It might look like Canva founder, Melanie Perkins, had an overnight meteoric rise to the top. But, the story of one of the world’s richest women is quite the opposite. Her vision to make graphic design accessible to all began at age 19 as a university student. However, her company didn’t become a billion-dollar hit until 2018, when she was 31. “We pitched to hundreds of investors, getting rejected time and time again . . . I was quite literally living on my brother’s floor,” Perkins tells 9 News Australia.
Thanks to her perseverance and ability to take feedback, the company is now worth 40 billion dollars. This makes Canva the world’s fifth most valuable unicorn.
By now, most people have heard of the online design tool, but they don’t know much about Perkins’ life, how she developed the company, and her plans to keep innovating her industry. Yet, she is one of the best case studies on how to launch a successful business as a transformational servant leader.
Get inspired by Perkins’ story and leadership style by learning more below.
Melanie Perkins’ Entrepreneurial Roots
From an early age, Melanie Perkins wanted to be an entrepreneur. At 14, she made and sold scarves to shops and markets in her hometown of Perth, Australia. She tells Entrepreneur, “I never forgot the freedom and excitement of being able to build a business. That was one of the driving forces that led me to launch what would evolve to be Canva.”
A few years later, when she was a student at the University of Western Australia, Perkins built her first business. This idea came from her life experience tutoring students in graphic design. She saw the difficulty people experienced when trying to learn how to use programs like Adobe Photoshop. She expressed to CNBC, “People would have to spend an entire semester learning where the buttons were, and that seemed completely ridiculous . . . I thought that in the future it was all going to be online and collaborative and much, much simpler than these really hard tools.”
Wanting to solve a real-world problem, Perkins and her now-husband, Cliff Obrecht, launched Fusion Books in 2007. The business offered online school yearbook design and publishing services from the confines of her mom’s living room. With little experience owning a company or selling a product, the couple knew they needed to start small and scale later.
The company became so successful, Perkins dropped out of college. Within five years, Fusion Books superseded all of its competitors, becoming Australia’s most popular yearbook provider.
However, Melanie Perkins wasn’t content with stopping there. She had a grander vision to make graphic design easy and accessible for all. With Obrecht’s support as the Canva co-founder, the two began crafting a new business together.
Failure to Launch
In 2011, Perkins and Cliff Obrecht wanted to expand upon what they’d done with Fusion Books. The idea for Canva was simple: allow users to create any design. This included wedding invitations, business cards, social media posts, eBooks, and more (without needing a degree in graphic design).
The online digital design platform was template-based and simple to use, which solved a major problem for people who needed to design something but might not have the know-how to do so. By offering this service for free, Canva changed the requirements needed to produce high-quality designs.
Investors weren’t convinced, though. Perkins and Obrecht were dismissed over 100 times. “Rejection hurts a lot, but failure was never an option . . . For better or worse, when I set my mind to something I don’t give up very easily at all. Being rejected a lot in our initial stages just meant that I had to try harder and refine my strategy,” Perkins said in a speech hosted by Blackbird Ventures about her experience with failure and how to grow from it.
Despite the constant rejection, Melanie Perkins refused to lose. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to see her company through to success—including learning how to kitesurf.
It’s All About Who You Know
In 2011, Perkins and Obrecht pitched Canva to Bill Tai, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley who funded wildly successful companies such as Zoom and Wish.com. Tai also happens to be a huge fan of kitesurfing. Realizing this was how relationships could be built with many potential investors, Perkins took up the sport. When Forbes caught up with her on Richard Branson’s Necker and Moskito islands in 2019, she explained, “If you get your foot in the door just a tiny bit, you have to kind of wedge it all the way in.”
With Tai’s invitations to events like his MaiTai kitesurfing retreat, Perkins quickly became known to a group of Silicon Valley’s key players.
“Going to Silicon Valley for the first time, it made me realize something. That nice, normal people were creating world-changing multi-billion dollar companies . . . I met Lars Rasmussen who co-founded Google Maps, and it completely changed my mentality of what was possible.”Melanie Perkins, panel discussion for Viva Technology’s “Building Tech Unicorns”
With more frequent trips to San Francisco, the Canva founder met a group of people who would launch Canva into stardom. This included their tech advisor, Rasmussen who is mentioned in the quote above. Developer and former user interface designer for Google Cameron Adams also joined Canva as a co-founder. In addition, Dave Hearnden, who worked on Google Maps and Wave, became Canva’s tech developer. Perkins credits the company’s success to meeting these people, as they were huge in influencing her vision and helping her tackle it.
Canva’s Rise to the Top
The company launched in 2013, with a few million dollars raised the previous year. Once the design platform went live and proved profitable through a subscription model for premium services, the list of investors quickly started growing. By March 2013, the team raised another three million from several American private equity companies and angel investors, including Tai and Rasmussen. At the end of 2013, Canva already had 750,000 users, showing promise to anyone who doubted whether or not the business would be successful.
In 2015, the company reached Series A funding. Investors included Matrix Partners, Vayner/RSE, Blackbird Ventures, Owen Wilson, and Woody Harrelson. The following year, Canva reached Series B funding.
In 2018, the company achieved one of its biggest milestones. After a funding round that raised 40 million, the business became a unicorn. At this point, users created 13 designs per second on Canva—that’s 86,400 creations made on the digital platform each day.
As expressed by Rick Baker, partner at Blackbird Ventures, “In just four years, Melanie Perkins and her team have taken the startup from humble beginnings in Australia to what has now blossomed into one the fastest growing software businesses of all time.”
Thus far, Canva has reached Series E funding, which is almost unheard of for startup businesses. As of 2021, the business has raised 572.6 million, giving it a current valuation of 40 billion. Today, 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies use Canva, making it one of the most widely used graphic design tools on the market. According to TechCrunch, the business has over 60 million monthly users in 190 of the world’s 195 countries.
Melanie Perkins, the Disruptor
“Canva vs. Photoshop” produces 1,400,000 results on Google, showing just how disruptive Perkins’ business is. For a newcomer to enter the industry and rank with a best-selling software that came out in 1987 is astonishing.
Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling author of Outliers, explains in a speech for World of Business Ideas that those who disrupt their industries must be:
- Open: Someone who is creative, welcomes new ideas, and thinks about how to do things differently.
- Conscientious: The person must be disciplined and follow through with their creative ideas.
- Disagreeable: Along with the two traits listed above, disruptors don’t need outside validation from peers to act on their dreams. They will do what they feel is right instead of what other people tell them is “right.”
Melanie Perkins is all three.
It’s why she’s been so successful with Canva and is now competing with Adobe and Microsoft.
Even after all of her success, her openness, conscientiousness, and disagreeableness aren’t going anywhere. She tells Forbes, “I think a company is a startup when their dreams are much bigger than the size of the company . . . We are squarely in that category. We’re only 1% of the way there.”
Serving Others One Design at a Time
While Perkins is busy guiding the world’s top female-led unicorn company, her schedule is never too full to be a great leader. She serves her employees by personally onboarding all new hires (which is now over 1,500 people). During this meeting, she explains the team culture, describes her vision, and shows them the business’s investor deck. All employees also have the opportunity to become partial owners of the company with stock options, which equate to five percent of the business (around 2 billion).
Canva also gives back in many other ways, such as offering free premium services for nonprofit organizations and teachers.
Despite Canva’s success, Perkins is an entrepreneur who isn’t concerned with amassing wealth for the sake of living in luxury. Her $30 engagement ring is a huge indicator of how little she cares about what money can do for her—she’s more concerned about what it can do for others. Because of this, it is unlikely she’ll ever sell her shares of the business.
In 2021, she and Obrecht pledged 12 billion (30 percent of the company) to fight against extreme poverty. In a media briefing, Perkins said of the charitable donation, “[W]e believe there is enough money and enough goodwill in the world to solve most of the world’s problems.”
It goes to show Perkins and Obrecht aren’t just good business owners—they’re good people.
The next time you’re designing something on Canva, you now know you’re supporting a business committed to solving the world’s biggest problems.