To build a unicorn, Australian Melanie Perkins had a simple insight: make it easy for those with no design experience to create material that looks like it was done by a professional, anything from a business card to an e-book. In 2013, Perkins, with cofounders Cameron Adams and Cliff Obrecht, started website Canva, providing digital design tools and design resources. Since then, the website has grown into a platform with 15 million users in 190 countries. Based on this success, the trio last year raised $40 million from investors, including Sequoia Capital, which gave Canva a $1 billion valuation.
Perkins has another notable achievement: She was in Forbes Asia’s inaugural 30 Under 30 list at age 28. Now 31, Perkins’ motivation for Canva came from a problem she spotted while a student at the University of Western Australia, while tutoring other students on how to use design software. Many in her class were new to design and had long learning curves, even when designing something simple.
Perkins thought there had to be an easier way for people to communicate their ideas without the hassles of using Photoshop or similar software. Her first step was Fusion Books, an online tool she cofounded with fellow University of Western Australian student Obrecht in 2007 for creating school yearbooks. They built up the company to where Fusion Books now says it has been used by hundreds of schools and helped create thousands of yearbooks.
In 2012, the pair met Adams, an ex-Google engineer, and the three of them came up with the idea of using the design principles behind Fusion Books to reach a wider market. They launched Canva the next year. It was unlike anything on the market: other solutions were fragmented, requiring users to search elsewhere for elements such as photos, layouts and fonts. After acquiring the needed resources, designers then had to use a program such as Photoshop to put their design together in a slow, complex process.
The Canva team instead created a single interface simple enough for would-be designers to achieve great results with little training. “We want to empower the world to design anything and publish anywhere,” says Perkins. Perkins and her partners worried that professional designers would dislike a platform that gave the hoi polloi entrée to their exclusive domain. Yet they were surprised to find that professional designers have been overwhelmingly positive, using it themselves to collaborate with clients.
Achieving scale and growth, however, has been challenging. Canva has grown from its original team of eight to over 300 employees. Every time the staff doubled, things started breaking down, says Adams, who is Canva’s chief product officer. “Anyone who is new to Canva goes through a well thought out onboarding process, where we pair them up with someone on their team who looks after them,” Adams says. “They have lots of sessions telling both about the little technical details of Canva as well as the broader philosophies and the values and how we make decisions.”
The company says it has been cashflow positive since July 2017. Canva gets revenue from paid users, who are charged $12.95 a month per user for a “Canva for work” subscription, although a free basic version is also available. All users must pay $1 for each photo bought from the site. Fusion Books has a pay-per-print model, as well as payments for photos used. “Our focus is on continuing to grow Canva, in terms of its accessibility to more people across the globe—and also we have a lot more of our vision yet to build,” says Perkins. “While we have made some great strides in realizing our vision over the last few years, we’re still only 1% of the way into our plan and vision for the company and the many ways we can empower our design community.”
To accelerate growth, Canva has been adapting its tools to local markets. Canva recently debuted a Chinese language version, for example, featuring local fonts, local templates and a support team in Beijing. “It’s been pretty incredible to see Canva now used in 190 countries and available in over 100 languages,” Perkins says. “Last year we launched in some of the more complex languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew, which required Canva to launch with the entire interface flipped as their interfaces are typically right-to-left.” Of course, as it grows larger, it will become a target for larger competitors such as Adobe, the maker of Photoshop.
Canva also offers a free version of its “Canva for Work” that is being used by more than 25,000 nonprofits, so they can produce better-looking materials. “It’s incredible to see the impact they’re making,” says Perkins.
Being selected for Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list three years ago gave Canva an important confidence boost, Perkins says. “Graphic design has always been considered a niche skill that only certain people can master,” she says. “Being on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list has brought about more awareness for the need to change that perception.” As it continues to evolve, Canva is tapping into the growing demand for better designed content. “Almost every single profession needs to create a lot more visual content,” Perkins says. “Canva will be the platform that powers the modern workforce.”