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How Melanie Perkins disrupted digital design

Perkins started it when she was 19, now digital design startup Canva is worth $160 million.
By Elyssa Christine Lopez |


STARTUP FOUNDER. At 19-years-old, Melanie Perkins dropped out of college to start her own business in her mother’s living room. Photo courtesy of Canva


It is a startup story for the books—Melanie Perkins, who was 19-years-old, dropped out of college to start her own business in her mother’s living room. Little did she know that it was the birth of a $160-million (P7.42 billion) company that will disrupt digital design.



It was in 2005, when Perkins was still teaching graphic design. A year before, she was taking digital media as part of her degree, Communication Psychology, at the University of Western Australia.


“But the design software was complicated and difficult, and it became apparent to me that in the future, everything’s going to be online—collaborative and simple,” Perkins said in an interview with Entrepreneur Philippines.


She may have had an early epiphany on what the future of design would be, but Canva’s story was not born immediately out of that class. Before it, there was Fusion Books, an online software Perkins created which lets its users produce yearbooks without the hassle. The company has since become the leading yearbook publisher in Australia, with presence in New Zealand and France.


“People who make yearbooks get thrown in the world of design very quickly. It’s very intimidating for someone who has no design experience—it’s just one of those things which has a strong need,” Perkins said.




MEET THE TEAM: From left: Cliff Obrecht, Melanie Perkins, and Cameron Adams founded Canva in 2012 bent on disrupting digital design. Photo courtesy of Canva 


Gutsy move

Armed with guts, a winning idea, and a business partner, Cliff Obrecht, Perkins applied for a loan, installed printing presses in her mother’s garage, and an office in her living room.



“We had orders from 15 schools in the first year.  I remember when we first had our $100 (P4,638.10) check and we were just over the moon. Someone actually wanted to pay for this thing we created. Then, the next year we had 30 schools, then 80. It grew faster than I expected,” Perkins added.


Starting a company without any business background was not a walk in the park for the young professionals. The heavy workload forced Perkins and Obrecht to quit college and focus on the startup instead. But the eager technopreneurs were not easily discouraged; they used their very own inexperience to learn the ins and outs of business, and treated the real world as their school.


“I was learning everything the whole way. Just in time when I have a problem, right then and there I figure out how to solve it. Sometimes, you can solve something quickly, and sometimes you have to solve it over many years,” Perkins added.




CHIEF EVANGELIST. From left: Former Apple chief evangelist Guy Kawasaki, Melanie Perkins, and Cliff Obrecht. Photo courtesy of Canva


Serendipitous meeting

 One problem they ultimately wanted to solve was the difficulty in creating graphics. After a few years with Fusion Books, the two were playing on an idea which could help anyone create their own designs, even those outside the world of yearbooks



In 2008, Perkins and Obrecht presented Fusion Books at the Innovator of the Year conference in Perth, Australia— a moment that would ultimately change their lives.


During one of the lunches at the conference, they met Bill Tai, a venture capitalist and co-founder of MaiTai, a kite-boarding camp in Silicon Valley where investors from all over the world meet—think of it as the modern take on corporate CEOs’ golf course meetings.


“I was very fortunate to meet him that early because, at the time, we had a company for many years yet we didn’t know anything about the world of startups and venture capital. We were just this little, small company that’s trying to get started,” Perkins shared.


Canva was still an idea then, but Perkins and Obrecht took their time to make it a reality. In a span of three years, they brought in a technology co-founder to the team, Cameron Adams, one of the minds behind Google Wave. They hired their own developers, brought in designers, and finally set up a real office in Sydney, Australia.




QUICK GUIDE. Canva is a digital design tool which simplifies the design process through a drag-and-drop creative process. Video from Canva's YouTube channel


Pitches, rejections

By 2012, they were in a plane en route to San Francisco to pitch the idea that is now Canva.


“It was initially just a 2-week trip, but it stretched to two months. We met as many investors as we can and learned about startups,” Perkins said.


The trip resulted in a $3 million (P139.10 million) worth of seed investment from the biggest names in Silicon Valley, including Facebook's director of engineering and former Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen, and Yahoo chief financial officer Ken Goldman.


“Before we had the first round of investments, it took a hundred pitches, meetings, revisions, and rejections. It’s so difficult to convince people when it was just an idea, but when you start to prove success, people start to come around and jump in,” Perkins shared.



And jumped in they did. As of 2016, total investments in the company have reached $27 million (P1.25 billion). The company has also been under the guidance of Guy Kawasaki, formerly with Apple, serving as its chief evangelist.


When Canva launched in 2013, it gained a million users in a span of 14 months—by March 2016, its user base has grown to 10 million. The free online design software has encompassed its use to a variety of audience, from a sheriff in the US who uses it for wanted posters to a student preparing for a thesis presentation. This has led to two designs generated every second, and it is only getting started.


“The idea is to help people make great design, and we have made really awesome progress in the last few years. But there’s so much more we can do and I feel we haven’t really achieved 1% of what we’re capable of yet,” Perkins added.




Believe in your idea

But even with the success Canva is enjoying now, Perkins never forgets the path they had taken to reach this milestone. The young female tech leader banked on her sheer belief in her dream and emphasizes how such trait can push anyone to reach success.


“Believe in your idea before anyone else will. You can’t wait for someone to believe in you because you’ll be waiting for it for an indefinite amount of time. Believe [that] it’s the way of the future and just go for it. Take on every challenge because the further along you get, the more people will come around,” Perkins added.


Today, there are around a hundred people operating behind the scenes for Canva, with offices in Sydney and Manila. While her once small team of six at the comforts of her home has exponentially grown, she still instills the same values.



“It’s important to have people who believe in what you want to achieve. We want to be a company where we would want to work in, and I think we have achieved that with our very casual yet creative environment,” Perkins added.



Elyssa is’s  editorial assistant / staff writer. Follow her on Twitter, @elyssalopz .

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