99designs was spawned from Sitepoint - a very popular resource for web designers and developers. 99designs uses crowd-sourcing to create a marketplace that matches customers with web designers and developers. In simple terms, a potential customer creates a design brief, sets the price they're willing to pay and submits it to 99designs as a contest. Designers enter the contest to do the work. The results are impressive with over $1.1M paid out to designers last month alone.
Like many successful start-ups, 99designs was facing rapid growth in a short time. But unlike many startups, 99designs has been profitable from Day One. They've been prepared to invest back into the business in order to fuel more growth. The need for infrastructure that was going to scale rapidly with the business was critical. That drove 99designs to cloud based solutions so that they could invest as they needed rather than be forced to buy hardware that wasn't going to be needed for some time.
Chief Technology Office of 99designs, Lachlan Donald explains that "We were looking at 24 months of rapid growth. At the time the options were fairly limited. We went through the process of getting lengthy quotes and drawing complicated diagrams so we could figure out the topology that we wanted that could accommodate growth at the 12 month point and 24 month point. We got the end of that process and found that there weren't any answers that were as flexible as we needed that grow as quickly as we were hoping to".
Eventually, Donald was drawn to Amazon Web Services, AWS, which was in private beta at the time. Donald saw this as a gamble as the service was still unproven but to came from a strong online brand and some powerful recommendations. The main benefit Donald and his team saw was the ability to only pay for what they needed as they needed. As the business grew, they were able to increment the services in parallel and only pay for what they needed. In simple terms, if they'd purchased or operated their own servers, they would have under-utilised the equipment initially and, when they needed the capacity, their equipment would have been 12-18 months out of date.
When 99designs started, they provisioned two servers. Within 12 months, they had grown to needing almost 40 servers. "Whilst there's still the engineering overhead of building a system which scales neatly, being able to just incrementally add on servers or remove them when we're done with them is a dramatically different way of thinking for us" says Donald.
The 99designs business is growing rapidly. It's currently serving
- 22M pageviews per month
- 30TB in images served per month
- A design uploaded every 5 seconds
While it would seem that the constant growth in number of servers and bandwidth would contribute to a rapid increase in expenses, 99designs hasn't found this to be so. As their use as increased, they have received the benefits of scaled pricing and Amazon reducing the base costs. So, even though the technical requirements have increased 20-fold, the service costs haven't followed the same trajectory.
Development in the Doghouse
99designs began its life as an outpost from Sitepoint. During the initial development of 99designs there was a need to get things started far more quickly than a traditional development model would allow. The Doghouse model was created by the Sitepoint team when they needed to quickly get 99designs up and running.
They began the development session by putting together a small team of designers and developers and putting them in a workspace together so that they could collaborate and work together to quickly put the first version of 99designs together. The development session ran for about three weeks and involved long working hours. The name "Doghouse" was coined by staff and it stuck.
"The idea was to keep the feedback loop very short. There was a designer, there was a developer and there was Mark [Harbottle - co-founder of 99designs]. So, out of that came the first prototype of would become 99designs" explains Donald. "It was about getting smallest possible team together - a great designer, a great developer and someone with the idea".
Getting the right people involved is critical as sessions tend to run for long hours and very intense. In order to ensure that staff aren't burned out, Doghouse sessions are only run by the 99designs teams a couple of times each year.
The approach works well as the feedback and communication loops are greatly reduced. Also, part of each Doghouse team is part of the business' management so that business decisions can be fast-tracked to reduce the typical corporate delays that are part of many development projects.
Jason Sew Hoy, the COO of 99designs says that "The key to is focus. We see it now. To begin with we took a group out of the data to day operation of Sitepoint. Sitepoint was a mature business and Mark wanted designers to focus and get things moving quickly".