To pioneer a new category, founders must find a problem that’s pervasive enough to touch millions of lives—and yet overlooked enough that it hasn’t occurred to anybody to address it. For many of today’s most successful cloud companies, that problem is a lack of access. By democratizing access—Google with information, Shopify with commerce, and WhatsApp with communication—these giants have gone from underdog upstarts to household names and verbs.
We spoke with two visionary founders who have carved out new ways for technology to equalize access—Melanie Perkins, CEO and co-founder of Canva, and Rachel Carlson, CEO and co-founder of Guild Education. Canva empowers the average person with zero design experience to create beautiful graphics. And Guild places adult education within reach for millions of less economically advantaged workers. In this conversation, they share an inside look at what it takes to invent a new billion-dollar category.
Ignore conventional wisdom to start small and iterate
Melanie is a founder who defies many of Silicon Valley’s conventions. As a millennial Australian woman of color, she’s a far cry from the typical Bay Area boys club founder. But on a more fundamental level, the vision that made Canva a smashing success is one that rejects an approach that many of her peers valorize.
“My enemy for a long time was the Lean Startup,” says Melanie. “When we were initially raising funds, it was all the rage. But my vision was the exact opposite.” The book, authored by Eric Ries, champions an iterative approach where founders incrementally improve a minimum viable product (MVP) through many small experiments. But Melanie felt compelled to set her sights on an audacious goal from the outset, and wouldn’t stop until she achieved it.
“We’ve really had a strong focus on internationalization from day one,” recalls Melanie. Canva is available in over 100 languages, including the notoriously tricky category of languages that read right to left, including Arabic, Hebrew, and Urdu. While localizing the platform for these languages required significant overhead in development costs, it was a worthwhile investment since it paved the way for colossal growth.
As a platform built for everyday people that is available in 190 countries, Canva’s total addressable market (TAM) is enormous. Coupled with a platform people love to use, focusing global adoption since the early days has been a major factor in the company’s widespread adoption, and a reason it’s valued at $6 billion, with over 35 million monthly users.
Make early decisions with future scale in mind
When CEO Rachel Carlson founded Guild in 2015, she initially considered operating as a non-profit. “Talent is equally distributed around the world and opportunity is not,” she says. Challenging this unfair reality is at the heart of Guild’s mission, and she wondered whether she’d better be able to serve it without profit as a primary motive. In the end, Rachel felt that being a venture-backed technology solution offered potential to scale in a way that a non-profit couldn’t.
Guild’s platform helps workers who need upskilling or reskilling to compete in the modern workforce. By partnering with employers to provide education as a benefit, Guild helps workers to pursue degrees at low or no tuition while still earning an income and increasing their earning potential.
“Eighty-eight million Americans need what we do,” says Rachel. “We couldn’t touch nearly as many of those lives without an injection of venture capital or the scalability that being a software platform offers.”
With the business now valued at over $1 billion, Rachel is confident it was the right decision. But the company’s altruistic origin story still powers it. “Our intense desire to do good in the world is why people join, and it’s why people stay,” she says. “We’re still doing it for all the same reasons a nonprofit might.”
Embrace product-led growth to set off a word-of-mouth domino effect
In categories where switching costs are close to nonexistent and consumer or end-users are the decision makers, the best growth strategy is building a product users love—and letting them try it for free.
“Organic distribution has been really critical for Canva since the early days,” says Melanie. “We had a really valuable free product that was so good it inspired people to talk. We had literally hundreds of thousands of blogs written about Canva, plus a staggering number of social media posts.”
The freemium model has allowed Canva to grow at an astonishing rate, garnering one million users in its first 18 months on the market. Since raving customers have been central to Canva’s growth, Melanie places tremendous value on keeping them happy and investing in the Canva community. This is no small feat given the breadth of use cases Canva serves. From elementary school students using Canva for school projects to Fortune 100 companies designing website graphics. “Running 20 distinct companies would almost be easier than one unified UX with 20 different core use cases,” she says.
How does she keep everyone happy? User research, and lots of it. “Our product team frequently consults a user testing platform to watch videos of real people using the product.” By observing customers in their natural environments, the product team is able to uncover nuanced insights that are common across diverse customer segments and categories.
“Delighting customers is the best growth strategy,” says Melanie. “It has allowed our user base to expand massively, and that’s just continued to accelerate.”
Focus. Anchor on one North Star metric that satisfies multiple stakeholders—but constantly re-evaluate that focus to ensure alignment with evolving business priorities
With a business model that relies on a delicate balance of three sets of stakeholder needs—those of schools, employers, and workers—Rachel is involved in a perpetual juggling act. And with massive enterprises like Walmart in her book of business, the pressure is high to keep marquee customers happy without sacrificing the needs of the wider customer base. She walks this tightrope with a twofold strategy.
First, her team focuses primarily on one North Star metric—retention—which is mutually beneficial to all three groups. “Our core KPI ensures the win-win-win that makes this whole ecosystem work. We’re laser-focused on increasing the retention of working adult learners both at school and at work,” Rachel explains. “When retention is high, you’re doing right by the student since they’re getting a free education.” At the same time, schools are thrilled to graduate more students and increase tuition revenue.
Without Guild, the average graduation rate for adult learners at post-secondary institutions is 50 percent. Schools on the platform achieve upwards of 90 percent. And employers benefit by retaining loyal employees past their first year, when they’ve heavily invested in training new employees but haven’t reaped the rewards yet.
But since Rachel’s complex business model deals with both the supply and demand sides, keeping everyone happy demands more than a single unifying metric. Don’t be afraid to alternate emphases to go deep on improving one area, she advises.
“We’re constantly evaluating which group needs us most in a given quarter, then explaining to our employees why one group is getting an extra dose of attention from the product roadmap and from our services. Because that’s what it takes to attain big-picture balance.”
Don’t forget: the “blood, sweat, and tears” come with the territory. If it’s hard, you’re doing it right
For many founders, it’s tempting to look at unicorn companies and play the comparison game. Melanie is no exception. “I remember when we started out and we were seeing other companies getting funding or getting millions of users,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they must have it handed to them on a silver platter. It’s working for them. And it’s so damn hard for us.’”
But don’t take this as a sign you’re on the wrong trajectory, advises Melanie. “It’s hard for everybody,” she says. Learning as you go is a requirement for everyone—especially when you are building a new category.
“Just knowing that every CEO is figuring it out on the fly would have saved me a lot of grief in those early days,” says Melanie. “If it’s hard for you, know you’re not alone.”
Talia Goldberg (00:00): Hi, I’m Talia Goldberg partner at Bessemer Venture Partners. The platforms and software that the cloud 100 honorees are building are changing the way that we work and how businesses operate. Today, we’re talking about category creation and the path that two really amazing founders have taken to secure a market leadership and reimagine their industries.
Rachel Carlson (00:23): Hi, I’m Rachel Carlson, I’m CEO and co-founder of Guild Education.
Melanie Perkins (00:27): I’m Melanie Perkins, CEO and co-founder of Canva. It’s exciting for us to be here together. We’re going to be discussing why we started our businesses and the opportunities and challenges we faced building them and growing our companies in today’s world.
Talia Goldberg (00:42): So let’s dive in. One of the common threads is linking some of the great internet and software businesses is how they democratize access. You have Google with information, Stripe with payments, Shopify with commerce, and WhatsApp with communications. The list really goes on and here, you two both have created categories by democratizing access, but you’ve gone about it in two very different ways. On the one hand, Canva, it’s a freemium platform that’s used by over 35 million people each month that really democratizes design and empowers everyone from individuals to small businesses and beyond to easily create content of all types.
Talia Goldberg (01:23): On the other hand, you have Guild, which is enabling the tens of millions of Americans that need upscaling or rescaling to compete in the modern workforce. And you’re really democratizing access to adult education. You do this by partnering with employers and providing education as a benefit. You have two very different go to market approaches. On the one hand, we have Canva with a very bottoms up approach and Guild’s enterprise oriented top down approach. So Rachel, fairly early into Guild’s life, you landed one of the biggest companies in the world and literally the biggest employer in America, Walmart. Please explain to us how does a startup at the time, just a couple of years old, land such a massive whale of an early customer?
Rachel Carlson (02:10): On one level, it was full of luck, but on another level, it was really a instructive moment for us and help us figure out how to go forward with our go to market strategy, because Walmart was emblematic of so many other companies at the time. And for Guild, what we wanted to figure out was how to incentivize employers to invest in their employees education. And we knew if we did that, we would transform the business model of higher ed because we reduced the crazy customer acquisition costs that are incurred in B2C higher education with Google and Facebook taking large cuts of the ad revenue that really cut into students’ tuition costs. And that employers would also know a lot more about what modern working adults should be learning when they go back to school since they were also their current employer, but their future employer as well. And so with Walmart, we spent a bunch of time with them. We built relationships and we got to their problem set.
Rachel Carlson (03:00): And their problem set spanned everything from the cashier job in the rural Walmart store all the way up through e-commerce challenges with Walmart’s work towards becoming a really iconic eCommerce company. And so we were able to understand really the entire American workforce challenges by drilling into this one company that happens to employ 1.5 million Americans.
Talia Goldberg (03:22): How do you go about satisfying a giant like Walmart which may have some particular needs without then blowing up though your entire product roadmap and support structure?
Rachel Carlson (03:33): That is a great question. And one we spent the last two years really addressing. We’ve definitely made some mistakes along the way, but largely what we tried to do was onboard other large companies at the same time as Walmart, which really just felt hard at the time. That meant we were calibrating the things they were asking for alongside companies like Disney and Lowe’s and Discover Financial at the same time. What it didn’t allow us to do is to have multiple strategies at the same time. So when we went long with Walmart, we really went long with enterprise, as you mentioned, and had to commit to that as our distribution strategy and our tops down model, as you mentioned. And so that was the right choice, but one that we absolutely had to make so that we could prioritize within our roadmap and we’ve done a lot of work that has essentially solidified our view that we should be working with the Fortune 1000 for now and at a later chapter in Guild’s life, probably moving into more mid-market and SMB.
Talia Goldberg (04:28): So Melanie, in the span of just 18 months, Canva grew to 1 million users at one point, and you now have many tens of millions of users that are engaging with the product each month. Can you help us to understand and just dive into what drives your product development roadmap and how do you prioritize features and functionality when you have such a diverse set of users and so many different use cases, how do you pick what to prioritize and what to do first or put off for later?
Melanie Perkins (04:57): I think one of the incredible things that we’ve seen is just how common… There’s so many common needs across so many different industries. So we have an incredibly widespread number of people using Canva. We’re in 190 countries. We have the small seven year old school using Canva to create school assignments. And then we have Fortune 1000 companies using Canva to solidify their design across their entire companies. But the commonality is actually really surprising and everyone is trying to communicate their ideas. Visually has struggled previously with design, design programs are really complicated and we wanted to make that simple. So it’s surprising the number of things that are common between the seven year old to the Fortune 1000 company.
Melanie Perkins (05:40): One of the things that we found right from the early days was it’s absolutely critical to solve a problem that affects a lot of people. And one of those things is that design programs are really hard. Another is that the world is becoming increasingly visual as the years have gone on. Social media has certainly helped to accelerate that, but the way people are creating pitch decks and presentations and social media graphics and videos, they all have a lot of commonalities that our goal was to make really simple and accessible to everyone.
Talia Goldberg (06:08): And so in the early years, can you give us a sense of what drove some of your adoption and growth, and then as you’ve scaled and now are touching so many tens of millions of users, has anything meaningfully changed in your go to market strategy? How has it evolved?
Melanie Perkins (06:25): Yeah, so years ago I was at university. I was teaching design programs and saw a lot of students struggling learning the very basics. And so that basic problem that things are really complicated, people are having to go to all sorts of things from stock photography libraries and video libraries and layout libraries to create the most basic of designs. And the standard person was working with clip art and ugly fonts and ugly templates. That problem is the universal that kickstarted Canva’s life, solving a problem that affects a lot of people was really critical at the start. And then what we did was we ensured that we had a really valuable free product that then helped to accelerate Canva’s growth. So we’ve had hundreds of thousands of blogs written about Canva, social media posts, tweets, where our community is really helping to tell other people about it and it’s helping to spread through word of mouth.
Melanie Perkins (07:14): So organic distribution has been really critical for Canva right from the early days. And as we’ve grown, that’s just continued to accelerate. We’ve continued to expand into now we’re in the enterprise. And so we are starting to build out a team that’s helping with our customers to be successful as well. But I think that that acceleration right from the early days was built from solving a problem that affected a lot of people, making it free and really valuable for people to be able to adopt it easily and spread through word of mouth. And then critically we’ve really had a strong focus on internationalization. So we’re now in a hundred languages. We tackled some really hard languages like right to left for Arabic and Hebrew and Urdu. And then we’ve also ensured that we launched Canva in China amongst other more tricky markets to get into. But that has meant that Canva’s adoption has been really, really quite global from the early days.
Talia Goldberg (08:07): That’s impressive. So this next question is for Rachel. So Rachel, Guild has many different stakeholders. There’s employers, there’s schools, there’s employees, and sometimes one of the tricky dynamics is that those that are paying the bills or cashing the checks aren’t always the ones that are touching the end product. You have so many different stakeholders and so as you think about that and this triangle, what have been your key areas of focus and how has that changed over time?
Rachel Carlson (08:38): Sure, it’s a great question and really defines our four years of growth, as well as our business model and our B Corp charter is really all in how do you manage multiple stakeholders? So said simply, our business model was oriented around this idea that we could help reduce what working adults and low and middle income Americans pay. If we could get employers to pick up some of the bill and we could help universities better connect into the ecosystem and also pick up some of the bill for the technology and the services that the working adult needs. And so that’s how we’ve gone out about the business is having employers pay tuition, having universities pay for Guild’s technology and services and trying to drive the costs down to zero as much as possible and whenever possible for the student.
Rachel Carlson (09:21): And we’ve pulled that off, but we’ve done it by effectively I think the same challenges that most marketplaces work through, which is in any given quarter or a year, you’re balancing the supply demand challenges. And so as I think about it, effectively the early years, the first year of the business was generating the supply side, getting universities to want to join our marketplace. The second year was going to market for the first time to employers and students and figuring out if they wanted what we had on our shelves. Then we had to flip back and do effectively a rebuilding expansion year on our supply side and add many more universities because we didn’t have enough. And then this year heading back into thinking about expansion with the next batch of employers and go to market there.
Rachel Carlson (10:01): So it’s been a balancing act at every turn, and that’s a really important conversation we’re constantly having within the company as we think about quarterly and annual prioritization and helping everyone understand why at one time, even though we have teams that represent all of the stakeholders, at any one time, it does feel like one stakeholder group is getting an extra dose of attention from the product roadmap and from our services.
Talia Goldberg (10:24): And across these three different types of end customers or users that you have, how do you go about measuring success for schools, for employers, for employees? Are there different metrics or different KPIs that you’re monitoring for each of those categories?
Rachel Carlson (10:41): Yes, but we also felt like we needed to find the commonalities. So I’ll probably start there. What we realized was that the win-win-win to make this whole ecosystem work would be increasing the retention of working adult learners both at school and at work. And when you do that well, you obviously do right by the student. You’re helping them have access to a free education because they’re staying at work and work’s paying and you’re helping them increase their graduation rates at school because the average working adult learner has a 50% graduation rate outside of Guild and we’ve been able to bring that up into the annual rates in the 90’s. And so that felt like the core KPI to start with.
Rachel Carlson (11:18): And then we align that with what the universities want. They care a lot about retention at school. And so really building our services and products focused on that KPI for them. And then the employer cares about retaining the worker in their job. Now that doesn’t mean forever, in fact, they’re very supportive of the worker moving on after three or five years, but retaining them past the six month or the one year mark is actually incredibly hard in frontline jobs where they have an average 40 to 60% retention rate just for those first six to 12 months. And so we really oriented around that as KPI number one that creates the win-win-win.
Rachel Carlson (11:54): And then obviously we have additional things we care about. For employers, it’s helping them increase their retention rates and then their recruitment rates, sorry, I kind of bumbled that, but helping them increase their recruitment rates as well as their upscaling opportunities and promotion rates for workers. And then for our students, we ultimately care about creating economic opportunity. So education is a means, but the ends is how do we help them move up within their company or move up beyond their company into higher paying jobs and middle-class opportunities?
Talia Goldberg (12:27): That’s awesome. And really interesting, it sounds like you really have found this almost like a North Star that does unify each of these different constituents. Melanie, do you have any kind of North Star or key measure of success that you look at with Canva?
Melanie Perkins (12:43): Going extremely macro, we have a two step plan. So step one is to build one of the world’s most valuable companies and step two is to do the most good we can do. And we’re still very, very early stages on both of those steps, but it feels like we’re making a few little mini steps in step one and step two, something that I think inspires a lot of our team is really… We’ve got 50,000 nonprofits in our nonprofit program where we give our paid product away for free. We’re in 50,000 schools now, but really helping each of the small businesses and students and teachers to be achieving their goals is what really drives and motivates our team. So there’s many, many metrics under the sun that we’re continuously looking at. Usertesting.com is something that we use very frequently within our product teams to watch videos of people using the product.
Melanie Perkins (13:32): We’ve had a million pieces of user feedback. So trying to ensure that we’re satisfying the many demands of our community and also continuing to pay forward towards our mission of empowering the whole world to design has really helped to provide a lot of our roadmaps. So we want to empower everyone across every single industry to design in the [inaudible 00:13:49]. We want presentations and social media graphics and marketing materials and videos. But we have a long road map there as well in every language, I mentioned, we’re in a hundred languages now on every device. So I guess those key pillars is what we continuously invest in and will continuously be investing in those for forevermore, but hopefully making some progress towards our two step plan over the years to come.
Talia Goldberg (14:14): Absolutely. Well you both have had tremendous success and Canva now worth $6 billion and Guild over a billion dollars in just a short period of time, really, it’s remarkable to see all the people and communities that both of your businesses have impacted and touched for the positive. But I’m sure it hasn’t been without the trials and tribulations. As you know, there are speed bumps in all of journeys. And I’m curious if you could go back in time and tell your current self one thing that you know today, but that you wish you had known a few years ago when were just getting started, what would it be?
Rachel Carlson (14:54): I guess it’s somewhat trite, but it really is the truism for me, I’d grown up on political campaigns and that was where I think first six jobs, and political campaigns are definitionally sprints, and startups can take on the sprint mentality, but election day isn’t six to nine months in the horizon. What we want to do with Guild hopefully is in perpetuity well beyond my lifetime, since we know 88 million Americans need what we do. And so training for the marathon and then sustaining the marathon has probably been the biggest lesson for me over time. And then I think additionally, just really orienting at all times back to taking the pauses when you need them to think about are we orienting around all the various stakeholders that we need to be paying attention to? Are we pausing to reflect on what we’ve learned? Really just building those mechanisms in was something I had to learn at each chapter.
Talia Goldberg (15:51): Melanie, what about you?
Melanie Perkins (15:53): I think an important lesson that we’ve learned along the way is it’s hard for everyone. I remember when we started out and we were seeing other companies getting funding or other companies getting millions of users and I was like, “Oh my gosh, they must be handed to them on a silver platter. It’s working for them. And it’s so damn hard for us.” I think knowing that it’s hard for absolutely everyone and everyone’s just figuring it out as they go and having to learn on the fly, I think would have been helpful knowledge in those early days. Because I think the concept that I quite like is just in time learning and it feels like every moment you’re learning something just in time, just ahead of knowing it, or in some cases just after you would have liked to have known it. And I think just continuously knowing that you’re going to have to learn, it’s hard for everyone, everyone’s struggling and figuring out things as they go, I think is quite important.
Talia Goldberg (16:41): That’s a great point. And to that end, what are some of the big mistakes or obstacles that your team has had to overcome? I don’t know if there’s a specific story or more general obstacles or challenges that have come your way that you’d be willing to share with others to give them the same sense of, “Hey, no matter what comes and no matter what comes at you, you can get through it and end up in a position similar to the two of you.”
Melanie Perkins (17:08): I think to Rachel’s point, every day brings new challenges and ones that you may never have tackled before. So in the earliest of days, it was, “How do we find investors? How do we build a tech team?” And that was rejections for years to get to those two milestones. Now there’ve been challenges we’ve got 1,000 people and we have more than 500 people in our product organization, how do we ensure that we’re building a product that maintains it’s simplicity, but is catering to the 20 different industries that we need to cater towards? Because essentially Canva, putting 20 companies would kind of be easy comparatively to building 20 companies that have unified UX and a really cohesive experience across all of these. So that’s sort of the things that we’re on right now is our product process and ensuring that it is cohesive and streamlined and still delivers an amazing experience for someone that’s just joined Canva and is using camera within the first 30 seconds to have that simplicity that was so critical to our core.
Melanie Perkins (18:03): There’s been so many different interesting learnings around raising funding over the years. It’s not signed until it’s in the bank. It’s not done until it’s in the bank I think was an interesting learning because I think that early days, an investor would be like, “I’m going to invest.” And we’re like, “Oh yes, it’s done. It’s done.” And they’re like, “It is not done.” And then when we were trying to get our tech team together, it was so hard and frustrating for years trying to find the right people that could build our tech because it’s a very complex beast. But I think that that challenge and that extended period of time of not being able to land our tech team actually was really helpful because it meant that we ended up with a really incredible tech team that was at the technical bar that we needed to be able to build our product.
Melanie Perkins (18:49): And likewise, the very frustrating time of being rejected by investors for years actually meant that we ended up with a really refined pitch deck and strategy because we were getting so many rejections and every time we were rejected, we’d go and refine and define again and again our pitch deck to ensure that that really, really spoke to exactly what we wanted to build. And it has meant that we still are executing on the decks from 2011. There’s still things in there that we’re continuing to execute upon. So I guess the takeaway is even though things are frustrating at the time, and sometimes you feel like you’ve had to learn the lesson a very hard way that took years, I think that those things helped to build our character as a company, to refine our pitch deck, and to become really solid in our strategy going forward.
Rachel Carlson (19:39): Your question made me think of advice you get a lot when you first have kids, which people will tell you little kids problems, big kids bigger problems. And what they don’t often say is you have to work through those little problems in order to be equipped as a parent or as a leader. And I’ll apply it to Guild the second to tackle the bigger challenges. So the mistakes or the learnings are constant. There’s no lower volume of them later on than in the early days. But it’s different. In the early days, they were problems that cropped up in the morning and you try and solve them by the end of the day. You’re in firefighting mode, you’re figuring out all these various component parts. And then those Lego building blocks build you to a place where now you’re solving much larger challenges. And in Guild’s perspective, the early days, what gave us a competitive advantage and let us be successful is that we were willing to take on the complexities of multiple stakeholder groups and the employers and the universities and the students.
Rachel Carlson (20:35): Today, what we have to make sure that we don’t let that complexity get in our own way. We’re at 700 employees, we’ve got big teams overseeing those three stakeholder groups and making sure that we can optimize for all of them while keeping in mind the needs of our fourth stakeholder group, which are our employees and really thinking about how are we making sure that their jobs are getting simpler, that their ability to work with their colleagues maintains that cross-functional nature that’s really been in the bones of Guild since day one, and that they have career paths and really successful experiences as employees of ours is something we’re spending a lot of our time on right now. And it’s in large part because of the complexities we took on early days, which we’re grateful for, but means you have to keep iterating and building and thinking about how to address those new, bigger challenges.
Talia Goldberg (21:20): Absolutely. So on that note, let’s transition and chat a little bit about teams and team building. This is a really quick question, but recruiting, retaining, and managing talent is always a top priority of CEO’s. So quickly, and first Melanie, what percentage of your time do you spend recruiting in any given month?
Melanie Perkins (21:43): I am really fortunate to have built up a really incredible team around us. And so I don’t, for example, we had an intern and grad program. We had 14,000 applicants to apply to our intern and grad program. So I’m not having to spend a hell of a lot of time during that process at the moment. But at the same time, we meet with every single onboarding class. We go through our vision deck of Canva’s vision. So it’s really critical that right from the very start, people are joining Canva and they’re understanding what we’re trying to build together. I think that having a shared mission and a shared vision of the future that we’re trying to build is actually critical. I think it’s really important.
Melanie Perkins (22:22): I spend a lot of time on internal comms and every week we do something that we call a sit down, it was a standup when it was back in the real world, where we all were meeting in person and now we do a sit down on Zoom. And I spend a lot of my time making sure that the messages that are going throughout the company are really consistent, that we are all working towards the same thing that everyone has that context and information to make great decisions. And I’d say that is a long way of saying I think that that actually helps with the recruitment function as well, because if 1000 people in the company can speak to the mission and vision as well as I could and knows the values in our culture and the people that would make a really great contribution to Canva and where we’re trying to go.
Melanie Perkins (23:08): I think that is a little bit of a quasi way of helping with our recruitment. Because we have a lot of people who are working in recruitment now, a lot of people who are trying to decide is this person going to be a great fit for Canva. And so while I might not be in every single one of those interviews, we need to ensure that that culture is spread very, very consistently across the company and that people are knowing what to expect from Canva and who should be able to join Canva and the sort of environment that they should be able to create.
Talia Goldberg (23:38): I think there’s the saying that whoever you hire, they may be responsible for the next 100 hires. So it’s how do you keep alignment to get the right culture and talent into the company and then support them? So one of the reasons that at Bessemer, we were so excited to invest in both Canva and in Guild is because of the really amazing and purposeful cultures that you both built. Can you speak a little bit to the cultures that you have built and how that has evolved as you went from an early stage and a very small startup to a much larger company now really operating at scale with hundreds of employees?
Melanie Perkins (24:14): I think that right from the early days, I always wanted to create a company that I wanted to work at. And that has influenced every single decision that we’ve made. From the way we have lunch together, when we were eating in person, to the way we have defined our company’s values. So in the early days, it wasn’t necessarily to define our company values because you’re involved in every decision and every conversation. Now we have 1,000 people, it’s really critical that we define really clearly what is expected of our team. And so our values such as be a good human, be a force for good, pursue excellence, set crazy goals and make them happen. These are really critical that we got down on paper and literally have on stickers and tee shirts and are continuously talking about with the company because there’s so many decisions that are being made every single day that we might not be part of.
Melanie Perkins (25:06): And it’s critical that people know that we have their back. So for example, if a decision is going to lose us some money but be a force for good, that’s critical that we pursue the be a force for good route. And I think that defining the values helped for our team to know that we have their back when they are making those decisions. I think it’s really critical as well that we ensure that we are continuously finding ways to connect as a company. So I mentioned before, we do sit downs every week, we have often 20 to 30 of our leaders and people across the entire company speaking about different values or different goals and initiatives that we’re working on. There’s three sections, we do goals, lunches, and community stories every week. And I think that what’s really critical about that is it helps to build and reinforce our culture.
Melanie Perkins (25:53): Every single time we meet, we’re saying what we prize as a company, what we respect, what we really want everyone to be striving towards and it helps to build that shared context and culture as well. So I think that those are some pretty critical parts of it is setting our values, ensuring that we’re finding opportunities to reinforce and propagate and develop our culture as well in that shared context.
Rachel Carlson (26:16): Yeah, for us, our mission really is the heartbeat of our culture. And it’s interesting because when we first started Guild, we actually entertained, should we start as a nonprofit? Should we start as a venture backed company? And then we had a creative acquisition opportunity to join another organization and bring Guild to fruition. And so that origin story and the fact that we really tried to say, “Okay, the reason we chose this to be a venture backed organization, to identify as a tech enabled service, is because we want to scale.” And the other two paths weren’t going to give us that opportunity to scale, but we’re still doing it for all the same reasons that a nonprofit might or that another organization might, which is to deliver economic opportunity to our students and our workers.
Rachel Carlson (27:01): And so that mission, and really the goal of starting there is what pulses through every part of Guild. It’s why people join, it’s why people stay, but we really have to think about how to make sure and evolve that. And I think an interesting thing that all mission driven organizations have to grapple with is you can’t let the mission be a crux for culture. And that’s something we’ve thought long and hard about probably more than ever during COVID. And we also had just done our first acquisition that we really have to invest in the values and the other component parts that live beyond our mission, and maybe someone’s working at Guild just because they love the technology problem we’re solving, or because it’s the best job for them to achieve their career growth opportunities or because of other things we stand for or work we do in other parts of our business.
Rachel Carlson (27:46): And so we’ve been having that conversation internally. And really I think that gets to your question about how does it evolve as you scale, is you really have to continue refining and evaluating, how do we make sure we’re accomplishing what we want for our customers, for our employees, for our investors, for the various stakeholder groups and reevaluating and readdressing that conversation on a pretty regular basis, because it is a heartbeat, it’s a living, breathing thing and you have to keep thinking about it on regular cadence and not letting it be a static identity.
Talia Goldberg (28:15): Before we get to the final question, I want to make sure to give both of you an opportunity to ask each other questions.
Melanie Perkins (28:20): So I read a quote the other day, it said, “Happiness is giving the world what you yearn for most.” And I thought that was a really insightful quote, and one that was particularly true. If you could create the world in any which way that you’d like, if Guild could be taken to the absolute full extreme, what would it look like?
Rachel Carlson (28:39): Oh, I love that question. I am a believer of that maxim that in today’s world, talent is equally distributed around the world and opportunity is not. And so if Guild could be a mechanism by which opportunity becomes equally distributed, and that’s a high bar, so maybe I’ll give it one asterix, which is more equitably distributed, but at its maxim complete equal distribution of opportunity, not of outcomes, everyone has to achieve their own outcomes. But if that opportunity, which we believe starts with education and then moves into career opportunity, that would be the dream. Melanie, I’ve been so amazed by your leadership, starting a company outside of Silicon Valley by many, many clicks. I get asked this all the time in Denver, but gosh, you’ve done it at an X factor that really rivals what we do since we can take a day trip. What are the things that you think you’ve done that follow maybe traditional Silicon Valley expectations of starting a company, and where is one or two places where you’ve completely veered off the norm and it’s been really rewarding to you and Canva?
Melanie Perkins (29:49): That’s a really good question. I think I thought the norm, when we were pitching our company at the start, I thought the norm was that you had to be pitching a multibillion dollar company. I thought that was the rule of what you had to do. So I was like, “My pitch deck has to be damn amazing. It has to be literally the feature of everything.” And I think that was what I considered the norm was probably potentially a higher bar than maybe what was getting funded in some regards. So I guess my perception of the norm was probably what ended up with such a powerful pitch deck in many ways. I think that there’s a lot of things that we’ve done that haven’t been the status quo.
Melanie Perkins (30:28): My enemy for a long period of time was the lean startup. So when we were initially pitching for funding, the lean startup was all the rage and we were the exact opposite of that. So rather than… And people would be like, “So have you put up a Google Ad and seeing if people have clicked on it?” And we’re like, “It just doesn’t make any sense. This is the future of everything. The future of design and publishing, it’s so obvious that the world is moving in this direction.” I think that has been a really critical piece of Canva is that we have always had a mission, we’ve always had a vision that we’re trying to drive towards. And then we’ve just taken little goals towards that. And every step of the way we’ve been doing it for a number of years now. And I think that that’s quite different from what was the status quo of the lean startup, minimum viable product, iterating as you go.
Melanie Perkins (31:15): That’s probably been one of the key pieces is just that very different way of approaching building a company. I think there’s a lot of physical ones like we’re in Australia, we have another office in the Philippines, we have been international from day one. I think these things are becoming more the norm. So while it’s been typical that we got rejected many times by investors that said, “I have to be able to ride my bicycle to see you. You have to be based in Silicon Valley or I’m not going to invest.” We actually have a ton of rejection emails for that very specific reason. But I think the world is becoming more global now. I think that the, to your point, the distribution of talent is very much global.
Melanie Perkins (32:02): And I think that companies that are able to tap into that more are certainly seeing huge benefits. So I think that, yeah, there’s been a host of things in that regard, like I don’t take many of the Silicon Valley boxes of the typical VC boxes of typically it’s a male who’s graduated from a certain university who he’s living in Silicon Valley who maybe had a CS degree. So I don’t tick a lot of those boxes, but I think that it does give you a certain vantage point where you can see the world from potentially a different perspective. I think that one of the things that we’ve done well is just really doubled down on our mission. Empowering the world to design really means you have to be in every language. You have to be really localized across the entire globe. You have to be global from day one. I think there are a couple of other ways we’ve broken the mold there.
Rachel Carlson (32:59): Love that.
Talia Goldberg (32:59): I love that too. You have to think outside the box and be a bit of an outsider to push the boundaries and really recreate these industries and opportunities that you both have. So it’s really inspiring. All right, our last question, what do you hope to see from the cloud industry over the next 10 years? And how do you think that’s going to change the way that people work? Think big, this could be anything, but what are the big changes that you would really hope to see in this ecosystem and amongst the cloud 100 honorees?
Rachel Carlson (33:30): For me, your opening remarks were so resonant in what I hope the cloud can do for the world. And I think the next 10 years is a great timeframe given how much has been accomplished in the most recent 10, which is doing things that transform the way people live, the way people work, the way they experience life. And access, how you framed it, really comes to mind. Because I think that’s so pertinent, which is how can the internet and cloud transform these day to day experiences that have really been inaccessible to people or at the very least unproductive or not particularly functional for the vast majority of the world and how can it transform people’s lives? And I think there are so many organizations doing that right now. And I hope that over the next 10 years, we continue to see a total transformation to a more digital way that people can have a more self-actualized and more robust life.
Melanie Perkins (34:26): I certainly think and hope and desperately want to see a more equitable world where everyone is able to… If they’ve got a creative idea, or if they’ve gotten that amazing concept or whatever it is that their goal is, that they can put in the effort and they can get there and they can achieve that. And I think that at this point in time, we don’t appreciate the power of VCs, the power of companies, the power of what’s produced in Hollywood, the power of all of these different entities, the government, to effect change and to build a better world. And I think that VCs, we under appreciate the power that they have to determine what products are going to be in our world, what world is going to actually have the funding to actually become actualized. I think that realizing that when a VC’s making a decision, if they are going to fund company X or company Y, that is actually creating the reality of what the world would be in the years to come in so many ways.
Melanie Perkins (35:30): I think that I would love every single VC, every single company, every single entrepreneur to have a little tick box at the end of their checklist, and it says, “Does this make the world a better place?” And I think that ideally when a VC is making a decision between company X and Y, that is actually a factor that’s taken into account. Is this making the world a more equitable place? Is this making the world a place that I want my kids in? And I think I would love to see that happen. I think it’s happening more and more, but I would love to see that accelerated over the years to come. And both Rachel and I are part of the 1% pledge. I think that it is such an easy way to really make a considerable difference. And the 1% pledge is you pledge one 1% of equity, 1% of your company’s time, 1% of your products, 1% of your… What’s the last one, Rachel?
Rachel Carlson (36:24): Profit.
Melanie Perkins (36:25): Profit, yeah, to ensure that the world is becoming a better place.
Talia Goldberg (36:30): I can’t think of a better note to close on than that, to be honest. That was really beautifully said and well said and I think really speaks to the reason that we’re also so proud to be backing such incredible companies, but really such incredible founders like yourselves, whose companies, whose missions, whose business practices, can totally embody that idea. And so thank you both for joining us.See Less