Startup Analysis

The humanness revolution: Inside Canva’s iconic Sydney HQ

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Canva

Canva's head of vibe Chris Low. Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

It’s a sunny Sydney day, and Canva’s semi-famous canteen is alive with employees munching on freshly cooked food or conducting meetings over coffee. Office dogs sit obediently (for the most part) at their owners’ feet.

There’s hot, homemade falafel, baba ganoush, and veggies grown on the startup’s very own farm.

It’s only natural that the food is good. Head of vibe Chris Low is a former restaurateur, and used to host Canva founders Cliff Obrecht and Melanie Perkins as regulars.

When he sold the business, the pair, along with third co-founder Cameron Adams, asked him to come on board to help manage company culture as the startup scaled.

At the time, he had never worked at a tech company and had little knowledge of the startup ecosystem. In fact, he wasn’t entirely sure what Canva did, he admits.

Now, Low oversees everything from construction and office maintenance to internal operations, community events and HR. Mostly, he’s responsible for making Canva a pleasant place to work, and to visit.

At Canva, lunch is provided for all employees. Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

Canva employee

Vibes. Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

There are murals featuring orangutans, unicorns and ducks. There is a piano room, a library, a gym, and the pièce de résistance, the roof terrace with sweeping views of the city.

The fridges are stocked with fizzy drinks and Tim Tams in every flavour you can imagine. There’s a big bowl of avocados, and stacks of other healthy snacks (balance is important, I guess) and, of course, doggie treats.

But, vibe is about more than decor and nibbles, Low says.

“We have an emotional reaction when we walk into a space,” Low explains.

“‘Vibe’ talks to that emotional feeling you get.”

Canva is one of the world’s fastest-growing companies, and there are challenges that come with that growth.

“Culture is one of those challenges,” he adds.

“Our mission is to help cultivate Canva’s culture as we grow.”

Canva

Beer and wine on tap. Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

Canva kitchen

Yes, that is peanut butter you see. And a very sustainable waste system. Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

As Low shows us around, the office gradually fills up with people returning from their lunch breaks. Staff have their heads down, earphones in. They’re working intently. But, those who look up seem pleased to see us, and not at all phased by the camera we’re pointing at them. They’re used to being papped, it seems.

We wave to Cliff Obrecht, who is in what looks like a very serious conference call, supported by his right-hand man, Pumba, a Staffordshire cross.

Rather than being positioned by department (and perhaps with the exception of Pumba), staff are placed together based on the projects they’re working on, Low explains.

Canva office

Collaboration at Canva. Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

Cliff Obrecht

Canva co-founder Cliff Obrecht and Pumba hard at work. Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

‘It’s a Canva.’ Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

So, a pod could have a few developers, some designers and some marketing folk working on a particular project. When it’s done, they move on to new desks and new teams. But, not before a party.

Celebrating achievements is all part of Canva’s vibe.

“Having very clearly stated goals for every individual in the organisation is super powerful to actually getting shit done,” Low says.

But it’s also about making sure people feel valued, and that their work is contributing to the business’ success as a whole.

“It’s giving people a sense of purpose and celebrating at the end when achievements are made.”

When you celebrate achievements, you set people up for a “cycle of betterment”, he says.

Canva photo wall

High school throwbacks. Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

A Canva employee working and soaking up some vitamin D to boot. Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

“I think it’s a chemical thing in your brain … you’re really motivated to think bigger if you’re planning or setting goals in that state of celebration,” he adds.

“You’re in a state to be more ambitious, more motivated, more focused.”

People go to work to do a good job, Low explains.

“Most of the anxiety that comes from work comes from not feeling that your contribution is valued or making an impact.

“Creating that connection between the goals of the company and the goals of the individual is super, super powerful.”

Canva

Views. Photographer: Priscilla Pho.

Canva music room

StartupSmart editor Steph having a jam sesh. Photographer: Priscilla Pho. 

Canva’s offices are a far cry from corporate stuffiness. But, they’re not about gimmicks such as slides, ping pong tables or napping areas (although, we did spot more than a few bean bags).

For Low, it’s not about perks, it’s about “recognising the workforce as humans”.

Workplace culture is becoming a bit of a buzzword — and in a good way, he says. From banks to government organisations to tech companies, everyone is talking about it.

“As much as in the previous generation we were fearing that machines were going to take over, this generation we’re realising that there are certain things that are very unique to humanness, and will be extremely hard for machines to replicate,” Low explains.

“I think it will be the commodity of the next generation,” he adds.

“The industrial revolution was all about strength. This current one is all about intelligence, and the next one will be about humanness.”

NOW READ: Canva raises another $125 million to cure death-by-PowerPoint

NOW READ: A message for those who feel they’re on the outside, from Canva co-founder Melanie Perkins

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].