Here’s how Canva uses tailored employee challenges to make sure it hires the best people


Canva founders Cliff Obrecht, Melanie Perkins and Cameron Adams.

Australian design startup Canva has a number of runs on the board since its launch six years ago, having raised over $80 million in venture capital, facilitating over 10 million users, and landing a coveted spot in the Australian unicorn hall of fame.

So it’s no wonder workers are keen to get on board the rapidly expanding ship, with the startup, headed up by founders Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht, and Cameron Adams, even nabbing the accolade of being the coolest tech company to work for in Australia in 2016.

But when you’ve got all the talent lined up at the door, how do you decide who to let in? Canva co-founder Cameron Adams spoke to StartupSmart this week to run through how the fast-growing company goes approaches its hiring process, from start to finish.

“We have dedicated recruitment specialists who go hunting for the best people and also field any inbound applications we get. And while people can look great on paper with lots of experience, we’re looking for those people with passion and drive,” Adams says.

“So once we spot people who look like they fit that description, we have a bit of a chat to them.

“And then we send them a challenge.”

Canva’s challenge

The challenge gets workers to replicate the sort of work they would be doing at Canva, so designers get a design-focused challenge, developers get a development challenge, so on and so forth.

The challenge consists of a task which Adams says is designed to reveal how the applicant’s brain ticks and also to see how passionate they are about the Canva mission. The prospects are given one week to complete the challenge.

For example, one recent applicant to the startup’s growth team was issued a challenge relating to Canva’s international growth, with Adams saying anyone being hired into that team had to demonstrate an understanding of the global market and how Canva’s presence could be grown into specific regions.

“They had to show how they would identify those markets, and then outline a strategy of how the company could launch and grow into somewhere like Asia or Europe,” he says.

“Often applicants will go really deep on the challenge, they’ll research it, work out a great solution, and give a fantastic presentation that shows their passion. That’s really gotten people over the line before.”

If successful, the challenge is followed by a face-to-face chat, and then standard reference checks before the candidate is hired.

Adams says he, Perkins, and Obrecht still endeavour to meet each applicant for a face to face interview, but says with the engineering side of the business growing from 50 to 100 employees last year, that’s not always possible. He says he’ll meet any candidates for the design side of the business, where Obrecht will focus on the operations side and Perkins on the co-ordinations side.

“When you’re growing very rapidly it’s inevitable the founders won’t be able to speak to every candidate,” he says.

Whatever it takes to get the best

But these unusual hiring practises have been part of Canva’s processes from the very start, with Adams recalling the early days of the startup when the team was still hunting for their first technical hire.

While they had vetted a couple of candidates, Adams, Perkins, and Obrecht still couldn’t find someone who clicked with the rest of the team. They wanted someone who was not only technically brilliant, but also great to work with.

A Google engineer at the time, Dave Hearnden, was recommended to the crew by their adviser and a former Google engineer Lars Rasmussen. After meeting Hearnden a few times Adams says he immediately clicked with the team. However, Hearnden turned the job offer down, reluctant to leave Google.

“We definitely needed him, so Mel began this crazy recruitment process, we made this little presentation and sent it over to him which somehow convinced him,” he says.

“It cemented in his mind that we were passionate about Canva, and that’s set the benchmark for how our employees have to have passion and drive. We make sure everyone we hire is meeting that bar.”

Dave’s Pitch Deck by Melanie Perkins

Adams says Canva’s high bar for quality of talent sets it apart from other high-growth Australian startups, believing there’s no company “who sets as higher bar as we do”. Setting the expectations high is key for startups who want to get quality talent, he says.

“You need to get quality if you want to grow a company from a small startup to something worldwide. If you start lowering that bar you end up with a bunch of problems,” he says.

“We try to make Canva’s structure as flat as possible so everyone can contribute to those really high level goals. We have 47 different teams at Canva, each with really ambitious goals, and everyone contributes to setting those goals and is empowered to do whatever they need to reach them.

“It’s one of the secrets of how we’ve maintained a startup culture.”

NOW READ: “It’s the most dorky name ever”: The naming issues that Canva, Vinomofo and SafetyCulture all faced


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