Designing a revolutionary canvas

23 Jan 2016




Discover how Melanie Perkins turned her startup Canva into a company worth nearly half a billion dollars.
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In the time it takes you to read this sentence, 30 new designs have been created using Canva, an online graphic design platform co-founded by Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht and Cameron Adams.

Launched in 2013, Canva is used by more than 14 million people in 179 countries to produce everything from birthday cards and media kits to Facebook covers and Twitter headers. Its 23 Second Guide means users can design almost immediately using ready-made templates, simple drag-and-drop, click-and-go features and a library of over one million (mostly free) images.

The platform was an immediate hit with individuals and businesses. Canva for Work – the enterprise version of the platform – has more than 50,000 teams of people using it, including Huffington Post and Lonely Planet. In 2016 alone, Canva unveiled its iPhone app – downloaded 500,000 times in its first month – launched in another 11 languages, and rolled out a range of productivity tools.

“It’s incredible to think that people are using Canva all around the world to launch their own businesses, communicate their stories, or share special moments with friends and family,” says Perkins. “One of my favourite stories is about a sheriff in the US that used Canva to create Wanted posters. We’ve also had a mother and daughter reconnect using a Canva design.” 

In September 2016, Canva raised US$15 million (A$19.8 million) in funding, led by Australian venture capital firm Blackbird Ventures and Silicon Valley firm Felicis Ventures. The latest funding round doubled the company’s valuation to US$345 million (A$458 million). 

These funds, along with US$15 million (A$21 million) raised in 2015 that is yet to be used, mean Canva has significant resources for product development and growth.

Canva Founders L-R Cameron Adams, Cliff Obrecht and Melanie Perkins
Canva Founders L-R Cameron Adams, Cliff Obrecht and Melanie Perkins 

A 10-year success story

Canva has always had fans in the tech community. The company’s US$3 million (A$3.4 million) seed funding came from investors such as Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen and Yahoo chief financial officer Ken Goldman. Its current chief evangelist is Guy Kawasaki, who performed the same role for Apple.

However, Perkins is quick to stress Canva was not an overnight success, but took a decade of research, rejection, networking, development and dogged determination before her “absurdly big vision” was realised. In the early days, Perkins slept on the floor of her brother’s apartment in San Francisco and used free WiFi in shopping centres. She says it took three years from meeting their first investor to landing investment.

Perkins’ experience has taught her the value of persistence, resilience and vision, and her advice to budding entrepreneurs is to just get started.

“If I listened to all the naysayers, knew the statistics about how many startups fail or realised everything I would have to learn to make Canva work, I never would have got started,” she says. “But I’m a big believer in just-in-time learning.
"The most important thing to learn is determination, because you can make everything else happen with enough perseverance and dedication.”

Canva was born when Perkins was teaching graphic design and saw how difficult it was for students to conquer the basics of complex design programs. Noting the popularity and ease of use of social networking services such as Facebook, she set out to develop an online design platform that was affordable and accessible to everyone.

“I think creativity really stems from solving a problem,” Perkins adds. “If you find a problem you feel passionately about, and other people feel passionate about it, then you know you have the beginnings of a new business. Surround yourself with good people who share your passion, and be prepared for the process to take a long time – longer than you’d ever imagined.”

The Australian advantage

When Canva was starting out, the Australian startup scene was not the thriving ecosystem it is now. Along with Canva, the country is home to several startups that are globally recognised, including Atlassian, Envato, Freelancer and Tyro. The Sydney startup ecosystem is ranked 16th in the world and Melbourne 21st in the 2015 Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking.

“The Australian startup scene is growing phenomenally,”

Perkins says. “Startups are attracting investors from across the globe and ambition in Australia is growing as people realise it is possible to compete on the global stage. 

“Having globally minded venture capital firms like Blackbird operating locally is important. I hope our example can give people confidence and be a positive influence on startups to come.” Perkins says Australian startups have a certain advantage.

“A lot of Australian companies adopt a global mindset from the beginning, and revolutionary thinking was core to us from the start,” Perkins explains. “I think by having an Australian background we have a certain disregard for the status quo. When we came into the industry, we saw it with new eyes, which makes you think things are possible.”

Though the success of Canva has been swift, Perkins maintains a long-term view and the spark of her entrepreneurial spirit continues to fire. 

“We have only achieved 1 per cent so far of where we think we can take Canva,” she says. “Over 14 million people use Canva, but more than three billion people use the internet worldwide so you can see we have a long way to go and we are just getting started.”