5 Lessons from Melanie Perkins of Canva

On resourcefulness, taking risks, and more

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5 Lessons from Melanie Perkins of Canva

In the fourth installment of my 5 Lessons series, we have Melanie Perkins, co-founder and CEO of Canva, a company worth tens of billions of dollars.

Melanie’s grit and vision allowed her to build a design empire and I originally wrote a deep dive about her story in February of 2023. There’s a lot to learn from her journey.

1. Narrow the Problem

Melanie taught design as a private tutor and knew design tools were cumbersome, but she started with a subset of the problem.

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.

2. Be Relentlessly Resourceful

Melanie started what would become Canva, a multi-billion dollar company, as a side hustle.

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.

Melanie Perkins

She is not a technical founder and didn’t know venture capital existed yet, but needed software 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.

Melanie Perkins

3. Go All In

Melanie met the investor Bill Tai at a conference but wasn’t about to let that be the end of it. She had to figure out how to get him to invest.

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.

Melanie Perkins

It worked, she got a meeting and also invested time in the relationship.

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 Perkins

Melanie also needed to find a technical co-founder and was willing to do whatever it took to find one.

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!

Melanie Perkins

4. Ask for More (And Back it Up)

Melanie’s first investor, Bill Tai originally said he’d invest $25k in Canva.

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.”

Melanie Perkins

5. Stay Focused on the Vision

Always remember where you are headed.

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.

Melanie Perkins

Want more insights from world-class founders?

Since February 2023 I’ve spent more than 1,000 hours researching and writing about world-class founders, publishing 48 in-depth profiles of people like Sam Altman, Tyler Perry, Patrick Collison, Estée Lauder, Travis Kalanick, Coco Chanel, and many more.

These profiles are typically 4,000 - 8,000 words long and are filled with valuable insights for entrepreneurs.

A few weeks ago I teased a product I was thinking about creating from all of this research and it’s now available for preorder.

It’s called Insights by Just Go Grind.

The idea is simple: Share the best insights from the founders I study to help you build your business.

I’m going to share the insights I find from these founders on an ongoing basis with this product which is now available for preorder and will be coming out in a few weeks.

If you want to take advantage of preorder pricing before I double the price, preorder today.

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