Chris Cohoat


How I successfully branded my startup as a technical, solo founder

99designs receives a lot of hate on the internet from professional, successful designers. The main arguments I’ve seen are that contests and spec work are a great way to have your work ripped off, to work for free, or to submit a design into the ether that goes unappreciated or unrecognized.

This is a huge problem, but I don’t believe it’s 99designs’ fault. I believe the people creating the contests and managing them are to blame, and I also believe my contest addressed these issues and led to a better experience for both the designers and me, the client.

My first mistake on 99designs was opting for an open contest (instead of a blind contest). An open contest allows everyone to view all submissions and all of the ratings, whereas a blind contest shows the people contributing but hides their specific submissions.

I chose to have an open contest because I’m exercising complete transparency in my business. Open salaries are the main item, because companies like to hide behind a business charade and negotiation which 1) makes their employees prove or guess their worth instead of just knowing it 2) perpetuates the wage gap for women, people of color, and other under-represented groups in tech … because they are working against a system that has punished them for speaking up for themselves for many generations.

I’m taking transparency a step further than most because I think it helps everyone. Putting our company bank account on our website so employees know how we’re doing financially, tracking exact costs and margins on our microgreens so that when customers buy a salad they know where it came from and exactly how much it cost us as a business, etc.

So with all of that transparency at the core of our company I thought an open contest was a no-brainer. But after running it for a day and receiving hundreds of reiterative designs, I realized that transparency is really about consent. Designers on the site had no choice but to submit a publicly available logo, but in so doing they also completely exposed their work to thousands of other designers on the site who could just take their work, apply it, and profit from it. After realizing what was happening I reached out to the 99designs support team and they flipped the visibility of my contest.

The single most important thing I did in my entire contest was to rate, review, or decline every single submission. Literally every single one … if a designer who competed in my contest didn’t receive enough feedback, reach out to me. With 1 day and 5 hours remaining in my contest here’s where I stand as a client:

I’ve received 451 submissions at the time of this post and it’s absolutely exhausting to go through every single design, figure out exactly why I like it and why I don’t, look through the submitter’s history to understand what I like of their work, give the designer specific feedback on my preferences and how their submission caters to that and how their past work does too, etc.

But if you as a client aren’t able to do this then you’ve failed. There are hundreds (likely thousands) of people who are giving you their mental energy to read your design brief, think about it, sit down at their computers, work on a design, and then be confident enough to submit it to you knowing that it may not be seen or even acknowledged.

Another decision I made as a client was eliminating designers early in some cases, even if they were very talented. To eliminate early is a tough balance … you may be taking away a chance from a designer who could give you everything you need from a branding perspective. But on the other hand, you could be making them work for hours and hours without any chance of being paid.

I don’t know if I have the specific answer, but my approach was to look at their entire portfolio (if they had one), talk to them about their design(s) (communication is critical especially in such a nuanced and subjective area), and to be confident in potentially losing out on a masterpiece. In doing so you are respecting their work but also respecting their time moving forward.

I love 99designs because I got my professional start as a software engineer many years ago on oDesk and Elance (now Upwork). I put myself out there in a similar way and a really great mentor of mine Jerry found me, nurtured me as a software engineer, and launched my career. I went from literally counting the dollars in my wallet to afford ice cream to billing the Department of Defense, Department of State, and many other clients of mine $200/hr.

From there I’ve started the Gardeno Foundation, which is a hyperlocal salad and produce delivery company. I’ve incorporated as a Delaware C-Corp with Gust Launch because they are a really incredible service for high growth startups such as my own. I’m using 99designs and other services because I can’t afford to hire the amazingly talented people I’ve worked with over the last decade. I’ve put in ~$10k of my own savings, I’m finalizing a $30k seed round using a SAFE, and I have my first customer in Denver ready to start selling salads.

I say that I’ve successfully branded my company even with a day remaining on the contest because I’ve met dozens of amazing designers in just a couple of days. I’ve received some really incredible submissions, of which I think I have some pretty remarkable finalists. No matter how tired I am of reviewing and critiquing I’m going to see this initial phase of the contest through so that I can give everyone a fair shot. I can’t wait to reveal the results!

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