The Australian Success Story Built In San Francisco

When Patrick Llewellyn moved to San Francisco in 2010, it set him on the path to running one of Australia’s most successful startups.

After being hired by online graphic design marketplace 99designs, Patrick was tasked with starting the company’s US operations, leading a huge expansion and investment strategy.

In the near-decade since, he's become CEO and 99designs has become the market leader, hosting nearly one million projects for 500,000 customers and paying out almost $AU300 million to designers.

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Impressive, but that was the easy part of the move for Patrick, who sold his house in Australia and uprooted his life and family to take on his overseas business adventure.

Getting a visa was “very stressful”, finding a local landlord to accept international tenants even harder, but the biggest challenge came after they landed Stateside.

“More or less everything you’ve been working towards in your adult life is almost disregarded,” Patrick said.

“For example, there’s no international standard for credit. You have no credit rating, so you arrive in the United States and you can’t even get a mobile phone without putting a deposit down.

“You can only get a certain limit on a credit card at a point that you really need it!”

Luckily, Patrick had the financial security of his house sale behind him and arrived in the Golden State armed with months of research into suburbs, schools and life in America.

“Moving a family was definitely tough,” he explained. “The business part was actually the easiest bit in comparison.

“There’s no safety net, which is a worry when you’re moving with a family. Health insurance was a real struggle to figure out — it’s just not that straightforward.

“Having to think ahead about schools and housing in an area you’re not at all familiar with is stressful. Nearly every decision was predicated on schooling for the kids”

Once settled, Patrick threw himself into growing 99designs, building his professional network significantly and connecting with top tier investors and venture capitalists.

“While the quantity and quality of funding options in Australia has increased dramatically in recent years, in 2010 there simply weren’t any local VC funds that could even begin to compete with the money available in Silicon Valley,” Patrick revealed.

He found that everyone in the Bay Area, not just investors, was savvy about tech and startups, with even entry-level applicants enquiring about stock option schemes, hoping to find themselves working at the next Google or Apple.

There was another subtle difference about life in the USA compared to Australia — confidence.

“Americans are really good at selling themselves, whereas Australians tend to be brutally honest and direct. That’s not to say that Americans aren’t direct, but they definitely tend to see the positive on most things.

“I was surprised at how confident people were. When I met people for the first time I would often think that their company was enormous and then it would turn out they were much smaller than 99designs and that my perception was essentially based on bravado and their ability to tell a good story.”

For those planning their own overseas adventure, Patrick advises giving yourself enough time to really reap the benefits of a big move. It wasn't until late last year that 99designs moved its global HQ back to Melbourne.

“It’s going to take longer than you think. You should be planning to stay for a reasonably extended period of time if you want to unlock the full value in doing this — it’s not just an 18-month experiment.

“Of course, you can still go for a shorter period of time and have fun, but if you do that the move is not necessarily going to give you all the opportunities that you anticipated.

“There’s a level of self-reliance needed when you move somewhere new that can be tough. You have to be pretty comfortable and happy in yourself or the people you’re moving with to make it work.”