Graphic design platform Canva continues to ride the social media and content marketing wave.
Canva has been a predictable success story, but only for those with the faultless benefit of hindsight. In a world where visuals are vital to the success of any content marketing or social media program, Canva has proved to be the perfect tool for its time. It’s difficult to believe the free, simple-to-use, cloud-based Australian design platform that has launched millions of social media graphics across the globe was only itself launched just over three years ago.
The Canva story, however, goes back a little further than this. In 2007, West Australian Melanie Perkins was trying to teach students how to use design programs such as Photoshop and InDesign, and wondered why they were so difficult to learn. Before long, Perkins and collaborator Cliff Obrecht developed an online tool to help designers create school yearbooks.
This project, Fusion Books, became a success but Perkins and Obrecht were certain that the technology they created had applications much wider than yearbooks. They sought seed capital and brought in a hardcore technology expert, Cameron Adams, and Canva was born in August 2013.
These days, Canva means different things to different people. For venture capitalists, it’s an investor’s dream – one of Australia’s most successful recent start-ups – with seemingly endless supply of blue-sky ahead. For marketers, it’s the ideal tool to create clean and crisp graphics quickly, as well as a place to learn how to be a better designer through web-based tutorials in its Design School and daily articles on the Canva website.
Indeed, Canva’s success has been with a bullet. It has accumulated more than 10 million users across 179 countries, and more than 120 staff across two countries. In the middle of 2016 it was valued at US$365 million (A$492 million)*. It’s available on web, iPhone and iPad, and the team is working on an Android app version.
Along the way, the young Australian company has gained significant supporters, notably US tech innovator Guy Kawasaki, who remains Canva’s “chief evangelist”. The Australian Financial Review reported that not only did Canva receive financial backing from Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen, SEEK co-founder Paul Bassat and Yahoo chief financial officer Ken Goldman, it received big Hollywood dollars from actors Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson. In issue 4 of Brand Tales, digital marketing influencer Jeff Bullas said that he liked Canva because “they understand how the social web works”.
But people don’t only want to use Canva, they want to work there, too. On the back of evidence that the company has a strong collaborative corporate culture and offers flexible working conditions, an in-house chef serving breakfast and lunch, a free gym and yoga classes, employment site Job Advisor named it Australia’s “coolest” technology company.
Brand Tales spoke with co-founder and CEO Melanie Perkins about Canva’s success and plans for the company.
Brand Tales: What do you think is Canva’s greatest strength as a graphic design platform?
Melanie Perkins: One of Canva’s greatest strengths is its simplicity. I started to work on the idea for Canva 10 years ago after teaching students how to use the existing software, and realised it was hard to learn and harder to use, so the vision of Canva has always been about making design accessible to everyone.
The software itself is incredibly easy to use. It takes seconds rather than weeks to learn. At the heart of that simplicity is offering everything you need to create professional designs in one place. You log in and choose what you need to make that day, whether it’s a Facebook graphic, a presentation, a brochure or many other things. You can then choose from thousands of professionally designed but completely customisable templates, and choose from more than a million high quality stock photos.
Before Canva, this wasn’t possible. You’d have to go to multiple online marketplaces to find templates, fonts and photos and then work with very complex and expensive softwares to get the result you wanted.
“Our vision is to be the platform that powers the modern workforce.”Melanie Perkins
BT: What role has content marketing (such as the Design School) played in Canva’s growth? Was this part of a carefully considered strategy or did it just happen?
MP: The Design School has played a key role in how we grew. We’ve gone from 0 to 10 million users in three years, and the big force behind that was word-of-mouth marketing.
Word of mouth is fuelled by solving a real problem that many people have, so they are already looking for your solution before you produce it. But having an effective content strategy helps turbocharge word of mouth marketing because it equips the people who love your product with useful, high-quality content to share about online, and with their colleagues, friends and family.
BT: Can you share a story of how a Canva client has been able to use great visuals to transform their business?
MP: There are so many wonderful stories. But one of my favourites has to be a sheriff over in the United States who uses Canva to make “Wanted” posters. I imagined a lot of crazy ambitious things when we were first starting, but helping people catch criminals wasn’t one of them, but it’s amazing to hear about it! And there are lots of wonderful stories come in from Canva users about how by using Canva they created graphics that led to them doubling their sales or tripling their traffic. It’s moments like those that makes all our work make sense.
BT: What’s the biggest mistake that marketers make when it comes to their visual communications?
MP: One of the most powerful elements of visual marketing is consistency. This is something that people can forget when they get started designing. Having a consistent aesthetic means your designs work together and people begin to recognise your brand implicitly.
Creating a clear set of guidelines such as a brand kit is a great first step for marketers who are looking to boost their visual communication skills and impact.
BT: With more than 10 million users and counting, what are your aspirations for Canva?
MP: Ten million users may sound like a lot, but there are more than 3 billion internet users, so we have a long way to go. I think from the outside, Canva may look fairly well developed. But there are core elements of the product that have been in our pitch deck for years that we are only just getting started on.
Our vision is to be the platform that powers the modern workforce. Many of the workplace tools that have become staples over the last couple of decades no longer satisfy the needs of today’s workforce. They were developed before the internet was born and their core concepts remain the same today.
We have had the opportunity to reimagine productivity tools from the ground up to cater to what everyone needs today. The ability to communicate your ideas visually has never been more important. With the rise of social media, we’ve learned how powerful graphics are for communication and the ability to create your own is increasingly becoming an important skill in almost every profession from social media managers to salespeople.
* Update: In January 2018, Canva was valued at more than US$1 billion, making it a rare Australian tech “unicorn”.