Entrepreneur Stories

October 24, 2023

5 mins

How Kitesurfing Lessons Led to a Design Revolution

Who would’ve thought that learning how to Kitesurf would be the key to founding a multi-billion dollar business? This seemingly unrelated sport would lead this entrepreneur from the sea to founding Canva, the design platform changing the landscape of creativity across the globe.

Early Beginnings and Entrepreneurship

Melanie Perkins was born in Perth, Australia in 1987, and found her love for design and technology during her early years. While attending school, she became intrigued by the blend of creativity and logic. Additionally, since she was the daughter of a teacher and an engineer, Perkins developed a deep appreciation for structured thinking alongside the beauty of design. At the age of 14, she was already an entrepreneur with her founding her first business of selling handmade scarves.

Source: Canva

When Perkins was 19, she and her boyfriend, Cliff Obrecht, were studying at the University of Western Australia. She would make a little money from her side hustle of teaching students basic computer design. However, her students found the programs offered by Microsoft and Adobe extremely confusing to use and some would apparently spend the entire semester learning where the buttons were. Perkins wanted to make an easier platform to allow anyone to create designs without an annoying learning curve. 

The Birth of Fusion Books

With minimal business experience and resources, Perkins and Obrecht decided to create a high school yearbook design platform as a sort of proof of concept for their original idea. The website was called “Fusion Books” and would allow students to collaborate on creating their own profile pages and articles. It also allowed students to use different design tools and features including drag-and-drop pictures, font changes, and color. Since Perkins still didn’t have the right resources to work on her original idea, she continued to develop and grow Fusion Books. In just a few years, Fusion Books was working with 400 schools.

The Turning Point: Meeting Bill Tai

Despite the success, Perkins and Obrecht couldn’t go further without any funding and it was Perkins’ meeting with the renowned investor, Bill Tai, in 2011 that changed everything. Bill Tai was an avid kitesurfer and came to Perth to ride the sick waves. After finding out about a dinner Bill was hosting, Perkins attended and got a chance to talk to Bill, pitching her idea. Bill was intrigued and offered to meet her in San Francisco. In 2011, Perkins flew out and set up the meeting. 

As soon as she arrived to meet Bill, Perkins felt like she was out of place with her attire being too professional and having a printed-out pitch deck instead of an online presentation. However, to Melanie’s surprise, the meeting went well and Bill began introducing her to his connections and even invited her to his private Kitesurfing conference, where tech investors would gather. This was her chance to finally get funding from an investor, so she had to pick up the sport fast. The new sport was proving to be worth the time as she was befriending major investors through Tai’s gatherings. Bill would also ask how her kitesurfing was going every time he would call. Despite learning how to kitesurf and growing their network, Perkins failed to secure funding and reportedly received over 100 rejections due to several reasons such as being based in Australia and having no technical knowledge.  

A Technical Co-Founder and Funding Victory

It wasn’t until Perkins and Obrecht found their third co-founder, Cameron Adams, who was a former Google executive and had technical expertise, that they would finally receive funding. In 2012, Perkins raised $1.6 million from angel investors such as Bill Tai and VC firms like Blackbird. They also received an additional $1.4 million from the Australian government in order to keep Canva based inland, totaling their total seed funding to $3 million. Perkins and her team then spent the next year focusing on the first version and launched in August 2013. 

Source: Canva

Canva was a huge success that saw immediate growth. People loved the ability to easily create designs and there were already 1 million users in 2014. One of Canva’s defining attributes was its intuitive interface, making it refreshingly straightforward compared to other design software on the market. While programs like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator had steep learning curves and were often intimidating for the uninitiated, Canva's drag-and-drop functionality and template-driven approach ensured that even complete beginners could produce professional designs in minutes. However, it wasn't just the user-friendly and expansive interface that fueled its rise as Canva's marketing strategy played a pivotal role. They employed a freemium model, allowing users to access a vast array of tools for free, while premium features and assets could be purchased. This approach lured in many users, giving them a taste of the platform's capabilities and often converting them to paid subscribers. By 2023, Canva has 125 million active users and has had 15 funding rounds leading to a total funding amount of $572.6 million and a valuation of $26 billion. It also generated $1 billion in revenue in 2021 while remaining profitable!

Challenges and Setbacks

As with every other company, Canva hasn’t been without its own set of problems. Some common issues were users finding themselves in legal trouble over copyright issues, despite pulling images straight from Canva's own library, raising questions about the platform's licensing. There are also ethical issues with the use of Canva and how it takes the integrity of design away and lessens the value of graphic designers. However, the most significant setback came in 2019 when Canva had to admit to a data breach that affected around 139 million of its users. 

Canva has had an incredible impact on the design landscape by allowing millions of people to design freely and effectively. While having the idea for Canva while in college, in just eight years, Melanie Perkins is now the richest self-made woman in the tech world, with a net worth of $6.5 billion.


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