• Canva CEO and co-founder, Melanie Perkins. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Melanie Perkins knows the power of having a clear vision and sticking to it, no matter how much rejection you face. It’s how she built Canva into a multimillion-dollar global business, all in her twenties.
SBS Small Business Secrets
17 Sep 2017 - 5:35 PM  UPDATED 30 Jan 2018 - 11:18 AM

Consider these numbers: 10 million users, more than $50 million dollars, and a valuation of nearly half a billion dollars ($456 million to be exact).

That's a lot of zeros, and a lot of success for Sydney-based tech company, Canva.

The site simplifies graphic design, allowing anyone to design anything from a presentation to an e-book to invitations.

But it all began a decade ago as an idea in university, when Melanie Perkins was teaching design programs and realised they were too difficult and complex for many users.

That led to the launch of her first business, a yearbook design platform.

Small Business Secrets sat down with Canva CEO and Co-Founder Melanie Perkins to get the details on her journey.

SBS: So that first business was Fusion Year books, how did that morph into what is now Canva?

MP: With Fusion Yearbooks, we enabled people to design their school yearbook and then get it printed and delivered to their door, and that was growing really quickly. But people kept asking us, “Can we use this to design our canteen menus, and our newsletters?” and all sorts of other things, and we thought, “surely this has already been done by now,” and it really hadn’t.

There was still nothing on market that enabled people to design everything. And so we were like, “okay, let’s take this to the next level.”

SBS: You’ve now got a whole range of high profile investors including Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson, the actors - how did that come about?

MP: In our early days, we had absolutely no connections in Silicon Valley and we spent a long time trying to meet people. I went to San Francisco, I spent three months - until my visa ran out - living on my brother’s floor, just going to every single meetup that I possibly could, trying to find investors.

Nowadays we’re very lucky, that we’ve had actually investors come over from San Francisco to visit us. So the contrast has been pretty crazy. But in regards to Woody Harrelson, we learned to kitesurf at this kitesurfing entrepreneurship conference and he was a connection through that.

SBS: A lot of Australian tech entrepreneurs remark about how the Australian tech industry is much more risk-averse than the US. What kind of cultural differences have you noticed between the two countries?

MP: It was actually such a big cultural shock for us when we first went to the US. In Australia, you’re not used to much self-promotion. Over time, we realised that if we just kept speaking like an Australian, we were not going to get anywhere with investors. So we had to start saying the things that our previous company had done well. So having to learn to actually talk about your success was a really big learning curve for us.

SBS: What do you make of the tech scene here compared to the States, especially given the changes to the 457 visa rules?

MP: I think from a macro perspective, as a country, Australia has no option but to really start to foster the knowledge economy. And so literally anything that we can be doing in that regard will set us up for a stronger future. And any step that’s adverse to that is a really terrible step for the country. There were some people we were looking to bring from overseas that didn’t classify into 457 visa and that’s absolutely atrocious because in Australia, we need these be getting in the expertise to help build these companies that are going to be employing thousands upon thousands of people.

SBS: I want to ask about sexism in the tech industry because it’s an issue that’s received a lot of press in the past year, particularly in the States – what’s been your experience been like as a female founder?

MP: It’s actually, personally, not something I’ve given a lot of consideration to and I think that’s been really helpful for me. Because I think that if I blamed getting rejected from an investor on something I couldn’t control, it would really take the power out of my hands. Whereas if I blamed it on my pitch deck not being refined enough, or my strategy not being refined enough, it meant that I could continuously refine these things and make it better and better and better, until eventually we landed investment and found people that supported both me and my vision and what we were trying to do. I think there’s so much scope for the industry to change and grow, and I’m very excited to see the conversation started around that and very excited to see a lot more action happening.

SBS: What would be your advice for young female tech entrepreneurs trying to get funding?

MP: I think the most important thing is to set your vision and get a really strong idea of what the future of an entire industry will look like. And once you’ve got that really clear focus of what you’d like to do, you just have to do absolutely everything under the sun to make that happen. So for me, it’s been ten years now to get to this point, and there’s a quote I really like: ‘The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes footage with everyone else’s highlight reel’. And I think that that is so true.

I think the thing that needs celebrating the most are those times where you’re really struggling, facing a lot of rejection. And so I think that one of the most important things is to know that rejection is really normal and part of the process, because once you get use to that, then you can pursue anything until you actually succeed.

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