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April 16, 2021

Melanie Perkins: The Aussie Entrepreneur Redesigning Design

How did the co-founder and CEO of design software company Canva go from a student working in a lounge room office to an acclaimed tech superstar?

While women have long encountered barriers to entering the upper levels of the workforce, more and more women are becoming successful entrepreneurs, shaking up industries and creating hugely profitable businesses. At just 19 years old, Australian designer Melanie Perkins established the first of her design software companies in the living room of her mum’s Sydney home, and fourteen years later, her design tool Canva has been valued at AUD$15 billion. With a longstanding emphasis on supporting fellow designers in making their start, Perkins is an inspiration to beginners and dreamers everywhere.

Perkins was tutoring students in graphic design to support herself through university when she realised just how difficult it was for complete beginners to use the major computer programs produced by Microsoft and Adobe. Suspecting that there was a market for something more user friendly, but feeling she lacked the business skills to make something big, Perkins started small by creating Fusion Yearbooks, a website where high school students design their own yearbooks using easy templates and drag-and-drop technology. The venture got its start through cold calls and mail campaigns, slowly growing enough to enable Perkins and her now-fiancé Cliff Obrecht to keep pushing further.

With the success of her initial experiment, Perkins used the business skills she learnt from Fusion to pursue her dream of a bigger graphic design platform that was accessible to all. Networking was difficult: she found herself navigating the ‘smart casual’ world of Silicon Valley and learning to kitesurf so she could attend the MaiTai retreat for tech executives, but Perkins managed to meet just the right investors and allies to help her set up Canva. Launched in 2013, Canva allows users to create presentations, posters, documents, videos, and social media graphics in a clear and user-friendly interface. The online service currently has over 55 million active users, including members of 85% of Fortune 500 companies, and in 2016, Forbes named Perkins one of the world’s ‘Top Under 30 of the Decade’ for her success in developing and growing her tech businesses.

If it wasn’t for those years of figuring things out on our own, learning the ropes of business and being deeply focused on our customer’s needs, I don’t think Canva would be anywhere near where it is today.
MELANIE PERKINS

At just 32 years old, Perkins’ business plans are far from over, with Canva continuing to expand their product offerings and staff across the globe. Although her journey and her project are hugely impressive in their own right, one of the most beautiful things about Canva is that its basic tools remain free to use – meaning that people setting up small businesses and start-ups just like Perkins did can easily access professional-looking graphic design to help foster their own success.

If you liked this article, you’re sure to enjoy our series on influential women in the design industry, including First Nations fashion designer Grace Lillian Lee.

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