The graphic design platform aims to allow anyone to easily design everything from greeting cards to posters, websites to presentation decks.
The private company could go public in the next five years with a listing on the US Nasdaq exchange rather than in Australia.
It has been used to create 1 billion designs around the world and Perkins heads up a team of 500 people including coders, designers and engineers.
A ‘massive vision’
The 31-year-old started a design company called Fusion Books with her boyfriend Cliff Obrecht in 2006 when she was still at university and it was this text book design business that led to the launch of Canva in 2012.
The pair brought on board co-founder Cameron Adams, a former Google employee, to bring technical expertise and Adams says right from the start Perkins always had a “massive vision” for Canva which is what got him on board.
“There’s that famous video of the guy dancing by himself and needing to get the first follower, once you get the first person to join it becomes easier,” he says. “It got increasingly easier as we grew and grew.”
That is a pretty grim moment. When you get that final no and realise ‘I have to start this shit all over again’.
Obrecht says the trio used a spreadsheet with a list of 40 to 50 potential contacts on them.
“There were quite a few times when we thought we had enough people in the pipeline and we would get to the end of it and we had been rejected by 40 or 50 people on that spreadsheet,” he says. “That is a pretty grim moment. When you get that final no and realise ‘I have to start this shit all over again’.”
It took three years of pitching to venture capital funds in San Francisco to get the initial round of funding for Canva but Perkins says now investors fly to Australia to pitch to Canva which has raised $US84 million.
“It’s quite a contrast to those early days,” she says.
We have incredible investors, so, for example, Felicius, which invested in one of our early rounds, they came to Australia and I think in that round, five investors flew to Australia to come to pitch us and to learn more about Canva.
“That was pretty awesome. That has continued ever since, we have had a lot more inbound interest rather than having to run around San Francisco knocking on every door trying to get someone to listen to us and take us seriously.”
Keeping a low profile
Perkins is one of the few women in the world to co-found and run a major technology company but she doesn’t like to draw attention to her gender.
Ask her about the challenges of being a woman entrepreneur and she’ll talk about the challenges of being an entrepreneur, full stop.
Only 2.2 per cent of venture capital funding in the United States goes to businesses led by women but Perkins plays down the impact of her gender when she talks about the difficulties of raising Canva’s first round of funding.
“I didn’t really have the habit of explaining what we had accomplished and what we had achieved which made it really hard to raise a round of funding when you are saying why investors should invest,” she says.
Perkins puts this down to being Australian rather than to being a woman.
“I felt like it was cultural, I think Australians have a habit of not over hyping themselves whereas in the United States it is more common to do so, it’s a skill we had to learn.”
Australian venture capital firm Blackbird Ventures was one of the first investors in Canva and co-founder Niki Scevak says the slides from the first pitch deck from Canva are still relevant today.
“Canva has been one of the rare examples where the reality has exceeded the dream,” he says. “It’s so stark the difference between someone who has carefully thought out an industry and an idea and a great product, and that is what we first fell in love with.”
Scevak says the co-founders work tightly together and complement each other.
“Cam [Adams] is obviously a wonderful product mind and one of the best designers Australia has produced, Mel [Perkin]’s vision brings the whole company together and Cliff [Obrecht] is one of the most awe-inspiring operators we have been able to work with.”
An initial public offering is an option for Canva but the trio are tight-lipped about whether they will take the startup public.
“Nothing is off the cards but we are growing too fast right now and we have too much to do,” says Obrecht.
He says an initial public offering “could be on the horizon” in the next five years and if Canva listed it would likely be on the Nasdaq, following in Atlassian’s footsteps, rather than in Australia.
“They are just better educated on tech companies and there is a bigger pool of capital for tech companies,” he says.
Perkins says Canva has also turned down several sale offers.
“Over the years a lot of big companies are very interested to see what we have been up to, I can’t give you any specifics,” she says.
Perkins says the offers came from “big, large tech companies, I am sure you can imagine” but Canva is not interested.
“We have such an incredibly huge large vision, we have done 1 per cent of what is possible and there is so much more for us to do,” she says.
The first step is Canva’s move at the end of the week to a new eight-storey building in Sydney’s Surry Hills, just around the corner from its current headquarters.
Touring the new building just before Christmas, Perkins slipped unnoticed into the back of our group dressed in that same little black dress.
Not drawing attention to herself, just quietly building what she is convinced will be “one of the world’s most valuable companies”.
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Cara is the small business editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald based in Melbourne