The Meteoric Rise of the Youngest Ever Female Unicorn

Ash Jurberg

Melanie Perkins. Source Wiki Commons

Youngest female entrepreneur to get her company to unicorn status.

Youngest Australian to achieve billionaire status.

Number 10 in Forbestop under 30 of the decade” tech founders.

Meet Melanie Perkins — female entrepreneur and co-founder of Canva.

When you scroll through Instagram, or Pinterest, or Medium, or see a PowerPoint presentation that looks more visually exciting than the standard charts and Office graphics, chances are the image you see has been made using Canva.

More than thirty million active users choose to use the graphic design platform that allows them to create social media graphics, presentations, posters, documents, and other visual content.

Canva grew out of Fusion Books, which was started by a then nineteen-year-old Melanie Perkins in her mother’s living room in Perth, Australia in 2007. The company has become a Silicon Valley unicorn, propelling the young entrepreneur to the title of Australia’s youngest billionaire and one of Forbestop under 30 of the decade‘ tech founders. She sits in the top ten alongside Mark Zuckerburg, Spotify founder Daniel Ek and Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger.

That’s pretty good company for any entrepreneur.

Modest beginnings

In 2007 Perkins was studying at the University of Western Australia, and at the same time teaching students how to use programs such as InDesign and Photoshop. Her students found the programs frustrating to learn and difficult to use.

Like any good entrepreneur, Perkins saw an opportunity in this — creating an easier way for people to produce content. She decided to create an online collaborative tool for students to create school yearbooks. Students would be able easily to choose layout and colors with the tool and then have the yearbooks printed all from the one platform.

The idea of making design really simple was the first idea.”

With her then-boyfriend (and now fiancé) Cliff Obrecht they founded Fusion Books, based out of the living room of her mother's house.

As with most startups, Fusion had modest beginnings. The couple started with a bank loan and a tax rebate of $5,000, and with this, they did modest online advertising and sent samples to local schools. Perkins's mother would help print, Perkins would deliver printed books to schools, while Obrecht “lowered his voice” to sound like a senior manager on the phone when cold calling.

With few resources, they managed to grow. They had fifteen schools as clients in their first year, growing to thirty in their second and eighty in their third. Over their first five years, focusing entirely on the high school yearbook market, Fusion Books became the market leader in Australia while expanding internationally into New Zealand and France.

Despite this success, Perkins knew there was a bigger potential on the design side of things. Their product and technology could be applied far more broadly than just to school yearbooks. She wanted to move away from printing and reach a bigger audience.

Perkins wanted to create the future of publishing.

With a pitch deck for her new product, Perkins flew to San Fransisco, where her brother lived, to find investors. During her three months there she met with over 100 investors — all of whom said no. Despondent, she returned to Perth.

At a tech conference, Perkins met Silicon Valley investor Bill Tai who asked her to fly to San Fransisco for a further meeting. Back she flew to the US to pitch Tai, that meeting led to an introduction to Lars Rasmussen, the co-founder of Google Maps.

Despite battling nerves, (Perkins is a self-confessed introvert) her pitch, The Future of Publishing, impressed him. Rasmussen offered to find coders for her, and with $3 million in seed capital investment (half from Tai and other Silicon investors and half from the Australian government), in August 2013 Canva was launched.

Reasons for Canva’s rise

Success came quite quickly for Canva largely thanks to some good timing. As Instagram and Facebook became popular, people needed an easy and affordable way to impress on social media, and Canva provided this. Canva provided this. By October 30, 2014, Canva had reached one million users.

Over the last seven years, Canva has grown at a rapid rate. Unlike many businesses, Canva has managed to increase its users and revenue during COVID-19. It has seen a 50% increase in its paid user base, reached over 500 million organizations and has 1.5 million paid subscribers to the paid account type, Canva Pro. The biggest surge has been in small businesses using the tools to reach customers on social media.

Image created using Canva by Joe Donan, featuring Freepik Stories.

There are a few key reasons that Canva has been so successful.

It solved a problem

This is the key to any business. What problem are they endeavoring to solve? Perkins saw how frustrated users were with programs like InDesign and Photoshop. Many shied away from using the product as they didn’t believe they had the right skills. Graphic design was limited to people who had done courses. Perkins wanted to disrupt this industry, break down the entry barrier, and offer an easy solution.

My biggest piece of advice for any entrepreneur is to solve a real problem. If you find a problem that people care about, then it will make every other aspect of running a business much easier. It’s important to solve a problem that really bugs a lot of people. It takes a long time to rally the people needed — the team, the investors. It takes a long time to build your product and to get it into people’s hands. You want to make sure that the solution you create solves a deep problem that people care about

As mentioned, the timing of Canva coincided perfectly with the rise of social media. Visual appeal is increasingly important in a cluttered content market, and Canva gave users the benefit of graphic design without the need to employ a graphic designer.

It also provided a boon to small businesses. Restaurants could now design their own menus, and businesses could create flyers. And if they wanted to upgrade their design or images, then there was….

The freemium model

Canva operates on a “freemium” model that allows its users to access its software for free. The company’s revenue comes from upselling to a premium version ($10 a month) that includes better features. Recently they have offered a streamlined corporate account option that companies such as American Airlines and Hubspot have taken up. They also offer high-quality stock photos —from their library of millions —for a price of $1 per image.

All of these options add up to a healthy revenue model. While studies show 95% of freemium users don’t pay and will never pay, Canva has managed to entice enough users to upgrade successfully. Getting users working with their product and then offering upgrades has been the key to revenue growth.

Even when designing the Canva image used above, the free images were limited, and there was the suggestion to purchase a premium image for $1. Canva entered the image library market in 2019 through the acquisitions of Pixabay and Pexels, and for $20, users can get lifetime access to images.

An intuitive product

The program was intuitive and allowed anybody to become a publisher. Perkins is big on empowerment and wanted her users to feel empowered by the product.

Most people think they’re either “creative” or “non-creative.” I disagree. I believe there’s creativity in all of us, and with the right tools it can be unleashed.”

From the product onboarding process, the user feels like they are in control. It's an interactive product that was designed with the novice end-user in mind. Their tutorials were easy to follow (and removed the need for a teacher) and gave users confidence.

The experience was fun, rather than frustrating. The user journey incorporated fun ideas, user milestones (i.e. badges upon reaching a certain number of designs), and ongoing easy-to-follow video tutorials.

Perkins utilized the earlier feedback from her students when she was teaching them and continued to get feedback from Canva users along the way.

With Canva, we’re lucky to have a community of people who are vocal supporters. Think about who your community is, and make sure you provide for them.

The community aspect of Canva is also important. Canva allowed collaboration on projects through the use of a team button. This meant there was no more downloading and sending uneditable PDFs back and forth for approval. Designs could be worked on by numerous people across the globe in an easy manner.

Empowerment is also embedded in company culture — Perkins is very big on empowering her employees. This culture helped drive company success, and in 2018, Canva was awarded the best workplace in Australia.

Bringing in a Chief Evangelist

As with many success stories, word of mouth is key. One clever strategic move was bringing Guy Kawasaki on board in the role of Chief Evangelist in 2014. Kawasaki, a successful author, marketing legend and former Chief Evangelist for Apple, brought a large and immediate audience as well as a lot of free PR to Canva.

Macintosh democratized computers; Google democratized information and eBay democratized commerce. In the same way, Canva democratizes design.” You don’t get many chances to democratize an industry, so I seized the opportunity to work for Canva.”- Guy Kawasaki

Within two months of Kawasaki joining the team, users tripled.

Outsourcing what they don't know

Perkins admits to having limited experience when starting Fusion Books. They decided from the outset to outsource what they weren't experts in.

With no coding experience, they outsourced the coding and technical side of the business. This allowed them to focus on building the business. With Canva, it was even more important to get the right software engineers in place. They allowed Lars Rasmussen to hire their initial engineers. Rasmussen used his contacts and experience to employ the best technical staff again, allowing the co-founders to focus on their strengths.

Advice from Melanie Perkins

It’s hard work, but it’s hard for absolutely everyone. Everyone’s going to have trials and tribulations and rejections.”

There are very few overnight successes. Perkins spent several years learning through Fusion Books before commencing her Canva journey. Along the way, she experienced hundreds of rejections. Each time she learned from them and continued to refine her pitch deck and strategy. She advises any would-be entrepreneur just to get started.

‘“The best piece of advice I would give is just to get started. If I listened to all the naysayers, knew the statistics about how many start-ups fail or realised everything I would have to learn to make Canva work, I never would have got started.”

I am sure her words will inspire future entrepreneurs to follow her path.

The future

In June, Canva received another $60 million of funding that will go into expanding its collaboration tools and into potential acquisitions. The injection of cash reserves also provides a level of comfort during times of global uncertainty.

The future of both Perkins and Canva looks bright as the journey of this young entrepreneur continues towards her goal of having every person on the internet using Canva. In addition, Fusion Books still operates and is Australia’s biggest yearbook producer.

Melanie Perkins saw a problem first hand and created a solution for it, and that is the crux of the lesson. A lesson that has been extremely profitable for her.

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