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.”

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