THE BILLION-DOLLAR FOUNDER
Melanie Perkins CO-CREATED Australia’s latest UNICORN. Now, at just 30 years old and five years into a NEW business, she REVEALS how…
Melanie Perkins reveals how she created the world’s latest unicorn, Canva.
Idon’t think anyone truly appreciates the power they have to shape this world. It’s certainly not their fault. When you think we’re on a planet with 7 billion other people, it’s very easy to think that surely someone else has more experience, more knowledge, and more power to help improve this world. But it’s a pretty frightening realisation that we’re on this planet with 7 billion other first-timers – that are all just giving this thing called life a crack.” This is the note Australian entrepreneur Melanie Perkins wrote to herself before bed in early January, during one of the biggest work weeks of her life.
The company she co-founded, Canva, had just closed a funding round worth US$40 million – and had earned a valuation of more than US$1 billion. This made the 30-year-old, who only launched the design start-up four years earlier, the creator of Australia’s newest unicorn.
“We feel like we’re a baby unicorn right now,” exclaimed Melanie, when Collective Hub caught up with the entrepreneur a month after the news broke of their billion-dollar status.
“We have so much room to grow and expand. We’ve only done one per cent of what we believe is possible.” That one per cent alone is impressive.
Today, more than 13 designs are created using Canva – every second! About 100 million designs have been created by more than 10 million Canva users to date (not bad for a start-up that had only been ‘alive’ for just over 1600 days in January this year). More than 200,000 organisations, from tech startups to estate agents, use the software to create everything from Facebook posts to social-media graphics, posters and presentations.
A funding round that happened in 2013 raised US$3 million from top Australian and US investors including Matrix Partners, InterWest Partners, and 500 Startups. In 2015, they raised another US$6 million, and announced their ‘Canva for Work’ program, to cater to the thousands of organisations using the platform.
They have a star-studded list of shareholders, attracting funding from Hollywood stars Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, alongside Lars Rasmussen of Google Maps.
In April, 2014, the former chief evangelist of Apple, Guy Kawasaki, joined Canva. “Macintosh democratised computers; Google democratised information; and eBay democratised commerce,” he explained at the time. “In the same way, Canva democratises design. You don’t get many chances to democratise an industry, so I seized the opportunity to work [for them].”
It’s not bad for a concept that, like Facebook before it, was born on a university campus.
“At uni, I’d been tutoring students to use a design software and realised just how long it took for them to feel remotely confident in creating a basic
We have so much room to GROW and EXPAND. We’ve ONLY done one per cent of what we BELIEVE is POSSIBLE.
design,” recalls Melanie. “It occurred to me that the future of design was going to be so much simpler, and that was when the idea of Canva [originally] came to me.”
Today, Canva can be used to create content for web, print and various products (their basic program is free, with an additional cost for upgrades). But the first version of the company was much more niche.
At the age of 19, Melanie launched online yearbook tool Fusion Books with her boyfriend Cliff Obrecht (also a co-founder of Canva, alongside techie Cameron Adams). After obtaining a loan, she set up printing presses in her mother’s living room (she “babysat the printers for us”) and the start-up bootstrapped its way to becoming Australia’s largest yearbook company.
“Once we’d proven our approach to design was possible – and learned a lot about building a business along the way – we decided we were ready to bring the ability to create amazingly simple, yet beautiful, designs to the world,” says Melanie. “Hence, Canva was born.”
Their aim was to solve a problem for professional graphic designers and novices alike.
A survey by Canva of 500 small and medium businesses in the US revealed 79 per cent found designing marketing materials time-consuming, 87 per cent wished design was more efficient at their company, and 60 per cent weren’t confident their marketing materials reflected their brand guidelines. They also found that, inside most companies, people who weren’t trained designers created the marketing materials.
“That’s why simplicity is the key to Canva,” says Melanie. Their mission? “To bring together all of the high-quality professional design ‘ingredients’ (stock photography, fonts, layouts, illustrations) and make them accessible, so everyone could communicate their ideas.”
From the beginning, Canva has been “flooded” with users (more than 50,000 people signed up in their first month), driven by a vocal fan base of content creators, including marketers, bloggers, and graphic designers.
It’s not all about self-promotion, though. In 2015, they announced a program that allowed non-profits around the globe to gain access to the full power of Canva for Work, free of charge.
“Every day we hear amazing stories from our customers who have been able to grow their social media followings, spread awareness and raise donations for their charity because of Canva,” says Melanie. They’ve received emails from customers who said Canva helped them save dogs and catch criminals. >
We DECIDED we were ready to bring the ability to create AMAZINGLY SIMPLE, yet beautiful, designs to the WORLD.
The story of how Melanie earned the attention of iconic investor Bill Tai – by learning to kitesurf – has become a start-up legend. “I had a brief encounter with Bill at a Perth conference in 2010,” recalls Melanie. “He told me he would meet with me if I went to see him in San Francisco. So, off I went six months later to University Avenue with a paper print-out of our pitch deck. I thought he was completely uninterested during the meeting, but when I checked my inbox later that night he’d introduced me to his network via email.” She also discovered Bill was part of a kitesurfing and entrepreneurial conference in Hawaii. “Cliff and I learnt how to kitesurf so we could be part of it,” she laughs. “Fun fact – that network made up a lot of the initial investment in Canva.”
Despite stunts like this, she admits fundraising is a hard hustle. “We had to accept that rejection is just part of the journey when you’re trying to raise funds,” says Melanie. “But every time we got a hard question or a reason why people wouldn’t invest, we stayed focused on what we could change. I revised our pitch deck after every meeting, to answer the questions or fix the reason for rejection. You just have to keep going.”
Although Canva might seem like an overnight success story, it took a full year of meetings with potential investors and “hundreds of revisions” to their pitch deck to find their first supporters, which included Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen.
Today, more than 250 employees work for Canva across the world, on short- and long-term projects.
“One of the biggest lessons we learned [with Fusion] is that a business requires very different types of leadership at different stages of development,” she says. “When there were just a few of us, we’d be spread thin across every aspect of the company. We have a much larger team now, and it’s still essential to have a clear picture of what we’re trying to do. It’s important we have a focus on making sure everyone has as much context as possible.”
Open channels are critical, especially when working with your romantic partner. “There’s definitely no secret formula, though great communication is critical for every relationship,” says Melanie. “Before we started Fusion, [Cliff and I] did a lot of backpacking and worked together doing spray-on tattoos at carnivals, so we knew we worked well together.” There are still moments of friction. “It’d be nice to paint a glossy picture that we have the magic formula and never disagree about anything,” she says. “But that’s far from
Every time we got a hard QUESTION or a REASON why people wouldn’t INVEST, we stayed FOCUSED on WHAT we could change.
the case, as in any personal or business relationship there’s going to be tension. It’s these different viewpoints, and the spark that it creates, which often helps to fuel a company forward.”
In March, 2016, Canva took most of their team on a “wonderful, chaotic and incredible” trip around the Philippines. The Sydney team (about 50 people) flew over there to join the team members based in Manila.
They planned to work together for a week in the office, and then all go on a trip together to one of the most beautiful places in the world, El Nido. “I realised after the trip that it was almost a perfect metaphor for start-up life,” explains Melanie. “The thrill, the adventure, the challenges, the lessons. In each there were times when I thought, ‘It’s all going to go horribly wrong,’ then there’s the elation when things actually work out.”
She admits that, as the company keeps growing, the challenges get bigger and the stakes get higher.
“We now have 250 people relying on Canva for their livelihood,” she says. “This is even more prevalent in our Manila office, where often our kind and community-minded team members support their family or even their extended family.”
Now the company is a unicorn, what’s next for Canva and its three founders? She admits they didn’t desperately need the money, but it’s a positive. “This vote of confidence [from investors] is not only motivating, but it also affords us the ability to scale and bring Canva to more people around the world,” says Melanie. “Just recently we launched in 100 languages, which brings us one step closer to making our product accessible to everyone.”
Her advice for other founders with unicorn aspirations? “There’s a great quote from start-up investor and advisor Paul Graham, who says, ‘The very best start-up ideas tend to have three things in common: they’re something the founders themselves want, that they themselves can build, and that few others realise are worth doing.’ Other than that, don’t be afraid to get started. You’ll learn a lot along the way!”
It seems like the secret to a nine-zerovaluation may be a simple vision, clear communication, out-of-the-box thinking, self-belief and a lot of perseverance.
In a blog she wrote, Melanie shared a motivational poster she created for herself (using Canva of course!) during a time of many rejections: “Mel, you’re extremely tired,” it read. “You are in a challenging situation, though you can pull through. Nothing bad is really happening, you’re just feeling depressed because you are used to achieving things quickly. It’s a hard environment. There’s no doubt you will succeed.”