10x Cheaper, 10x Faster, 1,000x Better: 99designs

In this blog I'm going to talk about one of the most successful crowdsourcing sites ever -- 99designs -- a site revolutionizing how people create logos, websites and other branding projects. It's a site I love and have used repeatedly; what's more, it teaches us basic principles worth emulating.

I've started 15 companies, and there's always a moment when it's time to come up with the corporate branding... logo, business card, stationery, website, etc. A process that was frustrating and many times painful. But crowdsourcing done right has changed all that.

Let's review the old way: It takes 90 days from the time you pick a designer until you get your finished product; $3,000 to $5,000 for their services; and, at best, a set of 10 designs to choose from, if you're lucky. And, if you don't like any of them, well, then you're out of luck.

Let's review the new way, using a site called 99designs: Post a $400 competition bounty, within one week you get 100 to 200 logos to choose from. Only pay if there's one that you love. If not, wash, rinse, repeat.

In summary: 10x cheaper, 10x faster and 10x more options. Satisfaction guaranteed.

What 99designs has done is to gather diverse graphic designers through a competition process that has brought affordable design to a wide variety of companies. It's also created a global community that offers businesses more options at a lower price than before.

Matt Mickiewicz, a serial entrepreneur and cofounder of 99designs, told me how he got the idea: "On one of my sites, graphic designers from all over the world began creating fictional design contests for themselves. At the end of a week, one design would be named the winner. These designers had spare time and wanted to connect with other designers."

Eventually members suggested holding a contest for an actual logo, with the winner being paid for the work. That inspired the creation of 99designs in 2008. The site holds contests for design work. A client posts a request -- for a logo, for a book cover, for stationery or other project -- and designers from all over the world submit their designs within a set time.

Now, the site has 175,000 designers who've offered at least one design, and among them they create a new design every five seconds, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. So far 99designs has paid over $39 million to designers and posted over 150,000 design contests ranging from T-shirts to logos to websites and even book covers. Mickiewicz estimates that the work is 10 times less costly and 10 times faster than traditional design work.

The site took off almost immediately. With no publicity (or even a designer sign-up page) designers were joining the site by the thousands daily, Mickiewicz said.

But there were a few stumbling blocks. Among them, payments to designers. At the beginning, 99designs charged $39 for posting the contest, and customers would then be responsible for paying the designer. "Despite people's best intentions," Mickiewicz said, "about 15 percent to 20 percent of the time it didn't actually happen. Customers would disappear, delay paying for weeks or months, or in some cases even steal the designer's work."

Mickiewicz and his colleagues decided to try a prepayment option, with the understanding that 99designs would handle paying designers and follow-through.

"To our surprise, about 50 percent of small-business owners opted to prepay. So designers naturally flocked to these prepaid contests because they were sure they were going to get paid quickly." Six months later, prepayment became a requirement.

The site also solved the problem of the occasional theft. Sometimes someone would simply steal the design work that was submitted, without paying. Someone would save the work to a computer, then email 99designs and request a refund. To prevent that, "we make all customers call us for a refund," Mickiewicz said. "You have to speak with an actual representative. People who are dishonest don't like human interaction," he said. "But fundamentally, people are honest."

Mickiewicz and his colleagues offer the following three suggestions to anyone who would like to work with 99designs:

  1. Be involved throughout the process. "If you're not interacting with designers, then you're missing out on the core value propositions on 99designs," Mickiewicz said. "Our designers like to be engaged. The more you're engaged, the better the results. The biggest mistake is hoping that miracles will happen by themselves."
  2. Mickiewicz has found that recognition is sometimes as important as money, so explaining more about your company and how the designer's work will be seen and utilized is very important.
  3. Clients who provide examples of work they like get the most response. Designers find that it can be hard to communicate artistic preference using words. Visual examples work best.

In my next blog I'm going to write about what crowdsourcing lessons 99designs learned about working with its designers, and how it has been able to use that experience to create a site geared toward employment opportunities.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. Each step of the way, I'll ask for your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a message, sign up for my newsletter here.

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