TL; DR: As with so many successful startups, DesignCrowd was started in a garage by a 20-something who saw a problem he thought he could fix. Alec Lynch sought to improve the design process by creating competition among a global network of freelance developers and designers. Organizations can control budgets and deadlines when requesting anything from a logo to a website — designs arrive within hours, and dozens of submissions can accrue by the project deadline. More than 500,000 hungry designers and developers submit their work to projects in hopes of being selected to receive a slice of the nearly $40 million DesignCrowd has doled out since their existence.
Officials with the London Olympics debuted their logo in 2007 to awful reviews — the public, press and professional designers all panned the jagged graphic. The logo had taken £400,000 (roughly $800,000 at the time) and an entire year to create.
Meanwhile, Australian Alec Lynch looked at his group of friends with design backgrounds who couldn’t find work. He knew they could have done a better job in a fraction of the time and for far less money. A decade later, his thriving online design marketplace now helps both freelancers and companies accelerate the design process.
DesignCrowd provides risk-free, crowdsourced graphics and websites to organizations lacking the budget and time to work with an agency, or the skills to produce the work in-house. More than 560,000 designers and developers find work through DesignCrowd, and a British designer recently passed $1 million in earnings through the platform.
“Using crowdsourcing and the power of the internet, we allow customers to access the creativity of half a million designers with just a few clicks of the mouse,” Alec said. “Our model fosters a more creative outcome for customers and gives designers an opportunity to earn money.”
From Bootstrapped Beginnings to a Global Creative Marketplace
Before the London Olympics logo crystallized Alec’s idea for a crowdsourced design marketplace, he worked for a strategy consulting firm researching international expansion tactics for large Australian technology companies.
The experience helped Alec think about market opportunities from a global perspective. As he started DesignCrowd, he researched international competitors and market leaders and made sure his web platform supported multiple currencies.
“I tried to be quite thoughtful and strategic about what markets I was going to target,” Alec said. “Our revenue and user base was international from day one.”
To start building the network of designers, Alec crowdsourced DesignCrowd’s logo and promoted it at design studios and schools. For the first two years, Alec bootstrapped DesignCrowd out of his family home. “It was just me, a laptop, and a couple of credit cards,” he said.
To grow the business further, Alec added Adam Arbolino as a Co-Founder and raised about $250,000 USD. “That’s not a lot of capital to try and grow a global business, but we grew revenue 14-fold during that two-year period,” Alec said.
DesignCrowd has since raised more than $9 million in two rounds of venture capital financing and sees about 80% of their revenue coming from outside Australia.
“We’re super proud of what we’ve achieved, and we’d like to think the opportunity is still a lot bigger for design,” Alec said. “We’re quite excited about exploring that further.”
39+ Million Reasons Why Freelancers Should Submit Their Work
In addition to tight competition for qualified designers in countries, including Australia and the US, Alec also noticed similar challenges for designers living in emerging economies in Asia and Eastern Europe.
“Wherever they’re from, what these designers all have in common is that they’re looking for opportunity, to earn money, and work in the design industry,” he said. “We like to think we’re a unique way for them to find work and win work that’s not based on their reputation, CV, or past portfolio. It’s just on the merit of their creativity and designs for a particular client.”
Companies looking to tap into the DesignCrowd network of freelancers post a brief describing the project, budget, and timeframe. Graphics artists and web designers can immediately begin submitting their work and any revisions for which the company might ask.
All contests are done with blind entries hidden to all but the company behind the project brief. According to Jo Sabin, Head of Community, that means designers can’t lean on competitors’ creations.
“Every designer is in isolation, so that lends itself to a lot more variety,” she said. “Your submission as a designer will be judged distinctly from others because there are no viewable submissions until the contest closes. You won’t be able to compare your work to others, but you don’t get that copycat and duplicate design issue.”
Once the deadline passes, the company selects their favorite design and the creator gets paid. To date, DesignCrowd users have collectively earned north of $39 million for designs.
“We also offer participation payments, so it’s not like a case where only one creator wins and gets paid,” said Content Marketing Manager Kevin Bradford. “It means more designers can be paid for their time, ideas, and designs.”
How Businesses Benefit: Fast and Affordable Creativity
When starting DesignCrowd, Alec wanted to address three challenges companies faced when looking for design work from agencies or traditional freelancers: the slow process, high cost, and risks or limitations of working with only one designer or agency.
“What if, instead of the London Olympics paying one agency £400,000 to design a logo, they had taken £100,000 or £10,000 and run an open, global design competition?” Alec asked. “I know they would have gotten tens of thousands of entries from around the world. They would have landed on a better design, and I know they would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Startups and small businesses make up the majority of DesignCrowd’s clientele because, while they have an innovative idea, they don’t necessarily have the skills, time, or budget to create in-house designs or hire someone. DesignCrowd’s platform eliminates the lengthy and labor-intensive process of recruiting a designer following a more traditional path. The blind submission process also bodes well for companies, according to Alec.
“It prevents groupthink, and you get quite a diversity of ideas and designs,” he said. “With every dollar you spend, you get more creativity and a wider range of ideas.”
Australian startup Farm Fresh Delivered has used DesignCrowd for branding assets, including their logo, website, signage, and stationery. Co-Founder Che Bliss told DesignCrowd he continues to work with winning designers to tweak, adapt, and improve on designs.
“The process has allowed us to leverage resources beyond what would normally be available to a small business,” he said, adding his company received 54 logo submissions from 46 designers. “We definitely got great value and ideas beyond our expectation, and we could easily have used any of the top 20 logo designs.”
Of the 40 categories of designs, ranging from business cards to CD covers and stickers, most customers come to DesignCrowd for help creating a logo, according to Kevin.
“Once they have a positive experience with DesignCrowd and get a logo they love, then they need the other resources to go with it,” he said. “What will that logo look like on a website or a flyer? It’s about developing that relationship and becoming that resource once people trust the DesignCrowd platform and know they can get the results they want.”
Celebrating 10 Years of DesignCrowd and Their International Audience
The three-person DesignCrowd team during the first round of venture capital financing has since grown to about 45 people in multiple countries, Alec said. They’ve kept their headquarters in Sydney to be near investors but maintain a 20-person office in the Philippines, in addition to a handful of remote workers elsewhere.
With almost a decade connecting organizations with designers, DesignCrowd has evolved and expanded how the professionals can work together.
“We’ve realized that not every design project or customer requires working with 20-plus or unlimited designers,” Alec said, referring to grand-scale needs, such as a 10-page website design and code, as well as small projects with specific requirements and a tight deadline. DesignCrowd engineers crafted an algorithm that helps companies identify an available designer with the appropriate skills instead of having to go through a global contest.
Designers and freelancers can outsource parts of client work to others to focus on their strengths — not many designers code, and not many developers design, for example. Alec also mentioned a white-label service, integrations, and an affiliate program as ways DesignCrowd seeks to work with everyone in the design industry or with design needs.
“There are obviously different ways for businesses to source custom designs, whether that’s online or offline,” he said. “We like to think our model addresses a number of those challenges, both for organizations and designers.”