Maintain a culture of collaboration during rapid expansion

For companies undergoing rapid growth, balancing the impacts of new hires with existing collaborative and cultural models can be a challenge.

Crowdsourcing startup 99designs recently received $35 million in venture capital and is currently advertising six positions in its Melbourne and San Francisco offices. These hires will see the team grow by about 20 percent and expand management capacity, paving the way for the creation of additional operations roles.

The business has a strong culture and a flat structure. How does 99designs plan to manage its expansion without compromising collaboration or culture?


The tight-knit business was originally run from Melbourne, Australia, and Vancouver, Canada, so communication has always been a focus.

Says CEO Patrick Llewellyn, “We have a long history of collaborating with people all over the world. [Parent company] SitePoint has been connecting [people and contributors] forever and a day from different parts of the world. That’s part of our DNA.”

Indeed, growth has actually boosted collaboration. Since the business moved out of its startup phase, Llewellyn and COO Jason Sew Hoy were given more operational authority. A more formal management structure was put in place in August of last year, and Llewellyn notes, “We’ve been more collaborative than ever.”

Collaboration tools that the team favors include instant messenger, Yammer and Campfire for development problem solving. Email is also essential, as are scheduled and spontaneous video conferences.

But people are crucial to the process: The outcomes of management’s quarterly strategy meetings are fed back to the staff by both team leaders and business leaders. “We get some pretty wild debates, but that’s a good thing,” laughs Sew Hoy. “It’s definitely the variety of the different viewpoints that creates a really robust strategy.

“It’s a pretty open communication model. Everyone’s encouraged to share ideas and make contributions,” he adds. “It’s designed to help everyone have a voice and feel like they’re being heard, but it also helps to guide some of the decisions that we make on a day-to-day basis.”


The pair see communicating culture as a major challenge as the business grows in the coming months.

“From a cultural and team management point of view,” explains Sew Hoy, “it comes down to having a core group of leaders that represent the business and who we want to be.”

He says that the focus on creating the right management positions and putting the right people in them “will essentially set the foundation for how we communicate and manage the team as it gets bigger.”

As Llewellyn reveals, “The most important thing in our hiring process is making sure that we hire people that we trust. Unless you trust someone, I don’t think you can openly communicate with them.”

The pair also requires staff to have a collaborative philosophy. “It’s got to be a core competency for everyone to be an excellent global communicator,” explains Sew Hoy, “regardless of whether you’re a support person, a developer, a marketer or someone in senior management.”

Recruiting candidates with great communication skills is only part of the equation, he says. “It also comes down to the expectations that you set early on with that person.

“We’ve got two people starting together today, so one of the things we’re doing is getting them to sit down and meet all of the people in San Francisco on video chat.” The team does this, he says, “just to make sure that there’s a little bit more interaction there than seeing that there’s a bunch of people there on our ‘About Us’ page, and to break down those barriers toward getting conversations started.”

Moving team members between offices is also central to ensuring cultural consistency. “We see that as an important investment,” Llewellyn explains. “Even before we raised the money . . . we brought over four people for South by Southwest this year from Melbourne, and a couple of those guys spent another two weeks in our office. We’ll continue to bring some others across to San Francisco and we’ll take people from San Francisco to Melbourne, so that we get that cross-pollination,” he explains.

Competitive advantage

Llewellyn believes that the travel potential within 99designs represents a competitive edge for the business, especially when hiring in the Melbourne market.

“I’m really excited about the opportunities that this will open up over time,” he says. “One of the things about hiring talented Australians is that there’s always a significant wanderlust. And I think that by having offices in two pretty cool cities, we can . . . use that as a competitive advantage in the hiring process.”

The business has already relocated its CTO from Melbourne to San Francisco because, “In terms of new technology, and where things evolve the fastest, San Francisco and the Valley is in the heart of that. So there were definitely going to be advantages to having a technical leader stationed over there,” explains Sew Hoy.

Such relocations — Llewellyn himself was originally hired in Melbourne, Australia — have presented new collaborative challenges. “I don’t want to pretend that we’ve got all the answers,” Llewellyn says. “We’re iterating and learning and finding that there are complexities that we haven’t thought through.” But, he says, open, trusting team communication is key to the business’s future.

Image courtesy stock.xchng user murielle