Following your dreams can be difficult on its own, and even harder when you’re faced with people constantly telling you ‘no’. With so many reasons to quit, sometimes throwing in the towel seems like the only way out. In this blog, Canva chief executive officer and co-founder Melanie Perkins shares her thoughts on how she overcame negativity on her way to building one of the world’s most successful companies, what to do when the going gets tough, and how determination and a strong support system can be your secret weapon for success.
There are many, many reasons that may make you feel like you are on the outside. Your age, sex, gender identity, nationality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, skin colour, ethnicity, religion, income, culture, upbringing, able-bodiedness, mental health, physical health, personality …
The list of factors that tend to make people feel like they are on the outside is, unfortunately, endless.
There are also many situations that can also make a person feel out of place. For many, it’s far from being a ‘feeling’, but is actually a terrible situation of abuse of power and outright discrimination. Over the last 12 months, we’ve certainly seen some of these horrible stones being turned over, and I sadly expect to see a lot more come to light over the years to come.
So this piece isn’t aimed at the ‘discriminators’: the people that could and should do better, step up to the mark to help create a nicer, kinder, fairer world for everyone around them. This is for the people who, for many reasons, feel like they are on the outside.
I’ve had a few insights into not ticking a lot of the typical boxes. In fact, I tick very few boxes of a typical tech entrepreneur looking to raise investment from US venture firms and create a global company. I’m female, which apparently represents only 2% of venture capital-funded chief executive officers. I’m Australian, and if you look at the likelihood of raising venture capital when you’re from my home-town Perth, the stats drop even further. If I were to look at all these discouraging stats, I probably would have shied away from even trying in the first place.
However, I’ve learnt a couple of things along the way, so wanted to share these insights with anyone who feels they too are on the outside, in the hope they will help you along your way as well. So here it goes.
1. Don’t worry about people who don’t like you
Let’s get this one off the table to start with.
There are a number of people in this world who are archaic and small-minded — and there’s almost nothing we can do about it.
Just know it’s their loss if they don’t want anything to do with you. If they can’t see past your [insert name of whatever factor they don’t like about you], they are probably too short-sighted to have long-term success anyway — at least that’s my optimistic view.
There are more than seven billion people on this planet, which means there are a lot of really great people out there. Focus on finding the nice ones, and don’t worry about those that aren’t. I know when I travelled overseas for the first time as an adult it gave me a completely new and exciting view on the world — as I realised the little bubble I lived in growing up was just that, a little bubble, not the whole world.
2. Wherever possible, don’t believe it’s point number one — just concentrate on your goals
Unfortunately, there are a number of instances where point number one applies. We’ve seen this happen a lot recently with the #metoo, #timesup and #blacklivesmatter movements which have all raised awareness on some of the terrible things that occur.
However, if it’s possible, avoid attributing any rejection to point number one. If you can, blame that rejection on something you can control, rather than something you can’t. For Canva, it meant refining our pitch deck over and over again, refining our strategy, and pouring all of our energy into building a great company. Were we rejected because I didn’t tick the typical boxes? I have no idea, but actually, I don’t really care — I’d always presume it was because our pitch deck wasn’t good enough, or our strategy not refined enough. Blaming rejections on things I could control meant I could use them as fuel to improve.
3. Know that determination wins
One thing that has kept me going is the belief that if I work really hard, I can usually succeed at whatever I put my mind to — maybe not on the first try, but by the hundredth (or more) tries I’ll nail it. Learning this at a young age has been like a magical superpower my whole life, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I try really hard and fail, it just means that I need to try harder and harder, until eventually, I succeed. And then when I succeed I can attribute my success to trying really hard.
It’s never too late to exercise the power of determination. Figure out something you’d like to succeed at, and then do it. The first thing could be small. Learn to juggle. Learn to speak in public. Learn anything, Work really hard for however long it takes you to succeed at that thing. Determination is like a muscle, the more you flex it, the stronger it gets.
4. Wherever possible, blame things you can fix
There’s a concept in psychology that I really like called ‘locus of control’, which was first described by American psychologist Julian Rotter in the 1950s.
Rotter believed there are different degrees to which people believe they can control the outcome of events in their lives. People with an ‘internal locus of control’ believe they can control the outcome of events in their lives, whereas people with an ‘external locus of control’ believe they can’t.
If you have an external locus of control, you have no power to change the outcome and so there’s no point in trying harder. Whereas if you have an internal locus of control, you can work hard and succeed.
The problem with a lot of the conversation relating to discrimination is that it so often makes those in the discriminated group feel they don’t have control over their own outcomes, encouraging an ‘external locus of control’, which makes people feel powerless.
Anyone attempting to achieve any crazy big goal will face rejection and hard times as they embark on their journey. However, if you are in a group you perceive as an ‘outside’ group, it may feel like those rejections are because of some factor that you can’t control, rather than something you can fix (such as your pitch deck or strategy). Don’t let this kind of thinking to discourage you from picking yourself up after a rejection and trying again.
5. Find people that like you
There’s a kind of beautiful self-selection process that happens when you are trying to pursue something when you don’t tick many of the typical boxes. The only people who invest in you do so because they believe in you. Which means of all the hundreds of investors I’ve met over the years, the people who believed in me the most are the ones who ended up investing in our company. It’s pretty cool, because it means that in the end, we ended up with a great group of investors who believed in my vision.
And on the flip side, if they didn’t believe in me, they didn’t get to work with our company.
6. You have to believe in yourself and your vision for a very long time before anyone else will
To get Canva off the ground I had to believe in the vision for Canva for years before anyone else did (well, other than my co-founders and family).
Years ago I read a beautiful book called The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma. One paragraph reads:
“Yogi Raman once told me that as a boy, he lacked confidence as he was smaller than the other boys his age. While they were kind and gentle to him given their environmental influences, he grew insecure and shy. To cure this weakness, Yogi Raman would travel to this heavenly spot and use the lake as a picture screen for images of the person he hoped to be. Some days he would visualize himself as a strong leader, standing tall and speaking with a powerful, commanding voice. Other days he would see himself as he wished to be when he grew older: a wise sage filled with tremendous inner strength and character. All the virtues he wished to have in his life, he saw first on the surface of the lake.”
These words have stayed with me ever since I first read them. You have to visualise exactly what you want to achieve before it can be turned into reality, whether that’s your own strength of character or your vision for the future.
7. Don’t care about the stats
I touched on this point before, but essentially, if you don’t tick a lot of the ‘typical’ boxes when you look at the stats, the situation could look quite daunting. However, when you succeed, you’ll help to change the stats. Any stats are just a reflection of what’s happened in the past, but with hard work, you can change the stats of the future.
8. If it were easy, it probably wouldn’t be worth doing
Something we often say at Canva when things get challenging is: ‘If it were easy, it probably wouldn’t be worth doing’.
Knowing that every single other person struggles is helpful knowledge.
In our early days, I’d read press about startups, see their millions of users or huge funding rounds and think, ‘wow, it must be so easy for them’. Now, however, 10 years since starting my first company and having met lots of other entrepreneurs, I know there’s no secret formula and no such thing as an overnight success — just a lot of hard work and overcoming challenges one by one.
I’m fairly certain achieving anything in life requires a lot of hard work and persistence. This is one of my favourite quotes:
I was looking back through some old notes from 2011— a time when I was first trying to raise capital, sleeping on my brother’s living room floor, and being rejected time and time again. I wrote a note to myself, on which I gave myself some great advice:
“Mel you’re extremely tired. You are in a challenging situation, though you can pull through. Nothing bad is really happening, you’re just feeling depressed because you are used to achieving things quickly. It’s a hard environment. There is no doubt you will succeed and you will find the team you need, get the investment you need and build the company you have always wanted. You have chosen to put yourself in a challenging situation. If it wasn’t challenging you wouldn’t feel as satisfied when you get to the end goal.”
Remember that every single person on this planet struggles for one reason or another. Everyone has self-doubt. Realising that the struggle is a normal part of the process for every single person can be very empowering.
9. Love challenges
When we first built Canva we put it in front of people to do some user testing. After many years of trying to land investment and build a tech team, then another year developing the product, we were extremely disappointed to see that people were apprehensive about using our product: they weren’t clicking, exploring or creating the awesome designs we had dreamed they’d be able to.
People believed they couldn’t design, that they weren’t ‘creative’ enough, and therefore didn’t click or explore. I spent some time reading about gamification and decided to try and turn our onboarding into a ‘fun challenge’. We created ‘five starter challenges’, each challenge was progressively harder — but every time users ‘won’ a challenge, such as ‘searching for a hat and putting it on a monkey’, they developed a little more confidence in their own design abilities and felt ready to tackle the next challenge.
The only thing that has been constant throughout our company’s journey is there has always been a new challenge that we needed to overcome. In my first company, Fusion Books, we had to become profitable quickly or we’d have no company — so that was one of our first challenges. Then it was building a tech team. Landing investment. Growing an awesome community. There are constantly new challenging obstacles, and learning to love challenges — even those that seem insurmountable — is an important part of the journey.
10. Ask for feedback often
A peculiar tendency I’ve noticed is that when people feel they are on the ‘outside’ for whatever reason (and I’ve noticed this trait in myself too) they don’t ask for feedback as much as they could. While asking for feedback can make anyone feel vulnerable, it’s one of the quickest ways to learn rapidly. The very simple question ‘what can I do to be more effective?’ will give you huge insights to learn and develop. Asking for feedback may come more naturally to some people than others, but once you’ve done it a couple of times it will feel a lot less daunting. Eventually, you’ll learn to love feedback because you’ll get to experience the huge benefits of honest, real-time knowledge on areas in which you can improve.
11. Ask for help more
We’re all definitely learning as we go (I certainly am). And I think when people find themselves in new situations they haven’t been in before, there are generally two distinct reactions: one is to ask for help from everyone around them, and the other is to try and do it all by themselves. I think when people feel they are on the ‘outside’, it can feel even more uncomfortable asking for help, because it looks like they don’t know what they are doing. But asking for advice and support is another very quick way to learn. When we were raising our first round of capital, instead of asking if an investor wanted to invest, we’d ask if they were willing to give us some advice on our pitch deck. After doing this for three years, each time working really hard to improve our pitch, we eventually landed investment.
12. Know it’s hard for absolutely everyone
I think it’s pretty important to know that every single person is going through their own trials and tribulations. I haven’t met a single founder, or a single person who’s working towards achieving huge goals, that have had things handed to them on a silver platter. I think knowing that everyone is struggling to make things work, and feels like they are on a rollercoaster and pedalling as quickly as they can, is mightily powerful. Knowing it’s tricky for everyone, that any adventure will be filled with rejections and littered with obstacles, somehow makes the adventure a little less lonely. And it’s most important for people who feel like they are on the outside to know this.
Finally: Go get ‘em!
What we need in this world is a broad range of people achieving crazy big goals across every single industry. The stats can look frightening and it can seem intimidating when it’s not a well-trodden path, but let’s pave the path forward towards a better tomorrow, and create the world that we all want to live in.
In the end, we’ll see better stats and change our future — for everyone.