Walk down Kippax Street, in Sydney's inner-city Surry Hills, and you'll be greeted by a row of almost identical businesses – fashion wholesalers that boast mysterious-sounding names like Ambition Clothing, Desire International and Fashion Fix. But keep strolling, and you'll discover a towering office block. Here lies Canva: the promised land, Australia's billion-dollar design baby, where more than 600 staff work on Australia's most successful startup.
Not long ago Canva was just a team of two. Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht, Canva's chief executive and chief operating officer respectively, launched the company with the kind of charming origin story every startup craves. In 2008, Perkins was teaching design at the University of Western Australia, watching her students struggle with the clunky programs. She spotted a gap in the market – graphic design needed simplification, and she could be the one to deliver it. With the kitchen table as their boardroom, the couple took Canva from concept to reality at Perkins' mother's house. First came a trial-run business designing school yearbooks, then they braved Silicon Valley before landing backing from Lars Rasmussen, the creator of Google Maps. The result was Canva, an online design and publishing tool which makes graphic design simple for everyone. The business was launched in August 2013, and today the website has more than 15 million monthly active users across 190 countries. Last year it became Australia's latest "unicorn" company with an estimated value of over a billion dollars – and it's still growing.
We didn't want hoverboards and ping pong tables, we wanted to make a cultural impact and celebrate our Australian-nessChris Low
It's hardly surprising Canva's new headquarters stands out. The day I visit construction is almost done, only a few high-vis and hardhats remain. "They're just adding the finishing touches," explains Liz McKenzie, Canva's omnipresent head of communications. As we step into the lift, a young man wearing a Canva shirt joins us, pushing a trolley full of glorious salads and roasted chicken. "Today's lunch," nods McKenzie. We exit onto the second floor, which offers a sweeping view of the Sydney skyline. Inside, employees dart around the open plan office, solving the world's design emergencies. McKenzie leads me into a small meeting room, where I meet Chris Low, proud owner of the best job title out there: head of vibe. "People add me on LinkedIn just to say "Nice title" and I never hear from them again," Low says.
Alongside architect Emily Sandstrom (his life partner), Low is responsible for the look, feel and – unsurprisingly – the vibe of Canva's new home. The pair give me the full tour of the building, which has all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a buzzy tech company: a yoga studio, rooftop bar, sparkling mineral water on tap. But the primary mission, according to Low, is to offer more than your typical tech-company gimmicks. "We learnt what we didn't want to do by touring the mega companies in America last year; we visited Google, Facebook, everyone you can imagine. We didn't want hoverboards and ping pong tables, we wanted to make a cultural impact and celebrate our Australian-ness," he says. "This is one of the country's most successful businesses and the best place to work."
He's right, the company has twice taken out the top spot on the Best Places to Work study and such is Lows' conviction in the Canva-dream; it's not hard to see why he's in charge of vibes. Eventually, we arrive on the rooftop, where the pair point out the old office across the road, as well as another location the company plans to purchase. "The whole idea is it that the whole area will be like a Canva campus," explains Sandstrom.
As the business slowly inhales an entire city block, it's a long way from fighting for space at the kitchen table, which I suggest to Perkins when I return the following week. "It definitely is, but each stage... feels like a new milestone, there are always new pressures," she says. "We've come so far, but at the same time, we feel so small compared to where we want to be. We want to empower every single person across the planet on the internet."
At 32-years-old, Perkins is arguably the most successful young businesswoman in the nation; she and co-founder Obrecht have a reported combined net worth of $177 million. Despite that, she is wonderfully down-to-earth, her approachability inherited from early mentor Rasmussen. "You imagine some mythical creature creates these big companies, but when I met Lars Rasmussen, it completely changed my view of what was possible," says Perkins. "He was just a nice normal person who saw a problem and wanted to fix it."
Cool, calm and measured, Perkins occasionally sounds like she's reading off a script. When she discusses Canva's mission, it's rehearsed and convincing. "One of our core values is to set crazy goals and make them happen, be a force for good, be a good human; those things have always been part of our DNA." When talk turns to the future, she doesn't miss a beat. "Step one is to be one of the world's valuable companies and step two is to do the most good we possibly can." When pressed on how tough it must be to build and run a billion dollar company with your partner, Perkins is unphased. "I think communication is critical for Cliff and I, we're always talking," she explains. "Everything takes work, whether it's building a company or relationships, so it's important to speak to each other about the problems you're trying to solve."
Only once does the CEO ever seem caught off guard. Who is she away from work, I ask. "That's a good question; I think I'm Mel at work, I don't put on a different personality when I'm here, I feel myself authentically at Canva." Despite its rapid expansion, the business has held onto its startup ethos from the top down. Everyone lives, breathes – even eats – Canva, and Perkins wraps up the interview to have lunch with her ever-expanding team. "That started right back in our earliest days, where we'd have lunch in my mum's living room, there was maybe 10 of us," says Perkins. "A lot of things have changed but I think for better or worse, I'm the same."
As my time comes to an end, I give it one more shot at piercing the polish, asking Perkins what true satisfaction might feel like. "I'll be satisfied when all the world's problems are solved," she says earnestly. When you look at what Canva has done in the past six years, it's a risk to bet against them.