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Why This Startup Left Silicon Valley And Moved Back To Australia

99Designs, founded in 2008, is “the world’s largest online graphic design marketplace.” The platform matches freelance designers worldwide with entrepreneurs, businesses and creatives. They have serviced over 450,000 customers, connected over 1 million designers and paid out over $200 million to date.

In terms of size, this appears significant.

However what is telling about the startup’s story is its recent decision to move back to the country from where it was first founded.

Maintain financial independence

In my recent conversation with Patrick Llewelyn, CEO of 99Designs, this decision was driven by a desire to maintain the company’s financial independence.

Patrick Llewellyn 99designs / 99designs.com.au

Patrick Llewelyn is the CEO of 99Designs.

“We ultimately want to stay an independent company. We made a decision [to come back to Australia] at the end of 2015 because it was apparent to us the financial markets were getting very skittish for a period of time there and there was a lot of concern within the VC ranks — particular in ‘The Valley’ around the next rounds of funding.”

Tellingly, the local liquidity markets seemed more practical for the design company’s future plans.

“We need to make sure that we can run this business without needing to raise additional capital… If you want to be an independent company, at some point we’re going to have to create a return for our investors and think about future funding sources. And so the ASX became a pretty attractive option for us.”

According to Llewelyn, the ASX showed characteristics that were more complimentary to the current life cycle of 99Desgins. Although the U.S. market provided important support for the operational growth of the startup, the Australian market appeared more appropriate from a capital standpoint.

99Designs Breathe Architecture / breathe.com.au

99Designs has relocated its head office to Melbourne, Australia.

“The ASX is much closer to where we are than the NASDAQ today. To float on the NASDAQ, you really need to be a billion-dollar plus, U.S. business. Whereas for the ASX, you can approach it with a much smaller initial market cap. You could more easily explore it as a $300 million, $400 million, $500 million market cap business.”

The human element

In addition to liquidity, it’s also important to note that the roadmap for Llewellyn is driven by a desire to invest further in the humanness of design and its consequent impact on customer experiences.

“We’re going to invest heavily into our platform… our investment in technology will be all around how we make humans interact better. How do we enhance the human relationship because we think that’s ultimately what design is about.”

This human focus is powerful because it appeals to the psychology of customer experience.

Customers are encouraged to experience a brand more favorably when there is an element of emotional resonance. This is a feeling that is engendered by trust and sincere value exchange. Although reiterating those values may seem cliched, it’s important for a brand to demonstrate a sincerity in its offering in order to develop strong customer relationships.

By investing heavily in the human interaction on its platform, 99Designs work to demonstrate that their value extends beyond merely graphic design. It is building for customer empathy. Combining the quality of design outputs with the positive working experiences with designers,  the platform encourages greater trust with the brand and thus ultimately, positioning greater likelihood of brand loyalty.

Llewelyn echoed this sentiment by describing the benefits of having personal designers for customers as a strong backbone to the startup’s offering.

“We’ve spent the last three or four years really curating our community and helping us understand what levels people are at. We provide human curation to our community because design is pretty subjective. People trust their own designers and so one of the things that is really comforting when dealing with a human is being reassured that you are making the right choice.”

This, ultimately, is part of a longer term goal for the platform.

“We want to be the future workplace. Ultimately our vision is to be the place where if you think you need a designer you’ll come to 99designs. We want to make our workflows as good as working with the designer sitting next to you.”

Picking the market that is right for you

Australia’s market seems appropriate for 99Designs to execute on this vision. The differences in the ecosystem’s maturity compared to Silicon Valley appear to be less of a disincentive because of the counterbalancing appeal of liquidity. However, it doesn’t seem that geography alone is the defining characteristic of the platform’s broader goal.

99Designs is committed to democratizing design while maintaining the authenticity of human relationships. It just so happens that right now, they’re doing it from Australia.