Canva CEO & Co-Founder Melanie Perkins shares insights from growing her Australian college startup into a global unicorn with over one billion designs & 15m monthly active users, breaking into Silicon Valley, landing the first investment from Mary Meeker's Bond, & realizing her vision to be one of the world's most valuable companies, doing the most good one can do
Interview with Career Contessa
If you work in or near the design world, chances are you're obsessed with Canva. But we've got news for you: the woman behind the company might just be cooler. Meet Melanie Perkins, big thinker, entrepreneur, major problem solver.
Before she was the founder we know today, Melanie was at university teaching Adobe Photoshop to beginners. As she watched them struggle to learn even the basics, she realized how difficult the programs were to grasp. Design software was complicated, with a daunting learning curve, and it was expensive. And for Melanie, this was unacceptable.
The fact that Canva has grown so rapidly since its inception is largely due to Melanie's ability to spot sticking points in industries and her dogged dedication to solving what she calls "real problems" through what we'll call a "sixth sense for innovation." Sensing that the future was online, Melanie conceived an alternative to the design programs she knew and didn't love, one that was simple and encouraged collaboration and one that was intuitive and useful, regardless of whether you had a background in design. Cue Canva. It's changed the way we approach design and made it easy for people with big ideas to actually turn them into reality without limitations.
Her Big Break
Although headquartered in Sydney, Canva is an international business, with users all over the world. How did you expand internationally? Does working from Australia make any noticeable difference in terms of how you work? Our largest market is already the US, but our team is very happily located in Sydney, Australia. Many of our investors are from the US, which has given us great connections there. In a way, we’ve been able to have the best of both worlds. There are incredibly talented people here, and we’ve got some great people working for Canva, who used to be at companies like Google. But most of our users are international. We have people using Canva in 179 countries. The US is the largest market. Has anything surprised you about your line of work or being an entrepreneur? What is the best part of your job? The hardest? What skills are essential to being an entrepreneur? Running Canva is the best job in the world. I love coming to work each day and figuring out how we can achieve the big vision we have. Being an entrepreneur is an incredible path. It's challenging, it's a roller coaster, it's exhilarating, it's my dream job. I get to work with the smartest people I have ever met, get to invent, get to realize my vision. 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. In a Forbes article, you mentioned Canva is on a “7-year plan to disrupt digital design,” a plan you expect to complete this year. Did you succeed? Getting Canva off the ground has been difficult and taken a long time, more than six years. It was difficult starting our first company, Fusion Books and bootstrapping it to profitability, it was difficult getting investors to invest, it was difficult building a team, difficult to build our product. In fact, every stage has been an incredible challenge, but also an incredible adventure. My advice would be to just get started as you learn so much along the way. We have only achieved 1% so far of where we think we can take Canva. Our vision is to enable people to take their idea and turn it into a design as seamlessly as possible. We think we have made some big steps in this direction already, but we are just getting started. Part of the entrepreneurial journey means hearing “no” at times. How do you deal with setbacks or negative feedback? Solve a problem that you feel passionately about and really believe should be solved. It’s taken over nine years from the initial idea to get Canva to where it is today. It’s a long journey, so make sure that you are solving a problem worth solving. Don’t be afraid to jump in and get started. You can’t possibly know everything you need to know about starting and running a company before you start. If you are determined to solve a problem and passionate to learn everything as you go, that is enough. Take the first steps and the rest will, eventually, follow.
Her Perspective How has design technology changed since you first started Canva? What adjustments have you made to keep up with these advancements and the competition? While the last few years have seen the development of HTML5 and tablets, design programs haven’t caught up with the Web. Our objective with Canva from the start has been to enable people to get up to speed with Canva as quickly as possible. Thanks to the technology now available, we were able to build something that is really simple to use.
That’s why learning Canva only takes 23 seconds, literally. Everything has been designed to be intuitive to use. You search for what you want and drag straight into your design. Why is it so important that design is accessible to everyone? Social media has really increased the need for good design. Every brand now needs high-quality visuals. As a marketer, you need to be able to create great visuals quickly and easily. Individuals need to be able to design good-looking resumes and create a brand. Nonprofits need to be able to share their story through visual social media to raise funds and educate people about their cause. Everywhere you look, design has become more critical to communication. You’ve mentioned the incredible value of networking in your career. What are your best networking tips? Why is it so important? How has networking influence Canva’s growth? Learning from people who have walked the same path as you is incredibly important, as there are so many lessons that you can learn without having to make each and every mistake.
While it may be difficult to have a ‘coffee’ with a lot of people you wish to learn from—there are a huge number of blogs that you can read (check out www.paulgraham.com and The Venture Hacks Bible), books (I’m currently reading Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules and love the book Designing the Obvious by Robert Hoekman Jr), podcasts, and conferences. You will be able to absorb a wealth of knowledge from these free or inexpensive sources.
If you do get a meeting with someone that can help you, try to be succinct and respectful of their time. See if there is a way you can help them in return. If you are looking to raise funds, to avoid getting a hard ‘no’, ask for advice, take the advice on board and then go back three to six months later showing great results. Showing that you do what you say you are going to do is really important, and surprisingly uncommon. And finally, what do you wake up looking forward to? What's next for your career? I would definitely say out of those three it would be the huge opportunity we are pursuing at Canva, a complete transformation of the design and desktop publishing industry.
I knew as I was teaching students to use incredibly complex design software that the industry was ready and ripe for a huge change. The vision we have at Canva is making design accessible to everyone. We launched two years ago and are now used by more than 4.5 million people. 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.