Mark Harbottle on the internet and start-up success

Mark Harbottle 99Designs

Your Friday Entrepreneur Fix this week features multi-award winning entrepreneur and self-confessed “start-up guy”, Mark Harbottle.

Mark Harbottle was named Entrepreneur of the Year this week, an award this five-time entrepreneur deserves for the impressive contribution he’s made to the local start-up scene.

The founder of the world’s number one crowdsourced graphic design site, 99designs, loves being involved in the starting phases of a business. The self-confessed “start-up guy” has a real flair for it, establishing a number of successful companies including Flippa, Learnable, SitePoint, Wave Digital and most recently, 99designs.

Despite initially causing a stir in the design industry, 99designs is growing at a rate of 120 percent a year and caught the attention of Facebook investors Accel Partners in 2011, with Harbottle accepting $35 million in funding from the group.

The Melbournian might be phasing himself out of the day-to-day running of the business, but expansion to Germany, Portugal and Spain this year is still very much in the pipeline for 99designs, as are plans to boost its staff headcount.

Harbottle tells Dynamic Business how business success has changed his life and offers up some words of wisdom for start-ups.

Establishing a crowdsourcing business at a time when the term was attached to negative connotations couldn’t have been easy – how did you overcome the negativity in the early stages?

When we started 99designs.com we became aware of a small segment of the design industry that wasn’t happy with the idea of crowdsourcing and more specifically, spec work [work without a guarantee it'll be used].

It was a little confronting at first because they were quite vocal, but the reality was we had a large and fast-growing designer base of mostly freelancers all around the world who absolutely loved what we were doing. They were extremely supportive of 99designs.com so we decided to just focus on them.

How has your life changed since 99designs started experiencing such rapid growth? Has your business focus shifted at all?

For me personally not a lot has really changed, just a few more names to learn as the company grows both here and in San Francisco.

At 99designs.com we’re spending a lot of time right now on localisation, making sure we deliver the perfect experience for all of our customers and designers who use 99designs.com from different countries around the world.  In terms of our daily focus, we still stay awake at night thinking about how we can make life easier for our customers and designers, and I think as long we continue to do that, we’ll continue to be successful and grow.

Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs and start-ups for attracting investors?

My favourite businesses are the ones that don’t need external investors to get started. If you can find another way to get up and running then my advice for start-ups, and for attracting investors later, is to first validate your idea (or product) cheaply and quickly, get real customers using your product, then bootstrap to profitability over time.

If you can solve problems for people with an awesome product or service, savvy investors will find you soon enough, you won’t have to find them.

What’s the biggest business lesson you’ve learnt up until this point?

I’ve learned many lessons over the years, but I think Kenny Rogers nailed it when he said, “you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”  Not everything you do is going to be a raging success. The trick is knowing when you’re onto something and really going for it, and knowing when it’s time to move on and try something else. In short, if it’s working and you enjoy it, do more of it.

If it’s not working or it’s not fun anymore then you probably should stop. I honestly believe the better you get at being brutally honest to yourself and others the more successful you will be.

Would you say the internet makes it easier for people to be entrepreneurial? Why/why not?

I think the internet makes it easier to be entrepreneurial and get something started, definitely, but that also makes it harder to really stand out and be number one in your space.

The relative ease and low cost to launch an online business is fantastic for entrepreneurs, there’s opportunity everywhere, but the increased competition makes it really difficult to crack the big time.

What’s next for you?

I love the start-up phase of business, so I’m always on the look out for new things to launch. I guess you’ve got to be careful what you wish for, so I say this with some trepidation, but my goal this year is to immerse myself in as many problems as I can around my 5 businesses, because where there are problems there is usually opportunity as well.

  • http://www.vetshopaustralia.com.au Steven P

    I just love the classic advice from business guru Kenny Rogers :)