Learning to be a graphic designer takes years of study and practice. From InDesign to Illustrator, you need to master the complicated tools necessary to succeed in this beautifully demanding industry.
But what about the people who don’t have the time or the funds to become fully-fledged designers? Those who need the ability to make high-quality designs without the years of schooling?
Well, that’s where Canva comes in.
Back in 2012, founder Melanie Perkins had an epiphany: there are millions of people around the world that want to be able to design but don’t have the necessary skills or tools to do so.
As a do-it-yourself design platform, Canva grants access to the world of graphic design to everyone and anyone who’s interested. From Instagram posts to blog banners, this brand provides a simple, intuitive interface that allows users to create high-quality, visually impressive designs.
By identifying a previously neglected audience — people interested in design but without formal training — this brand was able to create an empowering product that solved a real problem.
So, how did Canva achieve its incredible number of users, drive its exponential growth, and reach profitability in just under five years?
This article will take a deep dive into their growth strategy and recipe for success.
Canva’s Origin Story
From the very beginning, Perkins knew that it was important that they didn’t get ahead of themselves.
A great idea is one thing, but without proper ideation, development, and implementation, they risked failure.
The rough concept for Canva came to Perkins during her time at the University of Western Australia. When teaching students how to use design software, she was struck by how difficult and complicated it all was.
Perkins explained, saying:
“It could take a whole semester to learn the very basics. Even the simplest tasks, like exporting a high-quality PDF file could take 22 clicks.”
So what’s the solution? A simpler design tool.
Shortly thereafter, Perkins and her partner Cliff Obrecht took a stab at creating such a tool and produced Fusion Books, an online design tool that allowed students to more easily create their own yearbooks.
When they realized that the technology they had created could be used more widely, they teamed up with tech expert Cameron Adams, and Canva was officially born.
Taking It In Strides
To start things off, Perkins, Obrecht, and Adams launched the earliest version of Canva in 2013 — but made it available only to selected professionals.
With this approach, they were able to get the ball rolling, gather feedback from their chosen users, and then apply any collected insights to the product before launching publicly.
They also utilized the strategy of starting niche and then going wide. They began with Fusion Books (a more niche product) and then transformed it into Canva (a much more widely applicable tool). By starting small, Perkins found that they were able to gather a deeper understanding of their target audience — their problems, needs, and desires.
Once they knew what their target audience problems were, they were able to create a product that solved them.
They also needed to refine their brand mission and messaging before sharing Canva with the world. This meant defining their brand goals and values.
According to Perkins, the goal of Canva is “to enable the whole world to design.” By providing graphic design software as a service, Canva functions are an online tool for people who need designs but don’t have access to designers.
In short, Canva makes the complex simple and empowers non-designers to design. Plus, it provides real, tangible value to users.
These, along with others, are still some of Canva’s main brand values.
With a rock-solid brand vision, clear messaging, and a good product, Canva was ready to take things to the next level.
Gathering Influential Support
In January of 2014 — just two years later — Canva went public and quickly attracted 150,000 users.
In this early stage, Perkins and Obrecht made the strategic decision to team up with tech influencer Guy Kawasaki, who helped them triple their users in just two months. But more importantly, Kawasaki became the “Chief Evangelist of Canva”, sharing his support and recommendation with his millions of followers.
By getting a trusted and respected tech influencer on board with their product, Canva was able to rapidly reach and quickly convert thousands of new users. Kawasaki himself explains Canva’s appeal and his interest in the product almost perfectly, having stated:
“I think Apple democratized computers and Google democratized information, and now Canva is democratizing design.”
Clearly, Canva was on the right path to conquer this formerly uncharted territory.
By August 2015, they reached four million users — staggering numbers in such a short time period. Though their growth was impressively fast, it can be partly attributed to the fact that their product solved a real problem.
They identified a neglected audience — one who was ready and willing to use (and fervently support) a product that allowed them access to simpler design software. And, thankfully, they were also willing to pay for it.
Thanks to roughly 294,000 paying users, Canva was able to achieve profitability in 2017 — the “white whale” all startups are after.
By June 2020 Canva raised $60 million in funding, achieved a valuation of $6 billion, and was used in 190 countries around the world. Currently, they boast over 15 million monthly active users who have created over one billion designs.
And those numbers just keep growing, with their most recent funding round earning them another $92 million and the coveted "Unicorn" title with a value of $19.5 billion.
So, other than taking things in stages and gathering influential support, what else propelled Canva on to achieve massive success?
Relying On Social Proof Over Paid Advertising
Publishing folks: Did you know you can do INSANELY GOOD product mock-ups FOR FREE with Canva??? This would have saved me SO MUCH TIME making graphics for my last Kickstarter!— Ash the Stampede (@wundergeek) May 27, 2021
The option is sorta buried, so here's the basic steps for how to do it (1/n)
In many ways, this was a hit-or-miss strategy — a real gamble.
While many startups utilize paid advertising — from search to social — to ensure their product is being seen by as many new users as possible, Canva took a different approach.
They relied on their early adopters to spread the word, share their designs, and, basically, become free advertisements. And it worked!
Early users of Canva shared their designs and experiences with colleagues and friends, and through social proof and word of mouth, Canva began to grow.
Perkins herself summarized this approach, stating:
“Social currency in the sense of our community has always been incredibly valuable for us. Much of that growth has come through word of mouth and our user sharing about us.”
From articles on huge publications like Tech Crunch to celebratory tweets from investors and Twitter big-wigs, word of Canva spread like wildfire. While any company can buy ads extolling their virtues and amazing products, there’s nothing quite as influential as positive social proof.
Canva was able to capitalize on this approach, and, consequently, did not have to invest too much of their hard-earned funding on expensive paid advertising.
More Than Just a Product: Empowering Users & Providing Value
At the end of the day, Perkins understood that Canva had to be more than just a great product. It had to empower people — inspire them and make them believe in themselves.
And Canva does just that. It also solves a real problem in a simple, intuitive way.
Furthermore, Canva provides incredible value in both the free and paid versions. A tip from Perkins herself:
“Offer a free tier that delivers a lot of value (as it) will naturally help your product to spread much more rapidly.”
It also helps to keep your paid product affordable. Perkins found that the trend across such services was a constant drive to make things “cheaper, faster, and more efficient”, as it brings more equality.
However, it also means companies have to continually improve, make products less expensive, and earn bigger profits.
With such seemingly contradictory yet coinciding goals, it can be hard to figure out the balance.
Canva was able to find its sweet spot and balance all these goals by utilizing social proof, gathering the support of tech influencers, providing value at all levels, and taking things one step at a time.
While not every startup or mid-sized company can hope to replicate Canva’s immense success or utilize the same growth methods, they can come away with some great tips.
1. Know Your Target Audience and Identify Their Problems
It’s one thing to have a general feel for who you think your product and services are best suited for. It’s another to gain a deep, nuanced understanding of their needs, problems, and desires.
To get this type of information, make sure you conduct preliminary research on your target audience. From gathering market research to collecting consumer insights, brands that really know their target audiences will have a better chance of connecting with them and gaining their support.
2. Gather Support From Industry Influencers
Having supportive users is fantastic, but gathering support from key influencers in your industry can take you to the next level.
One tweet from a popular, trusted influencer in your industry can reach thousands — if not millions — of consumers. Hiring an official “Evangelist” as Canva did could be a great way for your brand to reach new audiences via a trusted voice.
3. Offer Real Value and Empower Users
This point may seem obvious, but it’s one that too many brands never really nail.
There’s a difference between the brand value you think your audience wants and the value they actually are looking for. That’s why it’s vital that you conduct continual consumer research to gather insights.
Your target audience will not remain static, and neither will their needs and wants. To understand what value they’re looking for and how to empower them, you need to do the legwork.