FIRST-TIME CEO Pa­trick Llewellyn dis­cusses whether it means any less to be a CEO when you’re NOT A FOUNDER (spoiler: it doesn’t).


how it plays out when you’re the ceo, but not the founder

The of­fi­cial line on Pa­trick Llewellyn be­com­ing CEO of 99de­signs, the world’s largest on­line graphic de­sign mar­ket­place, goes a lit­tle some­thing like this. In 2009, af­ter nearly a decade in bou­tique cor­po­rate ad­vi­sory (mostly work­ing with Aus­tralian tech­nol­ogy and new me­dia com­pa­nies), Pa­trick joined 99de­signs. A year later, he moved to San Fran­cisco to open the US of­fice and over­see the com­pany’s in­ter­na­tional ex­pan­sion. In Jan­uary 2011, he was ap­pointed CEO.

In April this year, Pa­trick led the com­pany through a Series A in­vest­ment round led by Ac­cel (who have also funded Face­book, Drop­box, Etsy), rais­ing over US$35 mil­lion.

While the eq­uity meant the com­pany was able to ex­pand (“we could hire a bit more ag­gres­sively, we could chase plans that we had for a while”) it was also re­ward­ing for the com­pany’s founders, Mark Har­bot­tle and Matt Mick­iewicz, who’d boot­strapped and funded one of their own ear­lier busi­ness ven­tures, SitePoint, since 1999.

“I’ve got founders to lean on,” says Pa­trick. “I ac­tu­ally have a broader sup­port net­work than a CEO go­ing in solo. So I do feel like there’s a bit more of a col­lab­o­ra­tive team there. That’s a re­ally good pos­i­tive, to have that sort of sup­port base, some­one who you can bounce stuff off.”

But there’s no ques­tion Pa­trick’s in­volve­ment has been mon­u­men­tal for the busi­ness. When his an­nounce­ment as CEO was made, he’d al­ready been op­er­at­ing in the role “in a de facto way and find­ing my feet,” for the pre­vi­ous few months. Mak­ing it of­fi­cial “made it a lot eas­ier for me to do the deal with Ac­cel,” says Pa­trick, “be­cause I was based there [in the US] and I had been get­ting to know them over 18 months.”

Within two months of his ap­point­ment, Pa­trick an­nounced that il­lus­tri­ous US$35 mil­lion fund­ing round. “It was a pretty good com­ing out,” he says. Just last year, the com­pany brought in ap­prox­i­mately US$60 mil­lion, and is aim­ing to reach prof­itabil­ity by the end of 2016.

But what ex­actly does it mean to be a CEO who isn’t a founder?

Some­times in the PRESS, or just in per­cep­tion, be­ing a FOUNDER has a cer­tain level of cache that be­ing CEO doesn’t.

“I think some­times in the press, or just in per­cep­tion, be­ing a founder has a cer­tain level of cache that be­ing CEO doesn’t. And I some­times look at it and think it is a pretty fine line,” says Pa­trick. “I joined when we were eight peo­ple and now we’re 125. I feel like I’ve played a rea­son­ably im­por­tant role in help­ing us get to where we’ve got to. But, I’m still not a founder and I never will be. And I think that’s a very im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion. I think Mark and Matt are very proud – and they should be – of what they’ve cre­ated, and I’m just grate­ful they gave me the op­por­tu­nity.”

When it came to an­nounc­ing Pa­trick’s new po­si­tion, Mark sent an in­cred­i­bly con­cise email to the team: “Pat is CEO, Ja­son [Sew Hoy] is go­ing to be COO.” Es­sen­tially it was more about for­mal­is­ing some­thing that had been go­ing on for a while, con­sciously ac­knowl­edg­ing it for ev­ery­one to know where the com­pany was head­ing, or as Pa­trick puts it, “Why things would be a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent, but why things wouldn’t change.”

Of the ini­tial co-founders, Mark is still on the board and Pa­trick en­gages him “when­ever I can”. He goes on to ex­plain, “He’s def­i­nitely [one of] the most tal­ented prod­uct peo­ple I know, so any chance we get; we try to get him into the busi­ness. What’s been great is there hasn’t been any­thing that he hasn’t sup­ported 100 per cent. Hav­ing him by my side, by the team’s side, we’ve al­ways op­er­ated very col­lab­o­ra­tively.” >

“I’ve never felt like I’ve come in and waved the big stick and said, ‘We’re go­ing to do this.’ It’s kind of like, ‘Hey guys, we’ve iden­ti­fied these op­por­tu­ni­ties; how do we pri­ori­tise, how do we ac­tu­ally get on and start tack­ling them?’ We’ve al­ways done that as a group. We do our strat­egy ses­sions to­gether; we do our busi­ness plan­ning to­gether.”

That word, ‘to­gether’, comes up a lot when Pa­trick speaks.

“I’m a first-time CEO. It’s not like I came in as a hired gun; I’ve been learn­ing on the go as well and I think that’s part of what makes it ex­cit­ing, and part of why we have a good team as­pect is be­cause we’re all learn­ing. We have a lot of first­time man­agers, we’ve brought in some ex­pe­ri­enced man­agers, but we’ve also had a bunch of us who are learn­ing to­gether.”

And they ap­pear to be do­ing well. Since Pa­trick of­fi­cially came on board, he and the team have opened a Euro­pean head­quar­ters in Berlin and launched lo­calised lan­guage sites in Europe and Latin Amer­ica. In 2015, 99de­signs closed an US$10 mil­lion Series B round and un­der­went a re­brand. By early 2016, the com­pany had hosted nearly half a bil­lion graphic de­sign con­tests and paid its global com­mu­nity of de­sign­ers more than AU$142 mil­lion.

“Part of what we’re try­ing to build cul­tur­ally is how to con­tinue to in­no­vate and grow as an or­gan­i­sa­tion as if ev­ery­one feels em­pow­ered that they can make change,” says Pa­trick. “So, we’ve tried to make smaller de­vel­op­ment groups, smaller prod­uct groups; they have some au­ton­omy to make de­ci­sions and en­gage with cus­tomers and help drive that busi­ness. All of that lay­ers up to a cen­tral theme, and busi­ness plan and broader vi­sion.”

As a group, Pa­trick says they’re most proud of how much the teams have grown, with one for­mer intern now run­ning an en­tire qual­ity de­sign team.

But he also ad­mits there’s still room for im­prove­ment.

“One of the things we’ve got to get bet­ter at is for­mal­is­ing that sort of op­por­tu­nity and train­ing. We’ve had to hire, to make sure peo­ple are pretty self-suf­fi­cient, who can fig­ure stuff out for them­selves. That has been a very im­por­tant el­e­ment for us. Ul­ti­mately, we def­i­nitely try to err on the side of, ‘We can hire smart peo­ple and they can fig­ure it out’.

“I think as we’re scal­ing we will have to get bet­ter and bet­ter at struc­ture. We’re 125 peo­ple and I think we have some room to grow. But we’re pretty good, and I think we’re try­ing to do some­thing that’s pretty hard. We’re scal­ing what is still a rel­a­tively small busi­ness across a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ge­ogra­phies, dif­fer­ent cul­tures.” And key to scal­ing well is hir­ing well. “When I think about hir­ing it’s just a lot about just per­sonal in­tegrity, and who do you [the po­ten­tial staffer] put first? Is it the team and the or­gan­i­sa­tion and

the cus­tomers and de­signer base that we have or is it your­self? We’re look­ing for peo­ple who put those other peo­ple first.”

While this ap­proach may take more time to find the right can­di­dates, Pa­trick is not one to rush things, pro­vid­ing cau­tion to oth­ers who might step into the CEO role.

“I think the trap for a lot of peo­ple when they move into roles is they feel like they have to make their mark quickly. I’m a big be­liever in tak­ing a lit­tle bit of time to make sure you fully un­der­stand the lie of the land and un­der­stand the fun­da­men­tals of the busi­ness be­fore you re­ally start to shake it up.”

Part of what we’re try­ing to build CUL­TUR­ALLY is how to con­tinue to IN­NO­VATE and grow as an OR­GAN­I­SA­TION.





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