Insights on innovation with Melanie Perkins, Canva founder and CEO – part one

Canva is one of Australia’s fastest-growing global start-ups, hitting 3 million users in June. It recently raised additional capital from high profile VCs to support its launch into the business market with Canva for Work. Samuel Tait of I/O sat down with Melanie Perkins, founder and CEO, to discuss how Canva is disrupting the desktop publishing industry and how the team supports innovation within their start-up.

Samuel Tait: How did you become Founder and CEO of Canva?

Melanie Perkins: It started eight years ago where I was studying and teaching design at university. I was teaching people how to use design programs, like Photoshop and InDesign. Seeing people struggling to learn the very basics of the tools, it became very apparent that in the future things needed to be much simpler. Prior to creating Canva, I founded my first company called Fusion Books, which is based on the idea of using an online design platform to help people create school yearbooks. With my Fusion Books co-founder, Cliff, and a third person, Cameron Adams, we took the technology ideas we had built for Fusion Books and created Canva. We have now been up and running for 21 months and just hit 3 million users in early June.

ST: What has been the driving force to Canva’s growth?

MP: The driving force behind our growth has been primarily from solving a significant pain point for a lot of people. We have since had a crazy community grow behind Canva. We have now had over 89,800 blogs written about Canva, and over 2000 video tutorials have been made. In addition, we have had a lot of activity on social media, with people tweeting, posting on Facebook. We had one Facebook group that has 4000 members who talk about Canva. We’ve been lucky that a very strong community has risen and got behind it. I really think because Canva solves that pain point around complex design software has really affected a lot of people. People have used the product a lot and then they are also tweeting about it, they are writing blogs about it, they are spreading the word about Canva and that has certainly been very important.

ST: How do you define innovation?

MP: I think innovation is solving a problem. That can be a small problem that just affects you, that can be a large problem that affects society. Innovation is getting to the crux of a problem and solving it. When I think about Canva it started from the seeds of a problem I saw eight years ago when I was teaching and has taken eight years to help solve it. I still feel like we have many, many steps to go but I think that that is the thing with innovation. It is when you kind of have a vision of what the future will be like; it is the journey towards the vision, delivering a complete solution and it takes a very long time to get there. That is also the fun of innovation I think.

ST: What was the background or insights that enabled you to design the value proposition for Canva?

MP: Every few decades in the publishing industry, it’s gone through radical transformation, driven by new technology. When the typewriter was born, typesetting and paste-up came and completely replaced metal page printing. Then when desktop computers came along, desktop publishing completely replaced typesetting and paste-up. We are seeing that same transformation happening at the moment with the Internet, HTML5 and tablets driving industry change; where desktop publishing is being transformed by a new era of design, where everything is born through the web.

If we look at the professional design process: you go and purchase Adobe, study design for a few years, go to a photography library and post and download stock photos, purchase fonts, purchase layouts, create image vectors using Photoshop and Illustrator, receive photos and content by email, then go and design something. You go through all these elements to actually create a design. Then once designed you email the PDF to get input from a client, maybe upload using Dropbox. Then once approved, you prepare the design for web or print. A lot of very big companies that have been built around this ecosystem.

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Our belief at Canva is that everything should be simple and integrated, with one click you should be able to access a stock photography library and a font library. You should be able to collaborate online, and you should be able to export to social networks or PDF or PNG. We have many plans in that area. The very big vision for Canva is integrating the entire design ecosystem, and there are many, many steps to that journey.

If we were to ask professional designers what they’d like to see or people who never had design experience before, they would have probably talked about incremental improvements to existing technology. But it was only because we had both lenses on, to see the ability of design to help people to communicate and at the same time, see people struggle trying to learn the existing technology which is massively complex. That gave us a unique insight that design should be simpler because everyone now needs to communicate visually.

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ST: Did you set out with the intention to disrupt Adobe?

MP: It was less competitive focused and much more about what the future was that I would like to create, what the future is that I would like to see in regard to graphic design and desktop publishing. I couldn’t imagine that the way it would be in the future included the complex tools that people were using. I guess that was the leading focus with solving the problem as opposed to a competitive outlook. Which is actually a really important thing I think is actually focusing on your own path and your users and your own problems that you are trying to solve. It is important to stick to your own things.

I think disruption is certainly an output of innovation. If you solve a problem and you provide the solution that meets people’s needs, a lot of other things will occur and the process may end up disrupting industries. However if you set out to disrupt industries you probably won’t disrupt too much.

ST: What has been some of the big hurdles in executing on the business idea?

MP: When we first launched Canva, and saw people interact with Canva for the first time, we had major issues with usability. We found that after all the development building the product, people were scared to click on the buttons, that they were actually scared to do anything because they thought that they would break it. When we investigated, what we found was that most people think that they can’t design. People didn’t get an amazing experience that enabled them to all of a sudden do design. They just clicked around and moved things left then right. We were very concerned about what that would mean for the business.

We found that there was a huge amount of time between people actually hearing about the product and then getting value for it and then spreading the word about Canva. It was very problematic. We spent months trying to re-engineer the learning and onboarding experience of first time users. Now when you come to Canva the first time round, you will get a 23-second animation that takes you through the core elements of how to use the product.

What was equally important was the development of our five starter challenges. Just simple and fun things like putting a hat on a monkey. It asks you to use Canva, search for a hat and drop it onto the monkey, then change the color and finally add a background to the page. This has been so effective because each time a user does one of these little things they feel as if it is an accomplishment, they realize that they can design, that they can take an idea and actually see that realized. The challenges are specifically created to enable new users to feel competent using Canva.

You hear it in people’s voice when they are feeling confident, when they are feeling proud of themselves and when you see them interact with the monkey challenge people would laugh. They’d be laughing into their computers having fun. We leveraged some of the ideas around game theory, wanting to make people feel accomplished quickly and they see Canva as a place to play and explore.

I think if we had not developed the challenges Canva would only have been used by people with a dire need and only they would actually use it in the first place as opposed to making it easy to use and accessible to pretty much everyone.

ST: How have investors added value to the business?

MP: We have been very fortunate that a lot of our investors have incredible experience that we have been able to leverage. We’ve got amazing advisors such as Lars Rasmussen, co-founder of Google Maps. He’s been an incredible help building our technical team, assisting us to find engineers and and then make sure that those people had the aptitude to manage and scale the company. Lars has been absolutely critical and extremely helpful in our journey.

We have a lot of different investors who have built the companies before and being able to tap into their knowledge has been really important. Leveraging an investor’s experience in launching into a specific market is just one example. Our investors help us not to make some of the same mistakes they made with their businesses.

ST: What is your biggest business challenge at the moment?

MP: For us, our big challenge at the moment is getting Canva into the homes of everyone who can use it. We have just reached 3 million users and we would like to get to a 100 million or even a billion users. So user acquisition is certainly top of mind for us.

We are making sure we support our community. We’ve had incredible organic uptake from our community across social media. We do facilitate education about how Canva works. For example, we have an online Design School which is a daily publication and series of tutorials, and that has about 500,000 monthly visitors now. These people are sharing articles, we have video tutorials that take minutes to do where you can actually learn about Canva. We are focused on really getting behind the initiatives that people have, so create a content series that they can teach in the classroom which will support professional development. Then if we are seeing uptake in a certain market we will do things that will help spread it further in that market. We want to ensure we are building a platform that people can utilize.

ST: Which companies do you most admire for the way they operate in regards to innovation?

MP: In a local setting, there is an incredible Indian restaurant in my home town Perth and they say that anyone can come in and you pay what they like. What is beautiful about this is that you have homeless people eating alongside people who are more well-to-do. It solves a community pain point because people are getting fed and then it actually has a really nice feeling about it because it’s all about egalitarianism.

Then you have a company like Apple and they really pioneering future technology and doing a lot of amazing things in the process.

From another angle there is a company called Samahope. Samahope connects people who need surgery with people who can pay for it. It is like crowd funding for surgery in developing countries. That is incredibly cool as well. It is solving a very significant pain point for people who are actually in desperate need of surgery and they are being connected to people who will help help pay for it.


Check out part two of our interview with Melanie Perkins here. Part two on operations of innovation covers execution, value of customers in product design, how team structures and culture can support innovation, and her advice for successful innovation programs.


Samuel Tait
BY Samuel Tait ON 29 July 2015
Samuel Tait is a digital marketing and transformation specialist who has consulted with clients across a diverse range of industries to drive growth through a fusion of consumer psychology, data, and technology. He is managing partner, business innovation at innovation consultancy I/O.