How Tenacity and Rejection Fueled Canva’s Colossal Growth
Canva has all but revolutionized how we design for visual culture, with its easy-to-use tools making everyday design tasks a seamless experience. The $40 billion unicorn’s rise is a tale of rejection, tenacity, and—most importantly—maintaining the belief that design should be accessible to everyone.
It may be difficult to believe that Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht, the co-founders of graphic design unicorn Canva, weren’t formally trained in the medium. While tutoring students in Photoshop in college, Perkins realized that the process of creating a flier—designing it, converting it to the right size, saving it as a PDF, and taking it to a printer—felt cumbersome. So she envisioned an all-in-one online tool that offered an easy solution to every step. “People would have to spend an entire semester learning where [Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign’s] buttons were, and that seemed completely ridiculous,” Perkins told CNBC about her original idea. “I thought that in the future, it was all going to be online and collaborative and much simpler than these really hard tools.”
As 19-year-olds living in Perth, the duo launched Fusion Books, an online yearbook product that offered high school students easy drag-and-drop tools and a library of templates. After five years of bootstrapping, it became Australia’s largest yearbook company and expanded into France and New Zealand. Scaling the business without venture capital proved difficult, and Silicon Valley investors were wary to invest in Perth, a startup dead zone.
After a chance encounter with Bill Tai, a venture capitalist who backed Zoom and TweetDeck, the work-and-life partners were invited to join his kitesurfing gatherings that attracted prominent tech executives seeking to invest in startups. At that point, the idea for Canva was gestating as an outgrowth of Fusion Books. Perkins and Obrecht were getting in front of any potential investors and finessing Canva’s concept based on their feedback, one “no” at a time. They received more than 100 rejections but stayed the course, eventually securing the $3 million seed round that got Canva off the ground in 2013.
Fast forward to today, and Canva is a $40 billion juggernaut that employs 2,500 people in Sydney, Beijing, Manila, and San Francisco. The platform has all but revolutionized how we design for visual culture. Its foolproof interface is widely applicable in everyday life, from creating business cards and birthday invitations to pitch decks and Instagram graphics.
Gone are the days of spending years learning the intricacies of Adobe Photoshop and InDesign; Canva gamified its tutorials with humorous tasks that make complex design tools feel approachable. Basic tools are free, with enhanced features like accessing licensed stock photos available for a small monthly fee. Canva has become robust, letting users build graphics, cut videos, and schedule content to social media all in one place. Its next frontier? Scale its professional accounts, which account for 12 percent of its user base and cost up to $30 per month.
Its widespread adoption aside, Canva has its share of critics. Seasoned graphic design professionals remain loyal to Adobe’s gold-standard software suite, and debates have ensued on Reddit as to whether someone can truly be a graphic designer if they only use Canva. Perkins has taken the feedback in stride, writing a 15-minute parody of The Office that satirizes the frequent criticism from agency creatives. (The company now uses it as an internal film). She doesn’t think Canva will replace graphic designers—users still can’t free-draw or illustrate. But she remains loyal to the belief that jumpstarted Canva in the first place—bringing down the guardrails around design to make it more accessible. It turned out to be a billion-dollar idea that continues to prove its worth.