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How to become an owner of a $15B tech design business not being a techie, nor a designer

She started at 14 with selling hand-made scarves. Now she is a CEO of one of Silicon Valley unicorns. With no business degree, and no coding skills whatsoever


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Ana Bibikova

2 years ago | 5 min read

Useful research

Melanie Perkins, a founder of Canva, started her entrepreneur’s career by selling hand-made scarves out of her mom’s backyard. When she was 19 and was studying in the University of Perth, Australia, she and her boy-friend Cliff Obrecht decided to start a business. But they were not sure what to begin with.

Melanie, who was doing a degree in communications and psychology, suggested the best approach: do some research and find out what the audience they had access to (aka students) were struggling with.

They did some inquiries here and there and found out that students were struggling with design programs that they had to use to do the presentations or the handouts. Photoshop was soooo complicated — sometimes they had to spend months just trying to figure out what buttons to push.

A photo of Melanie Perkins published in Entrepreneur

Melanie and Obrecht instantly saw a business opportunity (they were not design experts but they have already gone through this learning curve) and started to offer tutor services to help fellow students with designer software. It was not so bad but obviously, implied no opportunity for scaling.

The next step was to “productize” the experience, as we’d say it today and sell it as a SaaS. However, Melanie and her boyfriend were not sure how to create the complicated software for educational platforms. Therefore, they decided to go with an easier option. They noticed that one of the ways students used Photoshop was creating Yearbooks. So, they decided to offer an easy drag-and-drop interface instead of a complicated Photoshop universe. No, you could not add shadows or layers or a glowing halo of light with it.

But it got you the job done — a Yearbook with simple text and several pictures added into pre-arranged templates could be created in half an hour instead of months. After completing the design students could send it to print. This all-in-one service Melanie and Cliff decided to call Fusion Books and they rolled it out in 2008.

Pivot to the mass market

It’s unclear how a couple went with the technical side of the project (did Obrecht code it or they had to hire a developer). But in any case, it was not fancy tech. Very basic and simple set of features that — most importantly — solved the problem.

Obviously, as soon as you get yourself a SaaS, your main headache from now on is to promote it. Melanie and Cliff did their best to spread the word among students. But the problem was they needed to make yearbooks not so often.

What about those months of the year when no one was graduating and, therefore, did not need yearbooks? Melanie and Cliff decided to engage a wider audience and offer “a simple all-in-one publishing tool”. That sure enough, nobody was looking for it. Unlike the year book creation, there was no initial demand for this sort of service.

The pair decided to use events to spread the word about Fusion books and create a demand — at least, among marketers, entrepreneurs and young founders like themselves. To do that, they took part in every trade show and award they could think of. At one of the award ceremonies in 2010 they met Bill Tai — an investor from Silicon Valley, who changed their lives forever.

Bill was more tech savvy, obviously, and saw the rise of social media. He predicted that tools that help regular people “do the design” will be in a huge demand later on. That’s why he took interest in what Melanie and Cliff were doing. He invited the pair to SF and promised to get warm intros with other investors.

Looking for the talent

Before that, Perkins and Obrecht had not thought of raising. But now, with a bright new perspective ahead, they thought of all the marketing they could get for their product — so they immediately jumped on the flight to the US. In 2011 they started pitching to Silicon Valley tycoons.

However, the pitches that they hand printed (as they did not have an iPad) and where they promised to beat Google Docs in their game, were not so very successful.

One of the slides in Melanie original pitch deck (published in smartcompany.com.au)

Guess why? Because they did not have a strong tech team! Bill Tai promised to help. He introduced Melanie to Lars Rasmussen, who was the co-founder of Google mMaps and who was very interested in the idea of Fusion books that was now renamed to Canva. Rasmussen then introduced Perkins and Obrecht to Cameron Adams — a very talented engineer with a strong reputation in the Valley. Cameron was not excited to join the project but Melanie and Obrecht were very persistent. Finally, Cameron agreed to become a tech co-founder. From then on, it all skyrocketed for three of them.

Before long, Perkins, Obrecht and Adams were winning over plenty of investors and soon became one of the fastest growing tech teams for a startup. The very first round they raised in 2013? They went overbooked because the Australian government offered $1M just to keep the new popular company in-house.

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Free design templates

Very fast Canva re-focused its efforts to offer affordable design templates for everyone who wanted to leverage on the growth of social media. It all happened exactly as Bill Thai predicted. facebook, Instagram started gaining users and each and everyone wanted to stand out hence, the need for affordable design. Also marketing agencies and the army of freelancers started using social media as a playground for promotion. Again, fast, affordable, hustle free design was something everyone needed.

Canva started using content marketing a lot to encourage users to get their hands on design — the company’s blog on design principles has become one of the most popular in the world and generates over 10M views every month.

Today, Canva has helped create close to 2 billion designs in 190 countries. In 2021 Canva’s evaluation was raised to $15B with additional investment round that brought them over $90M to spend on marketing and product development.

Melanie Perkins is only 32, she is one of the youngest female founders in Silicon Valley. She is not a techie, she is not a designer, and yet she successfully built and leads a tech design company. Because she is a genuine entrepreneur and knows the value of research, demand analysis, and trend setting. But most importantly, you have to get in the right place at the right time.

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