Practical Advice

Canva’s founders: Lessons on solving big problems, moments of magic, and being outsiders

Practical Advice

Canva’s founders: Lessons on solving big problems, moments of magic, and being outsiders

Words Simon Lovick

October 19th 2023 / 10 min read

In just over a decade, Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht, and Cameron Adams have redefined what it means to build a tech unicorn. Can you build something disruptive and globally scalable, while also being authentically mission driven? Their answer is firmly yes. 

Canva’s founders’ plan all along has been very simple. One, to create one of the most valuable companies in the world, and two, to do the most good possible. 

On both counts, Canva is excelling. Even at a recent markdown , the company is valued at $25.6 billion. More importantly, they’re profitable, a rarity among unicorns: currently generating $1.7 billion in annual revenue. Their reach is impressive: 150 million people across 190 countries use it every month. Their team numbers 4000 around the world, including teams from a number of strategic acquisitions including Flourish, Kaleido, SmartMockups, Pixabay and Pexels. 

On the ‘doing good’ front, their sense of mission sits firmly at the core of the business. 500,000 charities and non-profits use the company’s premium software for free to create content raising awareness for important causes. On top of this, Melanie and Cliff have pledged about 30% of Canva’s wealth to the Canva Foundation, a charitable trust donating to causes around the world. The foundation has already contributed over $30 million towards helping end extreme poverty in Africa.

In May this year, during a fireside chat with Founders Factory, Melanie, Cliff, and Cameron shared highlights of their journey so far in building and scaling Canva, and what they’ve learned along the way. Our main takeaways included:

  • Any big mission can be broken down into smaller steps  

  • Monetisation is a proxy for a good product

  • Don’t chase shiny things in tech

  • Building great products includes creating moments of magic

  • Being outsiders can actually help

Lesson 1: Any big mission can be broken down into smaller steps 

If you’re aiming to build a global business, then you need to be addressing a huge problem, something that chimes with people around the world. 

Melanie shared the background to the early days of Canva, and how they identified the initial problem. “We saw an enormous opportunity to transform the world of design. While teaching design classes at university, I saw how difficult and unnecessarily complex these tools were to learn. Back then, design wasn’t collaborative and design programs had been built for an era of desktop computers.” 

So they started small. Melanie and Cliff’s first company, Fusion Books, addressed a small piece of the enormous visual communication pie. The pair focused first on school yearbook design, something that had no existing solution and they believed could benefit from a more collaborative, intuitive approach.  Having nailed this, they quickly realised that there was no equivalent for design in general. 

This gave birth to their straightforward but highly ambitious mission—’To empower the world to design.’

Melanie shared how they made this huge mission manageable. “It’s really about breaking it down into smaller steps, like rungs on a ladder. In a very literal sense, our mission means empowering everyone, on any continent, in any language, on every device, to design everything, with every ingredient they need.”

For example, language: they started with English, then Spanish, then 5 languages, then 20 languages, then languages not using Latin script, then right to left languages like Hebrew and Arabic. Start small, build your foundation, and work your way up from there. Today, Canva is available in more than 100 different languages, while the company’s new Magic Translate feature can instantly translate your designs from one language to another. 

“Being aligned on the big things has made small decisions much easier. It’s given us each a strong idea of where we are going—we often ask ourselves what would wild success look like in a decade, what does terrible failure look like? That has been a helpful way to plan for the future and to ensure we’re always rowing in the right direction,” Melanie added. 

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Lesson 2: Monetisation is a proxy for great products

As founders get further up the ladder, it may feel like the challenges are growing too. But as Melanie said, try to view it the other way round, that you can grow to the challenges. 

“The best ideas come from finding real problems that people are willing to pay for, and going out and solving that problem. On the flipside, you don’t want to be an idea looking for a market that doesn’t exist,” Cliff said. In short—monetisation comes from being customer-led.

Canva has retained this approach ever since. The vast majority of their revenue is product led, with a small but growing percentage coming from enterprise sales. The team shared that the majority of people come to Canva through word of mouth, SEO, or just direct sharing. And they stay, and often choose to pay, because of their experience. 

Our takeaway—if you solve a big enough problem, exceptionally well, then your product sells itself.

Lesson 3: Don’t chase “shiny things” in tech

In tech, it’s very easy to become distracted by hype and excitement.

Cameron recalled one of the ‘shiny’ traps the team fell into the early days. “We built a Christmas Card template to drum up excitement and engagement around the festive season. The initial numbers looked okay—around 30,000 cards had been sent. When we looked into it, 25k of these had come from the same user. We realised this ‘shiny thing’ might not have been the growth channel we thought it would be.”

Tech is currently experiencing mass excitement around AI, particularly generative AI. So is this a shiny thing? Well, to answer this, you really need to think about whether it is important for your customer, and for the problem you are trying to solve. If it doesn’t contribute to your core mission, ignore it. 

“We’re trying to help people express their ideas, communicate visually, and do all this easily, conveniently, and quickly. AI is a huge asset to this, ​​shortening the time between an idea popping into your head, to being able to get that thing out into the world,” Cameron said. 

This thinking informed the acquisitions they made—always considering whether they’d improve the experience and tools at the fingertips of Canva customers. This includes Flourish, who Canva acquired in 2022, which brought engaging data storytelling to their users, and Kaleido, a design AI platform known for the creation of a one-click background removal tool.

Canva: A timeline

  • 2007: Melanie and Cliff drop out of university to start Fusion Books, a school yearbook design software. Over five years, they become the biggest yearbook software in Australia, and scale to France and New Zealand

  • 2011: Through Lars Rasmussen (founder of Google Maps), Melanie and Cliff are introduced to Cameron Adams, an ex-Google employee

  • 2013: Together, the three found Canva. By the end of its first year, they already have 750k users

  • 2017: Canva reaches profitability, with 294k paying customers

  • 2018: The company reaches unicorn status ($1 billion), raising $40 million from Sequoia, Blackbird, and Felicis Ventures

  • 2019: They raise $70m at a $2.4 billion valuation from General Catalyst and Bond Capital, among others

  • 2021: They raise a $200m round with investment from T Rowe Price. At a $40 billion valuation, this makes Canva one of the most valuable private companies in the world at the time

  • 2021: The same year, the founders pledge 30% of their equity to the Canva Foundation to support charitable causes

  • 2023: Canva launches Magic Studio, their suite of AI products

Lesson 4: Building great products includes creating moments of magic

While you should try to avoid shiny things, founders should still look for certain flourishes that make your product stand out—moments of magic, as Canva’s founders call them. 

Cameron, Melanie and Cliff agreed, is the master of this, working in small fun moments for their users to make products and experiences feel special. For instance, Canva users might see a small floating duck when you’re uploading an image, or special easter eggs that appear when you give a folder a certain name (see a list of them here). This also extends to physical products—when you get something printed and shipped, it comes neatly packaged with an inspirational quote, to create a small but satisfying moment for customers. 

“Your ‘cake’ is the problem you’re solving, but these moments of delight are the icing. If you don't have the cake, then there’s no need for the icing. But putting the icing on top is what makes people love it, and want to share it with their friends and colleagues,” Melanie said.

Lesson 5: Being outsiders can actually help

Australia-based, female CEO, married couple, background in education—the Canva team is very atypical when it comes to founding teams. In many ways, this made a lot of things harder for them in the early days, particularly around attracting attention from VCs. But for other reasons, they’ve really embraced being outsiders. 

Being based in Australia kept them away from the Silicon Valley bubble, and the expectations that heaped on many founders to build ‘growth at all costs’ startups. “We had the best of both worlds: able to go visit Silicon Valley to raise, while also building in an environment that fostered sustainable growth,” Melanie said. Cliff added—”Being one of the few big tech companies in Australia allowed us to be a big fish in a small pond, which helped us attract brilliant talent that we might have struggled to get in the early days.” 

In general, the team has embraced doing things their own way, different from your typical big tech company. This might cause some friction with certain hires from other companies, who might have a rigid way of doing things. “That’s why we always look for people with a degree of flexibility to ensure they can blend the Canva way with their own experience,” Cliff said. 

About Melanie, Cliff, and Cameron

Melanie Perkins (CEO), Cliff Obrecht (COO), and Cameron Adams (CPO) are the co-founders of Canva.

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