Building in a Brave New World

Melanie Perkins, Ara Mahdessian, and Larry Fitzgerald Jr. open up about how they’ve weathered the past 18 months and the optimism and wisdom they’ve gained to make an impact.

The phrase “brave new world” may conjure up images from Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian novel—a story about a society that underwent intense scientific advancement while suffering from a lack of true human connection. This combination of rapid change with immense alienation will not be unfamiliar to anyone who lived through the events of the past year.

For business leaders, these unique circumstances have posed a lot of challenges. How do you build community through a crisis? How do you quickly adapt your product to serve your customers in an entirely new business landscape? And how do you motivate your team, keep them focused and positive when you’re no longer physically together?

We sat down with Canva CEO and Co-founder Melanie Perkins, ServiceTitan CEO and Co-founder Ara Mahdessian, and NFL Wide Receiver and Investor Larry Fitzgerald Jr. to discover how they’ve navigated these questions and reflect on what keeps them and their teams inspired to change the industries they serve.

Though the pandemic has no doubt been difficult (and perhaps even dystopian) for people all around the world, these savvy business leaders have risen to the challenge with creativity, community, and optimism. Here’s the wisdom they have to share.

Rally around your community to come out the other side

There’s a reason why humans are social animals: It’s tough—maybe impossible—to go it alone. Life is easier with a supportive group of people around you—and that goes for individuals as well as businesses. Particularly in times of upheaval, a community has the power to protect and uplift.

“Community is absolutely central to everything we do,” says Melanie. “It’s literally why we built our product and what really inspires our team every day.” Community has always played a critical role in Canva’s company mission but, during the pandemic, it gained new poignancy.

The team felt a responsibility to support their customers through the crisis. “We had three guiding principles right at the start of the pandemic. One, make sure that we’re supporting our community. Two, ensure we’re looking after the safety and wellbeing of our community. And three, rally together to grow.”

But what Melanie didn’t realize is just how much love they would get back. While the Canva team focused on supporting the community, the community, in turn, supported them. “We’ve had over a million pieces of feedback from our community—everything from suggestions to ideas to our community telling us what they love about the product,” she says.

Every week at the team’s standup meeting (which, since going virtual, they’ve been calling a “sit down”) the team reviews these tweets, comments, and testimonials to help shape the product direction. “We’re listening to their problems, and that’s helping inform our future roadmap,” says Melanie.

When crisis strikes, be prepared to pivot on a dime

At the beginning of the pandemic, Ara had a lot of concerns about how his customers would cope. By nature, contracting is antithetical to quarantining. Workers have to enter people’s homes, often for hours at a time, potentially causing exposure to the virus.

“If I rewind to late March, early April 2020, where the world was shutting down, we had no idea what was going to happen,” he says. But then he noticed something curious. “As we looked into the data, we saw that while some customers were being severely impacted, other customers were actually thriving.”

He set out to study these customers. “We learned how they were adapting their operations to keeping technicians and customers safe, how they were changing their services, and even how they were updating their marketing,” he says.

As a result of this research, they were able to make changes that would help their entire customer base. “We spent three weeks building all the features our customers needed to interact with the homeowners in a contactless way,” he says. “We procured a hundred thousand masks that we donated to contractors to keep their technicians safe. And we formed the largest ever community of contractors who rely on one another for best practices, tips, and tricks.”

Because of these changes, even more ServiceTitan customers have been able to thrive. While the pandemic has changed the contracting industry, it’s also created a boom in home renovations. ServiceTitan was able to overhaul their product to better serve their customers and allow them to take advantage of this opportunity. As a result, their customers’ revenue has significantly increased—even surpassing pre-COVID levels.

For Ara, it all comes down to being ready to adapt. “In a moment of crisis, you can’t control what’s going on out there,” he says. “What you can do is control your response. If you act swiftly, decisively, and correctly, you can come out of the crisis better than before.”

The key to motivating employees? Build trust and get to know them as individuals

Sports analogies have long been a business staple—and for good reason. “I think sports are a great microcosm of life,” says Larry. “There are times you’re going to be knocked down and you’ve got to get back up and persevere. We’ve all had to do that over the last year and a half.”

Leaders can look to the world of sports to understand how to build resilient teams who can bounce back from crushing defeats to achieve victory. “The biggest thing is creating a culture of openness and creativity,” says Larry, drawing from his experience in the NFL. “You want to have an open dialogue with teammates to build trust. If you can do this, then when tough times are upon you, you won’t turn on each other—you’ll find ways to get the very best out of one another.”

Now, as a venture capitalist and a philanthropist, Larry is applying the lessons he learned on the field to the organizations he spearheads. “Everyone is motivated by different things and, as a leader, you have to find out what each person is in it for,” he explains. “You might have 53 different people on a team from different walks of life, different religions, different socioeconomic backgrounds. You have to find what makes each person tick.” Larry maintains that’s the key to motivating each employee effectively.

And while being a strong leader isn’t easy to pull off, the payoff is huge. “There’s nothing better than seeing a guy work so hard at practice and then seeing it come to fruition on the football field,” says Larry. “You see those same results in the young people that are working at your companies. As a leader, that’s what it’s all about—empowering people and putting them in a position to be successful. There’s no better feeling than that.”

Better and braver than before

While Melanie, Ara, and Larry have all faced challenges over the course of the pandemic, they’ve emerged from the crisis with their organizations stronger than ever before. Their success comes down to centering their communities, being agile, and motivating their teams.

Now, as we begin to enter a post-pandemic landscape, they’ll no doubt be confronted with new obstacles. Though it may (still) be a brave new world, as long as there are such bold leaders in it, companies will find ways to adapt.

Melanie Perkins, Co-founder and CEO of Canva Ara Mahdessian, Co-founder and CEO of ServiceTitan Larry Fitzgerald Jr., Athlete and investor

Full Transcript

Melanie Perkins: Hi, I'm Melanie Perkins and I am the CEO and co-founder of Canva.

Ara Mahdessian: Hi, I'm Ara Mahdessian. I'm co-founder and CEO of ServiceTitan.

Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: Hi, I'm Larry Fitzgerald Jr., I played NFL wide receiver for the last 17 years. I'm a passionate venture investor as well.

Ara Mahdessian: Given how much the world has changed and we're in the middle of a global pandemic in crisis, how has all this changed how you lead? And how has this changed how you and your organizations make decisions? Maybe Larry, we can start with you, given your career in the NFL, all the things you learned on the field that might be applicable now and today, your ventures, both on the investing side and on the philanthropic side.

Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: Absolutely, Ara. Appreciate that. And I would say the biggest thing for me in terms of my foundation, I head a foundation I've been running for the last 17 years and it primarily is focused on education, youth education and breast cancer research, what took my mother's life and I've really, really leaned in on that over the last year and a half because as you know, funding around the world has been a lot less than what it's been over the last few years, just due to so many people losing their jobs, the uncertainty and climate. And so I've really tried to be more focused and intentional in the things and the projects that I've been working on. It's brought me a tremendous lot of fulfillment. I've been able to involve my children in it, which has even given me an added sense of value and responsibility when I see their passion for doing it. And so I think that's probably been, I think the thing that's really kind of resonated the most with me.

Melanie Perkins: Ara, a question for you, what do you think has been the biggest challenge for you and your customers over the last year?

Ara Mahdessian: If I rewind back time to late March, early April, where the world was shutting down, at that point we had no idea what was going to happen to the world. We had no idea what was going to happen to our lives and we had no idea what was going to happen to our businesses. And as we looked into the data, we saw that while some customers were being severely impacted, other customers were actually thriving. And so this was our call to action to realize in a moment of crisis, you can't control what's going on out there. But what you can do is determine your response in hope that if you act swiftly and you act decisively and you act correctly with the right plan, you can come out of the crisis better off than had you not acted at all.

Ara Mahdessian: We actually reached out to the community of all the tradespeople and contractors that are on ServiceTitan and for those that were doing well, we asked them what they were doing differently in their businesses to not just survive, but to thrive through COVID and be able to continue to serve the families in their communities. And as we learned how they were adapting their operations, keeping technicians safe, keeping customers and their homes safe, changing their marketing, changing the products and services in the home they were offering, we actually asked them if they wouldn't mind if we could share these best practices with our 7,000 other customers.

Ara Mahdessian: We spent three weeks building all the features our customers needed to interact with the homeowners in a contactless way. We procured a 100,000 masks that we donated to contractors to keep their technicians safe and we formed what is today, the largest community of contractors who rely on one another for best practices, tips and tricks. And collectively through the contractors' efforts through ServiceTitan's efforts, the industry quickly began to thrive and revenue significantly even increased even before pre-COVID levels.

Ara Mahdessian: Melanie, this was the craziest year we've all led through, the toughest environment we've all led through, but you guys at Canva have continued to do astonishingly well. I know you guys were valued at six billion at one time, the last I heard was 15 billion, who knows where it's at today. What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome? And ultimately, how did you guys stay focused to see this kind of success?

Melanie Perkins: At Canva, we've always focused on solving real problems for our customers. And so, right from the early days, we wanted to solve problems to help to make people be able to take their ideas and turn that into a design and communicate that really easily. But then as the global pandemic hit, that really important and intense focus on our customers and solving problems that affect them, that transitioned really well to this new period, but they had different problems to solve. Students all of a sudden we're having to learn online. Businesses we're having to move online and people were having to work in ways they'd never worked before. And so that really intense focus on solving problems for our customers transitioned through. It did mean that a lot of people were creating less broaches and more online marketing materials. Students were creating less things for in the classroom itself and more things that were actually being done online and through visual and video communication.

Melanie Perkins: And so that transition was really aided by that continuous focus on solving problems that really affect our customers. We had three guiding principles right at the start. Making sure that we're supporting our community, we wanted to ensure that we were looking after the safety and wellbeing of our community and then rallying together and growing. And that really intense focus on looking after our team, looking after our community and working together to solve their problems has been the guiding light and principle throughout this entire time, which has been really important. I think that if we didn't have such an intense focus on solving problems and the impact that that has on our community, it would have been really hard to rally our team to do all the necessary changes that needed to happen. I guess focusing on problems that affect real people was really important throughout this entire period of time.

Ara Mahdessian: Okay. I got to ask this question for Larry. Larry there's so much organizations can learn from high performance sports teams. In fact, a lot of ServiceTitan's culture around high performance and a winning culture comes from a lot of the fundamental principles that are in sports. But I got to ask you, in professional sports when you're facing defeat, how do you keep morale high? How do you rally the group around the goals and the outcomes again and create the high performance environment that is needed to win in professional sports?

Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: Well, I think the biggest thing that you guys both know in your companies is creating a culture. A culture of openness, discussions, creativity. You want to have an open dialogue with teammates and be able to gain and build trust amongst each other. And so when tough times are upon you, you don't turn on each other, you find ways to inspire each other, push each other to get the very best out of one another. And I think, sports is a great microcosm of life. There's times you're going to be knocked down and you've got to continue to get back up and persevere. We've all had to do that over the last year and a half and it's just a lot more people were able to watch when you're playing professional sports but there's a lot of dysfunction behind the scenes and your players going out there and being able to execute at a very high level, sometimes trumps to things that are going on behind the scenes.

Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: But as a leader, you do your best to try to motivate. You have 53 different people on the team from different walks of life, different religions, different socioeconomic backgrounds and you just try to find what makes each person tick. Everybody's motivated by different things. And as a leader, you have to find out what each person really is in it for. And that's how I do it and I think that's been pretty effective for me over the past few years.

Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: Switching gears, one thing I've noticed is in the Cloud communities, the role of community, I want to know what does that play in your companies? And how do you create that environment where community is very important to your organizations?

Melanie Perkins: Community is absolutely central to everything that we do. It's literally why we built our product and what really inspires our team every day. It's really central to absolutely everything we do. Not only is that why we build the product and the reason for our very existence but it also is something that we need to continuously use to help inform our product roadmap. And so we have a weekly, we call it a sit down. It used to be a stand up when we were meeting in person. And every week we're showing off tweets from the community, we are listening to videos and testimonials, we're listening to the problems and that's helping to inform our future roadmap. We've had over a million pieces of feedback from our community and this is everything from suggestions to ideas from our community, telling us what they love about it. And so I guess community's absolutely central to everything that we do and really the reason for our very existence.

Ara Mahdessian: Yeah. Great question. We talk about innovation is about serving unmet needs. And so I think there's two categories of this, there's serving unmet but articulated needs where customers can describe their needs, the problems they're having, the potential solution and the value they would get out of that. And I think that often happens to be the easier form of innovation because you're effectively told what the potential innovation is. And then there's the second form, which is innovation being serving unmet but unarticulated needs. And that's where even the customer can't describe to you what the potential problem is and what the potential solution is and you have to be able to observe this and figure it out or you have to think about potential macro trends that are happening and how they're going to impact the customers in the future and anticipate how you can innovate to make the customers benefit from that potential macro trend.

Ara Mahdessian: In our case, what we've done that's been very effective and helpful for setting the pace of innovation in both categories of innovation is actually hiring a lot of amazing people from the industry into ServiceTitan. We have over 60 industry experts that used to work at a plumbing company, an air conditioning company, electrical services company or the like that are now full-time employees that ServiceTitan. And they range from people that used to be technicians in the field, to being a customer service representatives at a plumbing company, to being dispatchers at an air conditioning company, to being general managers of these companies, to even being owners who built and successfully scaled and sold plumbing and air conditioning companies for 10 20, 30 plus million dollars who then want to come and work at ServiceTitan to continue to innovate and help all the other hard working contractors in the world through the ServiceTitan software.

Melanie Perkins: I've got a question for both of you. What inspires you both to work so hard? Larry, I'll shoot it to you to start with.

Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: I think, you all can attest to this. You wouldn't be in the positions that you're in and built the companies that you built if you didn't have a burning desire to be the very best at what you do. And when your feet hit the ground in the morning, you're really driven and focused on doing whatever that is you need to do for that day. I think it's very important to be able to set short and longterm goals. You know you can't reach those longterm goals, but I'll set no short-term goals. If it's, I want to continue to do a good job of building my culture from day to day, mentoring a couple people on the team or in your organization that you think have great potential but just are missing a few key ingredients to be able to be better team leaders in their roles or just small little things that you always are working on to achieve those short-term goals will help you reach those longterm goals.

Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: And I think just that and wanting to see people be at their very, very best. There's nothing better than me being at practice, seeing a guy work so hard after practice trying to get something that he'd been working on and then you see it come to fruition on the football field. He scores a touchdown after something he's worked on for week after week after week. That brings me a lot of joy to see that. And I can imagine you guys see those same results in young people that are working at your companies. And there's nothing better than that. And as a leader, that's what it's all about is empowering people and putting them in a position to be successful.

Melanie Perkins: Couldn't agree more. So very true. What about you, Ara?

Ara Mahdessian: We have three core values and that's why it's so simple because there's only three motivations we care about. Number one is changing lives. We want every Titan that comes on board to feel so much fulfillment, so much value in their life by impacting the lives of others. Whether it's customers, whether it's other teammates or whether it's the communities around us, that that is what inspires them to work hard. Two is achieving the extraordinary that, like Larry mentioned, that Titans are motivated and get a lot of fulfillment out of doing things very few people have ever done before. And the last is building a dream team. To be able to work alongside so many heroic other Titans who are incredible at what they do. They help the people around them succeed and we have such an incredible and fun time along the journey.

Ara Mahdessian: Those three things are what motivates me. I love every day I get a success story from a customer. Just two hours ago, I got a success story from a customer about how they grew their revenue from two million in 2018 to nine million this year. And these are not anomalies. If I have 7,000 customers, I get 6,000 success stories to share. This is what motivates me. I think this is what motivates so many other founders and CEOs.

Melanie Perkins: I would agree. I guess, so years and years ago, I was backpacking in India and I met someone who was working at a computer cafe and he was making literally a dollar a day and he was working for 12 hours. He was away from his family and he was literally working his butt off, trying to do absolutely everything he could to make money and the maximum output of that was a dollar. And I, on the other hand have had great fortune. Growing up I've had a great education. And I have this crazy opportunity to be able to create a company that has been doing really well. We've got this very simple two step plan, step one, build one of the world's most valuable companies. And step two, do the most good we can do. And I feel like that is such a huge, not just opportunity, but incredible responsibility.

Melanie Perkins: The fact that we're able to make progress towards step one. We still got a long way to go but we're moving in the right direction. And then on step two, that is just such a huge responsibility. The fact that we can create a multi-billion dollar company that can be used by billions of people around the world to help people with our product itself, to be able to solve problems and to help them achieve their goals. But then to be able to have this huge opportunity to be able to create, to really live up to that two step plan is it's not really an option. You have to do that when you have that crazy opportunity presented. Because I'm working, I work really hard, that's true. But the guy in the computer cafe, he was working really hard. And so to have that opportunity, I think is incredibly important.

Melanie Perkins: And it's certainly what motivates me every day is to be able to create an incredible environment for our team, to be able to achieve their crazy big goals, to be able to create an environment for our community so they can achieve their crazy big goals. And then hopefully over my lifetime, I'll get to help the world achieve some of its crazy big goals, which would be pretty crazy.

Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: That's beautiful.

Ara Mahdessian: I love it.

Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: When I talk to a lot of founders, especially in the Cloud space, I always hear them talk about just the lack of available talent, engineers and software technicians. When you're meeting with prospective employees to come work for you all's companies, what are some of the things that you talk to them that would differentiate you from other companies that are competing for talent?

Melanie Perkins: We have been absurdly fortunate that we have had a 130,000 applicants in the last year. And it was 86,000 in the last quarter. It was astronomical numbers, but that's really different from in our early days. In our early days I had to pitch everyone, no one wanted to join my team. It took me a year to find one person to join my team. And at that point in time, we were having to do absolutely everything we possibly could do to pitch. And if you look up bizarre pitch deck, we're the number one result because I created a bizarre pitch deck to pitch someone and to get them to join our team. In the early days it was we were having to really pitch the vision hard. This is going to be the future of publishing and design. We're going to create a company that's going to change the face of the internet. And most people rejected us despite our best pitch efforts.

Melanie Perkins: But nowadays we're in a really fortunate position where a lot of people want to come and work at Canva, which is definitely a fortunate place to be in. And I think that we've been able to differentiate ourselves because firstly, when you've got graphs that are going in the right direction, that probably helps, but creating a company that really serves our customers and is so loved by so many people around the world, I think that helps as well. What about you, Ara?

Ara Mahdessian: It's interesting, my co-founder, my better half, Vahe, he and I started ServiceTitan because ultimately our fathers were contractors. We immigrated to this country at a young age. They didn't have money, they didn't have jobs. They didn't have knowledge of the language. They did all kinds of odd jobs to make ends meet. And one of those odd jobs ultimately happened to be plumbing and air conditioning work, et cetera. And then they then started their small contracting businesses. And we grew up watching all the pain points that they had and it was wild just how inefficient things were, how much manual labor everything required and how much they would go work in the field 12 hours a day and then come home and spend dinners and post dinners still processing shoe boxes full of receipts and taking care of invoices and calculating pay for other technicians.

Ara Mahdessian: And we realized there's got to be a better way than this and that's why we created ServiceTitan. For me, it's very obvious to me why I would be so motivated and excited about solving these pain points for my dad and ultimately many other contractors just like him but what I've been completely shocked about and surprised by and I never expected this is how so many other people who have nothing to do with the contracting industry, their parents weren't in the contracting industry, are similarly excited about the prospect of working at ServiceTitan.

Ara Mahdessian: And I think it comes down to because they see these are incredibly hardworking people. They're essential. They provide such critical services for our livelihoods. They see how underserved these hardworking people have been in the trades by technology. And they see the direct impact that they're able to make on the professional and personal livelihoods of these customers. I talked about the millions of dollars that they're able to generate in increased revenue for these companies. But I also talked about a lot of the personal success stories and I think I've been shocked that other people are just as excited about this as I am, but very grateful that that exists.

Melanie Perkins: The final question for today, if you could achieve anything in your lifetime, so you're a 100 plus, whatever age you'd like to live to and you're looking back at your life and you have been able to achieve anything in your lifetime that you would like to have achieved, what would you have achieved?

Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: I would definitely say, with how technology is advancing, I would just say bridging the technology gap in schools and through my foundation that's what I try to do. When I go to the affluent schools, as opposed to the lower income schools, I think that's one of the biggest discrepancies I see is just access to technology. Through your cell phone can literally learn everything that's ever happened in the course of the world. It's at your fingertips and be able to give young people that advantage to be able to research and use that to find new creative things that they may be interested in, they don't even know about, I think is very important. I would do that. And then, I have three sons, just if they grow up to be good, respectful husbands fathers and community people, I will be elated. I think that's as parents, it's the toughest job in the world is just trying to get your kids on track. I would say that's high on the priority list as well.

Ara Mahdessian: I feel you, Larry.

Melanie Perkins: A life well lived.

Ara Mahdessian: I got three young boys as well. I'd love similar outcomes. Going back to what you asked. At the highest level, I'd love to solve all world suffering, whether it's poverty, hunger, health, et cetera. At a lower altitude today, we do a lot of work with Children's Hospital of LA, outside of trying to transform lives in the contracting industry, we're very passionate about helping little kids who suffer from health issues. I think that's the most specific thing we do today. What about you, Melanie?

Melanie Perkins: I'll tell you where that question came from. When I was 15, I read a passage and it was from a lady living in a nursing home and she was 85. And it said it was a whole reflection about how, if she could have lived her life, she would have done it over again and lived in a very different way to the way she had lived her life. And I feel like that's sort of the perspective that I've held all going through is thinking about if you go far into the future and make a decision based on that far in the future, what you'd like to think about going backwards, what you would do if you were not looking at the building blocks in front of you, but thinking about things retrospectively. I think about this a lot.

Melanie Perkins: And I think that if I could do the most powerful thing that I could think I could do with my life is to help make the world more effective towards its goals. And so we have a 100,000 nonprofits who use our product to help achieve their goals but thinking a lot about how could we help governments and nonprofits and people in the world to be more effective towards achieving their goals? Because I fundamentally believe that there is enough goodwill, there is enough money, there is enough kindness, there is enough everything in the world to solve the world's problems. But I think that we're not orientating ourselves to actually achieve those goals in the world as effectively as we could. It's a very big ambition. It will take many, many, many, many, many decades, my entire life, but I would love to be able to help contribute towards that over my lifetime. And if I could do that I would be happy in my a 100 plus years if I'm so fortunate to live that long.

Ara Mahdessian: Well, you are no stranger to ambition and you're no stranger to accomplishment. I hope, I actually expect you will accomplish this.

Melanie Perkins: That's very kind of you and I expect and hope that you accomplish those very big, high level goals as well. If we could, the world would be a better place.

Ara Mahdessian: Agreed.

Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: Melanie, Ara, it was a pleasure. I really appreciate you taking a little time to educate me on you guys' fabulous businesses and your solve for so many of our world issues. It was a pleasure to be with you guys.

Melanie Perkins: Lovely to meet you both, and to chat with you today. Thanks for all of your great answers and questions.

Ara Mahdessian: The feeling is very much mutual, guys. Very humbled and grateful to be in this various esteemed company. Larry, Melanie and then all the other incredible companies in the Forbes Cloud 100. Thank you.