Melanie Perkins is co-founder and CEO of Canva, the online design platform, which launched in 2013. She came up with the idea for Canva when she was at university teaching students how to use programmes such as InDesign and Photoshop – programmes that people found hard to learn and even harder to use – and she realised that a simple user interface for design tasks could have broader appeal. To launch Canva, Melanie and her co-founder Cliff Obrecht needed investment and a tech team, and as they faced more than 100 rejections as they sought finance, Melanie revised their pitch deck after every meeting, her persistence eventually paying off – today Canva is valued at $345 million (US).
“…Until recently I think that graphic design has been considered a ‘niche’ skill, but the rise of visual literacy affects so much of our lives. It’s not just the force behind huge companies like Pinterest and Instagram, it’s affecting how we tell and hear stories…”
Coming up with the idea for Canva
I came up with the idea for Canva when I was studying at university. I was tutoring other students in how to use the existing design software suite, but noticed it took a long time for students to feel remotely confident, even when designing something simple. I realised the future of design was going to be simpler, online and collaborative and that’s when the idea of Canva occurred to me.
My boyfriend, Cliff, became my business partner and we launched our first business together to test the idea when I was 19. Fusion Books is a software platform that students used to design their school yearbooks. We started niche to prove our new approach to design was possible and needed. After it kept growing for a few years we decided we were ready to broaden it out and tackle the whole design space. That’s when we started work on Canva.
Cliff and I had been working together for several years before we launched Canva. But it took us well over a year, many meetings and many rejections to find Cameron Adams, our technical co-founder. That was a breakthrough for us. Working as a team is one of the most important elements of Canva, so having three co-founders was a good way to make teamwork central to Canva from the very beginning.
The tech scene in Australia has really taken off in the last few years. Obviously Silicon Valley is far bigger and more densely populated with start-ups, but the local community is growing well with lots of good companies.
What rejection taught me about resilience
Rejection always hurts. A lot. But we never considered failure to be an option. For better or worse, when I set my mind to something I don’t give up very easily at all. It would be normal to give up after the 10th, 20th or 100th rejection, but we didn’t, and being rejected a lot in our initial stages just meant that I had to try harder and refine my strategy.
Every time we were rejected or had tricky questions we’d improve our pitch decks. One of the most important things that we learnt was that to convince investors of our idea they had to be convinced that the problem existed and that the problem affected a lot of people. While it worked out really well eventually, early on I had to come to terms with that. While not starting wasn’t an option, things didn’t work out exactly as I had hoped, but I always knew I was trying my best, so I wouldn’t hate myself.
Our ambition to become the platform that powers the modern workforce
Canva is used in schools all over the world. We wanted to create a product that absolutely anyone could use, including kids. Until recently I think that graphic design has been considered a ‘niche’ skill, but the rise of visual literacy affects so much of our lives. It’s not just the force behind huge companies like Pinterest and Instagram, it’s affecting how we tell and hear stories.
It’s also the reality that almost every single profession now has to create a lot more visual content. This means it’s never been more important for kids to become comfortable with software and know how to communicate visually. Hopefully we can become the platform that powers the modern workforce.
Advice for other girls and women who spot an opportunity in tech
I think it’s important to pour your energy and focus into things you can change. I have five bits of advice for anyone who wants to be start a company or chase after an opportunity in tech:
- Solve a real problem that many people experience.
- 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, enabling design to be simple for everything from social media posts to marketing materials.
- Hire and work with the very best people you can. We’ve been incredibly lucky to build a really strong team who want to achieve huge things.
- Focus on the projects and tasks that are going to have the biggest impact.
- Just get started!
Staying true to our values and the original vision for the business
Canva is growing incredibly rapidly now. We have more than 10 million users all over the world and the team is booming. We’ve now got more than 120 team members across our Sydney HQ and Manila, in the Philippines. This means we have to be constantly rethinking our structure and how we get stuff done. But our values and the vision hasn’t changed.
We’ve had the same 12 principles since we started and last year our designers turned them into beautiful posters that hang in both offices. We spend a lot of time talking about vision and values with the whole team as that is what binds us together.
Coming up next for me and Canva
From the outside, it may look as though Canva is fairly well developed, but we’re only just getting started. We have core elements of the product we’ve only just begun building and many more ideas. More than 10 million users sounds like a lot, but it’s only 0.03% of the Internet using population of the world so we have a very long way to go!