Three tips from Canva co-founder Cliff Obrecht on how to manage a rapidly growing team

Canva's Cliff Obrecht, Melanie Perkins and Cameron Adams.

Canva co-founder Cliff Obrecht says there are times when he still can’t believe how much the design startup he founded in 2012 with Melanie Perkins and Cameron Adams has grown.

Today, the company has over five million monthly active users, more than 150 employees, and over 100 million designs created — numbers the founders never really expected.

“Even now it’s super impressive to look at the dashboards and see we’ve gained 78,000 new users just today,” Obrecht told StartupSmart.

“It’s sort of what we were aiming for but it’s definitely more successful than we expected. I mean, it’s not like you start a company aiming to serve just 50 people, but it’s still surprising.”

Obrecht says Canva is currently seeing revenue growth of 10% month-on-month while running at cashflow break even. And the business hasn’t spent any of the money from its last two funding rounds — approximately $40 million.

“We’re sitting on a pretty healthy bank account, money’s coming in faster than we can spend it. It’s a high-class problem it have,” laughs Obrecht.

With a number of “exciting projects” in the pipeline, Obrecht spoke to StartupSmart at the Amazon Web Services Tech Summit about how Canva is managing rapid growth in its team while also scaling a startup that was recently valued at US$354 million ($468 million).

1. Know when to bring in more management

Discussing the challenges the founders are facing while expanding Canva’s team, Obrecht referred to a concept popularised by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar.

Dunbar proposes there is a cognitive limit on the amount of people one person can maintain social relationships with, explained by Dunbar as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”.

The limit is generally perceived to be around 150 relationships, and Obrecht believes the concept also applies when running a business. For Canva, this means considering what management expertise it needs.

“When you’re scaling a company, there’s lots of exciting but very challenging challenges,” Obrecht says.

“Once you hit over that 150 mark, it introduces a whole heap of new challenges you need to address. Dunbar says once you get over 150, communities would typically split unless external governance and laws are introduced.

“We’ve hit that number, so now we’re looking at not just building a product, but building a company which can sustain our next phase of growth.”

2. Keeping the company “flat”

However, while new management and governance structures may be necessary, Obrecht believes it’s best to keep a company as “flat” as possible, with minimal middle management between staff and executives.

“We are and always have been a very flat company, so we’re trying to avoid heavy management structures,” he says.

“Right now we’re trying to work out how to keep the organic structure and all the functions our staff know and love, but make it work for a larger company.”

Finding some of the right talent for management roles has also been hard for the Canva founders, with Obrecht partially agreeing with Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquhar’s recent comments about the lack of “talent depth” in the Australian landscape.

Speaking at the AWS Tech Summit earlier this month, Farquhar said Australia doesn’t have the “depth of talent that there is elsewhere in the world”.

“We’re currently developing 100 new employees in Sydney, and we had to bring in people from overseas to train them,” he said at the time.

Obrecht believes this to be true for “really senior talent”, saying Australia has a “limited pool” when it comes to senior management. As for developers, although hiring “really smart” ones isn’t easy, Obrecht says Canva has been very fortunate with the employees it’s attracted so far.

3. Keep communication flowing

When dealing with his staff, Obrecht says the most important thing is “proactive communication”; communication is “the most essential” part of a successful company, along with “good vibes and a can-do attitude”, says the entrepreneur.

“No one does anything by themselves. For knowledge to flow freely, people need to feel really comfortable communicating with others,” he says.

“They need to be able to go up to some one with a question and not feel stupid for asking that question.”

StartupSmart attended the Amazon Web Services Tech Summit as a guest of Amazon Web Services. 

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