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On Starting A Graphic Design Marketplace And Growing 300% In The Last Year

Christiaan Huynen
Founder, DesignBro
from Cork, Ireland
started June 2016
alexa rank
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I’m Christiaan Huynen, Founder of DesignBro, a graphic design marketplace that curates the best 5% designers that deliver agency quality design. We deliver graphic designs such as Logo, Brand Identity, Posters, Flyers, and Product Packaging Design to clients globally.

We deliver to 2 groups of clients; SMEs and large corporations, typically logos & websites to the SMEs and Packaging Design to the larger corporates. Over 60% of our customers are in the US.
We’re currently growing at 50% per quarter, and over 300% in the last year.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I’m a third-generation design agency entrepreneur. This means I’ve literally had branding, packaging design & advertising spoon-fed to me from an early age on.

Get a coherent ‘go to market’ strategy, it won’t work if you just create a shop, and expect that people will just magically find you.

My grandfather, Dominique Claessens started one of the world’s very first Branding & Packaging Design Agencies in 1958, and besides creating the Heineken brand pretty much as it’s known & recognized today, he also started the world’s first design computer system called Aesthedes (now in multiple musea), in a time when the Mac was not yet around.

Besides my interest in design, I was intrigued by computers from an early age onwards, and as a 10-year-old I was already writing small programs, and taking our PC apart & putting it back together, a couple of years later I would occasionally build computers for people which was something I enjoyed doing.

When I finished my study of Advertising & Brand Management in the UK, I started the Cartils Agency in London. I built this out to a leading and award-winning agency and eventually integrated it with the family business in The Netherlands. I’m proud to say we serviced some of the world’s largest brands there such as the global redesign for Finlandia Vodka for Brown Forman.

A specific trend I noticed that was broader in the market (speaking to many competing colleagues) was that client budgets were under pressure and declining year on year. Mapping this out over an extended period of time, it was my vision that this would undoubtedly put pressure on the agency model as a whole.

Diving into my technical passion, it made sense to me that a large portion of the process would have to be automated, but without compromising on quality.

I worked out my ideas and models on how to create an uncompromised solution for the market, and as I was doing this, started to discuss the concept with my brother-in-law, and now co-founder Pieter-Jan Hoogendijk, who was a technical project manager & had been responsible for large technical software projects in his career.

We started to map out the full process & worked out all the kinks in the process, as it happened, PJ ended up becoming the first financial backer in the process as well based on which we were able to bring our product to market.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

We learn every day, even today I’m probably making mistakes that I’ll smile at a couple of years from now. The most important part is staying open, on one hand, being agile to adapt where necessary, but at the same time having enough stubbornness to push things forward without losing track of your overall goal.

PJ and I started working from my living room in Amsterdam in the first instance. The rough concept was already there, but to get that to a level that was ready for development was a large task.

We weighed all options and decided that the traditional MVP approach was unlikely to succeed as there were already some competitors in the market, and there would be a minimum level of functionality required for it to be successful.

This made the initial steps more complicated, but also more important. We knew that with my industry knowledge, and enough technical foundation, paired with PJ’s technical experience, we would be able to create a full product description.

My living room in Amsterdam was, at one point, literally hanging full of post-its, each post-it representing a page or function, in 4 or 5 different colors. Anyone that would walk in thought that we had lost our mind in a ‘Beautiful Mind’ type of way, but to us it made sense.

We started creating wireframes with the pages & functions we had envisioned and created a full requirements documentation so we knew exactly what had to be created.

At this time we decided against finding a developer in-house, but instead, we outsourced the first development. This was a good overall experience, but the drawbacks start to appear once the bulk of the job has been delivered, so we took on board a full-time developer after a while of PJ and me doing some of the core maintenance ourselves.

So then we finally had a working application, and we had recruited the first list of designers, including Mike, our Head of Design, but we still needed to get in customers. This was the start of a long journey, of slowly finding where to approach customers, how to reach them, adapting our product, and all of this without much budget at all.

In the meantime, in my personal life, I fathered 2 children, so DesignBro always felt a little bit like the third child, constantly requiring nurturing, feeding, love, and attention. While tweaking our product offering and figuring out our sales & marketing approach we soon figured out that SEO and organic traffic for us were the biggest converters.

Armed with this information, while covid was raging the world, we did an investment round and managed to pick up a first seed round of €400k. This was a game-changer, as we were able to recruit the much-needed positions in the team and prove we could scale. Since then we have added 8 new hires to the team and have grown over 300% in the last 12 months, and we are now preparing to raise the next round again.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Even Though we proved it’s possible to bring the company to a profitable state, as we did during covid, it’s not beneficial for growth. We’ve currently achieved over 300% growth in the last year, and we aim to do approximately 400% growth over the next year.

One of the big areas of expansion will be localization, as we are wrapping up a complete development sprint that will allow us to introduce DesignBro in any language and currency in the world from a technical point of view. Naturally, that doesn’t mean we will push it in every market overnight, as we would need to allocate the appropriate marketing spend that is associated as well.

A specific area of growth has been our professional services, where we can provide account management and advice to our customers, without losing the scalability of our platform. We expect this will continue to grow.

For the next year, our marketing push will mainly be focused on our core message: that we deliver an agency quality. At the end of the day, DesignBro was pretty much born from an agency, and there’s no other design platform that can claim the same.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Where to start? I would say the most important lesson of all is to test different things and to learn it’s ok to fail. Not every test needs to succeed, in fact, a failure can be helpful. However, it’s incredibly important to recognize the failure early on and to move on to the next test. I’m proud to say I probably make mistakes every day, but I keep my eye out to notice them and address them head-on.

One thing I would have done differently in retrospect is I would have looked for a launching investment to have had a specific runway and a serious marketing budget to push the product. We could have saved ourselves at least a year, or not 18 months even.

The best decisions I’ve taken have been the people we’ve gathered around; the teammates we now have at DesignBro. I’m truly blessed to have such a great, hardworking, specialized, and dedicated team- with whom I feel comfortable taking on the world.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We have a fully custom built application for our platform based on Ruby / React, and for the public page it’s built on HTML/CSS/PHP. Besides this, we use several tools:

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I read The Lean Startup at the start of our adventure, I didn’t just find it inspiring, I found it extremely helpful, as I can now recognize so many of the steps they went through with their startup and the advice that came with it.

Also, around the same period, I attended the Web Summit in Lisbon, and I was impressed by all the different talks, the founders that were there, the energy and ideas were everywhere. For me, it was a world opening up.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

I’m a strong believer that it really helps if the entrepreneur is already an expert in their field, this will avoid many situations where you can be blindsided.

Get a coherent ‘go to market’ strategy, it won’t work if you just create a shop, and expect that people will just magically find you.

If you don’t have the technical experience or don’t inherently understand technology, get a really good co-founder that does.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’re currently hiring marketing interns, graphic design interns, and a mid-level graphic designer to join the team. You can always apply at [email protected].

Where can we go to learn more?

Christiaan Huynen, Founder of DesignBro
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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