Canva's Five Year Journey to Launch

How a yearbook design company became one of the world's most valuable startups!

If you’ve created content online, there’s a good chance you’ve used design platform Canva. The company has 60M monthly active users and recently raised at a $40B valuation, making it the fifth most-valuable startup in the world.

Canva is unquestionably a massive success - and it’s also the epitome of a narrative violation. The company started out as a yearbook design business called Fusion Books. The first office? CEO Melanie Perkins’ mom’s living room in Australia.

While Silicon Valley startups were raising sizable seeds, Canva had a $50K loan, a rented Xerox printer, and a $5k tax refund to use for marketing.

After a few years running Fusion Books, the team decided to chase a bigger vision - building the future of publishing. Melanie flew around the world to meet investors and raise capital, but got rejected by 100+ seed firms and angels.

The pitch was full of many potential “red flags.” Here’s a summary:

Fusion Books was founded by 19-year-old Melanie Perkins and her boyfriend (🚩) Cliff Obrecht. They’re both based in Australia (🚩), and neither of them have any tech or professional experience (🚩) - so they hired a local software development firm to build the first version of the product (🚩).

The company sells into schools to help them design yearbooks (🚩), and makes money on fees from physical printing presses (🚩) that they own (🚩) - but their goal is disrupt the publishing industry. They’ve been operating for four years, and haven’t raised any money (🚩) - and worst of all, they’re already profitable! (🚩)

Melanie and Cliff finally managed to hire a tech team and raise $3M - half of which was a grant from the Australian government! And five years after founding the business, they launched Canva. It made a splash, racking up 100K designs in a few months and 1M users in a year. How did they do it?

Three lessons we can learn from Canva’s debut 👇

1️⃣ Leverage communities for feedback & distribution. While Canva technically “launched” in fall 2013, it wasn’t immediately available to everyone. Instead, users were asked to reserve a username and join a waitlist - which grew to 50k people before the official public debut.

How? Canva generated buzz within the design community and adjacent groups needing design help. Perkins and Obrecht chased press to cover the seed round, and reached out to blogs, podcasts, and conferences to offer “early access” to their audiences (and get them to publish reviews!).

Users enthusiastic enough to tweet at the company were often onboarded immediately, and pro designers could email to skip the line. This beta allowed the team to iterate on the product with this early audience, which included a mix of designers (who constantly sent feature suggestions) and “prosumers” (who got stuck if the UX was confusing).

While the Lean Startup model was in vogue in the mid-2010s, Canva took a different route. As CEO Melanie Perkins said on How I Built This: “The whole point was that we took all these complex things and made them simple...that took a lot longer than a weekend."

2️⃣ Remove friction - show people how to use the product! Early press called Canva’s templates and guidelines “exceedingly cheesy” and too restrictive to create anything “outstanding.” But in a world of complex design tools like Adobe InDesign, this structure was desperately needed.

Canva’s team reached out to illustrators and designers to feature their work in the template library - at launch, more than 1M photographs, fonts, and graphics were available to “drag and drop” into users’ designs.

To boost confidence, new users went through a “how-to” guide before entering the product. The Canva team also built starter challenges, like changing the color of a circle or adding a hat to a monkey - which helped users get acclimated to the platform. Not sure what to design? Canva’s homepage featured content ideas and videos illustrating common use cases.

Side note: Canva eventually launched its own design school with micro-courses and online events on content creation and branding!

3️⃣ Focus on use cases that are inherently viral. Canva’s seed deck provides a view into the initial GTM strategy - target use cases that get the company’s designs in front of as many people as possible.

The best channel for this? Facebook. In 2013, small businesses were flocking to the big blue app. They needed professional-looking graphics like cover photos, flyers, and event banners. Canva provided easy templates that ensured the content would be the right size and shape to render properly - a huge pain point!

The Facebook templates spurred referrals, as users invited their colleagues to collaborate on designs. And when they posted a slick Canva graphic on Facebook, others would ask how they made it.

The initial Canva publishing UI also encouraged users to share the design (with one click) on Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter. In this way, a small number of users opened up a much larger audience - some of whom would join Canva themselves.

Another example? Christmas cards. For the company’s first holiday season, Canva worked with artists to create 30+ templates for beautiful digital cards. Most were distributed via Facebook and email, which again funneled users back to Canva. Creating content may seem like the kind of thing that doesn’t scale - but when millions of people use the same templates, it actually does!

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your feedback or requests for companies you’d like me to profile next - you can reach me @omooretweets.

My sources:

All views are my own. None of the above should be taken as investment advice. See this page for important information.