Canva founder Melanie Perkins’s $26 billion design startup is ready to take on Microsoft and Google
On a September morning in Sydney, Melanie Perkins peers through the double doors of Sterling hair salon in the city’s Surry Hills neighborhood. It’s now bustling with customers in highlight foils and black capes, but 10 years ago the space was where Perkins and then boyfriend, now husband Cliff Obrecht spent nearly every waking moment. It housed the Sydney office of Fusion Books, the yearbook publishing business the couple founded prior to launching Canva, a visual communications company. Today their second business is valued by one estimate at $26 billion, the most of any female-founded and woman-led startup in the world and a sum that has grown the couple’s combined net worth to an estimated $7.8 billion.
Perkins, 35, points to the back of the salon. See where the half mannequin in a feather boa now sits on top of a cabinet? That’s where they put a bank of computers, she says. When Fusion moved in, “the whole place was just a rummage pile of everything,” Perkins recalls. “We had to do a big cleanout to get the office into shape.”
The humble origins of Fusion mask the big ambitions Perkins had at the time. Her vision has always been to “build the world’s most valuable company.” That Canva started from its predecessor Fusion’s run-down offices speaks to how diligently Perkins has pursued that goal over the past 10 years. Without technical backgrounds or Silicon Valley resources, the pair first tackled an achievable market—Australian high-school yearbook publishing—before taking on the larger graphic design industry. “We’ve been able to build every brick conscientiously,” Perkins says. The approach has spared Perkins from making mistakes common among startup founders who move too fast—overexpansion, buggy products, balance sheets in the red.
Ten years on, Canva is a towering force in the graphic design space, with 3,200 employees, 90 million users, and an easy-to-use web-based tool that lets users design social media graphics, build presentations for school or the office, and edit videos—and will soon help them do much more. It has become essential for amateur designers and, increasingly, professionals. When VC money was flush, Canva earned the backing of Sequoia Capital, Bessemer Venture Partners, and Founders Fund. Unlike many other VC-backed darlings, Canva has turned a profit on a free-cash-flow basis every year since 2017, on what is now $1 billion in revenue; it has $700 million in cash on hand.
More recently, as other startups were laying off workers and scaling back expansion plans, Canva held a flashy event in September to announce the launch of professional tools intended to challenge workplace mainstays Google, Microsoft, and Adobe. It was the culmination of a long-held vision. “We had this in our pitch deck back in 2011,” Perkins says. “This was the final pillar.”
Canva’s next deck may be a tougher one to design. Many investors cut its valuation substantially in July as the tech sector wobbled. In the long run, analysts say, Canva must amass even more paying customers, making its push into professional tools even more urgent. But that means taking on the incumbents of the $47 billion productivity management software market—giants in their own right—and whether Perkins’s startup can go toe-to-toe with them is unclear. Canva built its business on a “freemium” subscription model that could sustain a graphic design company—but is it enough to support the next Adobe? You could ask the same question about Perkins. The Perth native’s determination, ingenuity, and—interestingly enough—kitesurfing skills turned Fusion into Canva, and Canva into a unicorn 20 times over. But is she the right person to lead the startup into its second decade and, eventually, through an IPO that could be the largest ever helmed by a female founder-CEO?
Former Disney CEO and current Canva investor Bob Iger says yes: “I think she’s very capable of running a company that is much larger and more complex than the company she runs.” A vote of confidence from one of corporate America’s most successful CEOs can’t hurt. But Perkins, for herself at least, doesn’t need it. “Every time we’ve been able to imagine a huge, crazy goal and then turn that into reality—each of those things equip us for the next stage,” she says. “As soon as you stop dreaming big dreams, you become an old company.”
To some degree, Canva had no choice but to start slow.
In 2007 Perkins was teaching design to fellow college students in her spare time when she grew frustrated with the tools available. Design was becoming a bigger part of modern communication—from early social media to work presentations—but the products that helped everyday users master the skill, like Adobe InDesign, were clunky and expensive. There had to be a better, cheaper way.
“The question was, could it be us that could create that?” Perkins says now.
Perkins and Obrecht met in Perth in Western Australia in 2005. He was 19, she was 17. She went by Mel, as she still does to everyone at Canva. It was Australia Day, a national holiday, and the two were watching fireworks with mutual friends under the city’s landmark bell tower. They hit it off, bonding over their interest in travel, Perkins laughing at his cheesy jokes. Obrecht was on his way to a gardening job in the Whitsunday Islands, off the coast of Queensland. After meeting Perkins, “I canceled that trip,” he remembers.
Obrecht’s decisiveness distills Perkins’s big dreams into actionable tasks: boxes she can tick. In her teens, she daydreamed of going to India, five, maybe 10 years down the line. Nine months after she met Obrecht, the two were backpacking across the country.
So as Perkins considered design’s accessibility problem, Obrecht’s can-do attitude helped convince her they could tackle it themselves. The challenge also fed Perkins’s overachiever tendencies. Growing up, the middle child of an Australian mother and a Malaysian father did every activity from figure skating to “tournament of the minds,” a popular problem-solving competition in Australia. Once a teacher told her to “do less homework.” More recently, the busy CEO ran-walked until midnight to avoid falling short of a goal to log 100 kilometers in one month. Plus, being 9,000 miles away from Silicon Valley, the competition was so remote that anything seemed possible.
Still, they were practical. Rather than take on all of design all at once, the couple targeted the yearbook market. Fusion Books, launched in 2011 with a contracted tech team, pitched its web-based yearbook editing tool to Australian secondary schools. At its peak the company published yearbooks for 400 high schools, but Perkins and Obrecht knew a yearbook business could only go so far.
To evolve from a small publishing business to a full-fledged design startup, they needed cash. In 2012, Perkins flew to San Francisco and crashed on her older brother’s floor for months as she chased venture capitalists around the West Coast.
Perkins heard every no in the book—more than 100 total. No, VCs weren’t comfortable backing cofounders who were romantically involved. No, they didn’t want to do an overseas deal. No, they definitely didn’t want to do a deal in Australia, a country with no startup ecosystem.
Investors also balked at the couple’s lack of technical expertise. They had both attended the University of Western Australia, studying in the school’s arts and commerce program—hardly the Stanford pedigrees traditionally favored by VCs.
The founders got a lifeline from an unlikely place: extreme water sports. They learned about a gathering of VCs and founders in Maui. The catch? The confab was for kitesurfing enthusiasts. Perkins and Obrecht spent months practicing the sport, then cashed out nearly half their business bank account to book flights and accommodations.
A few scrapes and wipeouts later, they had changed the course of their future. Through the group, they met fellow Australian Rick Baker, who was launching a Sydney-based VC firm called Blackbird Ventures. They pitched him on “Canvas Chef,” a platform where designers can add graphic elements to a blank template like a chef tops a pizza. Baker stuck around; the pizza metaphor did not. Nor did the “s”—dropped, just like Facebook dropped the “the,” when the domain canvas.com wasn’t available.
“She had this really great way of making it come through in your mind,” Baker recalls. “That grabbed us—we knew that it was something special. That this could be something really big.”
Baker’s Blackbird was the first big firm to invest, and with its $1.3 million—and a matching grant from the Australian government—Canva was up and running.
Courtesy of Canva
A condition of its investors was to bring on a technical cofounder. Cameron Adams, an ex-Googler based in Sydney, agreed to join the founding team in part because the three roles were so well defined: Adams building product, Obrecht as business operations lead, and Perkins with product ideas and vision. Initially Perkins and Obrecht were both “directors” of Canva. (CEO was a “very American” concept at the time, Obrecht says.) A seasoned investor told them to pick a single leader, and Obrecht, now chief operating officer, pointed to Perkins. “She’s just better,” he says now.
In another crucial step, the founders moved from the mining town of Perth to Sydney to more easily find technical and startup talent.
After backing the startup in 2012, investors wanted a product to debut almost immediately. Perkins pushed back, and waited until 2013 when Canva could launch its initial design tool with the quality she envisioned. “People said that to raise venture capital, we had to have a billion-dollar idea,” she says. “And I took it very literally.”
Once a year, Perkins sits down with her team to decide which small piece of her overall vision the company should tackle. Some years, her annual agendas have been aspirational moonshots; others, they’ve been a downright slog.
In 2016 her priority was internationalization: The platform launched in six languages besides English. (It’s now in 100.) In 2017 she tackled a project known internally as E2, or Editor 2: the rewriting of Canva’s code base that would enable the platform to take on bigger technical challenges like video. While employees were revamping Canva’s back end, the platform couldn’t ship new features to users for two years, which starved staff of the usual satisfaction of getting a tool out the door. Perkins sometimes tracked progress by assigning each team a rubber ducky and racing them across a table.
A few years later, as consumer habits shifted—users wanted to create brand ads on TikTok rather than Facebook—Canva built on its new back end to add a video editing tool; it debuted in 2021.
“We started where we saw the greatest opportunity, which happened to be social media,” says Adams, who serves as chief product officer. “But we always wanted to do more than that.”
Now the platform’s design tool allows users to save fonts, logos, and other design elements to easily create materials for Facebook banner ads, Instagram stories, posters, and more. Like Google Docs, the product is collaborative, enabling multiple users to work on the same design, video—and now document—at once. Users have created 13 billion designs on the platform. A woman made a poster to find her birth mother. A swimwear designer used it to craft plastic liners for bikini bottoms. TikTok videos, corporate presentations, marketing materials—all of it gets created in Canva. In its first year, 2013, Canva attracted 750,000 users—now it’s up to 90 million. Of those users, 10 million are paid subscribers; 4.5 million of those occupy paid seats within teams, the format Canva has used to target enterprise customers. Together these subscribers generated just over $1 billion in revenue in 2021. Many of those customers are small teams within large organizations like Amazon and Walmart.
Perkins has grown personally, too. “If I was parachuted right into being CEO of a company with more than 3,000 people, that’d be pretty scary,” Perkins says. But building Canva brick by brick and reaping its success has instilled confidence.
Perkins doesn’t read business books, though she and Obrecht sometimes get advice from their friends Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, cofounders of Atlassian, the now public software company that is Australia’s other major success story. Colleagues say Perkins is a fast learner who often runs on instinct.
Perkins and Obrecht’s relationship has thrived even though they’ve spent nearly every day working side by side for almost as long as they’ve been together. They take long “no-work walks” to ensure they spend non-Canva time together. In 2019, Obrecht proposed on a trip to Turkey. They married in 2021, and Perkins wears a simple silver band—no diamonds.
Obrecht has noticed that his wife is “more insular and less trusting” than the girl he met under the bell tower—a result of the unique pressures that confront a billionaire female CEO. Talking to Perkins, it’s obvious she’s constantly thinking about how her words and actions will be perceived. “Sorry, that’s not a good quote for you,” she sometimes says after answering a question.
She and Obrecht have both shunned their newfound status as billionaires. They fly commercial. They spend much of their free time traveling back to Perth to visit old school friends or camping outside Sydney. They have signed the Giving Pledge, the Warren Buffett–led promise made by the ultrawealthy to give away their fortunes, and allotted most of the 30% of Canva they own together to the organization they christened the Canva Foundation, which so far focuses on alleviating poverty. (Perkins’s passion for that cause stems from her travels in India and from her mom teaching refugees and indigenous Australians when Perkins was growing up.) Obrecht is determined to not raise “incredibly wealthy little children that are little snots.” That’s front of mind after the couple welcomed their first child in early 2022.
The early commitments helped Perkins better stomach media coverage of their wealth. “I feel a lot happier now that the intention and first steps are out there,” she says. She wants to “do the most good we can.”
The low-key couple are not as rich as they used to be.
Canva came of age in the era of cheap money and has raised a total of $580 million from investors. Two years after its Blackbird-backed seed round, Canva raised a $15 million Series A led by Wesley Chan, who was then at Felicis Ventures. Chan’s Silicon Valley peers, who didn’t understand what he saw in the business, called the investment a “Wesley head-scratcher.” Bay Area investors, from General Catalyst to Sequoia, eventually got on board, as did large institutional investors like Franklin Templeton and T. Rowe Price and a cohort of celebrity angels, including Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson. Last year, Canva raised a $200 million round that earned it a $40 billion valuation—a rapid rise from a $15 billion valuation only 10 months earlier.
But the boom times are over as interest rates surge, inflation soars, and the market takes a beating. Franklin Templeton wrote down Canva’s last valuation by 59% in 2022 and T. Rowe Price marked it down 44%. Baker, who faced some pressure from his limited partners to reevaluate the value of Blackbird’s portfolio to appease Australian regulators scrutinizing unlisted assets, settled on a 36% drop that gives the company a new valuation of $26 billion, a number that adheres more closely to valuations on the public markets. The decline shrank Perkins and Obrecht’s estimated combined net worth from $13 billion to $7.8 billion. The decrease shunted them off top billionaires lists, not that they care.
“Last year’s valuation probably isn’t a real data point,” says G2 Venture Partners’ Monica Varman, who is not an investor in Canva. “It was a strange reflection of 2021.”
Startups like Instacart have had their valuations slashed, too. According to CB Insights, valuations of companies in the Series E stage and beyond were down 9% in the second quarter of 2022 compared with the same time a year earlier.
The valuation cut caused a stir in the Australian press. Yet Perkins, Obrecht, and Adams aren’t worried by the write-down given the company’s profitability and cash pile, rare attributes for a well-funded, high-growth startup of its ilk. “It’s incredible that Canva is both growing faster than most other companies and running with profitable unit economics,” Varman says. It’s “a testament to their extraordinary product-market fit.”
The cofounders predict they’ll surpass a $40 billion valuation again in no time. That estimate, Baker points out, valued Canva only for what it was doing last year—not for the vision of tackling nearly every form of digital communication that the company just set out. “That’s why I’m sticking around,” he says.
Inside a 5,500-seat theater in Sydney, Canva employees—or Canvanauts, as the company calls them—are dressed in disco-ball visors and silvery moon-man jumpsuits. The theme of this Canva birthday party/product launch/TED Talk is “The future is visual.” Gathering in outlandish costumes isn’t unusual for Canva—the staff does it once a quarter—but there’s a sense that this event is special. On the stage’s main screen, a countdown clock flashes until Canva’s leaders appear. Ariana Grande blares through the speakers.
Early investor Wesley Chan, who has since launched his own firm, FPV Ventures, is in town from Jackson Hole, Wyo. The event passes his costume test: “When a lot of people dress up, you know the company’s doing well,” he says. “Eventually, if it’s not, they stop dressing up.”
Perkins bounds onstage in a blue sequined blazer and light-up sneakers, a departure from her usual all-black wardrobe. (She sometimes blends in so well that Canva’s security guard stops her when she’s without her ID badge.) Colleagues remember that Perkins wasn’t always comfortable as a public speaker, but on this day her delivery pulses with anticipation; she’s unveiling a plan she devised long ago and has kept close to the vest for the past decade. Canva is evolving, she says, from “the graphic design tool you know and love to an end-to-end business tool.” The crowd, predictably, goes wild.
After Perkins’s big reveal, a parade of Canva executives—Perkins; Obrecht; heads of marketing, video, and physical products—hop onstage to tell their colleagues how Canva is taking on nearly every form of modern communication. The big one is Canva Docs, a Google Doc competitor that incorporates the graphic features Canva is known for, like design templates and video tools. Whiteboards will compete with the company Miro and let users add sticky notes to an endlessly expanding whiteboard. Canva will launch a website-building tool that competes with Squarespace, and introduce new physical products, allowing users to print designs on T-shirts and mugs through Canva directly. The company will open up new revenue streams by debuting a creator network, for designers and photographers to upload their own templates, and an app store where developers can introduce additional features, paid or unpaid.
Canva is one of a few companies experimenting with tech that converts written prompts into images; next year it could be another wand in the Canva user’s toolbox. When Perkins takes the stage again, she teases this “magic,” her focus for 2023: Type “red panda riding a bicycle” into search and surface an image of just that, designed by Canva’s own A.I.
Like Canva’s existing products, the work suite is free and web-based, with additional features available via subscription or purchase.
Docs is the most transformative new offering, according to chief product officer Adams. While die-hard Canva fans may be the first to try it out, the product that lets users integrate videos and other design elements into their documents could replace workplace mainstays Microsoft Word and Google Docs. Canva employees now do 95% of their work within their own platform with the addition of Docs, Adams says. (The other 5% is Slack.)
“This isn’t just war against Adobe,” explains Brent Thill, a Jefferies analyst. “This is war against Google and Microsoft.” The company’s competitive but idealistic founders might not like that analogy. They prefer to think of their products as expanding the market with more visual tools, rather than siphoning off users from competitors.
Canva’s battle against Adobe, at least, just got bigger. A few days after Canva’s announcement, the legacy tech company announced a $20 billion acquisition of Figma, another closely watched design startup with a shot at taking some of Adobe’s business. “It’s a rich price to pay and clearly shows they are taking Canva very seriously as a threat to their incumbency,” says Varman.
“Excel, Word, and PowerPoint are embedded in a lot of business practices right now,” Thill says. “But the biggest fear [for competitors] is that when you boot up your work computer, Canva becomes an icon on your desktop. It could happen. It really could.”
To claim that desktop real estate, Canva will have to sell large enterprise packages rather than provide tools to small groups of paying customers or for free. “You can’t build a long-term business off freemium,” Thill says. The vast majority of users log into Canva once every two weeks, Baker says: “What moving it to a work suite does is move [Canva] to a product that people use every single day.” The question is whether the work suite is good enough and its tools essential enough to steal users from the platforms ubiquitous in the modern workspace.
The odds that Canva will reach Adobe’s $134 billion market cap might be slim—but so were the odds of building a multibillion-dollar startup from Australia with no Silicon Valley connections.
One of Perkins’s favorite questions to ask in a job interview is: On a scale from zero to 100, chaos to clarity, where do you thrive? Her own answer is from zero to 25—she loves the chaos of starting something new. But even as Canva enters its second decade and launches its “final pillar,” Perkins isn’t getting antsy like the founder-CEOs of other startups Canva’s age. Just take a look around Silicon Valley: Cofounders of Airbnb, Peloton, and Pinterest have all departed in recent months. Perkins says she and her company are only just beginning; the adage that Canva is only “1% of the way” toward her original vision is one she repeats often. The full extent of the other 99% may be known only to Perkins; even Obrecht says the company is at least 5% toward its goals.
Farther down the road is an IPO, but Canva has “no plans at this time” to go public, Perkins says. Its minimal board makeup—Perkins, Obrecht, Baker, and Chan (no Iger yet)—suggests an IPO isn’t imminent. The board’s meetings are unlike most such gatherings for mature startups. Rather than focusing on financial targets, Perkins often spends the time talking about the expansive product road map she envisions.
As a company eyes an IPO or emerges from one, founders are often replaced by an experienced hand. But everyone associated with Canva says that there’s no world in which they see another leader taking over from Perkins. The vision, the culture, the product, and the drive forward—they all stem from Mel, people say.
Iger, who invested in Canva in May at its $40 billion high, endorses its current leadership, citing Perkins’s skills as a communicator, her focus, and her decisiveness: “I’ve long since talked about how when you manage these businesses, you have to have a foot in the present and a foot in the future,” he says. “You have to manage for operational excellence today. And she and Cliff do that.”
Looking back on Canva’s first 10 years and ahead to a future in which an IPO may still be years away, “patience” is a word that comes to mind. Perkins dismisses the term. “Patience, to me, sounds like you’re sitting on the side of the road just hoping things will happen,” she says. “And that’s far from the way it works.”
A version of this article appears in the October/November 2022 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Her design startup wants to disrupt your desktop.”