In March 2020 the world changed. One of our many realizations was that most marketing teams were facing similar challenges to the ones we, at 99designs, were facing too. Using market insights, customer feedback, determination and some of our most effective cross-functional collaboration yet, we set out to help them.
COVID-19 has brought with it drastic and abrupt changes to almost every facet of life, with a particular sea change occurring in the structure of how and from where we work. We saw the corporate world disappear to their homes overnight. Zoom calls were now being taken from bedrooms, dining rooms, gardens, daily walks, parent’s spare rooms, cars or garages. Not the boardroom.
Whilst COVID-19 brought it into the spotlight overnight, at 99designs we had seen this shift towards remote work coming for a while. We’d been moving progressively to a more remote centric model of working ourselves; we have cross-functional teams in three time zones, and have partners, clients, and designers all over the world.
And of course, working across borders is something we are all intimately familiar with, and indeed passionate about. We have created, and are dedicated to evolving, a platform where our freelance design community can thrive in a remote space.
However, one of the most compelling differences we had noticed was in the behavior of our larger customers. For them the question was no longer “can we hire remote creative talent?” but more “how do we create better practices for remote creative collaboration?”. This felt quite new.
We were beginning to see that corporate design and marketing teams were in need of a helping hand to guide them through remote transformation, and sadly in many cases with reduced resources. The market was shifting, the nature of team collaboration changed, and to say this was daunting is an understatement.
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In the midst of navigating the change in mid-COVID market dynamics ourselves, it crystallized more than ever before that delivering design and managing freelancers remotely was our superpower. If there was any way in which we could help our sales and marketing peers right now, we needed to provide this expertise to corporate teams who were facing monumental challenges.
We knew we could help, and we needed to move fast.
What we did
We set out to solve the challenges that corporate marketers were facing with delivering production design remotely, and we did this in 90 days.
How did we achieve this? Here’s what our timeframe and process looked like:
Month 1: cross-functional team formation
As the impact of COVID hit, we went into “taskforce” mode. Historically we’ve moved mountains when we’ve rallied cross-functionally around a common goal, and we knew we had to create a setting where we could do this again. We brought together representatives from product, engineering, design, client support, sales and marketing. Within our newly formed cross-functional “taskforce” we agreed on our mission, produced a high-level scope, assessed what resources we might need, and importantly to also identify our limitations.
Month 1 core stages:
- Formed cross-functional team
- Opportunity sizing & problem framing
- Hypothesis forming
- High-level product scoping
Month 2: persona and product development
Having scoped our proposed solution, roles were assigned across the team in order to deliver this as swiftly as possible.
We mapped out what we wanted to include in the product in more detail, and how we would deliver it. We used customer analysis, independent studies and anecdotal evidence from our support teams to form a picture of what our corporate clients needed, and asked some of our corporate contacts what they thought in order to get some early feedback.
This is where things got really interesting! In listening to the needs of some of our corporate clients, we realized that we had been solving the challenges they were describing internally at 99designs for some time.
The way in which our Head of Marketing, and every member of the marketing team, had been using our own creative platform, community and processes had been enormously successful, efficient and effective over the years. We were our own persona! From there we were able to shape a product around our own proven internal remote design processes, and use this to scope, prototype and beta test a product that other corporate marketers could use too.
Month 2 core stages:
- Divide & conquer!
- Persona development
- Process mapping & product scoping
- Naming and messaging
- Sales funnel, onboarding & documentation
- Cross-functional buy-in
Month 3: Brand development & launch
Month 3 of the project was largely a delivery month. We had established what we wanted to do, achieved internal approval and moved forward with our “beta” product.
We proceeded to roll out with the help of beta testers, input from peers and network of friendlies. Our intention for this first phase was to get something to market on which we could iterate, and shape around the needs of corporate marketers. During this phase, feedback from external groups who fitted our target customer was vital: on the sales decks, landing pages and our offer.
Month 3 core stages:
- Brand development & content delivery
- Payments & tracking
- Beta clients
- Launch communications
The outcome? We now have a product that solves the remote production design challenges of corporate marketers, and it is called 99designs Select.
With 99designs Select, we will handpick a dedicated group of freelance creators around your specific day-to-day design needs, and ensure they are onboarded to your brand—which is something we found crucial for consistency in creating our own internal creative processes. There’s project management available whenever needed, and the client pays as they go on a project to project basis—no minimums or subscriptions required.
After the 90 day process, we launched in early July. We have a very healthy sales funnel, are busy onboarding our newest clients, and seeing a lot of promise in the market. We feel fortunate to have seized this opportunity, and are excited for the future.
One exciting development to come from this initiative is that Kelly have introduced 99designs Select as part of their Human Cloud product. 99designs Select is proving to be a value-add to enterprises who are seeking better adoption of freelance creatives within their organization.
99designs’ excellent brand reputation as a leader in the creative freelance market is only superseded by their ability to help companies get creative projects done by providing the best, on-demand talent.
Tim Proehm, Vice President Digital Product Development at KellyOCG, explains: “We at Kelly have seen a sharp uptick in demand for freelance talent from buoyant companies bouncing back from COVID-related business challenges. Open talent models like 99designs will continue to evolve and improve freelancer engagement markets, which is one of the many reasons why 99designs is a natural partner for Kelly and our Human Cloud ecosystem. Our clients demand industry-leading human cloud partners that can elevate their total talent management strategies. 99designs’ excellent brand reputation as a leader in the creative freelance market is only superseded by their ability to help companies get creative projects done by providing the best, on-demand talent.”
KellyOCG launched their aggregated approach to full-service remote talent sourcing in 2020, Human Cloud, through which 99designs Select is now offered to enterprise clients.
What we learned
Even though our scoping, delivery and launch phases went very smoothly, delivering a new initiative in times of adversity was enlightening. We learned a lot of valuable things from going through this process, which we wanted to share.
Here are some of our top tips for creating a positive outcome when you need to adapt to a shifting market:
1. Conversations are key
Don’t be afraid to share your stories or current challenges, and ask your network for feedback. Listen to what others are saying, so you can understand what they are experiencing and how you might be able to help. If we hadn’t done this, we wouldn’t have learned how valuable our own perspectives and workflows were to others.
Throughout our product development we aimed to bring as many people into the process along the way. We talked to Open Assembly, existing clients, partners, internal teams, ex-colleagues, and people in our network.
Don’t be afraid to reach out, ask questions and get a conversation going—feedback is vital.
2. Lean into your existing assets
When embarking on a new project, it may feel like you’re starting completely from scratch. That may seem like the reality, but if you already have a functioning business, it’s amazing what you already have. In our case we had an entire internal process that was a rich asset, but there could be all kinds of things you have available that can help you move forward.
Additionally, might there be leads already in your database? Do you already have some processes and lead capture that could be relevant to this new project? Do you already have payment funnels and processes in place that could be reused? By asking yourself these kinds of questions, you’ll begin to build up a repository of things you can use to start running with, rather than having to go from a standing start. Which is much harder, and often requires requesting additional resources.
We were also lucky enough to have a rich community and a high volume of existing leads. But even if you’re much smaller than us, you’ll still have a lot going on. Look closely at what you already have—it’s amazing what you can find!
3. Your constraints can lead to innovation
The constraints we experienced throughout this process meant we had to get creative in places. “A Beautiful Constraint” by Mark Barden and Adam Morgan is a highly recommended read for any marketer, explaining how you can learn to make your limitations an asset.
We were heavily constrained by time and resources, and what we wanted to include in our scope was more than what we could realistically achieve (sounds familiar, right?). We were also limited with available engineering resources, and so instead of going ahead and productizing every feature on our list from the start, we decided to use good old fashioned people power to manually handle integrating with our clients workflows, e.g. Asana, Trello, etc.
This was a great discovery. The human element is core to our service level and there’s so much value in it that we have no plans to change our method. Go people power!
The learning here was that it turned out that our limited time and capacity led us to a conclusion that didn’t seem ideal at first but was in fact a better solution.
Mark Barden—partner at eatbigfish—speaker & co-author of A Beautiful Constraint, says, “One of the few good things to emerge from the COVID crisis is to once again witness the incredible inventiveness people are capable of and the central role of constraints in spurring that inventiveness, often to better outcomes.”
Constraints can be beautiful. With the right mindset, method, and motivation we can all learn to find the opportunities lurking there; and ensuring our collective future might rely on us doing just that.
He explains, “Saturday Night Live, for instance, seemed fresh and unpredictable again once the team was forced to abandon the formulaic schtick of old. In London, the existential threat of lock down forced independent food companies to collaborate on food delivery with The Crosstown Collective, giving them a huge new business opportunity for the recovery ahead. And the Body Shop, needing to rapidly scale its online business, found a host of hidden skills within its own retail staff, from translation to Photoshop, allowing them to meet demand while developing the careers of their own people in new and unexpected ways. Constraints can be beautiful. With the right mindset, method, and motivation we can all learn to find the opportunities lurking there; and ensuring our collective future might rely on us doing just that.”
We’re excited to have rolled out 99designs Select, and continuing to support corporate marketers in their ongoing journey to deliver amazing design with remote creative talent. Building something that works for our clients and creatives is key, and we’re evolving our processes around the feedback we gather to work towards the best solution we can provide.
Our community goes from strength to strength, and it’s exciting for us to be creating more design connections between creative talent and corporate clients, globally.