Canva CEO Melanie Perkins says the company’s only getting started in its drive to reinvent digital design

Canva’s Melanie Perkins.

Canva CEO Melanie Perkins features at No.3 in Business Insider’s inaugural list of the Coolest 100 People in Australian tech.

Canva has been one of the major Australian success stories this year in the tech sector.

Led by chief executive and Perth native Melanie Perkins, the graphic design platform which is a challenger to Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop has grown its user base to more than 10 million and closed a $21 million fundraising round which included backing from Hollywood stars Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson.

Perkins co-founded the company in 2012 with Cliff Obrecht and Cameron Adams. It has grown rapidly since, with customers in more than 170 countries. The company this year expanded its product line, launching Canva for Work, a subscription-based service for teams, which has drawn more than 35,000 customers. And its iPhone app was downloaded 500,000 times the first month it became available.

The company was positioned for the rise in the importance of graphic design and visual marketing that has become so central to branding and communications in the age of Instagram and Snapchat.

Perkins sat with Business Insider to talk startups, movie stars, and how a kite-boarding event helped get Canva off the ground.

Business Insider: Some of Canva’s growth numbers have been stunning, for example with 50,000 people signing up in a single day recently. Have the last couple of months been even as explosive as the rest of the year?

Melanie Perkins: It’s actually quite crazy, because every week is pretty much our best week ever. We have the most number of designs created, the most number of people joining, it’s quite crazy how quickly we’re growing across every single front.

We’ve had over 100 million designs have now been created, but when you look at the story from just one of those designs, for example, a lady created a poster and put it on Facebook and it went viral, and she found her birth mother. In the US, a sheriff’s office uses Canva to create wanted posters, and small businesses use Canva to create their marketing materials.

We have over 4,500 charities on our non-for-profit program.

It’s actually quite amazing, you look at one individual design, there’s huge ramifications that design can have when it’s out there in the real world.

BI: You made headlines last year for getting Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson on as Canva investors. Tell us how that came about.

MP: Sure. I’ll quickly rewind the clock back to how I first got introduced to Silicon Valley. I was in Perth and I was at a conference called WA Inventor of The Year, and an investor from Silicon Valley, Bill Tai, flew from Silicon Valley to Perth.

We had a five minute conversation after a conference and he said if I went to San Francisco he’d be happy to meet, so six months later I jumped on the plane to San Francisco, I met with him and true to his word he introduced me to a bunch of great people.

One of those people was Lars Rasmussen, who co-founded Google Maps, but Bill also, he runs this conference called MaiTai, which is a kite-boarding and entrepreneurship conference, and I had to learn to kite-surf to go to this conference to meet some great investors. Then through that conference that’s how I met with Owen, through a friend there.

BI: Why was he attracted to what you and Canva had to offer?

MP: I think that we have had quite an audacious vision for a very long time, so I think that, coupled with persistence. It was actually three years between meeting Bill and then finally landing our investment, every few months we’d update investors and explain how we were going and continue trying to pursue the vision, and I think that that determination and tenacity definitely paid off.

BI: The most recent news was that you took a $US15 million investment from Australia’s Blackbird Ventures and Silicon Valley’s Felicis Ventures. Did you pursue them or did they come to you?

MP: Over the years, raising funds has changed for us very significantly. The first time we raised funds it took three years, as I mentioned, but there was hundreds of rejections. I spent six months in San Francisco just trying as hard as I possibly could to make this thing work, and it was very hard to get the first round together.

In the most recent financing, we’re very fortunate that a lot of investors wanted to invest and have been approaching us, especially over the last year as we’ve continued to grow rapidly.

We really got to choose who we wanted to work with, we chose to work with investors who have been spoiling us for some years, back then, who’d actually invested in Canva since our first round. Investors in our previous rounds and who have been incredible supporters.

We decided to work with people that we knew and loved and that really understand the magnitude of our vision and are supporting us to get there.

Canva founders Cliff Obrecht, Melanie Perkins and Cameron Adams. Image: Supplied.

BI: What’s your customer profile like, now that Canva is getting bigger?

MP: The huge range of customers have been very fascinating. We have the tiniest startup or a one-man band, all the way up to huge Fortune 100 companies, and then we have media companies like Huffington Post and all sorts of other incredible companies using Canva. It’s pretty incredible how much it appeals to so many different markets.

There’s a huge range of professions that use Canva, everyone from marketing managers to social media marketers, to executives, entrepreneurs, startups, students, bloggers. I think Canva’s rise has really been in line with the rise of visual media and visual communications, across every single social network visual communication is becoming more and more common. On Facebook you get more likes and shares and comments as imagery than plain text, and the sales profession for example, previously they would write a sales letter and now all of a sudden you’re expected to create a beautiful visual pitch deck.

We’re seeing these trends happen across every single industry where there’s so much demand to create more visual content, it’s becoming incredibly important and I think that with that there’s a lot of people that have previously had no design experience that all of a sudden need to create a lot of visual content.

We solve a very significant pain point for designers within large organisations as well. A lot of designers spend a lot of time having to correct someone’s name on a business card or update some data in a presentation, and they get really stretched across all aspects of the company.

With Canva, what they can do is actually save their brand colours and logos and fonts, and then the rest of the organisation can create content that’s on-brand. They can even create templates that the rest of the organisation can edit, so rather than creating every single presentation for the sales team, they can create a template and then the sales team can easily update the numbers and update the images and the name, and really create that custom pitch deck for every customer that they’re trying to pitch.

It solves a significant pain point for professional designers as well.

BI: What advice would you have for people who are starting out in the startup world at the moment?

MP: I think it’s really important to realise that it takes a very long time. I’ve never heard of a company that’s an overnight success, not when you hear the real story.

Every single company goes through a lot of trials and tribulations, and faces a lot of rejection and has a lot of really hard times and huge roller-coasters that they have to contend with. It’s really important just to continue to persist and to see it through. There’s always going to be challenges, but you have to really love challenges and love the adventure of it.

BI: What sort of vision do you have for Canva for the next 12 months and beyond?

MP: We want to enable everyone across the globe to take their idea and turn that into a design as quickly and frictionlessly as possible.

We’ve made some good steps in that direction, but we have such a long way to go, we really want to power the modern workforce and there’s a huge opportunity to do that. All the desktop publishing platforms of years gone by were created before the internet, we think there’s such a huge demand for what we’re going and there’s over three billion people on the internet — we’ve only got 10 million users so far, so we’ve got a long way to go yet.

NOW SEE: The full list of the coolest 100 people in Australian tech!