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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