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Canva co-founders Cliff Obrecht, Melanie Perkins and Cameron Adams.

“We’ve only achieved 1% of what we know is possible,” says CEO of US$365m startup Canva

A few short years ago Melanie Perkins was desperately pitching her graphic design start-up to investors, uncertain whether she’d secure the support necessary to fulfil her mission to democratise design. Today, she and co-founders Cliff Obrecht and Cameron Adams are being courted by large firms, keen to get in on the action.  

Since launching three years ago, the home-grown graphic design start-up has amassed more than 10 million users from 179 countries plus a workforce of 120 across two offices – one in Surry Hills, Sydney; the other in Manila, the Philippines.

Today it is worth US$365 million, more than double its 2015 valuation. Perhaps the clearest indicator of the company’s success, however, has been the glowing endorsement from within Hollywood. Actors Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson injected cash into the company, last year, with the latter stating: “Canva is on fire! This could be a game changer.”

“We’ve been used to catch criminals”

Perkins told Dynamic Business that whereas design tools have typically been ‘too complex and too expensive’, Canva is focused on making design ‘accessible to everyone’.

“We provide a simple-to-use product with thousands of professionally designed templates and more than a million stock images, so anyone can easily make their own business cards, presentations, posters, flyers, social media graphics and more,” she said.

“Consequently, there’s no typical user. We’re used by big companies such as Huffington Post, Yelp and Lonely Planet, by thousands of people who are self-employed, by many charities and all kinds of people. It’s been used in ways we never imagined. For example, a sheriff in the US uses it to make ‘Wanted’ posters and so Canva has been used to catch criminals.”

“It took an absurd amount of determination”

The origin of Canva can be traced back to 2007, when Melanie was undertaking a double degree in arts and commerce at the university of Western Australia. In addition to her studies, she taught students how to use design programs including InDesign and Photoshop. Watching her peers struggle with these tools (“they were hard to learn, and harder to use”), Melanie began to reimagine graphic design as an “online, collaborative and user-friendly experience”.

This led to the launch of Fusion Books, which Melanie co-founded in 2008 with Cliff, her boyfriend and fellow student. Over a five-year period, the company grew to dominate the school yearbook market with its online design tool, and expanded into New Zealand and France.

“When Cliff and I started out, we had no money and no engineering or business experience,” Melanie admitted. “We did not even know what a ‘start-up’ was, nor did we know anyone who was in one. We just had a problem that we wanted to solve and an absurd amount of determination. The technology we’d built made the yearbook creation process fun and easy for design novices; however, Cliff and I knew all along that it could be applied more broadly so after a few years we began to work on what became Canva.”

“More and more professions are having to design”

Canva launched in August 2013, with Melanie as CEO and Cliff as chief operations officer (COO). Cameron Adams rounded out the leadership team, joining Canva as the chief product officer (CPO). According to Melanie, Adams – formerly an interface designer with Google, working on Wave and other projects – played a critical role in getting the company off the ground.

“Before anyone would invest in us, we had to find the right tech team,” she said. “We had huge plans so we needed people who were technically excellent with a background in building products for massive user bases. One of our first investors, Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen, helped us find Cam. Cliff and I quickly brought him on as our third co-founder.”

Melanie said Canva has spent the three years since launch combatting a notion that’s divorced from the reality of the modern business world.

“Until recently, graphic design was considered a niche market,” she said. “However, a growing number of professions – from social media managers to salespeople – are having to harness the power of graphics to communicate ideas to their audience effectively.”

“While graphic design has become an invaluable skill in business, many of the available tools were developed prior to the internet and their core features haven’t changed. We’ve had the opportunity to reimagine these productivity tools from the ground up to cater for everyone, including the modern workforce.” 

“Same vision, just more evidence to back it up”

Building and maintaining the momentum of a high-growth start-up has, Melanie explained, been incredibly challenging for the simple reason that the nature of the challenges continues to evolve – and there are new ones every week.

“In the beginning, the key challenge was dealing with rejections from potential investors and team members and powering on,” she said.

“We were pitching a crazy, ambitious plan and for every few people who said ‘yes’ to us, there were hundreds more who said ‘no’ or ‘not yet’. It took a full year of meeting investors plus six months in San Francisco and one hundred revisions to our pitch deck to raise our first round of investment. We actually travelled to San Francisco twice. Both times we anticipated a two-week trip, and both times we only left the US because our three-month visa was due to expire. We were really struggling to get things rolling and it took an incredible amount of willpower to see it through. For a long time, we had no idea if things would actually end up coming together.

“Since then, the experience of raising capital has changed dramatically for us and our more recent rounds of raising investment couldn’t have been more different from those early struggles. For the first $US15 million round, we had five big firms fly out from San Francisco to learn about our company and pitch to us. We were taken out for dinners, we were pitched on how they could help our company. In fact, a number of investors even presented to our whole Sydney team.

“I find it a little bit amusing that while we’ve gone from desperately pitching our hearts out to having investors pitch us, our vision hasn’t changed. What it comes down to is the fact that at each stage of our journey, we’ve had different evidence to back it up. At the start it was just an idea, then we had a great team, then we built a great product, then 23 had great charts that were moving in the right direction, now millions of users and an incredible fan base. Every investor has a different appetite for risk and consequently prefers companies at different stages of their journey. You have to believe in your vision for a long time before anyone else will.

“Today, the challenges facing Canva are more around: how to keep a rapidly growing team of more than 100 people as happy and productive as possible; working out what should get done first of our hundreds of ideas; and how to keep making the company better and better.”

“We’re still realising our original pitch”

Despite the tremendous growth of Canva (it’s a third of the way to joining the Unicorn Club), Melanie said success hasn’t dulled her motivation, nor that of her co-founders Cliff and Cameron.

“Every day is different at Canva and it can be a bit of a rollercoaster,” she said. “Canva keeps growing, the challenges keep evolving but and there is always more to do. It probably helps that I love challenges.

“From the outside, it may appear as though Canva is fairly well established. Ten million users might sound like a lot, but it’s only 0.03% of the internet-using population. We’ve only done 1% of what we know is possible with Canva. There are still core pillars of our product mentioned in our pitch deck from four years ago that we’ve only started work on, so we have a long way to go yet!”

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James Harkness

James Harkness

James Harnkess previous editor at Dynamic Business

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