At the age of 19, a graphic designer named Melanie Perkins had a billion dollar idea... To allow anyone to make beautiful designs. Perkins was at the University of Western Australia at the time, teaching design programs to students who were struggling to learn the basics. So she wanted to make designing something really simple and easy to conquer. 

That’s where Canva was born - a DIY design platform now valued at $3.6 billion

Since its inception, Canva has grown to more than 15 active monthly million users in 179 countries and a team of more than 150 people across two (soon to be three) offices.  They’ve raised over $86.6 million in funding from top US and Australian investors such as Matrix Partners, Felicis Ventures & Blackbird alongside Hollywood celebrities Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson. 

So what exactly has Canva done to achieve such high growth and a unicorn status? We highlight the key stages of Australian start-up below. 

From sketch to canvas: the early days of Canva

It all started in San Francisco where Perkins lived on the floor of her brother’s apartment with her partner Cliff Obrecht (Canva’s Co-Founder and COO). They spent their days pitching to investors, getting rejected, dusting themselves off and going out there the next day to pitch again. They continued this disheartening cycle of rejection for three years. 

The upside of this, Perkins explained, was the time they had to really refine their strategy. They ended up with a strong pitch deck that they used to explain the concept to customers and team members. 

Once they got their first investor on board, they were able to hit the ground running. Luckily, they had some other revenue coming in from their previous business Fusion Books which is still successful today. Not to mention, Perkins made some bold moves to reach out to other investors - including attending a kite surfing conference. Not the easiest of sports to master, let alone make some business conversation at the same time! 

Timeline: The evolution of the Canva website

2013 - April 

The first iteration of Canva’s website was centered around inviting people to reserve their username. 

2013 - November 

A few months later in the same year, they updated the home page design. Except this time, they had ‘scroll down for more information’ feature and (even though you can’t see it below) a feature banner video which highlighted the types of people who were using the product and insights on what the product could do. This was playing automatically when users landed on the website.

A common theme here is that Canva was trying to educate the audience more around what problems Canva was solving and how it worked to encourage more sign ups. 

2014 - August 

The previous home page with the extra information did not stay up for long. Instead, they updated the homepage with social proof and reviews, changed the CTA from reserve to ‘sign up’ and used the form to capture an email address or connecting to Facebook. 

This move would have enabled the Canva team to collect audience insights so that they could a) remarket to them and b) know more about the audiences who are signing up to their platform to refine their business strategy. 

June - 2016 

Fast forward to 2016 and the design hasn’t changed all that much but we now see a navigation bar emerge. There is also an About Section, Design School and iPad app. They’ve also changed the copy to add more social proof ‘Join over 10 million people designing on Canva.’ There are now also more options to sign up - with Facebook, Google account or email. They started to test whether a green button on the Sign up email would increase conversions. 

September - 2019 

The current design still includes a sign up version for each and the email is still highlighted but in brand colours. They’ve also updated the copy to provide more direction on where to start and that it’s free. The navigation bar is now clearly in site and they’ve added more information around each product, features page, free resources and product innovation (the Pro version). 

Their current sign up process is straightforward. Once you’ve created an account, it triggers a welcome email and subscribes you to their weekly or monthly updates. 

Email subject line: Welcome to Canva

Canva has an empowering yet approachable tone. It speaks directly to the user and they use this first email to really simplify the process. 

Email subject line: Design? You can do that. 

This email is delivered within an hour of the first welcome email if the user hasn’t clicked on the ‘get started’ button from the previous welcome email, to encourage the user to take action once more. They’ve kept it very short and straight to the point. 

Once the user has been onboarded, Canva sends out weekly newsletters that cover things like:

  • New templates to check out
  • How to create on-trend designs
  • Any new features on the Canva platform
  • What’s new with Canva Pro 

The key thing with any of Canva’s email marketing material is that it’s always practical, or at least offers the how-to version of unlocking a new design capability. 

Reaching the first 300,000 users 

After launch in 2013, Canva attracted over 300,000 users in the first 12 months. 

How? By targeting the right people. 

The platform initially targeted influencers who identified with the problem of having frustrations and complications with design. This audience still forms part of Canva’s growing social endorsement today. The next group of users Canva targeted was social media marketers and bloggers. Canva solved a frequency and level of experience dilemma for this user group. There were marketers and bloggers who needed to create lots of beautiful visual content but didn’t necessarily have any design experience.

From here, a Canva community was born. By targeting the right groups of people, it was easy for Canva to get them excited and engaged with the platform. But more importantly, spread the word. In the early stages, Canva put a call out on Facebook to join their exclusive community. It was a link to a Google Form. The form reads:

“We're seeking people who love Canva and use it all the time to be part of an exclusive Facebook group.

The group has the inside scoop on Canva news as well as opportunities to provide insight and feedback on new products and features. Please fill in the details below so we can get to know you a little better. (We're especially keen to locate people who might be interested in being social media ambassadors for Canva, so let us know if you'd be interested.)”

Now, they have an exclusive by invitation only group. 

Establishing Evangelism 

Canva made yet again another extremely smart move in 2014 when they got former Chief Evangelist of Apple, Guy Kawasaki, on-board to create Canva’s Evangelism program. 

“Macintosh democratized computers; Google democratized information; and eBay democratized commerce. In the same way, Canva democratizes design.” said Mr. Kawasaki. “You don’t get many chances to democratize an industry, so I seized the opportunity to work for Canva.” 

(Left to right) Guy Kawasaki (Chief Evangelist), Melanie Perkins (CEO) and Cliff Obrecht (COO) Image credit: Canva  

Kawasaki is known for his credibility in the industry with previous roles at Apple, Motorola and Google. It was only a matter of time before he’d position Canva in the same league. Within two months of Kawasaki’s appointment, Canvas users almost doubled. This was huge for Canva. The more users on the platform created further social proof which in turn encouraged more users to try it out for themselves. 

Coupled with influencer advocacy, Canva was able to solidify its brand equity and legitimize its quality. As a result, it attracted more and more users.

Advertising Magic 

We examined the active ads running in Canva’s Facebook Ad Library and noticed a few trends. 

  • They use paid Facebook advertising for product upsell. Most of the ads are encouraging people to claim their free 30-day Canva Pro trial. 
  • They aren’t afraid to add a bit more text to the ads, usually with bullet point emojis.
  • They use a lot of the imagery that is contextual for many of the businesses and brands they’d be targeting. 
  • Most posts are busy, colourful designs. 

The campaign they created to encourage people to sign up (left screenshot below) is one of many ad variations which leveraged the five-star reviews Canva was receiving. To encourage more people to sign up for their free account and get started. 

Overall, Canva’s branded vs non-branded traffic is nearly an equal split (49.78% vs 50.22% respectively). Their top paid keywords - that aren’t “canva” related include “collage” and “collage maker” which you can see in the below text ad examples.  

From an SEO perspective, Canva has set the website set up to rank really well for multiple high search volume keywords that many marketers and designers would be searching for. 

For example:

  • ‘Flyers’ 550,000 monthly search volume
  • ‘Brochures’ 60,500 monthly search volume
  • ‘Photo editor’ 823,000 monthly search volume

The following table shows you how much traffic they get to each of these URLs from keywords like these.  

How did they do this? Well, if you have a look at the ‘browse’ section of the website. 

Every single design type or templates has a dedicated landing page with plenty of content. This is a strong and healthy sign to Google to help them rank well for these search terms. Plus, they need to make sure they create compelling ad copy to compete. 

Making a difference 

There are over 4,500 non-profits using Canva today. They offer a free subscription to Canva Pro (more on this later) to any registered non-profit organisation. Considering Canva has seen so much growth from word of mouth, it’s doing a good deed for non-profits being able to create stunning designs to help them get the word out about their charities. 

Going beyond the borders

Another cool thing Canva is doing is making the platform accessible in multiple languages. Currently, it’s been launched in 30 different languages. They’ve also launched an iPad app, an iPhone app and an Android app to be used across multiple devices. Canva to the point that it can be in every language, on every device, that's a key priority because of course to access the three billion people on the internet we need to be in their languages and on their devices.

Given that there are 3.4 billion internet users worldwide, making the design platform accessible globally in multiple languages across multiple devices is incredibly vital to sustained long-term growth. 

Teaching new tricks 

As part of Canva’s mission to make design accessible to everyone, they offer a tonne of free educational content on their blog covering topics on design, marketing, branding and photography. This investment in high quality content marketing helps engage the community, new users and ranks well on Google too. 

For those that want to invest more time into taking their design skills to the next level, Canva offers Design School which includes short courses with up to 12 lessons in each that are created by experts in the Canva community. Over a million users visit Canva’s Design School each month to learn everything from colour theory, to font pairing and which layouts or combinations look best together. It also includes topics such as mastering your social media marketing strategy and branding your business. 

There are a lot of positive factors at play here for Canva:  

  • High amount of consistent monthly traffic 
  • Increased levels of engagement and sharing 
  • Helping spread the word about Canva even further 

Reaching new highs 

Like any successful brand, they focus relentlessly on perfecting their product or service. Canva is no exception.  

They released a pro version for businesses designed to help non-designers in the business create designs on the fly with a shared home of templates. It helps the team stay on-brand and consistent. It also eases the pressure on the actual designers in the business who are usually in extremely high demand, typically focused on mundane tasks that dull their creativity spark. 

They made their first acquisition in 2018 of a company called Zeetings, a Sydney-based presentations startup that offers Powerpoint-like presentation software that invites collaboration. Viewers are able to interact and provide feedback on presentations via their smartphones in real-time.  

The acquisitions haven’t stopped there. 

In the first half of 2019, they set their sights on acquiring free stock image providers Pexels and Pixabay to give their users access to over 1 million additional free images. 

They also launched their own subscription Netflix style image service called Photos Unlimited which charges a $12.95 monthly fee or $120 per-year for premium stock photos. 

Building a culture of dreams  

Ultimately, growth is spearheaded by an exceptional team. Canva has been able to attract some of the best talent from all over the world to share the same passion and drive for the product and mission. 

Every start-up has their curious ways of operating but how does Canva do it so well?  PODS. 

In a recent interview, Perkins talks about how one of the most successful things the company has done to date is to move into small teams. As the team was growing, it was harder to maintain start-up energy. Each small team is self-contained and operates like a start-up - having engineers, product designers and growth people in the one team. Each team is given a goal to focus on whether that be internationalization, increasing activation rates or increasing attention rate. Perkins explains this has been successful for the brand because it results in tighter feedback loops and collaboration. 

Final thoughts

As you read Canva’s growth story, imagine a ladder. At the top of the ladder is your big audacious goal. 

The only way you’re going to reach the top of the ladder (and your goal) is by taking steps on the rungs of the ladder. Think of each rung as your smaller objective. 

From day one, Canva has set their sights on democratizing design. 

In the early days, it was hard work to get the eyes and ears of investors to help them get the money to make it happen, but they didn’t give up. To get to the next rung, they needed a clear vision. 

Next, it was about targeting the right people while creating a product people wanted to share and talk about. So it kind of goes without saying, but you need to have an exceptional product and the right people to build it.

Canva did a lot of user testing in the early days, and still do to this day. They have invested in providing high quality educational content in the form of blogs, user guides and their own Design school to help educate how users can get the most out of their product. 

Social proof has also been invaluable to Canva’s organic growth. They knew exactly how to enhance that too with the help of forming strategic partnerships with schools, universities and non-profit communities. Then, they made some smart acquisitions to provide their users even more value. 

To summarise each step of Canva’s metaphorical ladder journey and what you need to do: 

  •  Achieve a clear vision
  •  Know your audience, listen to them and act on their feedback
  • Discover where you will make the most impact and build partnerships with those who can help
  • Build a team environment that lives and breathes your mission
  • Invest in high quality educational content and arm your users with the information to get the most out of your product or service
  • Always look for ways to make your product or service better and provide more value to your customers
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