Dribbble’s Triple-Double

How agile teams, sustainable growth, and a community-focus made Dribbble a leader in the design industry

CEO at Dribbble, cool dad, guitar noodler. This is Zack Onisko, in his own words, as stated on his Dribbble profile. 

Founded in 2009 by Dan Cederholm and Rich Thornett, Dribbble is a leading online community for creatives to showcase their portfolio, discover design inspiration, and seek work opportunities. Since its founding, the company has gone from strength to strength, becoming the go-to platform for the world’s most design-forward companies, like Apple and Google, to find talent. 

The name ‘Dribbble’ reflects the brand’s overarching basketball theme; a user’s customizable portfolio is called a ‘playbook,’ images are called ‘shots,’ and a collection of shots is called a ‘bucket.’ Representing a new generation of digital solutions that cater to creatives, Dribbble is known for its high-quality, invitation-only community and curated products that center around one objective: help designers succeed. 

“The way we look at it, there are a lot of parallels to LinkedIn being a professional network,” says Onisko, who joined Dribbble as CEO in 2017. “We look at Dribbble as a visual network–a professional portfolio network.” 

Unlike its most notable competitor, Adobe-owned Behance, Dribbble more actively connects designers with companies through its job board. It also functions much like a social platform, where engagement among designers is encouraged; for example, the ‘rebound’ function allows users to respond to shots with their own shots, and they can also join ‘Playoffs,’ which are shots with rebounds from multiple users.

During a health and economic crisis that has left companies struggling to stay afloat, Dribbble has remained resilient in more ways than one. Contract work has been on the rise over the last several years, where it now makes up around 35% of the U.S. workforce, according to a 2019 study by Upwork and the Freelancers Union. The study also projects the majority of the workforce to be self-employed by as early 2027–a trend that is likely to accelerate due to the impact of Covid-19 on lay-offs and furloughs. 

Dribbble is also at an advantage for having been remote-first from day one. Onisko says that when he spoke about this arrangement at conferences a year ago, attendees would be shocked by what was perceived as a “contrarian” approach to managing a large team. With companies like Facebook and Twitter announcing plans to move toward permanent work-from-home arrangements even after the pandemic is over, more and more companies are acknowledging the benefits that have been known to Dribbble for years. 

“One of the things that I discovered when I took over Dribbble was that an engineer on the team was three to five times more efficient at getting stuff released than an engineer sitting at the 30,000 square-foot open office with his Bose noise-canceling headphones on,” says Onisko. 

Even more unique is the company’s approach to fundraising–in that it hasn’t. Onisko credits Dribbble’s profitability to its monetization and growth strategy. “We’ve done a good job at finding lines of business for our different user types. We have a subscription for designers, a subscription for hiring managers, and for all the people coming to the site for inspiration we have an advertising business.”  

When it comes to growth, Onisko believes that the “Silicon Valley wisdom,” where founders believe that fundraising is the ultimate goal, is changing. The introduction of sophisticated web and app frameworks and challenging market conditions paves the way for savvy entrepreneurs to bootstrap and build recession-proof businesses. 

“Fifteen years ago, you needed capital because you had to go and buy $200,000 servers, and you had to recruit Java engineers from Stanford. It was a very niche,” says Onisko. “Today, there’s Ruby on Rails; there’s AWS [Amazon Web Services]; there’s Stripe, Shopify–all these tools are at an entrepreneurs’ disposal to build a business and compete globally.”

For Dribbble, expansion means meeting the needs of the design community. In April, the company announced that it acquired Creative Market, a marketplace for design assets, such as typefaces, graphic elements, and WordPress themes–bringing the combined user base of the two platforms to 12 million (Techcrunch). Interestingly, Onisko is the former Chief Growth Officer of Creative Market, so the acquisition is even more meaningful for the two companies.

“We saw that there was a ton of organic search traffic coming to Dribbble’s design assets, and we didn’t have a product at the time,” he says. “Just being close to the Creative Market team over the years, we’ve always talked about how we can partner and build a funnel to provide value to those people who are coming to Dribbble for those specific purposes.”  

Dribbble’s product diversification and rollout of new features in the coming years will also reflect industry shifts. Predominantly a platform showcasing graphic design, illustration, and UX/UI design, the company is observing a significant trend toward 3D and other innovative mediums, such as augmented reality. Its 2019 Global Design Survey also found that 42% of designers are self-taught, informing Onisko’s plans to explore “future lines of business in the education sector.”

The business value of design is more recognized today than ever before. A 2018 Mckinsey study, which used data from 300 publicly listed companies of all industries over five years, found “a strong correlation between high Mckinsey Design Index scores [a rating system for a company’s design abilities] and superior business performance.” Platforms like Dribbble, which bridge the gap between the creative and commercial side of the design industry, will further elevate awareness around the need to drive design performance with the same dedication as other business facets. 

This trajectory has set Dribbble on an ambitious path, as Onisko says the company has “hit an inflection point” and is scaling rapidly. 

“LinkedIn has done a great job making the LinkedIn profiles synonymous with the resume,” he says. “Our ambition is to make the Dribbble profile synonymous with the portfolio.” 

SHARE THIS STORY