Despite growth, 99Designs strives for united culture

Videoconferencing an important tool for maintaining customer focus, says COO

Since 99Designs was founded the startup has expanded from its initial office in Melbourne to have a presence on the ground in the US, Germany and Brazil.

But despite the geographically dispersed team, its chief operating officer says that the company, which runs a crowdsourcing platform for graphic design, has managed to maintain a unified, customer-focused culture within the organization.

"We're a rapidly growing startup with some pretty global aspirations," said 99Design's COO, Jason Sew Hoy. "These days we're very much a global team — we've got staff in time zones all across the world and to kind of continue to maintain the same culture that we have and that we started out with six years," he said.

"We grew up as this company that was born out of Melbourne and taking on the world. What was originally a couple of developers and the founder and has now grown to this team of a hundred, and innovation's in our DNA. So even though we're a much bigger team than we used to be, we still hold ourselves to the core cultural values of not resting on your laurels, but working hard for every customer."

"That's the challenge we set for ourselves, and we find that really makes sure that we have a really high-performing team, a highly collaborative team that's able to the high standards that we set for ourselves," the COO said.

Promoting openness within 99Designs has played a role in maintaining the right kind of culture, as has having a flat structure, he said. When it comes to technology, videoconferencing has been a useful to keep that culture alive, Sew Hoy said.

"We find that video is the only way to do it," the COO said. “On a daily basis, video is absolutely key. The times where we have to postpone video meetings we certainly feel it. So these days we make a point to make sure that every fortnight we're doing 'all ins', for example between our San Francisco and our Melbourne teams, and bring 80 to 90 people together for a half an hour slot through the likes of Blue Jeans videoconferencing."

When 99Designs initially expanded from Melbourne to the US, the company relied on LifeSize videoconferencing units on either side of the Pacific. As the company expanded, additional units were added.

“Here in Melbourne we have two video room systems,” Sew Hoy said, with a Polycom unit as well as a LifeSize one. “Basically there's a pretty sophisticated system with dual screens a really great speaker and microphone setup and custom-built facilities for really high quality videoconferencing. We have the same setup over in San Francisco as well — two rooms over there so we can have concurrent meetings.”

99Designs uses Blue Jeans Network’s platform to link together the systems. “Blue Jeans allows us to seamlessly operate between those two systems, and if somebody else wants to join in and they're working from home they can join in by Skype or they can join in via the browser client.”

The ‘client agnostic’, cloud-based platform lets users use either the videoconferencing units, a mobile app client, a third-party client or a desktop browser to join calls.

“Back in the early days we just had one LifeSize unit on each side of the Pacific; when you have two units that are the same technology, then point-to-point is fine; you're just kind of limited by how many parties you can have on the call," Sew Hoy said.

“We used Skype other than those room systems if we had more than one meeting going on at any one time, but Skype's a bit hit and miss at the best of times.”

“We wanted to really raise the bar on the standard of videoconferencing; we wanted to have more parties involved in a single conference call and we wanted to allow people to dial in on the move or even from home,” the COO said.

“You can put people on planes, and we certainly do that — we certainly have people filter throughout the offices to keep that culture connected — but video is just absolutely key,” he said.

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