Part of series “Entrepreneurial Women Rocking the World”
Today, the online design and publishing platform has reached new heights, as the latest startup unicorn from Australia with a valuation of US$1 billion after having raised a US$40 million round. As Perkins shares, Canva’s key goal remains to empower everyone to design anything and publish anywhere.
Since launching in 2013, Canva has grown to over 15 million users across 190 countries, with more than 1 billion designs created, at 33 designs per second. Today Canva is growing from strength the strength, with over 500 team members working together on a mission to empower everyone to create beautiful designs. Another achievement for Perkins: she was selected as a member of the Forbes Asia’s 30 Under 30 list, in the Enterprise Tech category, in 2016.
The Canva story started several years ago as an idea that emerged for Perkins while she was teaching university design programs. In every class, she saw students struggle to even learn the basics. It took months to be able to create something that looked good. She realized that in the future, design would be very different. It would be collaborative, online and easy to learn. She asked herself, “Why shouldn’t everybody be able to create beautiful designs?
For more insights into how Perkins’ leadership has spurred this level of success, the challenges she’s overcome and new areas of focus, she shares candidly below about her experiences and lessons learned:
Kathy Caprino: What have been the biggest challenges in growing Canva to the next level?
Melanie Perkins: ‘Empowering the world to design’ has been a core part of our vision from our early days. We want Canva to be the place you can go to by default, and so our focus is on creating a simple and intuitive design tool. In 2018 alone we:
- Introduced Canva to more markets which is a huge and incredibly exciting task for the whole team. In order to become a truly global company, we now offer Canva in over 100 languages, including the ability to design in right to left languages such as Arabic, Urdu and Hebrew, so that our community can choose to use Canva in their language of choice.
- We also launched Canva China, with a completely localized experience featuring local fonts, local templates and a local team based in Beijing.
- Canva Print is now in 44 countries which gives our design community the ability to turn their amazing designs into hard copy professional prints, delivered straight to their door.
- We made our first acquisition in 2018. Together with Zeetings we have great plans to offer our community a better way to design and deliver more engaging presentations.
- We have 25,000+ not for profit organizations around the world on our nonprofit program. It’s incredible to see the impact they’re making to the lives of many!
- Canva continued to grow rapidly in 2018; we’ve had 1 billion designs created since we launched 5 years ago, more than 500k of those designs were created last year alone! Canva is now used by people from 190 countries across the globe.
Canva’s business model continues to evolve but it looks a lot like our original business strategy, except that we’re only at the beginning of it. What people can see of Canva today is only 1% of where our vision for what the product can do and become. So when it comes to challenges, there are new ones every week!
At the beginning, it was full of rejections from potential investors. We were presenting them with a crazy ambitious plan so I received hundreds of “no” or “not yet” answers for every few that said yes. Today, the challenges are more around how to keep a rapidly growing team of 500 people as happy and productive as possible, working out what should get done first of our hundreds of ideas and how to keep making Canva better and better.
Caprino: What would you say have been your three biggest missteps or mistakes you’ve made as a leader/manager and business head that you’d want others to learn from?
Perkins: I wouldn’t necessarily consider this a misstep, but I’m naturally an introvert so networking was pretty daunting for me at the start but was absolutely critical to get Canva off the ground. After meeting with Silicon Valley venture capital investor Bill Tai briefly at a Perth conference, he told me he would meet with me if I went to San Francisco. I did and met with him at a cafe on University Avenue.
I was really nervous and I felt out of my depth, trying to pitch Canva with a paper print out of our slide deck because I didn’t own an iPad, all the while eating lunch so I didn’t look stressed. He was on his phone the whole time and I thought he was completely uninterested. And then I got back to where I was staying and realized he’d been introducing me via email to his network, so it was quite the opposite!
I’d then promised Bill that I’d send him my business plan by a certain date, just a few days later. Between going to conferences and trying to find my ‘tech team’ it hadn’t come together as quickly as I’d hoped. I ended up staying up for 36 hours straight to send it to him by the arbitrary date that I had set. I’m sure he didn’t mind when I sent it or even care. But when I say that I’m going to do something, I do. This is when my eyesight started to go fuzzy — looking in the mirror I could hardly see myself. It scared the hell out of me and I certainly don’t recommend this route. Fortunately, I woke up the next morning and everything was working again. Extreme sleep deprivation is definitely not recommended.
Bill also introduced me to Lars Rasmussen, cofounder of Google Maps. Before then, I had never met someone who had worked on a product that had such a huge global impact, let alone the inventor of it! I subconsciously thought that people who have such a huge impact must be from another planet, yet Lars was incredibly supportive of me and my vision and it completely transformed what I believed was possible.
Caprino: Reflecting on your journey, what have you learned most about yourself?
Perkins: I learnt early on in life that if I worked really, really hard I would usually succeed or at least learn a lot along the way. Sheer determination has been key to Canva’s success in every way. At the beginning, we were rejected more than a hundred times by investors before anyone said “yes,” but I just kept learning, refining my strategy and updating my pitch deck until we got a yes. Today, we are constantly assessing which projects to tackle next and having the determination to invest in these projects to make our users happy is absolutely critical. Every day at Canva we’re creating something entirely new, and I’m incredibly lucky to get to work with an incredible talented team of people who are just as determined to see our vision through.
Caprino: What’s your biggest challenge that Canva is needing to address now?
Perkins: We have a huge opportunity at Canva—to transform the way people communicate and reach their goals by democratizing design. Every day we are hearing from educators, corporates, small businesses and not-for-profits about how Canva has opened up a new world of design to them. This is so amazing to hear and what really gets me excited is how we can reach more people who will benefit from using Canva.
Caprino: Any final suggestions for someone who has a big idea but isn’t sure it’s sound enough to launch?
Perkins: My biggest piece of advice for any entrepreneur is to solve a real problem. If you find a problem that people care about, then it will make every other aspect of running a business much easier. With Canva, the problem was that creating engaging, professional looking graphic design was incredibly difficult unless you had expensive software and spend years studying. And that’s how the idea for Canva came about. Design is no longer a niche thing that needs to be done by a select few: every single profession needs design to help communicate their message.
In years gone by, someone in sales could create a sales letter and now has to create a beautiful pitch deck to win customers. Nonprofits have to create designs to spread their message and fundraise. Even the startup staple of business plans have been replaced by a beautiful graphic pitch deck. The world is rapidly becoming more visual, and design is becoming more and more important across every walk of life.
The second piece of advice is to try out your idea by going niche before you go wide. We tested the idea for Canva with our first business, Fusion Books, which was the idea of Canva but for the very niche market of designing high school yearbooks in Australia. Once we’d learned a lot and proven the idea, we were ready to tackle a much larger problem—empowering everyone to design anything.