Billion Dollar Design: Canva's Melanie Perkins on How She Turned Her 'Future of Publishing' Idea into a Unicorn
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Melanie Perkins likes to set “crazy huge goals and make them happen”. She isn’t kidding! At 32, she is one of the world’s youngest female founders to run a billion dollar venture-backed company, Canva.
Her story is more remarkable when you consider that she came up with her ‘future of publishing’ idea while attending university without any business experience or contacts in the VC world. 10 years ago, a 22-year-old Perkins flew from her home in Perth, Australia, to the Silicon Valley in the US to pitch her idea to Bill Tai, the famous technology investor. Initially, he didn’t pay much attention to the college dropout, but introduced her to other investors, engineers and developers. Ultimately, he himself invested in Canva.
Today, Canva, an online design start-up that allows anyone to design everything from greeting cards, PowerPoint presentations to posters, and websites to calendars, has become a household name, with people in 190 countries using the platform that offers services in over 100 languages. In May, Canva completed a fresh $US70 million funding round, valuing the company at $US2.5 billion. The funding came predominantly from two new investors, General Catalyst and Bond, with the latter being a brand new fund created by prominent investor and analyst Mary Meeker. Among its existing investors are Felicis Capital and Blackbird Ventures. Before this, Canva had made another big announcement: it had acquired free stock photography companies Pexels and Pixabay for an undisclosed sum.
With the fresh funding, Perkins wants to make Canva the default tool for the workplace and empower the modern workforce—“making life easier for organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500s, and for individuals who need to communicate their ideas effectively in this ever-growing visual world.”
Perkins’ single-minded focus has turned her start-up, which started with three people, into a company of 600 employees who serve 15 million customers.
The Other Story
The shaping of Canva started when Perkins was at the University of Western Australia. Then 19, she used to teach students how to use a design software. It was then she realized how long it took them “to feel remotely confident while designing something basic.” The idea behind Canva was to make the future of design simpler. Along with her partner, Cliff Obrecht, Perkins decided to test the idea by launching Fusion Books.
“It was the idea of Canva, but for the very niche market of high school yearbooks in Australia,” she says. Securing funding, however, was a big challenge. It took her three years from her first conversation with an investor to get her first cheque. “I even woke up at 4am to catch the train to Silicon Valley for a breakfast meeting. I heard the words ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ many, many times but whenever I did, I listened to their questions and made our pitch deck stronger,” she says.
"Meeting Lars Rasmussen (co-founder, Google Maps) was a key moment. Until then, I hadn't considered that people who start uge, world-changing comapnies could just be normal, lovely people." - Melanie Perkins, Founder, Canva
In pics: Canva Co-founders - (L to R) Cameron Adams, Cliff Obrecht, Melanie Perkins
According to Perkins, one of the main reasons for the success of Canva, which was originally Canvas Chef (“just like how you’d bring in all the ingredients to cook up a delicious dish, we wanted to bring together all the ingredients for beautiful designs into one platform”), is the increasing design literacy. “The design IQ has gone up. People want to present things more creatively. Even at schools, children are encouraged to be more engaged with different design forms.”
But there are other such platforms as well. What makes Canva special, she says, “it solves a problem which affects a lot of people. Design can be really difficult and daunting for non-designers, and coupled with the pressure today where people are expected to produce professional quality designs - from creating a presentation, marketing materials, graphics for social media and even a resume - there is a dire need to change design from being such a complicated process to a skill that is attainable and accessible for everyone.”
“We want Canva to be the place you can go to by default, and so we’ve made it free to use. You can upload your own images or choose from our library of premium images and illustrations which cost $1 when you publish. We also have a premium paid option that enables closer collaboration within teams.”
The company has been cash-flow positive since July 2017. Canva gets revenue from paid users, who are charged $12.95 a month per user for a ‘Canva for work’ subscription, although a free basic version is also available.
Building a Unicorn
The success has made Perkins only more humble and determined—a trait she saw in Lars Rasmussen, Co-founder, Google Maps. “Meeting him was a key moment. Until then, I hadn’t considered that people who start huge, worldchanging companies could just be normal, lovely people. It radically changed my perspective and the scale of my vision for Canva,” she says.
The challenges along the way of building a unicorn have made her work hard more as well. “Being a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated world can be difficult, but one must always stay focussed to one’s vision. If I was to think that being female was the reason I was rejected from an investor, it would have been very disempowering as it’s obviously something that I can’t change. I have always preferred to pour my energy, time and creativity into things that I can change. When I was rejected, I worked on refining my strategy and improving my pitch deck — things that I can influence.”
And her success strategy? “The stories we hear from our community, such as the lady who was able to locate her birth mother using a Canva design, a sheriff in the US creating Wanted posters to help catch criminals on the run, and plenty of small business who have boosted their sales through beautiful marketing graphics—that’s what makes all of the work worth it.”
June 16, 2012: Cliff Obrecht, Cameron Adams and Melanie Perkins launch Canva in Australia
Mar 3, 2013: Canva raises $3.6 million seed round from top Australian and US investors, including Matrix Partners, InterWest
Partners and 500 Startups
Jan 1, 2014: Canva hits 150,000 users
April 1, 2014: Guy Kawasaki, former Chief Evangelist, Apple, joins Canva as chief evangelist
July 22, 2014: Canva launches its ‘Design’ button, a simple new plug-in for third party websites to allow their users to create their own graphics
Nov 6, 2014: Canva unveils the Canva Design School, a new platform, workshop series and teacher resource hub designed to increase the world’s visual literacy
Aug 10, 2015: Canva Pro launches to 4 million users, reinvents the way companies design
Jan 9, 2018: Canva becomes unicorn after closing a funding round valuing its operations at $US1 billion. Raises $US40 million from investors, including the Chinese arm
May 2019: Acquires Pexels and Pixabay, and completes a fresh $US 70 million funding round, valuing the company at $US2.5
3 Tips For Women Entrepreneurs Aspiring to Build Next Unicorn
1.The best piece of advice I would give is just to get started. If I listened to all the naysayers, knew the statistics about how many start-ups fail or realised everything I would have to learn to make Canva
work, I never would have got started.”
2. “Solve a real problem that many people experience. If you find a problem that people care about, then it will make every other aspect of running a business much easier.”
3. “Go 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 high school yearbooks in Australia. Once we’d learned a lot and proven the idea, we decided to tackle a much larger problem.”
(This article first appeared in the August-September 2019 India edition of Entrepreneur magazine. Click here to subscribe.)