Cameron Adams Canva founder
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Canva Co-Founder Cameron Adams' biggest lessons

Cameron Adams, Canva’s Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer, shares his biggest learnings over the last decade.

It’s just over 10 years ago since I first met Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht, who were pitching their idea for a simple design platform. It all started with an email from Lars Rasmussen, one of the creators of Google Maps. We’d worked together before and he wanted me to meet this young couple running a school yearbook business called Fusion Books. That’s when I first heard about the ambitious vision for what would go on to become Canva.

When I reflect on the last decade and our incredible journey so far from just a few of us with a crazy big vision to empower the whole world to design, to becoming an amazing team of more than 3,200 people all across the globe; I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done and excited about what we still have left to do.

I recently sat down(opens in a new tab or window) with Shemara Wikramanayake, CEO of the Macquarie Group, to talk about Canva’s growth so far and some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way. While we’re really still just getting started and have a whole lot left to do, I thought I’d capture some of the key learnings we’ve found to be the most impactful for anyone going through some of the same challenges we’ve faced.

Solve a real problem

To build a business, you need to solve a genuine problem that people really care about. A lot of people come up with really unique ideas, but in order to build a business on top of an idea, it needs to solve a real problem. In order to do that it’s often better to flip the process on its head and start with a problem that needs fixing before finding the solution.

Cameron Adams Canva founder

The idea for Canva was sparked by a problem a lot of people were getting frustrated with in the early 2000s: it was 2007, and Melanie was at university teaching her classmates how to design using programs like InDesign and Photoshop – programs that a lot of people at the time were really struggling to learn, let alone use. Melanie believed the problem wasn’t with people not being able to understand the software but with the software itself – which was what ultimately led to the vision to democratize design by creating a platform everyone could use without needing a huge budget or advanced design skills.

Once we identified the problem we wanted to solve, we then broke it down into more tangible goals. We listened to and worked closely with our community to build a product they wanted, felt empowered by, and loved using to reach their goals.

Be clear about your purpose internally *and* externally

The word ‘purpose’ has become a bit of a buzzword, but for us, purpose is far more than that. At Canva, we’ve learned how valuable it is to give both our community and our team a deeper understanding of the ‘why’ behind what we do.

We see business as an opportunity to create value through our product, and to also create value (in terms of capital) to do good things in the world. Guiding us is what we call our Two-Step plan(opens in a new tab or window) — step one: build one of the most valuable companies in the world, and step two: do the most good we can. Like many others in the Canva team, I’m incredibly inspired by the impact we’re able to have, whether it’s planting a tree for every print order placed with Canva, through our Education(opens in a new tab or window) programs, or rallying together to support relief for crises such as typhoons in the Philippines. We also see our product and design as having the power to drive positive change in the world, for example over 250,000 nonprofits(opens in a new tab or window) are now using Canva to rally around causes.

Canva for nonprofits

Canva helps over 250,000 nonprofit organizations advance their causes.

Communicating the big picture around why you do what you do can lead to a massive shift in pride, support, and motivation from both your team and community and add a new level of meaning to your work. For us, it’s also been a huge driver of people joining the Canva team.

Values guide actions

If purpose is ‘why’ you do what you do, values are ‘how’. Gone are the days of ping pong tables and other gimmicky perks – today, people want to work for companies that align with their values, and whose values move beyond rhetoric and are actually put into action every day.

When it comes to values at Canva, we’re not talking about words on a wall somewhere — we’re talking about a single source of truth that guides all of our team’s behaviors, decision-making, and actions. Values become increasingly important as the number of people on your team grows and it becomes impossible to have one-on-one relationships with everyone in the company anymore. At a fast-growing startup, this happens quickly and you can lessen the risk of losing your organizational identity by being really clear on what your culture is and how your team can live it.

At Canva, we always wanted to build a culture and space where everyone could grow, thrive, and do the best work of their lives — and when our team started to grow, we decided to codify our culture into six core values that we not only wanted to be relatable, actionable, and inspirational but also measurable and scalable as we continued to expand. Our values are embedded into everything we do, from the way we build and launch new features, to how we communicate internally, to our recruitment and growth and development frameworks — and they really help empower our team and newcomers in setting and achieving goals.

Canva values

Canva's company values

Think global. Act local.

The first version of our product was something that we were proud of, but it was also only something that you could use if you spoke English. Something that played a massive role in our early growth was making Canva a tool that anyone in the world can pick up. This is often phrased in two different ways: internationalisation and localisation. Very broadly speaking, internationalisation is about the nuts of bolts of offering your product in different languages, whereas localisation is about making it appropriate for every users’ context and culture.

For us, it’s how we think about expanding into new global markets by building hyperlocal products — ones that are not only available in different languages but have culturally relevant and engaging features and content libraries that feel truly local. This creates a really powerful network effect where word-of-mouth and social sharing are some of our largest growth drivers, helping us build a strong community of Canva advocates across the globe — many of whom then create and grow build their own Canva communities.

Investing the time and resources into building a community around Canva has been immensely valuable. Your most passionate users will be the engine of your growth, and we have facilitated this through online communities like Canva Design Circle – which today has more than 220,000 Facebook members – to hosting workshops for nonprofits to help them champion their causes, and tailoring tailored teacher and student programs to growing our education communities.

Cameron Adams Canva co-founder

Your most passionate users will be the engine of your growth, and we have facilitated this through online communities like Canva Design Circle – which today has more than 220,000 Facebook members – to hosting workshops for nonprofits to help them champion their causes, and tailoring tailored teacher and student programs to growing our education communities.

To make it feel like Canva was built just for you, we always go the extra mile to create personalized experiences. For example, we’ve recently begun sending milestone certificates to our users once they’ve created 10 designs, 50 designs, 200, and so on. These have been so well received that we see people re-sharing those certificates across their social feeds all the time.

Constantly evolve your product or service

Building a good product or service is not a one-and-done effort. You need to be constantly listening to your community and coming up with new, imaginative ways of evolving your product or service to meet their needs (and defy their expectations).

Take what has happened over the last 2 years: the COVID-19 pandemic has totally changed the way we (and many others) do business forever. Businesses had to quickly adapt to their team and community’s new behaviors and priorities, understand and adapt to a new hybrid environment, and find new ways of communicating, collaborating, and strategizing across all parts of a business.

At Canva, we saw the world’s accelerated transition into a remote world of work as an opportunity to evolve our product to support our community. We noticed traditional ways of communicating and consuming information were changing, and teams and organizations were looking for more asynchronous tools to help facilitate communication, collaboration, and the breaking down of silos. We shifted all our time and energy into creating a suite of new workplace products and features(opens in a new tab or window) such as Docs(opens in a new tab or window), Websites(opens in a new tab or window) and Whiteboards(opens in a new tab or window), and features including Talking Presentations(opens in a new tab or window), real-time collaboration, comments and notifications to help them adapt to this new way of working.

Constantly listening to your community, identifying and adapting to changes in market trends, and revitalizing your product or service with new, compelling experiences that today’s communities need (or don’t yet know they need) all play an enormous role in building a truly valuable product.

While we have so much more we want to achieve at Canva, some of our biggest lessons so far have really revolved around establishing what you stand for as a company and then taking your whole team and community on that journey with you. It’s also incredibly important to learn by doing and listening — and as long as you’re focused on impact and everything you do ladders up to your purpose, mission and values, the rest will follow.