Australia’s youngest billionaire has revealed the secrets to her digital design platform’s $6billion valuation – and how learning to kite surf helped her get the business off the ground.

Melanie Perkins, 32, this year became the country’s third richest woman after her and her business partner fiance’s stake in their Sydney-based company Canva rose to $2.5billion. 

The Perth-born entrepeneur now only trails mining magnate Gina Rinehart and the founder of TPG Telecom Vicky Teoh in Australia’s female rich list.

Canva raised $USD60million ($AUD87.6million) in its latest investor round despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – a resilience Ms Perkins puts down to the company’s ability to adapt to the work from home market.

Australia’s youngest billionaire Melanie Perkins, 32, pictured at Web Summit 2019 in November in Lisbon. She has revealed the secrets to her business’ success during the coronavirus pandemic

‘I think something I’m most proud of is seeing our team rallying through this crazy period – in one day we realised we had to shut down the office and cancel my wedding at the same time. It was a big few hours,’ she recently told the How I Built This podcast.

Her Canva co-founder and partner Cliff Obrecht had proposed to her in Turkey last summer before the pair suspended their nuptials because of COVID-19.

She added the company had pivoted to the changing demand of consumers as Canva’s clients changed to a work-from-home environment.

‘It has been incredible seeing the transition. There are less event invitations and flyers but what they are creating is things like presentations and zoom backgrounds so that was a huge swing almost overnight,’ she said.

‘Everyone had to transition on a dime – people are designing more but completely different things to what people were doing before.’

Ms Perkins said her ability to ‘learn on the job’ and being open to lessons ‘every single day’ helped her business grow in the early days.

‘At every single stage there’s been things to learn. Some things never get easier.’

‘One thing I’m pretty good at is just in time learning, and over the years there’s certainly been a lot of things to learn.’

The interview also reflected on the early beginnings of Canva – when Ms Perkins learned how to kite surf to help lure investors.

Ms Perkins and her co-founder and fiance Cliff Obrecht (pictured together) now have a stake in their digital design business Canva worth $2.5billion

Ms Perkins pictured with her fiance on a holiday to Turkey’s Cappadocia region last year

While still trying to find investors in the business’ early days in 2012, the Western Australian taught herself the water sport to gel with investors at the MaiTai event in Hawaii – a gathering of entrepeneurs centred around kite surfing.

Through the event, Ms Perkins crowd funded $21million with contributions from Hollywood stars Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson.   

Despite her overwhelming business success in recent years though, Ms Perkins and Mr Obrecht have stressed they want to give away their money to help others. 

Her social media profile boasts of her lavish trips to international countries – most recently sharing a photo of her taking in the Rio de Janeiro skyline in Brazil.

Last July, she and her fiance shared photos of the pair enjoying a trip to Cappadocia in central Turkey.

The pair have also jetted off to Richard Branson’s luxurious privately-owned island Necker Island in the Caribbean’s British Virgin Islands.  

Mr Obrecht said the couple plan to donate their billions to the ‘greater good’ rather than spend it on themselves.

The 32-year-old’s social media profile boasts of her frequent trips to far-flung countries – including Rio de Janeiro in Brazil (pictured)

‘Mel and I are committed to giving away all our money to make the world a better place,’ he told The Australian.

‘I think with running such a large company with such a significant valuation now, it’s an obligation on us to use that to be a force for good and make the world a better place, rather than just hoard s**t.’

Mr Obrecht said he proposed to his wife with an engagement ring worth just $30, and the couple were instead focusing on spending their money on causes like reforming the global health system.

In 2013 the pair jetted off to Richard Branson’s luxurious privately-owned island Necker Island in the Caribbean’s British Virgin Islands (pictured on the holiday)

Perkins said she hoped to bring more equality to the world through her position of power as CEO of Canva

‘We live pretty modestly and we don’t really see the need to just accrue wealth. The priority for the company is education, because we really feel educating underprivileged people gives them the opportunity to break the cycle,’ he said.  

His fiance added she hoped to bring more equality to disadvantaged communities through her position of power in the business world.  

Ms Perkins previously told Daily Mail Australia she dreamed up the idea for a  graphics design business from her mother’s couch while studying a first-year digital media subject at university in 2005. 

She fell in love with graphic design and developed skills far exceeding those of her peers, to the point where she was invited to teach graphic design workshops to students in other faculties.

Ms Perkins, originally from Perth, founded the Sydney-based digital graphics business Canva with her fiance in 2014 after dropping out of university

Ms Perkins found most people struggled to use the clunky software, so she developed a business idea.

‘It was really complex and difficult, and it would take the entire semester to just learn where the buttons were on the software,’ she said.

‘At the same time Facebook was taking off, and it was so easy to use and everyone was on it. 

WHAT SETS THE CANVA OFFICE APART?

 Ms Perkins wanted to create the perfect workplace for her employees.

Canva staff are offered free overseas trips with the entire office and are allowed to work the hours they wish to work.

Other extravagant incentives for more than 80 staff members include ‘elaborate celebrations’ when the team hit their target goal, free gym and yoga membership cards and free meals.

Lucky employees treated to freshly-made meals cooked by top chefs and Ms Perkins strongly believes siting down with the entire team in a lunch room is a great way to bond over work.

‘One of the Canva perks people hear about a lot is the chef cooks lunches every day,’ she previously told Daily Mail Australia.

‘The chefs are very talented of course, but the real value and exciting part of the lunches is the team sits down with a changing range of people every day and connect as people.

‘That feeling of community and connection is really important for any business that wants to try to achieve big things, because you’re going to need to take risks and try things together, and so trust is very important.’ 

Pictured: The Canva office where employees are treated to an in-house chef who cooks lunch

Ms Perkins found most people struggled to use the clunky software so she developed a business idea

‘And I just had this belief that in the future it wasn’t going to be as complex to do design work.’

In 2007, Ms Perkins came up with the idea to create easy-to-use graphic design software which allows schools and students to make their own yearbooks.

CANVA TIMELINE 

2005: Melanie Perkins found her love for graphic design at university.

2007: She came up with an idea to create easy-to-use graphics software to help schools make their own yearbooks.

Ms Perkins and her now-fiance developed a plan for Fusion Yearbook on her mother’s couch in Perth.

2008: Fusion Yearbook makes its first sale to a French school in Sydney.

2008-2010: The couple sold the software to more than 120 schools.

2010: Ms Perkins and Mr Obrecht went to the Innovator of the Year awards in Perth to present Fusion Yearbooks, and met Silicone Valley investor Bill Tai.

2011: The couple travelled to o the US to meet with Mr Tai and Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen.

2012: Ms Perkins attended a MaiTai Global conference in Hawaii where she met with a range of investors.

2013:  Canva closed its first funding round of $3million and officially launched.

2014: Canva had reached one million users, and last month the company reached four million users and raised $12.6million in investment.

2014-2020: The company has raised more than $400m from investors and increases in value with each investment round.

She had no business or marketing experience but said her inexperience gave her confidence that it wouldn’t be too difficult to start a company from scratch.

‘My boyfriend became my co-founder and we started in my mum’s living room,’ she said.

‘Our naivety in some ways helped us … If I knew at the time all the things I didn’t know it would have been intimating.’

The couple stared with a bank loan and a tax rebate of $5,000, which they used to advertise online and send sample yearbooks to school.

Their first sale was to a French school in Sydney in 2008. 

‘When we got our first $100 cheque, it was the most exciting moment ever, knowing people were prepared to pay for what we had built,’ Ms Perkins said.

‘We never took on external financing but we kept putting every cent back into the business.’

They sold to 15 schools in their first year, 30 in their second and 80 in their third.

In 2010, Ms Perkins and Mr Obrecht went to the Innovator of the Year awards in Perth to present Fusion Yearbooks where she met MaiTai Global founder and San Francisco investor Bill Tai.

‘He was the first investor I’d met who had insights into the whole world of technology and venture capital. It was a window to another world,’ she said.

‘He also said if I ever came to San Francisco he would meet with me.’

Meanwhile, she had been having ideas about expanding the Fusion model beyond school yearbooks.

The following year she travelled to the US to meet with Mr Tai and Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen.

She pitched them the idea for her second company Canva, a free online tool that allows people to design web graphics, including posters, business cards, and invitations.

A two-week trip turned into a three-month trip as Ms Perkins met with as many investors and software engineers as she could.

Canva closed its first funding round of $3million in early 2013, and after more than a year of development launched in August of the same year. Pictured: Ms Perkins and Mr Obrecht (left)

Mr Tai ended up coming on board as an investor, and he invited Ms Perkins to a MaiTai conference in Hawaii in 2012 where she met a lot of the people who ended up investing in Canva.

Canva closed its first funding round of $3million in early 2013, and after more than a year of development launched in August of the same year.

By the end of 2014, Canva had reached one million users, and last month the company reached four million users and raised $12.6 million in investment. 

The company has since raised more than $400million from investors and increases in value with each investment round.

AUSTRALIA’S RICHEST WOMEN 2020

1. Gina Rinehart, $16.25billion, Hancock Prospecting

2. Vicky Teoh, $2.6billion, TPG Telcom

3. Melanie Perkins, $2.5billion, Canva

4. Prudence Macleod, $2.33billion, News Corp investor

5. Rhonda Barro, $1.5billion, Barro Group

6. Imelda Roche, $1.48billion, Nutrimetics Australia

7. Leonie Baldock, $1.48billion, VOC Group

8. Alexandra Burt, $1.48billion, VOC Group, Voyager Estate

9. Charlotte Vidor, $1.36billion, Toga Group

10. Judith Neilson, $1.32billion, White Rabbit Gallery

Source: The Australian 



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