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Patrick Llewellyn: Crowdsource your content

Patrick Llewellyn, CEO of online marketplace 99designs, offers tips on how to compete for clients in crowdsourced graphic design contests

BIO: Patrick is the CEO of 99designs, the largest online marketplace for crowdsourced graphic design services. Since its 2008 launch, 99 designs has hosted more than 135,000 contests and paid out over $30 million to designers across 192 countries.

Freelance web designers enjoy a lot of benefits unavailable to the average corporate designer – flexibility, mobility, fun and creative projects, as well as working on a diverse range of brands. But they also suffer major challenges. Two of the biggest I hear about are finding new clients and building a portfolio.

Smart self-promotion, hard work and in most cases, a bit of luck can help you beat these challenges. An alternative tool you may not have considered is the crowdsourced graphic design marketplace.

In crowdsourced graphic design marketplaces, a client pays up-front and completes a design brief to launch a contest open to all designers registered with the site. Designers who feel inspired, or have a concept they would like to work on, submit designs. Over the course of the contest – usually about one week – the client posts ratings and gives written feedback to help the designers refine their work. The client chooses a winner – or more than one, as is often the case – and awards a cash prize in exchange for each set of finished design files and IP handover. All designs not deemed winners remain the property of the designers who submitted them.

Crowdsourced graphic design marketplaces have their share of critics. Some feel these sites devalue their work because not all are paid for the work they do. Designers claim that they actually take work away from graphic designers. I respectfully disagree. If you take a closer look, you’ll see they actually generate million of dollars of work for graphic designers and can lead to long-term relationships.

Finding new clients

The best way to get new clients is through word of mouth. But what if you don’t have enough work from word of mouth referrals to fill your working hours? You could buy advertising, but that’s expensive and doesn’t always work. PR is a crapshoot. Social media is hard to do well and often ineffective.

My advice: try entering a few contests. If you have solid graphic design skills and take the time to learn how the marketplace system works, you’ll start to win contests. And winning contests means finding new clients. Our surveying of 99designs’ design community showed that one in every three designers who wins a contest on there secures follow-on work with that customer. That’s a lot of work you never hear about from our critics.

Here’s some more info that might surprise you: many designers report earning thousands of dollars per month through a combination of winning contests and additional work generated through the service. Some designers have even reported earning upwards of $10,000 a month.

And these contests are not a one-way street. Customers don’t typically just sit back and wait for submissions to roll in after launching a contest – they’re encouraged to proactively browse other contests, identify designers whose work they like, peruse their portfolios, and invite them to enter their own contests. Many report getting work just from having their portfolios online.

Building a creative portfolio

How do you fill your portfolio with creative projects to show potential clients if you don’t have any great clients to begin with?

Some would suggest entering design school competitions or creating work for imaginary clients. Those are fine ideas, but they won’t give you experience making work for actual clients. Crowdsourced graphic design marketplaces help you build your portfolio with projects you did for real companies, ranging from startups to large, well-known brands. Working on projects for these clients and receiving feedback along the way, helps you hone your design skills – and even if you don’t win a particular contest, you’ll still have work to show on your profile and in your portfolio.

Again, the proof is in the numbers. Right now there are literally thousands of open design contests across a variety of sites. Many of these are fun, creative projects that will help round out your portfolio. If you browse the contest listings you’ll see clients seeking new or redesigned websites, logos, mobile apps, eBook covers, buttons, banner ads and designs in dozens of other categories.

Crowdsourced graphic design marketplaces are growing quickly and becoming a mainstream way for businesses to get quality work done and find the right designer for their needs. At 99designs, we’re already paying out about $1.5 million to designers on the site each month, and that doesn’t even include all of the money designers are making from leads sourced through our service. If you struggle with finding new clients or want to freshen up your portfolio with some great new work, try a few contests. You won’t regret it.