Melanie Perkins: Building a $26B Design Empire
The founding of Canva, one of the best startup stories you'll read about
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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:
We got a loan to develop our first piece of software. We went to every software development company around Perth that would take a meeting with us. Most people said it would be impossible or cost an astronomical amount. Eventually we found a great company called Indepth (now called Cirrena), led by an incredible guy, Greg Mitchell.
I drew detailed wireframes of what I wanted to create, and it felt like magic when we saw the first piece of software come to life.
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:
In those days, both Cliff and I were studying full-time, and working a couple of part-time jobs to get some money together. We’d work on Fusion Books whenever we could- in the morning, the evening and on the weekends.
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:
We didn’t really ‘decide’ to bootstrap Fusion, we just didn’t know there was an alternative. However, in retrospect I’m incredibly glad that we did go down that path. If it wasn’t for those years of figuring things out on our own, learning the ropes of business and being deeply focused on our customer’s needs I don’t think Canva would be anywhere near where it is today.”
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:
I sent him a bunch of emails trying to set up a Skype chat that elicited no response, but then decided I was going to just go all in and say that I was going to visit San Francisco — trying to act somewhat cool by pretending I was just going to be in the hood rather than making a special trip to meet with him.
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:
That two week trip to San Francisco, quickly turned into three months — the entire duration of my visa. I attended every single engineering conference that I could. I reached out to people on LinkedIn. I cold-called people. I set up my ‘office’ in the food court at the Nordstrom shopping center as I had a table, I felt safe, had space to work and a little portable WI-FI connection. Oh, and it was free!”
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:
I was also learning to kitesurf, as I knew Bill ran a conference called MaiTai which was a gathering of entrepreneurs and kitesurfers. Kitesurfing scares the hell out of me, and learning to kitesurf in the dreary, cold, shark-invested waters of San Francisco was far from enjoyable. But I wanted to get Canva off the ground, so it was just a small inconvenience.”
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:
Mel, you’re extremely tired. You’re in a challenging situation though you can pull through. Nothing bad is really happening. You’re just feeling depressed because you’re used to achieving things quickly. It’s a hard environment. There is no doubt you will succeed, and you will find the team you need, get the investment you need, and build the company you’ve always wanted. You have chosen to put yourself in a challenging situation. If it wasn’t challenging you wouldn’t feel satisfied when you get to the end goal.
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:
We realised we needed to start to pull the round together. A few people said that they’d invest and finally after years of getting ‘advice’ from Bill, we asked him directly if he’d invest. He said ‘yes’ — we were ecstatic. We asked how much — $25k…
I thought that when Bill said the previous year, “I’d be excited to back you and team,” it meant that we’d have enough capital to build the whole thing. Well, we soon learned that unfortunately that ain’t how angel investors work. After an hour long chat and my absolute best debating skills using every objection I had at my disposal, he generously raised his investment to $100k, but that still wasn’t quite enough funding to build out ‘the future of publishing’…”
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. http://t.co/Wxh51bIKbC
— 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! 🎉 https://t.co/vIQpgTiIa9
— Melanie Perkins (@MelanieCanva)
Apr 14, 2021
They’d also release products like the AI image editor, website builder, video editor, Canva Print, Canva Docs, and many more.
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:
We have this wildly optimistic belief that there is enough money, goodwill, and good intentions in the world to solve most of the world’s problems, and we want to spend our lifetime working towards that.
But she also understands it’ll take a collaborative effort:
My theory is that to solve the world’s problems, we actually need governments and companies and non-profits and entrepreneurs and VCs and everyone to work together to reach the goals. So I think that there needs to be a lot more collaboration and a lot more voice given to goals that we have because we all want a better world.
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:
I think I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself. And I think that sort of internal locus of control has been pretty strong, so while the expectations around our company and what we’re expected to do is sort of increasing, that’s nothing on what I’ve got on myself!
On staying focused:
I don’t find it that hard because I just pretty much haven’t been doing that much external things, as you found out… One of the themes that is probably coming out a little - I don’t really like distraction. I like getting to build a company.
On dreaming about the future:
Why is dreaming so important? If you don’t dream about the future, you can’t make it happen. Knowing where you’re headed can help you move a lot faster. For me, if I have a really clear understanding of where I’m going I can make lots and lots of quick decisions, but if I don’t have a clear understanding of where I’m going, it makes decision-making way harder.
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