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Canva: From Start-up To The Clues Behind Their Global Network And Future Exponential Success

Canva, online design startup, demonstrates the benefits of thinking and acting global and the value of building a strategic network early.

Sophie Krantz
Sophie Krantz

When you decide to build a global business, it is hard to do it alone. Beyond talent and technology, early, deliberate steps to expand a network with international reach can make a world of difference.

Key to achieving global aspirations for a number of founders is building a strategic network of investors and advisors before they are needed. These investors are positioned to provide investment at future funding rounds and enable a funding pipeline to be developed. Beyond this, these strategic investors and advisors are also positioned to provide valuable introductions, insights and influence, all which open important doors for future growth.

In the early days, with so much to build, test and validate, when is the right time to build a strategic network of investors and advisors?  

We can look to Canva, the Sydney-based design startup that allows users to create free online graphic designs. Here are some clues behind this startup’s global success.

Canva; Designed Their Destiny

Canva was founded in Australia in 2012 by Melanie Perkins, Clifford Obrecht, and Cameron Adams.  Perkins started building a strategic network early in the company’s life when it had a valuation of US$6 million (AU$8 million). While Canva were building their software platform, Perkins quietly and deliberately built a network of elite investors and contacts in Silicon Valley.

An important first engagement was with VC investor Bill Tai. Tai made introductions to people that enabled future investment and also provided insights and experience on building a global startup.

Since that time, Canva has had an impressive growth trajectory. As of September, 2021, the company is valued at US$40 billion (AU$55 billion).  They have secured Venture Capital funding from a range of investor, based in their home market and abroad, including:

  • American-based Bessemer Venture Partners, Bond Capital, General Catalyst, Greenspring Associates, Shasta Ventures, Felicis Ventures, and Sequoia Capital;
  • German-based Global Founders Capital; and
  • Australian-based AirTree Ventures, Blackbird Ventures, and Square Peg Capital.

The company has not gone public and it is unclear if it will do so. It has been able to raise ample investment over 14 funding rounds. With each funding round, Canva has secured strategic investors, with these each bringing new networks and insights enabling future growth.

Initially, the company was Fusion Yearbooks. This was an online design-based service for schools and students to create their yearbooks. Students could collaborate and design their profile pages and articles. The founders then printed and delivered the yearbooks around Australia.

Today, Canva is a global software platform. Their investors benefit from their recent and future growth projections, stemming from:

  • Over 60 million monthly users, up from 55 million in April 2021.
  • They are on track to exceed US$1 billion annulized revenue by the end of 2021.
  • The founders are based in Australia, with the company employing 1200 people in Sydney with another 800 around the world.
  • The Canva community has created more than 7 billion designs since launching in 2012. They claim that 120 new designs are created every second using the Canva library of over 800,000 templates over 100 million design features, from photos, videos, and graphics.

A Strategic Network; Worth the Investment?

When there is no immediate return on investment, it can be challenging for founders and business leaders to dedicate the time and effort required to build a strategic network for future growth.

Having access to investment, insights, introductions and influence before they are needed is a form of insurance. This insurance provides protection against a future possibility.

For the founder or international business leader, the future possibility could involve dead ends and roadblocks. It could be a validated business model that goes unfunded. Or, it might be the slow pace to scale into new markets, being overtaken by a competitor.

Thinking and Acting Global

Canva had a vision to be a global software platform.  They made early steps to be embedded in the Silicon Valley ecosystem. It enabled them to achieve their growth vision, securing both the money and the minds of the right people, when it was needed.

The Canva case study shows the importance of thinking and acting global when you want to build a product, service or business on the world stage. If they did not do this, their growth trajectory may have been different.

  • Think and act global: Canva had an objective to be a global software platform. Early on, they met the right people so they could access big investments and big minds, when the time was right. It set a foundation for Canva’s exponential growth.
  • Think local and act global: this involves taking the local home market conditions and network, and applying them to grow across the world. It can lead to exhaustion with following incorrect advice or gaps in key insights existing.
  • Think global and act local: this is when a founder or business leader is well versed with what is going on in the world, however they keep their business in the local market. It can mean that growth opportunities are lost and there is a threat of a larger competitor seeking their ‘safe’ local market share.  It is an excluded approach.
  • Think local and act local: this is rarely the domain of the founder or business leader with the vision of building an exponential organization. These businesses are exposed to competitive threats from within and outside their market and may miss commercial opportunities associated with scaling. They are exposed.

Time Spent with the Right People

Jim Rohn, American entrepreneur, said, “You are the average of the five people that you spend the most time with.”

Early in a startup’s life, it can be easy to focus on the pressing demands of today. These demands might keep the founder thinking and acting local. There is risk in doing so. Canva demonstrates the benefits of thinking and acting global and the value of building a strategic network early.

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Sophie is a global strategist who writes on global leadership in the digital age. She works with leaders worldwide to amplify their ambition and accelerate their agency to drive global goals.