Featured Profiles

Building A Design Empire Worth $40 Billion

Melanie Perkins is an Australian technology entrepreneur known as the Co-Founder and CEO of Canva, an online publishing and design tool which makes graphic design simple for everyone. Perkins is listed as one of the youngest female CEOs to lead a tech startup valued at over a billion dollars. She has raised more than $166 million from investors, including Yahoo! CFO Ken Goldman, Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen, and funds such as Bond, General Catalyst, Felicis Ventures and Blackbird.


Melanie Perkins was born in Western Australia, in the state of Perth, in 1988. She is of multicultural descent: her father is a Malaysian of Filipino and Sri Lankan descent, while her mother is Australian-born. Her father was an engineer by profession, while her mother worked as a teacher. Growing up Perkins always had an entrepreneurial drive and at the mere age of 14 opened her first business and sold handmade scarves in markets around Perth to earn extra pocket money.


Driven by this passion for succeeding, she pursued communications, psychology, and commerce at the University of Western Australia. As a side hustle during her time at college, Perkins taught students basic computer design. After noticing that her students were struggling to use Adobe Photoshop and other complex design platforms, she was struck by the idea of developing an easy, user-friendly app accessible to everyone. She recalled the moment she had an epiphany, “I was tutoring other students in how to use the existing design software suite, but noticed it took a long time for students to feel remotely confident, even when designing something simple.” She continued, “I realized the future of design was going to be simpler, online and collaborative and that’s when the idea of Canva occurred to me. My boyfriend, Cliff became my business partner and we launched our first business together to test the idea when I was 19.”


Motivated to ameliorate the struggles of the design world, Perkins dropped out of college to pursue a career in business. She says, “My co-founder Cliff and I were university students; we had no money, no engineering or business experience. We did not even know what a ‘startup’ was, let alone know anyone who was in one. We just had a problem that we wanted to solve and an absurd amount of determination.”


The duo worked unceasingly to set up Fusion Books, a design tool for yearbooks. Perkins explained, “Fusion Books is a software platform that students used to design their school yearbooks. We started niche to prove our new approach to design was possible and needed.” Once finalized, the yearbooks were printed and delivered to schools across Australia.


The business was an instant success and remains active to date. Perkins continued, “Once we had established a growing and profitable business and proven the approach, we were ready to expand it to the whole design space and began to work on Canva.”


However, Perkins needed a considerable investment and a talented tech team to launch the app. She encountered multiple rejections at the start and finding both took roughly two years. However, Perkins added, “But every time we got a hard question or a reason why people wouldn’t invest, we stayed focused. I revised our pitch deck after every meeting, more than 100 times in one year, to answer the questions or fix the reason for rejection from the last time. The normal thing to do after your 100th, 80th or even 20th ‘no’ would be to stop, but you just have to persevere.”


After several obstacles, Perkins finally received her big break in 2010 while at a conference. She recalled, “I met investor Bill Tai in 2010 at a conference in Perth. He said he was interested in my startup and if I went to San Francisco he would have a meeting.”


Building new relationships, however, wasn’t an easy task, as Perkins has previously perceived. Tai is an avid kitesurfer and was keen to share this recreational activity with Perkins and Obrecht at MaiTai, his unique retreat for investors and kitesurfing enthusiasts.


She recalled, “Every time Tai would say how was my business going, he’d also be like ‘how’s your kitesurfing going?’ I had not done it before — and, to be honest, it’s not something that I would normally try,” she said. But yeah, I decided to give it a go because when you don’t have any connections, you don’t have any network; you have to wedge your foot in the door and wiggle it all the way through.”


However, this trip proved conducive to the couple, and they were soon winning over major investors and had a headstart to select the talented pool of tech engineers to build Canva’s design platform.


She says, “We launched Canva in August 2012, and within the first month had more than 50,000 people sign up to use the platform.” Just two years later, they grew to 4 million users. Perkins continued, “It’s been incredibly popular with marketers, bloggers, graphic designers, and small businesses who need to create lots of visual content and struggle with the existing tools, and it’s been exciting to see it come together.”


Today, Canva has helped create almost 2 billion designs in 190 countries and won celebrity backing from the likes of Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson. The app is currently valued at $40 billion following a fresh capital injection of $200 million (USD) in a round led by T. Rowe Price. This round has solidified Canva as one of the most valuable private software companies globally and propelled the Australian tech scene forward.


When asked about future plans for Canva, she says, “From the outside it could look as though Canva is fairly well developed. But we have only achieved 1% of what we plan to, and have a lot of work to do.”


Canva’s upward trajectory has placed the spotlight on Perkins; she was included in the Forbes 30 Under 30, 2016 list and the Forbes Top Under 30 of the Decade. She is also an ardent advocate of a diversified and inclusive workplace; her company has a workforce of 41% women, much higher than the industry average of 28%, leading the reigns to democratize the workplace.


Conclusively, Perkins says, “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.”