Canva: Why it’s all about preserving start-up culture

Tracey Porter

The Sydney design start-up, Canva, which provides online graphic design tools, has amassed more than 10 million users across 179 countries, is valued at more than $233 million, has former Apple guru Guy Kawasaki as a team member and counts Hollywood stars among its list of investors.

But here’s the thing – the business is barely four-years-old.

Just this week it announced an ambitious growth strategy which will see it launch its design software in around 15 new languages – including Japanese, Thai, Mandarin, Russian, Ukrainian and several other languages by the end of the year.

Yet its explosive trajectory has meant Canva chief executive, Melanie Perkins, has had to work harder than most when seeking to preserve the best parts of being a start-up while becoming a multinational heavyweight.

Ms Perkins says she and co-founder, Cliff Obrecht, have always modelled Canva’s corporate structure around that of a company that they would love to work for.

“Canva’s culture is about creating a place where everyone loves coming to work, where everyone is striving to do the best work of their lives and create the most outstanding product and company we can. This means we don’t have any rules for the sake of having rules, we have high standards and we care about each other and enjoy hanging out together.”

Perkins says this focus on maintaining the Canva culture means that while the business has changed significantly since its early days, its team ethos hasn’t.

Little gestures such as encouraging all staff to eat lunch together and spend time together outside of work has always been the norm and means employees are happy to take ownership of their role, work harder and bring their best to their daily tasks, Perkins says.

While in its earliest days “everyone was involved in everything” - with more than 100 staff across two offices on its books it was now no longer possible to operate as one big team.

“Canva’s culture is about creating a place where everyone loves coming to work, where everyone is striving to do the best work of their lives."

In late 2015 the business model was changed and staff were split into teams of between three and six people and required to offer regular updates against set KPIs.

“We celebrate each team reaching its goal as a whole company [and] maintain that closeness, but this enables our teams to move as quickly as we can.”

She says the success of the venture means the plan will need to be scaled as the business grows but that it continues to “look a lot like our original business strategy, except that we’re only at the beginning of it”.

“What people see of Canva today is only 1% of where our vision for what the product can do and become.”

Ultimately, Perkins believes maintaining a local approach while remaining true to the company’s vision is key to ensuring the future success of the business 

A major step in this direction is a graduate engineering program that Canva will launch next month to help bolster its Sydney operations.

Of the 24 software engineers currently employed in its Sydney office, all but three have been recruited from Australia in keeping with the business’s homegrown ethos.

The graduate programme, like Canva itself, has been set up for exponential growth, with a handful of graduates starting in June as a trial in advance of a 20-place programme in 2017.

A big effort will be made to ensure the newest graduates feel part of the team, imbued with buy in to the Canva way; that is to embody the start-up spirit no matter how big and established it gets.

Tracey Porter

Tracey Porter is a career journalist whose mug shot appears everywhere from daily newspapers and online news sites to business and consumer magazine title.