Melanie Perkins remembers thinking that things weren’t going very well when she met with Silicon Valley venture capital icon, Bill Tai, to pitch her new app Canva. She had flown from Perth, Australia, to speak with Tai in San Francisco and found herself sitting in a café along University Avenue.
“I was really nervous and I felt out of my depth, trying to pitch Canva with a paper print out of our slide deck because I didn’t own an iPad, all the while eating lunch so I didn’t look stressed,” Perkins recalled in a recent interview. “He was on his phone the whole time and I thought he was completely uninterested.”
As luck would have it, the exact opposite proved to be true as Tai had been introducing Perkins to his network via email. It took Perkins time to find funding for Canva but it is now valued at $1 billion dollars after securing an additional $40 million in capital from Sequoia China in January 2018. They now employ 100 people from twelve countries to serve 15 million users.
Canva is a graphic design software solution that utilizes drag-and-drop tools and stock photos, fonts and other elements. Perkins first inspiration for the platform came when she was a 19-year-old commerce and communications student at the University of Western Australia. It was 2006 and she was frustrated with how challenging it was to master the mainstream software she was using in her program.
“It could take a whole semester to learn the very basics,” Perkins said. “Even the simplest tasks, like exporting a high-quality PDF file, could take 22 clicks.”
Seeing an opportunity, she business partnered up with real-life partner, Cliff Obrecht, and set up shop in her mother’s living room. They borrowed money from family to hire software developers to build the platform and decided to start with a smaller niche market. The result was Fusion Books, a simple, straightforward website that allowed high schools to design their own yearbooks online.
The business grew and soon became Australia’s largest yearbook publisher. Perkins dropped out of university to focus on the company full time and watched their success spill over into New Zealand and France. Fusion also served as a forerunner for Canva and it was 2010 when Perkins realized that applications for the online platform extended far beyond yearbooks.
She subsequently flew to California to pitch investors – including Bill Tai – on her grand Canva plans and felt like she had stepped through the looking glass when she landed on America’s west coast. “In Australia, people really talk down their accomplishments,” she said. “In Silicon Valley, where you’re trying to raise funds or get an engineering team, you have to actually be able to speak about your accomplishments.”
It wasn’t an easy journey for neophyte Perkins and her newcomer software platform but true grit saw her through. “I learnt early on in life that if I worked really, really hard I would usually succeed or at least learn a lot along the way. Sheer determination has been key to Canva’s success in every way,” Perkins shared in a recent interview. “At the beginning, we were rejected more than a hundred times by investors before anyone said ‘yes,’ but I just kept learning, refining my strategy and updating my pitch deck until we got a yes.”
Since then, Perkins has scaled up almost as much as Canva’s seven-digit subscriber numbers. She is no longer the scrappy underdog fighting for a small toehold in an Adobe-dominated market and she knows it. The CEO has goals for 3.5 billion user world domination in the graphic design industry and while it might be ambitious, it’s not without precedent.
“We have a huge opportunity at Canva – to transform the way people communicate and reach their goals by democratizing design. Every day we are hearing from educators, corporates, small businesses and not-for-profits about how Canva has opened up a new world of design for them.”
If there were bets to be made on Canva further disrupting the creative digital market, the wise money might be with the Australians.