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If you want your business to be noticed, design is everything. However, a lot of startups and small businesses often don’t have the budget for an in-house design department. In an effort to facilitate the connection between freelance designers and small businesses, there’s 99designs, an online crowdsourcing contest that creates a forum for designers to showcase their work and win new clients. The Melbourne, Australia-based operation just opened up their American headquarters in San Francisco.

"The main thing that 99designs is about is choice," says Matt Mickiewicz, the U.S. office representative for 99designs, "It’s a fantastic model that eliminates risk for small business owners and puts designers on equal footing." Designers can be of any age, background or level of experience to post designs on the site, making the site a great lead-generator. "It doesn’t matter if you’re 15 or 60. It’s completely based on merit." Most participants are students and freelancers, but Mickiewicz says that several designers have managed to make a living out of the site, including a designer in Romania who earned approximately $25,000 USD.

The process begins when a small business owner or entrepreneur posts a wanted listing on the site, with details of what they want designed and a budget for the project. Then designers can jump in and submit concept designs. In a recent design brief from an eCommerce pet site looking for a logo, the client asked that the product have a "clean design, a nice use of stable, yet soft colors, with professional art," but not "tacky use of ‘Paws’ or ‘Pets.’"

Anyone can comment and give feedback to designers. Typically within a week, the owner will pick a winner. Often times, Mickiewicz says, when the client finds a winning designer, they work with them on additional projects like business cards, banner ads, etc.. Designers can use the site as lead-generation for their own careers.

Over 20,000 active designers participate on the site. 250 to 300 contests are active at any time, with $90,000 to 100,000 up for grabs each week. Site moderators say that new designs are posted to the website every 30 seconds.

The clientele is primarily small businesses, ranging from a lone entrepreneur to a company with 50 or 100 employees that typically don’t have a graphic designer in-house. Mickiewicz says that 99designs attracts a lot of work from charities and non-profits as well as startup companies in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

Currently, 99designs is only available in English but developers are looking to expand to additional languages in the near future. The key now is developing a community for designers and provide contests that generate inspiration and innovation. Mickiewicz affirms, "We live for the designers."