Here at Mess, we have had the pleasure of interviewing some incredibly talented entrepreneurs at WebSummit 2019 in Lisbon. We are so excited to be able to share with you an interview with the one and only Melanie Perkins. Melanie, is the CEO and co-founder of Canva, an online design and publishing tool which makes graphic design simple for everyone.
- Melanie, you have been a business woman your whole life, from selling scarfs at a very young age and then starting your first company, Canva, at the age of 19. Our question is, where did this drive come from at such a young age and how did you catch the business bug?
When I was in high school, even primary school I would always put in a lot of work and effort to succeed. I believe that determination is like a muscle that must be exercised in order to grow. For example, after I had proven to myself that I could do a good school assignment, I would feel very satisfied. I like to be pushed outside my comfort zone as that is when I succeed and make the most progress. That’s not to say I wasn’t any less terrified when I made the call to see if I had sold a scarf!
2. So, how did you transition from selling scarfs to becoming the CEO of Canva?
I started university at the age of 19 and I began teaching the design programme’s that we were learning from. My classmates and I, found that they were really complicated but I had the gift of being able to use them efficiently. I then started designing school year books in Australia, soon my mother’s living room became my office and my boyfriend became my business partner. We set to work trying to make the books really simple so that schools could log in and collaborate easily in making articles and pages etc. A few years later, people kept asking to use it for school dinner menus, interiors, posters and much more. We then thought that surely there were other products around that were quick and easy to use, but to our surprise, there wasn’t.
An investor was over from Perth and said that I could have a quick meeting if I went over to San Francisco, so I went. This was one of the first meetings I had with an investor and I experienced lots of rejection in the process of learning about investing. The year of 2012, we spent a year in development before ending up with a tech team in 2013 alongside investment and then we launched Canva.
3. I have a question as a young woman, how did you feel when you were rejected and how did you overcome that?
Good question, one most important thing to remember is that it is not just you. Every person regardless of their gender or background is being rejected. One quote I really love is ‘the reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes footage with everyone else’s highlight reel.’ If you think that everyone is having it easy, because you are reading the newspaper or a blog, that is really dis-empowering because it means you can’t change it. There is a concept in psychology that I love, internal vs external control. Internal meaning that you can change anything, external meaning you cannot and it is outside your control.
I would always blame myself, ‘oh, my pitch set isn’t good enough’ every time I was rejected. This would lead to me refining over again then eventually, I landed investment . This very small difference really made a big difference, as I was able to attribute things that were in my power and that was where my focus went.
4. So what did you change in your pitch?
Everything! I would start off by stating, ‘here is our product and this is what it does’ I learnt the hard was that this was unimportant to lead with. After we would get rejected, we would always hear the same feedback ‘you are the same as every other company!’ To fix this issue, we later added in a slide at the beginning of our pitch showing the gap in the market for us in relation to other companies. There was a huge gap in the market for easy, accessible design programmes that enabled a lot of creative freedom. We asked for advice instead of investment for a period of time!
5. Do you think there is such a thing as entrepreneurial DNA and do you have it?
There is problem solving DNA that is very similar to it. The love of having hard problems and solving them is the absolute essence of entrepreneurship. The goals I love are the ones that people say are impossible. I think liking things that are hard are definitely a common denominator. Hilariously, if you do a 16 personality test I have the personality type of the entrepreneur. When in fact, my personality is the exact opposite, an entrepreneur is extroverted and I am introverted, and very long term vision orientated. All of the things classified in entrepreneur is just not me.
6. Back to your beginnings, how did you start Canva and how did the desire come to you?
Primarily, it was watching so many students struggle with the design programmes that I had these practical powers where I could use them. The students were constantly asking me what to do or having to look through the manual. It was really apparent then that people shouldn’t have to learn the programmes, the programmes should learn people. That basic premise was apparent, but whether or not I could build that feature was the question. I didn’t think I could go and build that entire vision when I started. But, at the time Facebook was just taking off and people did not have to take a course in Facebook, therefore, they shouldn’t have to in programme design.
7. Are you still involved with Fusion year books?
Yes, absolutely! Canva ended up buying fusion for a dollar. It was profitable but we decided so much of the IP from Canva was developed in Fusion and made a lot of sense to bring them together.
8. You were rejected many times, when was the turning point you felt like this is really taking off, how did you get inspired in that moment to scale the business?
I think there has been lots of different points where I thought ‘ this is working.’ But when I hear a customer achieving their goals through Canva, that is when it really brings it home. We have had so many stories from small businesses. For example, by using Canva, a lady found her birth mother as she created a poster and posted it on Facebook. Sheriff offices use Canva to create wanted posters and just so many stories. Also, 50,000 schools are using Canva. We did a year of development, then we finally tested and people could get in and use it easily.
9. How do you feel being in the industry that is dominated by male founders, is it more difficult being a woman?
It wasn’t something I had given much attention to as I grew up with 2 brothers and we were always fighting about Maths tests and exam results. I heard the stats years later I was like that’s a crazy unbalance. I had never grown up thinking there was any difference between males and females, or what they should accomplish or the size of their dreams. I think that was fortunate as the internal and external work it didn’t even cross my mind.
10. What is success to you?
We have a 2 step plan. 1. Build one of the worlds largest most stable companies and 2. Do the most good we can do. Success is still a far distance away, little steps everyday. We believe in a happy community, happy team and happy investors.
11. What would need to happen you could feel really successful?
Solve all the world’s problems. Constant aspiration is needed.
12. Are you currently working on any other projects right now?
Very much focused on Canva, it is more than a full time job!
13. What inspires you to keep going, any routines?
I have this crazy opportunity before me that I am so grateful to have, how we can use that platform to do good in the world is our priority.
14. Women will be reading this interview, wanting to start their own business, what advice would you give them?
I think 2 pieces of advice that sound contradictory but they are not. Spend a lot of time imagining and thinking about the future and think what do you want the world to look like in the future, and go through different industries. The more clear you can get the image of the world you would like to see, the better. I know, that is very intimidating as you cannot just go out and change the entire world’s future in a day. So take that back and figure out what is the first small step you could possibly do, for me making that scarf business, so tiny but it gave me more confidence and experience to take the next step. I visualize that you have a ladder that goes to the moon and you need to take small steps to get there each day.
Internal or external?
Vision is internal you have to have a clear picture of what you want to create before you can. You can only go as big as your dreams do. Do not make the first step to go out and make money as that will not work and its hard, try to figure out how to teach a class or sell a tiny product. Try and make something that isn’t too reliant on others.