‘Sheer determination’ behind $230 million success

Melanie Perkins, CEO of online graphic design platform Canva, discusses her journey from Australian start-up to global success story.

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Millennial entrepreneur Melanie Perkins is the powerhouse behind Canva, an online graphic design platform which allows anyone to create their own professional quality designs.

Used by more than 10 million customers in 179 countries, including corporate teams from Lonely Planet and Huffington Post, Canva has attracted $US27 million in backing from high net worth individuals and investment funds.

The venture is Melanie Perkins’ second foray into the startup scene – at age 19 she launched Fusion Books, an online design system for schools to create yearbooks, which has become the

largest publisher of its kind in Australia.

At 29 years old you’ve already founded two successful enterprises. Was doing your own thing your destiny or did a more conventional career path ever beckon?

Melanie Perkins, CEO

I think I probably wanted to be almost everything at some stage when I was growing up. Throughout high school I interned at a lot of different places – a PR agency, a radio station, a sports store, through to spraying on tattoos at carnivals. I chose my degree in Arts and Commerce to give myself as many options as possible.

What gave you the impetus – and the courage – to start a business so young?

While I was studying, I was tutoring students to use programs like InDesign and Photoshop. But I noticed most people found them hard to learn and harder to use. It was then I realised the future of design being entirely different – online, collaborative and simple.

My boyfriend and co-founder, Cliff Obrecht, and I were university students, with no money and no engineering or business experience. We didn’t 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.

I don’t really consider it to have been a risk or something that needed courage. I was at uni and thought that if things didn’t work out I could always go back and finish my studies.

You’ve turned Canva into an international operation that was valued at $230 million in mid-2015. What attributes are needed to convert a smart proposition into a viable enterprise?

Sheer determination! I was fortunate to learn how powerful it could be so young in life. I’ve poured my heart and soul into everything I’ve done and I’ve come to realise that if I work really, really hard I’ll usually succeed – or at least learn a lot along the way.

Canva has attracted more than $US27 million in funding from venture capitalists who turn down hundreds of pitches each year. What’s the secret to getting them to get out the cheque book?

Persistence. Our first round of investment was raised after a year of meeting investors, six months in San Francisco and 100 revisions to our pitch deck. We were really struggling to get things rolling and it took an incredible amount of willpower to see it through.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of rejections for anyone doing a startup: investors, potential team members, early customers. Every single time we experienced a rejection we revised our offering to answer the questions or concerns that had been raised. You have to believe in your vision for a long time before anyone else will.

Not so long ago, Australia was considered the end of the earth for wannabe IT entrepreneurs. Has this changed and is it now possible to launch and run a global high tech company from Down Under?

The exciting thing about technology is it has made geography almost irrelevant. The United States has been our biggest market since the day we launched and we had users signing up from all over the world very early on. We’re available in eight languages and plan to be in 20 by the end of the year – all out of Australia.

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Issue 22).