How Melanie Perkins Built Canva Into a $40 Billion Design Giant

Jett Barnett
Photo byWikipedia

It’s one thing to start a company. However, it’s quite another starting a company that competes with tech giants like Adobe and Microsoft.

That’s exactly what Australian entrepreneur Melanie Perkins did. She built Canva from nothing into one of Australia’s biggest tech companies currently valued at $40 billion.

Canva needs no introduction. I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’re aware of the design software that makes everyone feel like a graphic designer.

From logos to banners to posters to resumes, anyone can create almost any type of design with the software.

But how did it all start? What’s the story behind the software product?

Well, let’s break it down.

The year is 2006. Melanie Perkins is a 19-year-old student at the University of Perth, Australia. Like most students, Perkins had a part-time job where she taught design lessons to other students.

But then, she realized something. Most of the design software like Photoshop and Illustrator were too clunky and complex for average guys.

“People would have to spend an entire semester learning where the buttons were, and that seemed completely ridiculous,” Perkins told CNBC.

I can relate to this. The first time I used Photoshop I was completely overwhelmed by the interface.

So what did Melanie do? She set out to create a better tool — something that any amateur could use with the click of a mouse.

Together with her boyfriend, Cliff Obrecht, they set out to make their vision a reality. But they didn’t immediately start with design software.

Rather, Melanie and Cliff created an online school yearbook design business called Fusion Books to test out their idea.

First of all, they didn’t know how to code. So they raised $50000 from friends and family and hired a software company to develop the software for Fusion Books.

With few resources to go, Melanie converted her mother’s living room into their business office.

It turns out Fusion Books was a success:

  • In year 1, 16 schools signed up for the software.
  • In year 2, 50 schools did
  • In the third year, they had 100 schools sign up and were awarded Western Australia Inventor of the Year.

As their Yearbook business became successful, Melanie was convinced it was time to work on her design software idea.

By 2010, she was attending a business conference in Perth when she ran into Silicon Valley big-time investor, Bill Tai.

Now, Bill Tai is well-known in tech circles. He had early investments in tech unicorns such as Zoom and Wish. He also had a huge passion for kitesurfing.

When Melanie pitched her software idea to Bill, the venture capitalist invited her to come over to San Francisco and pitch her idea.

The following year, Melanie traveled to Silicon Valley and pitched her idea to a couple of VCs.

However, investors weren’t convinced of her idea. She went back to Australia disappointed but didn’t give up. She kept on meeting and pitching her business to several tech investors but was rejected over a hundred times!

Still, Melanie didn’t give up. She learned that Bill Tai was an avid kitesurfer and so, in other to maintain rapport with the venture capitalist, she had to learn to kitesurf.

Bill Tai always hosted kitesurfing retreats where he invited other Silicon Valley VCs.

In 2012, Bill Tai invited Melanie and Cliff to attend the retreat.

While there, Tai introduced her to the co-founder of Google Maps, Lars Rasmussen who loved the idea and immediately became their advisor and one of the earliest investors.

But there was still one hurdle. Since neither Melanie nor Cliff were programmers, they had to find a tech co-founder.

It didn’t take long for Rasmussen to introduce her to Cameron Adams who became the third co-founder. With a fully formed team, they were now ready to get into business.

By the end of 2012, Melanie and Cliff had already closed their first funding round of $1.5 million. Their seed investment was matched by the Australian government with $1.5 million which convinced them to stay in Australia.

With this seed investment, they immediately got to work.

By the summer of 2013, they were ready to launch version 1 of their software product.

After 7 years of building their vision, their product hit the market and was well received.

  • In the first year of launching, they had 600k users.
  • In 2014, Canva had 1 million users.
  • The following year, they had 6 million users
  • By 2020, over 2 billion designs had been made with Canva from users in 190 countries around the world.

The platform has been a fantastic alternative to many users (myself included) who aren’t versed with complex design software like Adobe Photoshop.

As of 2022, Canva employs over 3000 people and is valued at about $40 billion making it one of the few tech unicorns that is profitable. Over 85% of Fortune 500 companies use Canva in their business operations.

Melanie and Cliff are billionaires now and are among Australia’s most successful tech founders.

Apart from being successful entrepreneurs, they also give back by donating 30% of their income to charitable organizations that help to combat poverty caused by crises such as typhoons in the Philippines.

Melanie and Cliff prove that if you have a dream and stick to it, despite all odds, you will make it.

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