'I wanted to create a company where I’d love working': the Canva start-up story

From left: Cliff Obrecht, Melanie Perkins and Cameron Adams.

Three years of rejections weren’t enough to dampen the spirits of the tech entrepreneurs who founded Canva.

More than 100 million designs have been created on Canva since its August 2013 launch. During every second that you’re reading this story, the Sydney-based web business will have helped five more people to create beautiful designs and documents with its online graphic design tools.

More than 150 people work for Canva in Sydney, San Francisco and Manila, and in September 2016, the business was valued at US$345 million. It makes you wonder why its founders had to suffer three years of rejections by more than 100 potential investors.

These knockbacks and the resulting slow burn of the young business actually had an upside – they enabled Canva founders Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht and Cameron Adams to learn the ropes and constantly polish their offering. 

“It really helped us to refine our strategy,” says Perkins, Canva’s CEO.

“When we finally landed an investment, we knew where we wanted to go.”

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For the three lean years, Perkins and her co-founders were models of resilience. With each rejection came a greater understanding of what it was they could do better. 

In their pitch, for instance, they originally began by telling potential investors about their product, without explaining the gap it would fill – easy-to-use software for amateur designers and beginners. Investors consequently saw little value.

“Actually, a lot of start-ups incorrectly focus too heavily on investment early on in their life cycle,” says Perkins. 

“Success would have been a lot harder for us had we been carrying the ticking time bomb of investment, which means you need to grow and become profitable rapidly. That’s daunting if you haven’t run a business before.”

“A lot of start-ups... focus too heavily on investment early on in their life cycle.” Melanie Perkins

For the Canva team, however, some investment was a necessity, and achieving their goal would be expensive. This was not a business that could be kickstarted with donations from friends and family or bootstrapped from maxed-out credit cards. The start-up needed a significant tech team, as well as marketing and other talents to take the brand from Sydney to the world.

Along the way, challenges have been the only constant, says Perkins.

“I happen to be someone that loves challenge,” she adds with a smile. “I think that keeps me excited about the adventure that lies ahead. 

“In the early stages, the worries were around having enough money to run the business next week, but fortunately that’s not a concern now. Instead, there are different challenges. For example, now we have 150 staff and we always need to ensure everyone is inspired and motivated.”

How does she go about creating the culture that recently won JobAdvisor’s Coolest in Tech award? It’s a little bit to do with diversity, social cohesion, fitness activities and breakfasts and lunches prepared by on-site chefs, and it’s a lot to do with people.

Culture has been a common thread for me from the early days,” says Perkins. “I wanted to create a company where I’d love working. It’s that simple.”

One piece of advice

“Just get started,” says Melanie Perkins. “It can be intimidating to take that first step, but once you do you’ll learn and have experiences that will drive you onwards.”

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March 2017
March 2017

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