The year was 2012, and Canva CEO Melanie Perkins, then 24, had scored an invitation to MaiTai Maui, an exclusive event on the beach organised by investor Bill Tai and attended by the kingmakers of the startup world.
It was the start of big things for the Sydney-based Canva, which provides online tools to make it easy for anybody to do advanced graphics design work. It’s basically a simpler alternative to Adobe Photoshop, and Perkins boasts you can learn how to use it in 23 seconds.
In the last 12 months, Canva has gone from 1.5 million users to over 10 million, with 50,000 business teams paying for it. In the two weeks since the Canva iPhone app launched, it’s been downloaded 330,000 times. The company has raised more than $27 million from investors including Founders Fund, 500 Startups, and Felicis Ventures.
But while Canva is certainly a rising star now, it was a journey that took some patience, a willingness to be rejected — “so much rejection,” as Perkins puts it — and, as we can flash back to Maui in 2012, at least one kitesurfing adventure on the beach.
“We just kept getting rejected, but it was obvious in my head that this was the future of design,” Perkins, now 28, says.
A lot of rejection
In 2012, Perkins had already tasted success once.
She founded her first startup, Fusion Books, in 2007 when she was 19-year-old college student. Fusion Books helped schools custom design their yearbooks, and was a success. But the tech behind Fusion Books only represented a small part of the larger ambition that would become Canva.
“We wanted to take it to a much broader market and design everything,” Perkins says.
In 2012, Perkins and cofounder Cliff Obrecht went out looking for investor capital to take this bigger idea and bring it to life. But investors simply wouldn’t bite, no matter how hard they hustled.
Perkins didn’t give up: She spent three months living on the floor of her brother’s San Francisco apartment while taking trips down to Silicon Valley to meet with investors. During the day, she’d use the free WiFi in the mall’s food court.
In the meanwhile, she says she took something like 100 meetings with investors, but none of them ever turned into a deal for Canva.
“I remember thinking, ‘why is this so hard?'” Perkins says.
Kiteboarding for capital
Which brings us back to Maui in 2012. Tai is famous in the investor world for his love of kiteboarding, where a boarder is literally dragged over the waves by a massive parachute-looking kite. So when Tai runs a MaiTai event, kiteboarding is always a centrepiece of the occasion.
Tai met Perkins at a conference in Perth, and was impressed enough with her Canva pitch that he invited her to MaiTai Maui to meet some of the tech bigwigs who rated a spot on the guest list.
Perkins was so dead-set on finally landing some big investors, she decided to teach herself kitesurfing, a sport she describes as “peculiar” and “dangerous” but also a lot of fun.
And it worked. Through kiteboarding, Perkins met a well-connected investor who put her in touch with Hollywood stars Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, who both ended up investing in Canva. And her more traditional pitch session at MaiTai Maui earned her some early investors too, including Tai himself, leading to a $3 million seed round.
“It was a lot of journeying, but it ended up doing exactly what we hoped it would,” Perkins says.
If you build it…
After that, raising capital got easier, Perkins says, and investor interest ran much higher. Instead of having to come to Silicon Valley for money, she says, investors flew to Canva in Australia to get into the $15 million funding round it closed in October 2015.
Next up for Canva, Perkins says, is just keeping working on the technology and building out the team, to get it into the hands of more people.
“We feel we’ve only done 1 per cent of what we can do with Canva,” Perkins says.
As for entrepreneurs who want to follow in her footsteps, she has one piece of advice: No matter what you read or hear, don’t believe in the myth of the “overnight success.” Building companies takes time and hard work, and not everybody will be on board right away.
“Rejection is just part of the process,” Perkins says.