Startup Advice

“You can’t copy and paste”: The three steps Canva took to perfect its company culture

Zach Kitschke /

There’s always the inevitable awkwardness when someone asks me what I do for work. As I often explain, it’s a bit of everything!

Our people team has a very broad remit here at Canva — we’re responsible for every part of the team’s success: hiring great people, building and supporting teams, helping everyone grow and develop, evangelizing our culture and product, and creating a workplace everyone loves coming to every day.

As we’ve grown, we’ve had a bit more interest in how we do things. I often find myself showing people around Canva, as they’re interested in learning how we’ve scaled.

When I tell people our whole team has lunch together every day, I often get this blank stare, and then a laugh. They ask me: ‘Are you serious?’ Then they see a rock climbing wall. And a coaching room.

Often they then say ‘oh, we should copy this idea’, and jump to how it could work for their company or organisation.

Fair enough, I do the same. I see a company with a great culture and start to cherry pick the things they’ve done. But every company is different. The founders are different. The DNA isn’t the same. You can transplant a great idea, but your organisation is likely to reject it if it isn’t aligned with your values.

Building a winning culture really requires understanding what type of company you want to build, and tailoring everything back to that. We’re not and will never be a Blackwater Capital, a Google, or a Bain & Co. We’re Canva, and we want to own that.

You can’t copy and paste culture

So many people focus on how to create a great ‘culture’ — they’re usually striving for more innovation, an empowered team, or to be a better workplace for millennials. But you can’t copy and paste culture — it’s an artefact of how and why you do what you do. It’s the result of how you do things and the millions of decisions made by your team each day.

The starting point for creating culture is your values. But values have to be lived to mean anything. For us, even when we had five people, we made decisions in a certain way.

We’d break for lunch every day and eat together. Our chief executive Melanie Perkins did work experience at a PR agency, and when lunch tiem arrived, had no one to eat with. Drawing on this experience, we decided to provide lunch, and set up our space with long tables so there is always someone to sit next to. It’s encouraged to pull up a seat next to anyone (with continuous onboarding of newbies, we want everyone to feel comfortable).

We’d set big goals and celebrate our wins. Before we launched Canva, we had a huge countdown timer, and held a big celebration when we launched. We’ve since done all sorts of things: had a plate-smashing ceremony, released doves and even had own very own mini La Tomatina festival.

We’d spend weeks trying to craft the perfect onboarding experience. When we started testing our first version of Canva, we realised people were scared off by the fact they didn’t feel comfortable designing themselves. The team spent weeks hacking together an onboarding that ensured everyone loved their first experience.

As we grew we needed a better way to articulate this innate ‘operating system’ that we all intuitively understood, and so we put these into words — resulting in our six values.

 

Canva's values

Source: Supplied.

So if the starting point is values, what comes next?

Building values into a ‘people system’

When you design a product like Canva, you are creating a closed system where all the pieces work together. We recently rolled out a design system for Canva, that systemises and cements various aims:

  • We want the product to be integrated and simple for our community to use;
  • We want the same patterns to apply when you take similar actions, so you don’t have to re-learn the product; and
  • We want it to be efficient and easy for our team to design and build features.

It’s the same for a company. There’s an innate values system — and operating model — that our people team spends a lot of time unpacking and building upon.

Disclosure: we haven’t figured out all of this stuff by any means. But I think what’s got us so far, is the way we think about solving people challenges.
In the context of this system, I have illustrated some examples below.

When we think about introducing structure, we don’t just hire managers. We think ‘what’s actually the best way to hit crazy big goals, and empower others to own their success?’ We scaled our onboarding by letting anyone be a mentor.

When we think about performance management, we don’t just introduce an annual performance review. We think ‘how do we create a culture of feedback and help everyone learn and grow?’ We come back to setting individual goals and using a ‘journey’ to talk about development.

When we think about training, we don’t just deliver workshops. We think ‘how do we actually instil behavioural change and have everyone pursuing excellence in all areas?’

How does this influence how we do things?

Earlier this year, we set out to refine our mission as a people team. ‘Build the most effective and engaged company in the world.’

For me, effective and engaged are inseparable.

We want to be the best company in the world, which comes back to all of us having a massive impact with everything we do, constantly building amazingly effective teams, helping each other to grow, and creating a great working environment that helps everyone succeed.

So, how do we do this on a practical basis? Here are some examples of how we guide decisions for our people team, and the resulting culture.

1. Set up teams to plan big and move fast

A few years ago, our team had expanded, and what was once a highly effective group — in tune with another and able to move fast — started to slow down. There were too many people doing too many things and we needed to divide our attention.

So, we started to untangle how we could each best contribute to the mission — setting out a series of goals that various ‘teams’ could rally towards.

All our goals from January 2016, including the goal to “Launch in Spanish

All our goals from January 2016, including the goal to launch in Spanish. We’re now in 100+ languages and used in every country in the world.

Season openers

As we grew, we doubled down on the idea of each team as mini-startup. In fact, we even got our teams to develop a pitch and present to our awesome investors over at Blackbird.

We realised the format was really powerful, and not long afterwards, we launched our ‘season opener’ — a far more interesting alternative to a quarterly planning conference.

Now, we do this at the start of every season. Every team gets a chance to present what they’ve achieved in the past three months, and share what their next big goal is. We also use it to celebrate what makes Canva unique.

Our last season opener had a Spring fair theme, with circus performers, song and dance and fortune tellers all helping each team share their wins.

Health checks

Another principle we’ve adopted as we’ve scaled relates to all our teams and individuals being accountable and having ownership over their work. We all own our own success.

We introduced the health check as a way for teams to self-diagnose any potential challenges that stand in the way of being as effective as possible, and formulate their own action plan. Run once a season, these health checks often result in actions like:

  • Organising more social activities as a team to build a sense of community and belonging;
  • Identifying new hiring needs to preempt future needs for the team and ensure we’re adequately staffed for the next few months; and
  • Changing how the team meets by adapting our team meetings to ensure they’re helping us be effective.

2. Help people ride their wave

An individual’s journey through a company mirrors that of someone using a product. Say you sign up to Canva on the recommendation of a friend. You probably sign up knowing a little, but once you log into the platform, you’d find yourself experimenting with different applications.

You experience a ‘newbie high’, where you feel exhilarated when you create something that looks cool. Then you start to want to do more and more, and realise you have a skills gap. You can’t get the desired look you set out to achieve.

That’s when you start receiving trigger emails chock full of content to guide you — tutorials about design, feature prompts to show you how to add text, colour guides, and suggestions on how to download your design in different formats.

If we take that same analogy and apply it to someone who joins our team, we find a lot of similarities to the user experience, or in this case, the newbie experience.

There’s a fine balance — it’s about riding the edge of the wave without falling off.

In actual fact, we mapped this emotional journey out for our team and identified a pattern:

Craft ‘onboarding’ experiences

Focussing on the first three months, we realised there were two areas we needed to work on to ensure we counteracted the natural ‘lows’ in the journey for our newbies:

Firstly, empowering our mentors. We launched a tailored mentoring bootcamp, which is split into three phases: setting up the mentoring relationship, giving feedback, and dealing with potential challenges.

Secondly, frontloading key context. We just launched a new onboarding bootcamp, that takes people on a journey over the first week. This bootcamp introduces newbies to Canva life by getting them involved in a range of tasks, activities and sessions about our values and specialty areas, with the purpose of imparting a sense of belonging as quickly as possible. The bootcamp starts with a breakfast meet and greet, followed by an office tour and key tech explainer. We then dive into a session with the co-founders about our vision and values. Newbies go through a series of specialty sessions including a design lab and user testing session and a fun scavenger hunt around the office to help them familiarise themselves with their new surroundings.

In addition, we’re also experimenting with things like an email drip for mentors.

Here’s an example of what they receive.

Mentor reminder email

There’s a lot of times when you’re catching a new ‘wave’ and need some help to navigate the ups and downs:

  1. Starting at Canva;
  2. Starting a new role;
  3. Becoming a mentor;
  4. Becoming a team lead; and
  5. Changing teams.

Each of these different ‘user’ journeys should trigger training, support and clarity of expectations so you can succeed.

Our onboarding experience is critical to the success of everyone. By focussing on teaching mentors to be amazing, we’re ensuring we creating a culture of empowerment every day. We’re also trying to target people at the right point in their journey with the content and information they need to know.

The Canva journey

As we’ve scaled, people have asked us ‘what can I do to grow?’ This has become a greater need as we’ve scaled to 350+ people and beyond.

In 2016, we anonymised the data and aggregated all the feedback from a 360-degree review (where every member of the team requested feedback from those they worked most closely with), and identified ‘four towers’ that related to people’s success or their opportunities to grow.

4 towers

More recently we picked this up again, as teams were starting to build out their own skills maps. We realised, after trying to simplify this as much as possible, the same things that help an engineer to be successful also help our people or customer happiness teams to be successful too.

So recently we launched our very own Canva journey, which is designed to be a forward-looking map that anyone on the team can use to identify areas to grow.

Canva Journey

Canva Journey

There are a few important principles we’ve baked in.

  • It’s future looking. We’re not using it as a performance tool. It’s about identifying a goal or two that each person can personally work towards to help them be effective.
  • It’s not about climbing up levels. The aspiration isn’t to be the top of everything. Our best engineer could be very high on craft and strategy but have room to grow in other areas.
  • It’s impact-oriented. We want people to aspire towards impact. All the skills in the world are useless if you can’t channel them. It’s self-driven. People should use this as a self-diagnostic tool, and work with a mentor to create their own action plan.

We’ve also launched a series of workshops, based on the experiences of people who excel at a particular skill, so everyone can learn from them what excellence looks like and how to mirror their success in practice.

Our Canva journey makes skills development simple. By boiling it down to one page and aggregating the factors which we think make people successful, everyone can identify their own opportunities to grow and develop. We encourage everyone to pursue excellence and support that ambition with training.

3. Create a workplace for everyone

Handing over clubs

One of our most successful initiatives as a people team hasn’t even been run by us. Realising that people were organising their own social events and activities within their own teams, and recognising we couldn’t organise everything ourselves, we decided to let anyone start their own ‘Canva club’.

Clubs receive $200 each month in funding, as long as they have more than 10 members and met more than four times.

We now have a club for almost everything, all run by people with a particular passion. You just have to scroll through our Slack channels to see:

  • Tennis club;
  • Wine club;
  • Board games club;
  • Surfers club;
  • Parents club;
  • Pasta club; and
  • Literally, anything else you could think of.

By creating a simple framework, there’s now a variety of clubs that bring people with the same interests together. We’ve empowered everyone to create their own communities internally. This has helped increase belonging and has been one of our most popular perks and initiatives as a company.

Board games club at Canva

Final thoughts

A great culture is something we all aspire to, but it’s important to know what your company stands for. We don’t all have to be the same, and different cultures work for different companies. The key thing is to have a clear sense of what matters to you, and the rest will follow.

We’re a few years into our journey here at Canva, and are really just getting started. There’ll be lots of new challenges to solve in the coming years, but something I hope we’ll always come back to is finding the best way to scale that fits our values.

This post first appeared on the Canva product blog and was republished with permission.

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Zach Kitschke

Zach Kitschke is the head of people at Canva.

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