The education and career of Melanie Perkins, Canva’s billionaire
Anyone can start a business, but launching one that competes with giants like Microsoft and Adobe requires business finesse and gumption — something that Melanie Perkins clearly had when she launched Canva back in 2013.
In its first year, the website attracted over 750,000 users. Eight years later, the free, online design platform is currently worth a whopping 15 billion US dollars and hosts over 55 million users globally.
Her success didn’t materialise out of thin air — here’s how it all kicked off for Perkins:
Melanie Perkins exhibited signs entrepreneurialism in her teens
Becoming her own boss was something Perkins was passionate about since she was a teen. The Australian was only 14 when she started her first business.
The aspiring professional figure skater was designing and selling handmade scarves at various shops and markets in her hometown in Perth when she wasn’t waking up at 4.30a.m. to train.
At the time, she was attending Sacred Heart College, a secondary school located in the northern Perth suburb of Sorrento.
“I never forgot the freedom and excitement of being able to build a business,” she told Entrepreneur. “That was one of the driving forces that led me to launch what would evolve to be Canva.”
Straight out of high school, Perkins enrolled at the University of Western Australia where she majored in communications, psychology, and commerce. She even found the time to tutor her classmates to use graphic design platforms online.
The lessons were rigorous, and many had trouble keeping up.
“People would have to spend an entire semester learning where the buttons were, and that seemed completely ridiculous,” she recalled. “I thought that in the future it was all going to be online and collaborative and much, much simpler than these really hard tools.”
Perkins decided to do something about it.
Working alongside Cliff Obrecht – her then classmate and now husband – she worked tirelessly to set up Fusion Books, a design tool for yearbooks. The website was designed for students to “collaborate and design their profile pages and articles.”
Once finalised, the yearbooks would be printed and delivered to schools across Australia.
“My mum’s living room became my office, and my boyfriend became my business partner, and we started enabling schools to create their yearbooks really, really simply,” Perkins explained to CNBC.
Fusion Books ended up being so successful that Perkins left college at the age of 22. Inspired to simplify the future of design, it was a move that made sense. In five years, Perkins and Obrecht grew Fusion books to become the largest yearbook company in Australia, with a presence in France and New Zealand.
However, they were far from done or content. The duo knew that the technology they had innovated could be “applied much more broadly.”
The birth of Canva
Ready to create a graphic design software anyone could master, Perkins and her partner spent three years acquiring funding. With every rejection came a tweak that would strengthen their pitch.
In 2010, at a conference in Perth, Perkins finally caught a break with the attention of Silicon Valley investor Bill Tai. He invited her to San Francisco to present her vision. Soon after, he began putting her in touch with all the right people. She even got to meet Lars Rasmussen, co-founder of Google Maps – to whom she also pitched the idea.
By early 2013, Canva secured a first round of funding worth US$1.5 million – with Tai, Rasmussen, and Matrix Partners among its few investors. The amount was even matched by the Australian government to keep the company on Aussie shore – making the grand total US$3 million.
Soon after, Canva went live and changed design for the better. Attesting to this were its 55 million users from over 190 countries agree – three million of which pay a monthly fee for advanced features. According to CNBC, 85% of Fortune 500 companies are also users. Collectively, they have produced over three billion designs.
In 2019, the company raised an additional US$85 million more in funding from existing investors including Bond, General Catalyst, Bessemer Venture Partners, Blackbird and Sequoia China. The boost raised its valuation to US$3.2 billion.
In 2020, a boom in remote work helped them secure a US$6 billion valuation.
Just last month, Canva raised US$71 million in new funding – led by T. Rowe Price and Dragoneer at a US$15 billion valuation. Existing investors including Blackbird Ventures and Skip Capital joined in.
Amidst overwhelming success, Perkins remains true to her values. Forbes estimates that Perkins and her husband are both billionaires – each holding stakes worth about US$2 billion.
The couple plans to set up a foundation to donate their wealth. At the heart of their initiatives are causes like climate change and global wealth inequality. “It’s not our vibe to hoard money,” explained Obrecht on behalf of the couple.