Mark Harbottle happily admits he’s a “start-up guy”. The co-founder of SitePoint and 99Designs may not be steeped in the pinstripe and spreadsheet CEO culture, but he can be relied upon to come up with a sector-defining online idea.
“It’s all about the journey rather than the destination for me – I never knew where SitePoint or 99 would end up,” he says.
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“I’m all about starting businesses. From an early age, all I wanted to do was get out there and start a business. I’m perhaps not the best finisher, which is why I need CEOs to take the businesses to the next level.”
The casual observer would probably consider 99Designs to be Harbottle’s crowning achievement. The crowd-sourcing creative design website has a revenue touching $20 million a year, has 65,000 design projects on the go and has so far facilitated the payment of more than $17 million to nearly 100,000 designers.
These are mind-boggling numbers for a site that was only launched in 2008. But the launch of 99Designs, along with internet luminaries Lachlan Donald, Paul Annesley and Leni Mayo, is just the latest stop in an entrepreneurial journey by Harbottle that has consistently put the customer centrestage.
Uncovering online potential
Upon completing his computer science course at university in 1994, Harbottle started work at Sausage Software, a Melbourne-based firm that created the world’s first web authoring tool.
“The internet was new to me and I was amazed at the way it took off – we were helping people build websites but all we were doing was selling ones and zeros across cables, nothing actually physical,” he recalls.
“That really opened my eyes to the potential of the internet. I was lucky in a way because my friends were working at banks or airlines. I got a good understanding of what customers wanted.”
While working on various advertising deals, a site offering content for budding webmasters caught Harbottle’s eye. The site was run by Matt Mickiewicz, a Canadian who was in Year 10. Harbottle, who was looking to move on from Sausage, decided to go into 50/50 partnership with Mickiewicz to launch ad-funded tech resource SitePoint.
“I was 26 and he was 16 (but) age didn’t come into it,” Harbottle says. “I saw that he was a smart kid that knew what he was doing. He was making a few thousand dollars a week through his site. Matt put in a few thousand dollars to fund it and I put in $400.”
Faced by a severe downturn in ad dollars during the dotcom crash, Harbottle and Mickiewicz came up with the idea of providing high-quality content to web developers in print form.
“Our customers were printing information off the web, so we thought, let’s do something here,” Harbottle says. “The idea was spawned through that. You could call it crowd-sourcing, in a way. It was about working out what the customers wanted and responding to that.”
“We printed an on-demand book and it went gangbusters. We have about 60 books now.”
A crowd-sourced idea
SitePoint may have altered its business model to become a traditional publisher, but it was its continued online innovation that was to spark the launch of 99Designs.
The large community of developers and designers that gathered online at SitePoint’s forum regularly played what Harbottle calls “Photoshop tennis” in working on logos.
The dynamic changed when a small business owner asked the community to create branding for him. Regular competitions started taking place, leading to the concept being spun off to its own site, 99Designs.
The site allows businesses to post design jobs online, with freelance designers competing with each other to create the best solution and claim the commissioned payment.
“There was just a huge groundswell of interest in the idea so we thought, ‘We’ve got to build a site for this, it’s not right to have it in a forum’,” says Harbottle.
99Designs gradually grew in popularity, sustaining a handful of staff. However, Harbottle faced two initial problems. Firstly, the fee structure needed to be revamped.