In a perfect world: Canva’s Melanie Perkins dreams about the future of Australian startups

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Canva co-founder Melanie Perkins.

For a moment, let’s imagine we are in a privileged position where both sides of the government realise the immense importance of startups to Australia’s future and the incredible amount of job creation startups can bring.

Let’s imagine our ministers really, truly wanted to become a ‘startup nation’ and to take the world forward through our innovation and products.

What would that look like?

I used the forward of the StartupAus Crossroads report 2018 to dream about exactly that.

1. We’d be embedding technology in every one of our primary schools and high schools

Many of the amazing engineers that now work at Canva started their coding careers at a young age, after stumbling into it more or less by luck. We need to remove chance from this equation and make software engineering a core part of our national curriculum to ensure all our youth have the opportunity to develop the skills needed to succeed in tomorrow’s workforce.

A lot of the industries we are currently training our youth to work in through our schools and universities will be radically transformed in the next couple of decades everything from law, to architecture, and even medicine. Australians can stand by and use the innovative products built by companies overseas or we can get our act together and embed technology at the centre of our curriculum to give our students the inspiration and skills to be able to lead the charge themselves.

2. We’d be inspiring our students to want to solve the world’s biggest problems

There are two goals here: first, building our people’s skills in technology, and second, inspiring them to use their skills for good.

If I could wave a magic wand, we’d ditch any form of rote learning in our schools and we’d train and test skills that matter in the real world: an ability to solve problems, an ability to guide learning to navigate the type of situations faced in the real world, and the resilience to persevere until a great solution is found.

Personally, I feel lucky to have participated in Tournament of the Minds, the Duke of Edinburgh, Mock Trials, debates and countless other extra-curricular activities, but I wish fun problem-solving activities were a central part of attending school for all kids, not just an ‘extra’.

Imagine all students determining which techniques, companies and not-for-profits in the world are best contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. What techniques should Australia adopt?

Imagine if we inspired students to desperately want to solve the world’s biggest problems, taught research skills in their early years and built on these solutions in their later years. Students would be bubbling with ideas they’d want to turn into reality as soon as they left school.

There are so many interesting problems to solve in this world. I’d love to see our students’ eyes being opened to them from a young age and inspired to want to solve some of those challenges through their work.

3. We’d ensure early-stage funding is accessible in some shape or form

Access to early-stage funding is critical to launching a startup. Working part-time jobs, piecing together funding from family and friends, spending all of your savings, eating on the cheap and working from home or a garage this is the beginning story of most startups. There is this idea that frugality breeds creativity.

However, frugality and impossibility are two very different things.

‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a beautiful African proverb.

The same thinking is certainly true of successful startups: ‘It takes a country to raise a startup.’ Without the Research and Development Tax Incentive, a forward-thinking loan from NAB (when all other banks were rejecting us), a great program and grant from the WA Innovator of the Year, and an Accelerating Commercialisation Grant from the federal government, Canva certainly wouldn’t be where it is today.

If I could wave a magic wand, I’d ensure the grants that have proven exceptionally useful over the years would be restored to their former glory, and I’d ensure startups are able to access critical early-stage capital. The StartupAus Crossroads report looks in detail at how we might make both of these ideas a reality.

4. We’d go to great lengths to make it easy to attract and retain great talent in Australia

Australia has beautiful weather, multicultural cuisine, friendly people and stunning coastlines — and these aren’t just our national treasures, but significant competitive advantages for us to win the world’s best talent to join and help build our startups.

The current political and visa climate in the US puts us in a position to be able to attract the world’s best talent. We should be latching onto this opportunity, seeing it as a great chance to win talent and figuring out what we can possibly do to help attract more. That also means we need to be open to migration as a way to upskill our own local talent through mentoring and exposure to the best and brightest in every field.

Lars Rasmussen, co-founder of the product that eventually became Google Maps, was an expat who relocated to Sydney before his company was bought by Google in 2004.

Because Lars chose to build his startup in Australia, local talent (such as the likes of Cameron Adams and Dave Hearnden) was given exposure to the inner workings of a large-scale, global technology company. Cam and Dave eventually left Google to join Canva and have been critical in our success so far.

Australia’s ability to bring in top talent from overseas is essential to the success and growth of our startups, I wish this would be the guiding principle when writing our visa policies.

Other countries such as Singapore and Ireland have successfully attracted global internet companies and talent which boosts their economy. We should certainly be aspiring towards this too.

So, what’s next?

After ingraining technology in our schools, inspiring students to tackle the world’s biggest problems, ensuring early-stage capital is accessible, and attracting the world’s best talent, we’d be well placed to help build the future. As a country, we’d reap the rewards of a lot of great companies starting and choosing to stay in Australia. We’d see employment go through the roof, our GDP reap the rewards, and of course, get to enjoy the fruits of all that innovation!

It’s been incredibly encouraging in the last few years to see we’ve started to take huge steps in the right direction. Startups and technology are increasingly hitting the agenda on both sides of the government, more startups are launching, and the media is starting to take a keen interest in startups which will inspire more people to follow that path. Plus, the success of some great companies like Atlassian is helping to put Australia on the map. Of course, there is still so much more that we can do to live up to our potential.

One of our core values at Canva is to set crazy-big goals and make them happen. I don’t see why Australia can’t hit all of the goals above and for ‘Australia’ to become synonymous with a disproportionate number of great innovators who are hard at work solving the world’s biggest problems with great products. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy, but nothing good is!

This article was originally published as part of the StartupAus Crossroads report 2018. Download the full report here.

NOW READ: StartupAus Crossroads report: Why startups and “intellectual capital” are the future of Aussie exports

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


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