Startup Advice

Canva’s Melanie Perkins has 10 tips for startups with ‘crazy-big dreams’

Melanie Perkins /

Melanie Perkins Canva

Canva co-founder Melanie Perkins.

Since our earliest days, my co-founders and I have placed a lot of emphasis on the culture we want to create at Canva. It has always been incredibly important that we build a company that we enjoy working in ourselves.

Our focus has always been on creating a place where everyone loves coming to work, and where everyone is striving to do the best work of their lives and create the most outstanding product and company we can. This means we don’t have any rules for the sake of having rules, we have high standards and we care about each other and enjoy hanging out together.

What this meant is we had to start out by asking ourselves what we didn’t want at Canva. We didn’t want any arbitrary rules or autocratic powers. We especially didn’t want anyone waiting around for others to give ‘permission’ or earn a promotion before they took on new responsibilities.

We wanted everyone at Canva to be the master of their own destiny, and understand this is the place where everyone can shape our company and culture. A place where if people see a problem, they can go and fix it, and everyone’s energy is focused on achieving crazy-big goals together.

We’ve done a really good job retaining the close-knit team feeling of our early days. But a lot has changed since then. We now have more than 500 people across three offices, so the way we worked early on, as one big team, is no longer possible.

In late-2015, we shifted to a model of small startups: teams of three to six people with their own goals and plans. We celebrate each team reaching its goal as a whole company to maintain that closeness, but this new structure enables our teams to move as quickly as we can.

Keeping everyone aligned is a huge task in itself, but I’ve learned a couple of things along the way to help this happen, so I thought I’d share them here.

1. You can only grow as big as your dreams

This one seems kind of obvious, but one of the most critical parts of my role has always been to dream up crazy-big goals. Now that Canva has reached this scale, I’ve been working hard to ensure every team at Canva is also dreaming big for itself.

We’re about to move into a huge new eight-story building, and before we started our renovations, I walked through the building. It was both scary and exciting. Exciting because in the not-too-distant future the building will be filled with amazing people, and scary because within every team and every group, we need people dreaming about the future of their projects and the company and then working hard every day to turn those dreams into reality.

Canva’s new office.

One of the most useful things we’ve done recently was to have 15 ‘off-sites’ with each of our groups where we brainstormed about the future.

Each day was tailored to the needs of the group, but one of my favourite sessions was dreaming about the future we want to turn into reality. ‘What does wild success look like in three years?’ What does terrible failure look like?’ Having this shared dream for the future means that everyone can work hard every day to turn those dreams into reality.

Every team, every group and certainly every startup should spend a lot of time thinking about these sort of questions.

  • What will the future of industry X look like in five years’ time? What about 10 years’ time? I always imagine a nicer, kinder world where everything works harmoniously and magically, so this is one of my favourite pastimes!
  • What would wild success look like in three years? What would terrible failure look like? As soon as your vision for success is crystal clear, it will be a lot easier to turn that vision into goals and start to work towards each of them every day. Also ensuring you don’t end up in column B (‘terrible failure’) can be a strong motivator for a lot of people too! It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day looking at the tools that you have around you, rather than dreaming about the amazing city that you are trying to build. If you imagine that city in enough detail then eventually you’ll find the tools you need.
  • What does the utopian perfect experience look like? I may be an optimist, but if you look at most industries everything is getting radically faster, machinery is getting radically smaller and most products and services are essentially helping people to get to their goals radically faster. What does the utopian experience look like in your industry? I loved this blog about the 10-star experience from AirBnB, it’s a great exercise to do!

2. Teams who dream together, achieve together

It’s not enough just to have ‘dreams’ — you have to talk about it regularly to help will it into existence.

I definitely learnt this the hard way when we were pitching for our first round of funding. We didn’t have a product and certainly didn’t have any customers, so it was absolutely essential we were able to convey the vision for Canva in a compelling manner to land our first round of investment.

Talking about our vision and the future we’re trying to create has continued ever since.

Every time we have newbies start, we run through the Canva pitch deck, every season opener we reiterate the vision, every stand up, every board meeting, every given opportunity!

Yes, that does mean that I have run through our pitch deck thousands of times, but the benefit is, everyone has a deep understanding of why we’re doing what we are doing, and they are able to help build upon that vision and help turn it into reality!

This is hopefully 101 for most businesses. But to have a goal-driven culture, it’s essential that the whole company is striving towards a larger shared vision, something much bigger than where you are today. The bigger the vision, the easier it is to have a goal-driven culture, as each ‘goal’ is simply a step towards that bigger mission.

It’s important to dream together as a team and to have a shared understanding of where you’re headed. Once you’ve nutted out the bigger picture, it’s much easier to work out the smaller decisions.

We often say things in the future require ‘low fidelity’ detail — we may only have a few mockups or rough sketches to explain a concept a few years away. But as things come closer to fruition they need to be turned from low fidelity to high fidelity. High fidelity prototypes are as ‘real life’ as possible, so everyone can see what the finished product will look like and how it will work. We aren’t there yet on all fronts, but we’re making progress!

3. Nut out the next ‘big goal worthy of celebration’

When growing a startup, there are always two realities you have to constantly balance: the future utopian state where everything is magical and seamless, and the current dismal reality where you never have enough people or time, the product is never where you dream it to be and you’re embarrassed by every bug. That may sound negative, but I think dreaming up a beautiful utopian future and then struggling hard to get there is actually the weird delight of building a high-growth company.

The difference between the future and the current state is actually what I find inspiring.

Inside Canva we frequently say we’re less than 1% done. In one of our brainstorming sessions recently someone asked me: “If we reach 1% is that success or failure?” I had to think for a moment. Hopefully, we’ll reach 100% of our current vision at some point, but every single day we’re just thinking ‘future, future’, so hopefully we never quite get there!

A lot of companies (even some very large tech ones) have a ‘short’ ladder: they set out to do something, reach their initial goal of getting a lot of user traction, and then in some ways have an identity crisis. What to do next? Other companies have huge lofty dreams,but don’t have tangible steps to get there.

I think the ‘ideal’ vision comprises both: a huge vision that stretches all the way to the moon and will take decades to achieve, but then a lot of small tangible steps along the way.

At Canva every team chooses a ‘big goal worthy of celebration’ every three months, and when they reach that goal they have a fun (often rather quirky) celebration with the rest of the company.

Why does having a ‘goal worthy of celebration’ matter?

  1. To give clear objectives for each team to work towards.
  2. To help each team feel recognition from the whole company.
  3. As we get bigger it becomes increasingly important to distil our top-level goals from the noise of day-to-day tasks.
  4. To help everyone celebrate wins along the way.
  5. To help ensure that achieving big (generally customer-facing) goals drive internal conversations and energy.

Because it can take two-six months to meet a challenging goal, celebrations are important as they help everyone acknowledge each other’s wins. For example, an engineer might not know when to congratulate the customer happiness team, but if they set a huge goal, explain why it’s important to the company and then hit it, everyone will be barracking for them and can congratulate them when they get there. By setting crazy big goals in a public manner there’s a common language and understanding across every team.

4. Ensure every team has goals

When we were much smaller, our goals looked more like ‘launch Canva’, and the whole company would work towards that end. Today we are fortunate to have surpassed 500 team members, so it’s more important than ever to take a step back to and ensure we all know which goals we’re working towards.

We go to a lot of effort to ensure that each team’s goals are visible to the whole company — we stick them on posters on the wall, we send an email around, we speak about them at our season opener. By making the goals public, it enables everyone to know what’s most important and to strive towards the goal together!

The season opener marks the start of the new season and quarterly team planning. For one day each quarter, the office is completely transformed into a new world — some of our past themes have included autumn fairytale forest, spring carnival and most recently, Canvastock (a colourful, fun 70s theme). Everyone gets actively involved, and season openers allow us to get big visibility for our quarterly goals, share context across the company and celebrate team achievements and milestones.

At our season openers, each team presents their ‘big goal worthy of celebration’. One type of big goal is a launch goal. For example, last year one team’s goal was to ‘launch in 100 languages’, another team’s goal was to ‘launch Canva Print’, while another was to ‘launch Canva Android’.

Other teams may have a business metric goal, for example to ‘increase the number of people who publish their design within seven days from X to Y’, or to ‘double the conversion rate from X to Y’.

These ‘big goals’ help ensure every team has clear objectives to work towards, each team feels recognition from the whole company when they reach their goal, that we celebrate our wins along the way, and also provide a common language for everyone across the company to use regardless of how diverse their day-to-day work might be.

I love that every single team and group at Canva has crazy-big goals. Having new goals each season makes sure everyone has something concrete to pour their energy and creativity into.

5. Set crazy big goals, and make them happen

People sometimes ask ‘do you sit back and pinch yourself’ or ‘what does it feel like to be successful’?

Truthfully, I seldom sit back, and I certainly don’t feel that ‘we’ve made it’. I always see the 99% that we haven’t yet achieved.

I always feel like we are inadequate compared to the beautiful utopian future that I’d like to create. On the flip side, I love reading tweets from our community and hearing about the impact that we are having.

6. Focus on goals, not static titles

So how do you create a company structure that focuses on goals instead of titles? One that encourages teams to collaborate instead of hoarding information? This is a question that we’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few years. It’s essential to get it right, or we literally couldn’t take on the crazy big goals that we’ve set out to achieve.

The issue with titles is that they are very rigid. If you were Canva’s director of marketing a couple of years ago, for example, you would have just been directing yourself and your projects. But now we have 100 people playing a role in marketing. We started 2018 with 300 people, and we’re now at 500 and expect to have doubled the team again by the end of 2019. In other high-growth companies that I have spoken to, they talk about the ‘tour of duty’, where people ‘at the top’ will generally only last a few years before not being able to perform at the level required as their company has grown. This feel like a pretty big pitfall of a rigid title system.

So instead of focusing on titles that are most likely going to be outdated as our company grows, we focus on goals. For example, doubling the number of users acquired through a certain channel.

As people grow in experience they may be able to take on harder and harder goals, support other people to reach their goals and explore more complex or ambiguous goals.

Rigid titles work well in environments that aren’t changing very much, but when goals, teams and team sizes are constantly evolving and changing, it’s essential to focus on goals instead.

We rely on every team member to identify new ways of doing things better. All suggestions are welcomed, regardless of job function or tenure. We actively solicit ideas from everyone to improve the way we work and create value for our users, whether it be facilitating project retrospectives, or implementing different tools or technologies. On a company level, we encourage people to get involved in any area they feel passionate about, whether it be within their specialty area, or through special interest groups that drive larger initiatives across the company.

7. Create a culture that grows the pie, instead of fighting for it

In a lot of companies, there is an idea there is a fixed pie to be divided, that in order to get ahead you have to compete with your peers and optimise your piece of the pie. There are many types of pie: from the ‘power’ pie to the ‘responsibility’ pie and the ‘money’ pie.

However, as a company, we have ridiculously huge ambitions and crazy-big goals, so there’s certainly enough responsibility to go around for everyone!

Everyone is a shareholder at Canva, so growing the company means everyone’s piece of the pie expands. As we’ve shaped Canva over the years, we’ve always wanted to ensure that everyone’s energy is focused on expanding the pie, rather than fighting for a bigger part of it.

There are so many ways that companies accidentally create a culture that causes people to concentrate on in-fighting instead of expanding the pie. For example by being restrictive on who gets strategic information and through mutually exclusive titles.

8. Develop skills, not big egos.

In a rapidly growing company, you are never, ever ‘done’.

You have never learnt enough skills or developed enough expertise that you can stop developing and learning. As soon as you unlock one skill, you are standing before the next challenge that is looming above you and you know that you will have to learn a hell of a lot of new skills in order to tackle it.

We want to ensure the need for continuous skill development is baked into our company structure and DNA, rather than people feeling like they can be complacent and stop learning. I love this quote by St. Jerome: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. ‘Til your good is better and your better is best.”

A few years back we anonymised and then amalgamated the information from everyone’s 360-degree feedback, and saw that almost all feedback fell into four buckets: craft, strategy, communication and leadership, and coaching. People were either excelling in a particular area, or else they had room for skill development in that area.

We recently launched the ‘Canva Pillars’ which describes the skills that we want to help everyone develop over their time at Canva, and that will enable them to achieve crazy big goals.

We’re starting to roll out training sessions and workshops to help to develop these skills in everyone across the company. We recently held our first workshops, and it was incredible to see people looking at areas of their own skill development and selecting areas they’d like to work on.

It’s still a work in progress, and our culture and company structure will continually evolve over the years to come. But I certainly hope that we can maintain the focus on crazy-big goals and skill development, fostering a sense of collaboration as we grow!

9. Celebrate what you want to replicate

What you choose to celebrate dramatically impacts your culture. At a lot of companies, there is a strong emphasis on individualistic performance — for example, people getting a promotion. In fact, one very well-known tech company had ‘promotion parties’ until recently. You can imagine that it probably didn’t build a lot of comradery and collaboration.

Fun and quirky celebrations play a critical role at Canva. It means that when a team hits their goal, they feel recognition from the whole company. We have so many huge goals at Canva that it would be easy to reach a goal and hardly acknowledge it as we strive towards the next one. But by building quirky celebrations into our team culture, we’re able to ensure that the whole company takes a moment to appreciate how far we’ve come. Also because the whole company celebrates when a team hits its goal, it further emphasises that a team’s success is the success of the whole company.

10. Ensure your teams have the ingredients to succeed

As we now have more than 80 teams at Canva, so we’ve started to put a lot more emphasis on groups of teams. We now have 15 groups of teams, and our goal is to ensure that each group can become the world’s best in their area. A healthy group has:

  • A shared dream of the future;
  • A compelling pitch deck;
  • All the resources they need to succeed;
  • Strong tech leadership within the group.
  • Great goals and are making progress towards them every week;
  • Real experience with our customers; and
  • A feeling of being a bonded and cohesive group.

Each team is run as a ‘little startup’ and has its own pitch deck. They are self-managed and have complete ownership over how they work. To ensure a common purpose and goal, each team articulates its mission and goals in a team strategy document. This document also includes key projects, measures of success, roles and responsibilities and dependencies. All members of the team participate in the development of the team’s strategy.

Each team also runs its own team health check each season, which is a safe space to focus on open and constructive feedback, as well as strive for continuous improvement. It helps the team build self-awareness about what’s working and what’s not, and most importantly encourages the team pick up on issues or change course when needed — such as forecasting resourcing needs, or rethinking how to run meetings.

#Goals

It seems silly a ‘goal-driven company is even a concept worth talking about, as surely the alternative would be quite dire.

But, unfortunately, there are so many companies that don’t continually set goals to achieve, or figure out how to rally their resources around those goals in order to achieve them.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of big challenges at Canva to make goals around.

And as we continue to grow, we’ll always invest in creating a transparent, close-knit feeling that we had when we were much smaller. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who you are — everyone plays a vital role in meeting our company goals.

This post is an edited version of a blog which first appeared on the Canva website, and was republished with permission.

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Melanie Perkins

Melanie Perkins is the co-founder and chief executive of Canva.

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