99designs expands from the contest arena to become one stop shop for design gigs

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on August 13, 2013

From The News Desk

99designs, the logo competition website, is moving on from its roots and expanding its scope. For the last year, the site has quietly rolled out a few beta programs that allow clients and designers to work together in longer and shorter term projects, without the contest element. One of them -- Swiftly -- officially launches today.

These are big changes in the startup's original mission, and they represent a deepening of the scope of 99designs. It's aiming now to leverage its brand and become the number one place for small businesses and startups to source their graphic design work, ranging from initial creative logos, to longer term projects like a marketing campaign, to short, simple tasks like Photoshop tweaking.

The startup has drawn ire or applause from the artistic masses for its business model, pitting creatives against each other in logo design contests for companies. The winner gets paid, but no one else does and artists have cried foul since the site's early days. The dissidents didn't have their way however, and 99designs continued to grow, eventually raising a whopping $35 million Series A in 2011 from Accel Partners.

Today's announcement marks the next phase of its growth, and a sharp departure from the contest model that 99designs is known for.

To keep people from getting confused, 99designs has launched their latest venture Swiftly as a separate website. On Swiftly, clients pay a set amount -- $15 -- for simple tasks they need completed, like getting an image resized in Photoshop or changing text in a brochure without messing up formatting. It's a 24/7 service, and 99designs has gathered more than 500 of its trusted artists from 99designs to be "on call." Patrick Llewellyn, 99designs CEO, says that clients can expect to get tweaks and changes back within four hours or less.

The hope is that Swiftly will fill a niche need either from small businesses that might not have an in-house designer but do need one off tasks completed, or from companies that don't want to distract their in-house designers on bigger projects with minor jobs.

For anyone familiar with the gig economy, the platform will sound very familiar -- startup Fiverr has a similar premise. For five bucks, people can commission all sorts of knick knacks and doodles done by someone else, ranging from getting a speed drawing of a photo, to having someone sing you happy birthday in a sexy voice. Graphics are a popular vertical on the site.

"With Fiverr you still have to go through the issue of selecting the right designer," 99designs Llewellyn says. "With us there's none of that pain." Fiverr is a horizontal marketplace, across a range of different verticals, whereas 99designs is all about design, and they've curated the Swiftly list of artists on call to make sure they're qualified. It's sort of like the difference between finding an apartment on Craigslist vs. going through an apartment broker that charges a fee. The broker cuts out all the work for you and makes your life a lot easier, but you'll pay a tad more for the service.

Swiftly isn't the only new product in the works at 99designs. For the last year the startup has been quietly beta testing its 1-to-1 platform on the 99designs site. 1-to-1 Projects gives artists and clients a forum to work together more extensively on long-term tasks. "Contests are a great way to find someone when you don't know what you're looking for, but they aren't necessarily the best way to help all work," Llewellyn says. It's a bold statement coming from the head of a company whose entire premise until today was using contests to get work done.

But 99designs saw the future writing on the wall, and realized there were other holes in the process that needed to be filled. "You get a logo done and it's like, cool, now I need a brochure, a website, a mobile platform," Llewellyn says. With the 1-to-1 platform, 99designs makes it easy to post jobs, create invoices, and all that jazz. At the moment 1-to-1 is limited and can only be used by clients who have been the customer of a 99designs contest.

These steps are solidifying 99designs hold on the graphic gig world. They're making headway into the market of Internet freelancing, which certainly isn't an empty space with the likes of Elance, Mechanical Turk, Fiverr, and others. But by going vertical and emphasizing all the stages of design -- longer term projects, short tasks, and brainstorming -- 99designs may very well find its niche.

[Image via: Swiftly]