“Execution is everything”: How Patrick Llewellyn helped grow 99designs into a $78 million international company

Patrick Llewellyn is the chief executive of design marketplace 99designs. Llewellyn became chief executive of the company in January 2011. 

Since that time, 99designs has grown to employ 125 people around the world and is considering going public. Last year, the company turned over around US$60 million (around $78 million). 

SmartCompany caught up with Llewellyn during a recent visit to Australia to find out how 99designs grew so quickly without the wheels coming off.

I got my first job when I was in grade six, when I was 11, working out the back of a health food shop.

I went on to study business. My first job out of school was as a marketing associate for a company in Atlanta, Georgia.

It was the early 90s and there was a recession in Australia, so I was just happy to get a job.

My first role at 99designs was not as chief executive. 

I joined when we were eight people and my job was to go and open our office in San Francisco. That was a catalyst for us to get closer to our US customer base, which is our biggest customer base.

The best marketing we’ve ever done is deliver a great customer support experience and having a product that customers genuinely like.

For the first three years we didn’t have a marketing team. So we just focused on having word of mouth drive us.

We’ve got a very strong philosophy around delivering the best product and valuing everyone who comes through our door.

The biggest challenge in growing quickly, hiring new people and expanding your footprint, is keeping everyone on the same page.

Communication is the hardest part. It’s the key to not having the wheels fall off, but it’s also the thing we’re trying to constantly work at and do better.

Hiring has also been key. Part of that is hiring people who have that entrepreneurial spirit, who are self-starters.

That’s a core part of startup life: understanding everyone has to contribute. For example, in interviews, I like to start by making the person a coffee. You’ll still see me unloading the dishwasher [at work], because that’s what we’re all about.

Building two teams in two places that are a long way apart has certainly been challenging. At some points in our history, I questioned whether that was the right thing to do, whether we should have consolidated in one market.

You must figure out where you want to be and where your natural advantage is. Are you going to uproot yourself and go to Silicon Valley or stay in Australia? There are both pros and cons but it’s difficult to do both.

There’s a myriad of things that keep me awake at night. The bigger you get, the more issues that come up.

I think a lot about our place in the market and the changing face of technology. We’re eight years old now but we still very much feel like a startup.

My advice to budding entrepreneurs? Just do it.

The hardest thing is taking the leap of faith. Believe in yourself and take a crack.

My other advice is validate as soon as you can and do that every step of the way.

One thing I’ve learnt from being overseas all the time is ideas are almost worthless. Execution is everything.

The sooner you can test your idea and understand the customer base you’re building something for, the better.

It does take a lot of courage. But just get out there and stress-test your hypothesis as soon as you can.

Good ideas are great but those that execute them are going to win.


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