- Just Go Grind
- Melanie Perkins: Building a $26B Design Empire
Melanie Perkins: Building a $26B Design Empire
The founding of Canva, one of the best startup stories you'll read about
Hey there my friend, Justin here, and welcome to Just Go Grind, a newsletter for the ambitious. Thank you to the 45 of you who joined since the last edition, if you aren't subscribed, and want to join 722 other subscribers, please subscribe below:
Sponsored by: Wave
Reach your work goals with an AI+human coach
Today, top-level talent use coaching to deal with the challenges they face in the workplace around:
Current apps and methodologies for professional growth are outdated.
Wave has developed an innovative way to improve your skills by building daily routines.
It is measurable and easy 🔥
Leaders from Amazon, Stripe, Google, or Strapi are already using it.
The more I learn about Melanie Perkins, the more impressed I become.
Yes, she’s the co-founder & CEO of Canva, a company valued somewhere around $26 billion, with more than 100 million monthly users, and nearly 15 billion designs created on the platform, which, by the way, does about a billion dollars a year in revenue.
And yes, she’s a multi-billionaire at only 35 years old with ambitions of building one of the world’s most valuable companies, which I’m confident she’ll do.
And sure, the legendary venture capitalist Mary Meeker described Melanie as, “a rare breed of entrepreneur, the likes of which you don’t find often anywhere.”
But that’s not the whole story.
Melanie is also incredibly motivated to make the biggest positive impact in the world and her story of perseverance is way more relatable than many we see.
Sure, she dropped out of college like another billionaire founder I wrote about, but she wasn’t some genius coder or business prodigy when she did.
In fact, she knew nothing about business when she started and had absolutely no connections to investors, but she’s gone on to create a behemoth in the industry, building the vision she had since she was only 19 years old.
How did she do it?
That, my friend, is what we’re covering today.
Let’s get to it.
To understand who Melanie Perkins is it’s helpful to get an idea of what she was like at a young age.
She grew up in Perth, Australia, and by 14 years old she had already started a business making scarves and selling them to local boutiques.
When asked in an interview about what influenced her to become an entrepreneur and whether her parents were also entrepreneurs, she described her parents as “ridiculously supportive” of her wild ideas as a kid and would go on to say how she “just always liked solving problems.”
For a period of time in her youth, she had aspirations of becoming a professional figure skater, waking up as early as 4:30 am to train.
I love seeing those early signs of hustle. We notice them in the lives of many eventually successful entrepreneurs.
And it only continued for Melanie.
As she’d go on in her career, this work ethic and willingness to do what it took to succeed would be the foundation of Canva’s success.
It’s 2007, Melanie is 19 years old, and she’s teaching design as a private tutor while she attends college.
To set the scene for those who don’t remember, it’s the same year the iPhone was released, Facebook had only recently launched the news feed, and the San Antonio Spur swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA finals (Sorry LeBron).
It’s also a time when the only design tools available are desktop-based and they take a whole semester of school for people to learn how to actually use them.
Melanie knows this problem well.
She realizes the future of design will be different - simple, online, and enabling anyone to create professional quality designs.
And her vision starts to take shape.
But she doesn’t go and start what we know as Canva today because she’s not a technical founder, doesn’t know anything about business, and doesn’t even know that venture capital exists yet.
So she launches a company called Fusion Books in her mother’s living room, with her boyfriend, Cliff Obrecht, to tackle one subset of the design problem - yearbooks.
Since Melanie’s mother is a teacher at that time and helps coordinate her school’s yearbook, it makes sense as a starting point for the grand vision.
Despite the doubters, they get their first version of Fusion Books built:
With that first platform, they land their first customer, who actually finds them online in March of 2008.
At this time though, Melanie is still a student, working on the company whenever she can:
After that first customer, they tried a number of other marketing strategies, eventually finding the best way to get new customers was to cold call schools and send them a sample yearbook.
It reminds me of the classic Paul Graham essay on doing things that don’t scale and how many founders have to do unsustainable things in the early days to get their companies off the ground.
Reinvesting profits from the business to fund growth, they continued to redevelop the website each year, eventually working with more than 400 schools and expanding into other countries.
More importantly, it was a valuable learning experience:
Armed with this experience, Melanie would take the next step in realizing her vision for the future of design.
3 Years and $3 Million
Remember how I mentioned Melanie didn’t know anything about venture capital at the time?
Serendipitously, this would all change.
In 2010, she meets the investor Bill Tai and a conference in Perth, they talk for a few minutes, and he mentions they should meet again if she’s ever in San Francisco.
6 months later, after failing to set up a Skype call with Bill, she “happens” to be in San Francisco:
Bill agrees to meet with Melanie and ends up introducing her to Lars Rasmussen, co-founder of Google Maps, to help her build out a tech team, something Bill tells her she’ll need if he’s going to invest.
Lars agrees to help vet potential technical co-founders for Melanie, so she gets to work immediately trying to find technical talent:
Despite her best efforts, Melanie doesn’t find the right person.
But she doesn’t give up.
She continues the search for a tech team and investors, going so far as to learn to kitesurf, a hobby of Bill’s, in order to build her network:
Melanie’s willingness, again and again, to do whatever it took to build Canva, is admirable to say the least, but it was certainly a difficult time for her, and in 2011 she wrote herself this note:
Eventually, Melanie’s persistence pays off and Lars introduces her to someone who would put Canva on a new trajectory: Cameron Adams.
Lars described Cameron as someone who is a world-class designer and web developer, with experience including Google and his own startup.
So, Melanie meets Cameron, he joins their team, and they build the next great company, right?
Cameron was working on his own startup at the time and rejected Melanie’s offer to join Canva on multiple occasions.
Finally in 2012, a year into her search for a tech team, Cameron agrees to join Canva as a co-founder and chief product officer.
With a critical piece of her team in place, Melanie had the leverage she needed to closer her first round of funding, but of course, it wasn’t smooth sailing:
Side note, did you catch that?
With one hour of her time, she quadrupled her investment from Bill.
Remember, you don’t get what you don’t ask for.
Melanie would hear “no” from investors more than 100 times and it would take nearly 3 years to close her first round of funding, iterating on her pitch deck dozens of times in the process.
In March of 2013, Canva announces its $3 million funding round, raising $1.6 million from investors and getting a grant from the Australian government of $1.4 million.
After a year of development, the Canva team launched their free platform.
At the time, as Melanie describes, Photoshop was $1,500, a price that made them out of reach for many people, especially students.
Canva’s differentiated approach - an online tool, free-to-use, and purposely not focused on logo design - allowed them to stand out.
Combined with their ease of use and a focus on PR and blogs in the early days, they built up a 50,000-person waitlist before launching.
And what happened after the launch?
CANVA TOOK OFF.
Within 8 months, they had 350k designs being created per month on their platform.
20 months in, that number grew to 2.9 million.
Two years in, there were 5.8 million.
Five years in, that number was 110 million.
They had exponential growth and Melanie was correct back in 2014 when she tweeted this:
I think tonight marks the last night the @canva team can rock up to a restaurant without a booking.
— Melanie Perkins (@MelanieCanva)
Jul 2, 2014
The Canva team, along with the number of users, grew quickly.
Along the way, Melanie and her team would continue to improve the product, releasing ambitious new features that would be years in the making:
Eight years ago, our CTO Dave Hearnden set a massive goal to launch simultaneous collaboration in @canva and vowed to not cut his hair until it launched. After years of effort and many ‘world firsts’, it’s now live! We created this short film to capture his momentous haircut! 🎉
— Melanie Perkins (@MelanieCanva)
Apr 14, 2021
Melanie was also able to do something many other founders had failed at - bringing her business to China. She did so by working with local partners and doing what she seems to do so well - build relationships.
She’d also continue to raise funding to fuel this growth.
Most recently, she raised $200 million, valuing Canva at $40 billion in 2021.
While the valuation has taken a hit with the market downturn in 2022, it’s still a $20+ billion company with no signs of stopping.
This all started from that kernel of an idea back in 2007.
And remember what I mentioned about Melanie wanting to create a big positive impact in the world?
She’s done that too.
Making a Positive Impact
I can’t write about Melanie Perkins without mentioning a few of the ways in which she’s leading the charge for Canva to make a difference in the world:
Canva for Nonprofits. A program launched in 2015 that offers free access to Canva for nonprofits and has 300,000 of them around the globe currently using the platform.
Canva for Education. A program where 25 million students and teachers get free access to the product.
Canva Represents. An initiative to champion diversity in their content.
One Print, One Tree. A program that’s planted more than 4 million trees since its inception.
Canva also joined Pledge 1% years ago and is constantly finding ways to be, as Melanie says, “A force for good.”
And she believes in this wholeheartedly:
But she also understands it’ll take a collaborative effort:
Finally, just like my piece on Sam Altman, I want to leave you with a few more quotes from Melanie I particularly enjoyed.
On managing expectations:
On staying focused:
On dreaming about the future:
Thanks for reading! Let me know on Twitter what you thought about this edition of Just Go Grind. If you found this valuable, please consider subscribing and sharing it with a friend 😊