How To Make Your Idea Worth Half A Billion Dollars With Canva CEO Melanie Perkins

In 2012, Melanie Perkins had an idea that today is worth $458 million dollars. The cherry on top? She’s not even 30.

The idea in question is Canva – an online design tool that allows anyone to create sophisticated presentations, invites, social media graphics and more with a simple drag and drop platform.

Just this week, Canva announced that since launching three years ago, the startup has picked up more than 10 million users across 179 countries and is now available in 11 languages. It has doubled its valuation in less than a year and raised an additional $19.8 million to continue the company’s rapid growth and mission to make design accessible to everyone.

So how did Melanie make it happen? How  do you turn a great idea into a half a billion dollar company?

Melanie spoke with The Cusp to give us some of her professional and personal insights into what makes an idea a success.

You’ll start with your big idea

As with so many great products, Melanie developed the idea out of her own personal frustration. It was a time when Facebook had launched and millions of people were signing up, and it was an exciting time in the digital landscape.

“I came up with the idea for Canva when I was studying at university. I was tutoring other students in how to use the existing design software suite, but noticed it took a long time for students to feel remotely confident, even when designing something simple. I realised the future of design was going to be simpler, online and collaborative and that’s when the idea of Canva occurred to me.”

A few years prior to launching Canva and at the ripe old age of 19, Melanie had launched Fusion Books – a software platform that allowed students to design their own yearbooks. Once again, Melanie found her own experience within the design realm challenging and did something about it.

“My boyfriend Cliff became my business partner and we launched our first business together to test the idea when I was 19. We started niche to prove our new approach to design was possible and needed. After it kept growing for a few years we decided we were ready to broaden it out and tackle the whole design space, and launched Canva.”

And it’s strengthened by solving a problem

Canva iPad

Canva on iPad.

While her business ideas were born out of personal frustration, Melanie says you can’t be alone in your desires. “Make sure you are solving a genuine problem so your product is needed and wanted by many. Part of why Canva grew so fast was that millions of people were already out there looking for a solution to the difficulties of graphic design.” She also says it’s key “when finding the initial problem you want to solve […] to have a deep understanding of it.”

You’ll deal with rejection

“The normal thing to do after your 20th, 80th, or even 100th ‘no’ would be to stop, but you just have to persevere.”

Not every idea becomes a reality overnight, as Melanie well knows. She’s heard the word ‘no’ more times than she can count, but that didn’t deter her from making her idea into a product because she believed in what she was doing. “Once I had the idea and we’d proved it with Fusion Books I was absolutely committed to it. So it was confusing sometimes when people couldn’t see where design and workplace software, in general, was headed.”

So do something with the rejection

Melanie and the rest of her initial Canva team didn’t give up and didn’t get angry. Instead, they constantly asked for feedback and took it on board, while always staying true to their ultimate vision.

“There is always a lot of rejection for entrepreneurs in their early days. The idea for Canva was rejected more than a hundred times by investors, and it took two years between first meeting an investor and getting our first cheque. But every time we got a hard question or a reason why people wouldn’t invest, we stayed focused on what we could change. I revised our pitch deck after every meeting, more than 100 times in one year, to answer the questions or fix the reason for rejection from the last time. You just have to keep going. The normal thing to do after your 20th, 80th, or even 100th ‘no’ would be to stop, but you just have to persevere.”

You’ll never know everything, so learn on the job

New- Melanie portrait

Melanie at the Canva office.

Ignorance sometimes really is bliss, Melanie admits. “If I realised how much I would need to know before I started, I probably would have been too terrified to get going. But I’m a big believer in just-in-time learning and have learned a lot as we grew Canva and will keep learning as we grow.”

Set your own vision

“I don’t believe you can ask your users or customers what you should build. If I had asked the students I was teaching design to what they wanted, they would have asked for incremental improvements to the design software they were using and people who had no design experience certainly wouldn’t have even known that they would have the ability to design.

“However, it was the particular insight I gained from watching people who knew nothing about design, trying to use the design tools that became the foundation for Canva. It became clear that they were complex and tedious and beyond most people’s expertise. But being able to use the tools myself I knew the capabilities of using design tools to communicate and it became apparent that in the future everyone would have these same capabilities and they would be a lot easier to use.”

Empower your team

Founders 3 (1)

Canva co-founders Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht and Cameron Adams.

It’s vital to surround yourself with the right people, but also to ensure they have a high level of job satisfaction. “Maintaining and building a healthy culture at Canva is one of my priorities as CEO. I always wanted Canva to be somewhere that I loved coming to, to be the kind of company people love coming to work at, and we work hard to continue that. A key part of that is making sure the team is set up to be as creative, productive and fast moving as it can be. In late 2015, we switched to a structure of  ‘mini-startups’ – small empowered teams that have their own goals and strategies. This enables everyone to have control over their work and help drive the company forward.”

With a growth that is considered “exceptional” not just by Australian standards but by Silicon Valley standards, and backers including Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson and Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen, forward is the only direction Canva can go.

Esther is a freelance writer, editor, publicist, content maker and dog patter. She has written for Interview Magazine, New York Press, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and local titles Broadsheet, Beat and Tone Deaf. Please tag her in photos of dogs @esthersaurus.