, pass that on. So basically, a lot of what we’re thinking about is how do we connect the right people and then how do we facilitate the collaboration, right?

So what is it that they need to collaborate? Do we need to make sure that they’re utilizing Google Translate so if there is a language barrier, that would help them break that down. It’s making sure that we understand who’s good at what, and who’s got the right expertise, and then trying to help usher those folks in front of the people looking for that talent.

And what are some of the things that they’re availing themselves of in terms of doing these things? What are the tools that are the most important when you’re doing this?

So for which side? The creative?

For the creatives.

Yeah. So for the creatives, what they need is access to the internet. They need access to software. We talked about Adobe, for example. So they’re going to need access to the sorts of design software that allows them to build what it is that our clients are looking for.


So I think what we have seen and what makes this super exciting is the internet has become ubiquitous, and the cost of computing’s come way down. Right? So that’s what’s really been a strong growth signal for us is the fact that more and more people have access to the software and the computing power they need to be able to create.

To do this.

Yes. Exactly.

Like what Autodesk is doing?

Exactly. Exactly. And also they need to learn. Right? So there’s now YouTube, Skillshare. There’s all of these sites that share access to creative tutorials, and then we apply a place where if you’re new, you can still get access to some clients and start to learn, and you can get feedback, and we have a very active forum. We have community engagement where well-known designers are coaching newbie designers. And we’re providing a whole lot of information on best practice.

Right. Now you guys have raised how much money? You talked about the Australian venture capital market. It’s not that big, right?

No, it’s not. No, it’s not. And we haven’t raised from any Australian ...

What’s it like, Rupert Murdoch’s cousin or something? That’s it?

No, it’s the three degrees of Mike Cannon-Brookes. No, I mean I think Mike has done amazing work.

This is Atlassian’s CEO.

Exactly, exactly. And Scott, right? The two of them are actually huge supporters of Australian tech and investing a lot of their money in tech, which I think is fantastic for the industry. But we’re also seeing other first-generation tech entrepreneurs. The first VC I knew in Sydney was a guy called Roger Allen who made his money actually in IT services selling to Rupert Murdoch. Right? And so he did that in the ‘90s, and then took his small fortune and applied it to lots of different industries.

Across Australia.

Exactly. Across Australia. And now, of course, plenty of U.S.-based VCs invest there. Accel is our major investor, and so they found us ...

How much money have you invested?

So we’ve raised $45 million.

That’s a lot of money.

It is a lot of money. A lot of that was secondary.


So realistically, we’ve haven’t had a whole lot of contributed capital, so we’ve had to be pretty lean.

Meaning that you’re profitable?


In terms of doing these joinings, essentially.

That’s right. That’s right. And providing all of what we need to do to support that platform. We’ll go to 120 people around the world, a lot of folks building the software, a lot of folks supporting the interactions, because services are tricky. So there’s actually still a lot in supporting our design community and supporting those customer interactions in eight languages, and then attracting clients. So a lot of demand-side generation so that the designers get access to the work they’re looking for.

How do you get people comfortable using the design firms like this, this sort of off the cuff?



Word of mouth. Fifty percent of our clients come through our referrals, so it’s kind of a bit like the old days. You used to refer a friend.


And now if you’ve had a good experience with 99designs, you refer us. So we do benefit from that because I think design is a personal thing, and also, we’ve done a lot of branding, and people like to talk about their brand. You’ve been in the Valley a long time. I’m sure plenty of people have talked to you about whatever it is on their t-shirt.

Which I’m showing my brand right now.

Exactly. That’s right.


So I think that has been a very important catalyst for our growth.

And your goal is to what? Where do you go? Where does 99designs go then?

Well, we continue to evolve the platform. We talked about this notion of design contest.

Design contest. Yeah.

That’s right. Now, 40 percent of our work is now through a direct connection between the designer and a client, so we got this thing called direct work. We see the evolution of both of those mechanics. So we’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to get a designer or creative in front of the right client.


If you need fast ideation, you need lots of variety, then this design contest is a great way to do that. If you need to do something complicated and intricate, then a direct match is a better way of doing that. If you need to do something fast, a direct match is a better way to do that.

We see ourselves evolving. We see the opportunity to solve more problems for creatives. The reality of it is there’s some adjacencies that we’re super excited about it. So we look at animation, 3-D, VR, AR, video. These are all trends.

Which have been tried. These kind of digital studios have been tried. There just haven’t ...

That’s right. I think our time has come. I think the reality of it is to your point. People don’t necessarily think first of working online to solve these problems. But luckily for us, there’s been an explosion of apps over the last 10 years that people start to think about, “Oh, is there a Lyft” — to be politically correct — “in this town?” “Is there a Lyft for that?”

You can say Uber, it’s okay.


”Is there an Uber for that?”


We’re here with Patrick Llewellyn, he’s the CEO of 99designs. It’s an Australian company. I met him when I was in Melbourne. Was I in Melbourne?

You were in Melbourne.

What was I doing?

We were actually on a funny TV show together.

Weird. That was weird.

That was weird. We don’t have any red buttons in front of us today.

No, we’re not going to do that. We’re not silly people. But I do want to talk about moving creative jobs online. Because again, so much done is transactional or things ... Can you talk a little bit of where you see that going? Musicians have sort of have done that, obviously. Writers are obviously online. Artists are less so, marketplaces of artists. Where do you see it going with sort of the creative ... You were talking about doing animation, video, people obviously do YouTube and things like that.

I think we’ll see those platforms evolve and become a lot more sophisticated. I think we’ll see virtual teams be created, virtual agencies be created.

Yeah. What happens to agencies? Why would we need them anymore? They haven’t been disrupted quite yet, these agencies.

No, they haven’t yet, right, because ...

Why do we have advertising agencies?

I mean, there is something that they do that’s powerful about engaging with the client directly and chaperoning through the creative process, right, so I don’t think we’ll ever displace them.

Why not?

Because I think people will still look for that trusted layer. We should empower them. I think agencies should be built on the top of 99designs. I think they could be a chance where you’ll see more and more of the creative thought leadership happening from folks who play those roles on these online platforms. Right?

Virtual creative directors, art directors, teams of folks, because what do you need to bring creative together? Typically, it’s a combination of a great writer and a creative director and a great designer. And so there’s that collaboration piece that we haven’t tackled yet, but I think that opportunity exists. And I think right now, what we’ve been doing is we see agencies are one of our fastest-growing segments, so we’re seeing ...

Agencies coming onto your platform?

Yes. That’s right.

Because yeah, agencies would be bypassed. You bypass agencies, right?

Well, we could. But if agencies have built trust with a client, if a client feels that this agency is the best person, or maybe I’m getting a bunch of stuff done by an agency, so they’re helping me with my branding, my website and my ad spend, then that agency outsources the branding or the website design to someone like 99designs, the client’s happy. Right?


Then they’re getting the quality they need at the price point that they need.

Right. I see.

So we’re sort of a facilitation. And I think we’ve seen agencies ... Traditionally, they’ve been big employers of freelancers. One of the competitive advantages of the creative agency was which freelancers they knew and kept hidden from the competition. Now, we’ve democratized that.

Right. Right. That’s right.

So there’s less of that. So what they need to get good at is utilizing the crowd. We’ve got an agency based in Denmark, Cosmic People, doing amazing work. They were an agency of 100 ...

Who you never heard of.


Only the Danes.

Exactly. They’re now 20, and they use us primarily for all of the design work for big brands. And they’re pushing the boundaries of what we’re capable of.

Which they never would have been found by big clients.

That’s right. They’re finding clients and they are utilizing us in ways that we could never imagine. We’re seeing awesome animation. We’re seeing huge billboards for huge brands that they are putting together as part of an integrated campaign. What they’re focused on, this angle, what we’re good at is actually pitching big ideas to big clients and engaging with them. And we don’t need to necessarily have ... We actually think a competitive advantage is how good we are at using a global creative audience.

Right. To do that.

Exactly. Exactly.

To do that versus the other way of doing it.

Well, the other way is, I am limited to the talent that resides in Denmark. Now, there’s plenty of really talented Danes, but there’s not a ton of them. Right?


If I can access all of the talent ...

Limited talented Danes, but go ahead.

No. I think we’re saying they’re super talented, but there’s not a ton of them.


But if they can access talent in other geographies, then they can create amazing work.

Is that what creative agents have to think of in the future is that talent is everywhere or is there ... Because it’s been concentrated in New York, right?


Maybe Los Angeles a little bit.

That’s right. There’s other centers.


London, yes. Berlin’s always been a bit of a design set. There’s the design set, the major cities have traditionally had strong design cores.


But then that dissipates when you get out. And I think we’re seeing a demand for that all over, right?


So if you’re an agency based outside a major city, then attracting talent’s always been tough.

So you might as well ...

Well, why not take advantage of the global workforce that’s sitting for you?


I think all of us are thinking more broadly about where’s the talent coming from. The fact that Silicon Valley now invests all over the world, I mean, I think I saw some stat that suggested that this year is the first time that there’s been more investment outside the U.S. than in it.


Right? So we are seeing ...

Well, there’s not enough rat holes to shove the money down here so they’re looking for international rat holes. But go ahead.

Well, I think what they’re realizing is that — and I think you have understood this for a long time because you actually get out and travel, right?

I do. I get on planes.

You get on planes, which is ...

”I take too many planes, I know too many names and I forget them.” That’s a line from Shawn Colvin.

Right. But you realize that you go to these cities and you realize there’s vibrancy and ...


And there’s people trying to do ...

And they’re isolated. And they’re isolated. I’m very interested in, I call it talentism, which is global. That there’s someone in Syria, there’s someone that is in beautiful ___, whatever they ...

That’s right.

And they’re unable to be accessed for the most part until now.

Until now. And that’s ...

Right. And there’s been attempts to do this in lots of ways. Coding. There’s been a couple of these platforms for coding and stuff like that, but creativity is harder because that is something that is a very artisanal, in your face, let me meet the designer, that’s how we sort of sold it.

Well, that’s how we’ve generally sold it and I think it’s subjective and there’s a lot of communication. So doing that online has certainly been challenging. We haven’t chosen the easiest of these topics, but it’s one that we revel in. We’ve always been about championing creativity and when you see the outcome of the right match happening and that right creative spark, it brings joy.

It either gives people a lot of opportunity to meet new clients, for example, they wouldn’t have had, or it gives a client a really good pool of testers. You get free design.

You can. That’s right. You don’t get to keep it. It’s not yours, right?


You only get to ... You have to pay to use it.

That you buy, yeah.

But what you do do is get ideation on steroids. You get to get stimulated from views from all over the world.

Right. Do you ever imagine this becomes computer generated? I was going to get to that by the end to finish up to talk about this, do you imagine ... So here you are linking creatives with people who need creative stuff, as you might do anything else, which is great, which you find talent everywhere, as we said. But do you imagine this ever being completely digitized, where creativity is digitized?



Because I think humans need other humans to make them feel good about their creative choice. I think there’s something magical that happens in that interpretation. I think it’s actually very nuanced. Look, there’ll be aspects of it that will be digitized. I think we’ll actually use aspects of it to create better-informed briefs to make sure that there’s better matches, to improve the skills. If I don’t have to do retouching because a bot can do that, then great. Right?

Right. Do retouching.

But it’s still, it’s hard, right?


Creativity feels like something that is going to be the last bastion. They’re going to have to be really smart and very nuanced. You talk a lot about this and I really love your podcast ...

Thank you.

... but this notion of humanities. And creativity’s all about being human.

Allegedly. I don’t know. Some days, I think you can digitize it.

Yeah, I think we’ll digitize aspects of it. We’re betting on humans.

Yeah, I was talking about this thing to Peter Jackson earlier and he was talking about the colorization and stuff like that was done a lot by ...

Yeah, It think we’re going to see lots of aspects of it where the bots will get better, and they will do a great job of all of it. But who’s going to come up with the story? Who’s going to understand who it is that you’re really trying to target and how to nuance that and deliver that in a way that helps you stand out? I think that nuance still feels pretty human to me.

Yeah. For sure. For sure. What’s the most interesting pairing you’ve seen on your platform?

That’s a great question. I’ve seen a lot. I think ... Yeah, it’s enormous. I think the fact that ... One that comes to mind, we had an Italian designer who created a design for a rock star and ended up being in Rolling Stone magazine. That was pretty amazing. That designer ended up being on the front page.

Of clothing. A piece of clothing?

No, no. He created a tattoo for a rock star. We had no idea. An indy rock star who came onto our platform to source a special design for his arm, which he then got from an Italian designer and that was then put on his arm and that got picked up by the media. Then it was in the national press in Italy. It was in Rolling Stone magazine. That was a pretty unusual pairing. I probably put that in the unusual basket.

I think the relationships that we see are really interesting. There’s an Australian designer who’s based in Perth.

That’s at the end, right?

Yeah, it’s on the other side. The most isolated capital city in the world.



It’s wayyy over there.

Probably it’d be hard for you to get to.

I’m not going to Perth. Sorry, Perthians.


Is it Perthians or Perthers?

I don’t know, it’s in Western Australia.

Those from Perth.

We talk about the state, less about the city. Where it is.

Melbournians. I don’t actually know what it is for Perthians.

Is it Melbournians?

It is Melbournians.

What’s Sydney?


Oh, really?


Okay. All right.

Yeah. We always ...

I urge everyone to go to Australia, it’s a wonderful, especially Melbourne, it’s an astonishing city.

Yeah, I’m really proud of it. I love it. I think something special’s happening there. I think there’s something that happens in a society that’s that open, as you’ve seen it. There’s a great social security net. I think, in general, society functions well.

Is it different when you come here? When you come to the U.S. tech scene?

Well, I think the U.S. tech scene is still at another level. I mean, this is still the epicenter of what’s going on.

Do you like it?

I do. I sometimes find it overwhelming. You know, I think, to be fair ... I’ve got family, I’ve got other interests. You kind of have to be 100 percent here all the time. You know, it’s sometimes nice to be in another city where the first question out of someone’s mouth is not, “What do you do?”

Right. Right.

Right? There is a ...

Welcome to America.

Right. A little, right?


So I do, but at the same time I love being here. I come here regularly. It is one of the most stimulating places. I almost leave exhausted just because there’s so much going on. You can tap into this rich vein. As a young Aussie entrepreneur, when I arrived here, if I can use the term entrepreneur as someone who’d joined it ...


... but when I arrived, we were a small team and I remember being staggered. The first job I was hiring for was a $15-an-hour customer support role. And the first thing that came out of the guy’s mouth that I was interviewing was, “Well, what’s your equity plan? And who are your VCs?” These are questions that we’d never been asked in our history, right?

Right. Right.

So this place is on steroids.

Do you think that other places can form a real entrepreneurial society or is it just Silicon Valley?

We see entrepreneurial societies built everywhere, I think, but that would just be different. I don’t think anyone will do it at the scale it happens here. I think it’s hard to replicate. There is something magic about the combination of the quadrant of education institutions, the massive amounts of capital. And then there’s something, the self-belief is what we talked about.

Arrogance is what I call it, but go ahead.

Yeah. I think it’s ... Sometimes I think it’s fantastic to see that self-belief and then sometimes I think we see the downside of it. And you talk a lot about that.

Where does 99designs go? Where do you imagine taking it?

Well, I think right now we focus on ...

There isn’t one like 99designs in Silicon Valley.

I mean, there’s people who do it. There’s broader platforms that do a bit of everything. Recently we saw Upwork list on Nasdaq.

Yes, that’s right. Upwork. Yeah.

And so I think they are ... I think, ultimately, we want to stay a strong, independent company. We want to focus on building great product. We want to keep servicing clients. Now, we are open for partnership, right?


We’re looking for folks who think that they can utilize our creative community to help solve their problems, help improve the experience for their customers. Right now our focus is all about how do we advance our platform? How do we improve our service? How do we make these matches better? And how do we do a better job of what we’re doing? I think long term, being in Australia ...

Can you ever imagine replacing agencies?

I don’t know. I think we will be partners to agencies before we replace them. We do have big corporate clients who come to us directly, so we do see ... Univision uses us. We’ve seen big banks use us. Big German companies of all descriptions use us for a wide variety of design needs. I think there’ll be a place for everyone. I actually think we see a lot of coincidence ...

That’s a very Australian thing to say. If you were a Silicon Valley person, you’d be like ...

You’re like, “Yeah, I’ll destroy them.”

”Yes, we’re going to kill them. We’re going to kill them because they’re old and they deserve to be dead.” I’ve got to help you practice, you’re just too nice.

Sorry. I know. But I actually just think there’s going to be room for everyone.

Say, “I’m going to disrupt them.” Say that.

Yeah, well ...

Let me hear it from you. You can’t even do it. You can’t even do it.

Well, I am ...

Pretend you’re Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” and do that kind of thing or something. But you can’t do it.

Well, Russell Crowe is actually not Australian.

Oh, isn’t he? What is he?

No. He’s a New Zealander.

Is he? Are they different? I’m sorry.

Well ...

Yes, I know they’re different countries. I’m aware of that.

You just had Peter Jackson and ...

I did. Peter Jackson’s not an Australian, he’s New Zealand.

He’s not. The running joke ...

It’s like Canadians and Americans.

That’s right. What we like to say is the happy Americans are Canadian.

Oh, right. Yeah.

And then the talented New Zealanders are Australian.

Oh, that’s a little bit of ... Yeah, you did birth Rupert Murdoch.

I know.

So we never turn our backs on Australians. That’s how we feel about it.

That’s right. Lucky we’ve got the Hemsworth boys to ...

Yeah, oh that’s right. That’s right. Yeah. That’s right. They’re from there. You’ve got a lot of good things going on in Australia.

Anyway, Patrick, it’s really great talking to you. It’s really nice to get someone from another part of the world talking about their entrepreneurial activities. Thank you for coming on the show.

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