Canva Uncovered: How A Young Australian Kitesurfer Built A $3.2 Billion (Profitable!) Startup Phenom
On a steamy May morning in 2013, Canva CEO Melanie Perkins found herself adrift on a kiteboard in the channel between billionaire Richard Branson’s private Necker and Moskito islands.
Her 30-foot sail floating deflated and useless beside her in the strong eastern Caribbean current, the 26-year-old entrepreneur waited for hours to be rescued. As she treaded water, her left leg scarred by a past collision with a coral reef, she reminded herself that her dangerous new hobby was worth it. After all, it was key to the fundraising strategy for the design-software startup she’d cofounded with her boyfriend six years before.
Canva was based in Australia, thousands of miles from tech’s Silicon Valley power corridor. Getting a meeting—much less funding—was proving tough. Perkins heard “no” from more than 100 investors. So when she met the organizer of a group of kitesurfing venture capitalists at a pitch competition in her native Perth, Perkins got to training. The next time the group met to hear startup pitches and potentially write crucial early-stage funding checks, she’d have a seat at the table—even if it meant having to brave treacherous waters.
“It was like, risk: serious damage; reward: start company,” Perkins says. “If you get your foot in the door just a tiny bit, you have to kind of wedge it all the way in.”
Such perseverance has long been a necessity at Canva, which began as a modest yearbook-design business in the state capital of Perth on Australia’s west coast. From those remote origins, Canva has grown into a global juggernaut. Twenty-million-plus users from 190 countries use the company’s “freemium” Web-based app to design everything from splashy Pinterest graphics to elegant restaurant menus. Besides an impossible-to-beat price (millions of users pay nothing at all), Canva’s key advantage over rival products from tech giants like Adobe has been its ease of use. Before Canva, amateurs had to stitch together designs in Microsoft Word or pay through the nose for confusing professional tools. Today, anyone, anywhere, can download Canva and be creating within ten minutes.
The company’s revenue comes from upselling to a $10-a-month premium version with snazzier features or, more recently, from sales of a streamlined corporate account option. High-quality stock photos—of which Canva has millions—cost another $1. It adds up. This year the company expects to more than double its revenue to $200 million; its most recent $85 million funding round valued it at $3.2 billion. Perkins, now 32 and an alum of the 2016 Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list, has an estimated 15% stake, valued at $430 million. Throw in her 34-year-old cofounder—and now fiancé—Cliff Obrecht’s similar stake, and the Aussie power couple are likely worth more than $800 million.
In an era of billion-dollar checks from SoftBank and high-profile profligacy at WeWork, Perkins and Obrecht do things differently. They are couch surfers who prefer budget trips to private jets. (This summer, with Canva already valued at…