Designs, secrets, and kiteboarding: Canva's AU$3m seed fund tale

Design platform startup Canva has picked up AU$3 million in funding from Australian and US investors, including former Googler Lars Rasmussen, Yahoo CFO Ken Goldman, and Seek co-founder Paul Bassat.
Written by Michael Lee, Contributor

Startup founders have repeatedly been told not to hide their ideas away, or they'll risk not giving venture capitalists (VCs) enough information to make an investment. But fledgling startup Canva seems to be doing something right, even if it is taking the stealth-mode approach.

Canva's Sydney-based CEO Melanie Perkins (who up until the past year ran her ideas from Perth) was reluctant to share the specifics about what her second startup will involve, but said that the core concept, an online design platform, would appeal to designers and non-designers.

Canva's team plans to take its product global, but run it from Australia.
Image: Canva

A high-level video published by the startup appears to indicate that it will help anyone who wants to create professional designs — a flyer for a party, for example — without necessarily requiring tools like Adobe's Creative Suite or the skills to use them.

Despite its secrecy, the Australian startup has raised AU$3 million from US and Australian investors, including the likes of Facebook's director of Engineering and former Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen, Yahoo chief financial officer Ken Goldman, and Seek co-founder Paul Bassat.

Other investors include Matrix Partners, InterWest Partners, and 500 Startups, and it has received support from Commercialisation Australia's Early Stage Commercialisation program. Perkins has also attracted interest from angel investor Bill Tai, who, aside from being known for funding and guiding companies such as TweetDeck, is a kiteboarding athelete.

While kiteboarding may seem like an odd element in Perkins' startup story, it's key to how she met Tai and her other investors.

Perkins first met Tai at the Innovator of the Year conference in Perth; then, when visiting her brother in San Francisco, paid Tai a visit on University Avenue. Tai said he'd be interested in investing in Canva if Perkins could find the right tech team, which led her to convince former Google lead designer Cameron Adams to join Canva as its co-founder and head of product.

Tai's kiteboarding obsession comes into play in the form of MaiTai, a "kite camp for entrepreneurs, innovators, and athletes", which he runs with professional kiteboarder Susi Mai. Ken Goldman also made an entry into Perkins' story here; his vacation home is where many MaiTai attendees stayed during the early years of the event.

Tai invited her to the exclusive event, which historically attracts Silicon Valley heavyweights and entrepreneurs.

"We pitched our concept in front of the most influential people we'd ever met in our lives. After that event, we ended up with a lot of really strong interest [from] people such as Dave Bagshaw, the ex-CEO of Shutterfly; Ken Goldman; and Rick Baker, who is one of the founding partners of Blackbird [Ventures] here," Perkins said.

Baker was evidently impressed, making Canva the very first investment for the fund he is a partner in.

For the most part, the funding appears to be largely US based, which could lead to increased pressure on Canva to move to the US, but for now, Perkins said the business would stay in Australia and help build local jobs.

"There [were] a number investors that needed to invest in a US entity, but they were very happy for us to stay in Australia because the engineering talent that we're able to get is just really exceptional. It's very competitive over in the States to hire great engineering talent, because of the pressures from Facebook and Google and the huge number of startups."

From here, Canva will use the AU$3 million to continue to build out its product, which is already in alpha testing, and gain global traction. It plans to launch simultaneously in the US and Australia in May.

As for anyone else who might follow in her footsteps, Perkins had some advice for Australians looking to raise funding.

"Determination and vision are the two most paramount things in putting together a raise. You need to believe in your vision enough that every time it's challenged, or every time you get advice, you know what challenges to take on and to help mould the strategy, and which changes will affect where you're trying to get to. You need to find investors who are aligned with your vision and that will support you through the process. Closing the round is just the start of the journey," she said.

"If you believe in what you want to achieve, then you'll be able to take every single step that's required to get there."

Editorial standards