14 Minutes of SaaS

14 Minutes of SaaS

E41: Cameron Adams – Co-founder & CPO of Canva – 1 of 2 – One Percent Done

Cameron Adams CPO & CoFounder Canva

E41: Cameron Adams – Co-founder & CPO of Canva – 1 of 2 – One Percent Done

We chat with Cameron Adams about his history and his decision to become a co-founder of his current rocket ship. Canva is a graphic design platform that has raised $157M dollars on a $2.5B valuation, founded in 2012 and HQ’d out of Sydney. It has 713 employees – that’s a whopping 130% increase over the last 2 years. Half of them in Australia (mostly Sydney) and almost 30% of them in the Philippines. It has several smaller offices dotted round Asia and in Brasil. Employees have an average tenure of 1.7 years, but that low number is just a reflection of it’s hyper-growth rate – tons of new recruits. It’s ranking for customer and employee success is outstanding. On G2 it’s the top ranked Display Ad Design Software for both customer satisfaction and ease of use. And on Glassdoor 94% of employees would recommend the company to a friend. “We always like to say that we’re only one percent done … and it’s pretty much true most of the time …. So even though we’ve built an amazing product and an amazing team … our ambitions are so much bigger and our central mission is to bring design to everyone in the world – and make it accessible to everyone in the world.”

Transcript:

Cameron Adams

We always like to say that we’re only one percent done … and it’s pretty much true most of the time …. So even though we’ve built an amazing product and an amazing team … our ambitions are so much bigger and our central mission is to bring design to everyone in the world – and make it accessible to everyone in the world. And that can be across a range of different areas …. presentation websites, social media posts, making business cards. You know … who knows…VR … and giving people this ability to create great design even though they might know exactly how to go about it or think they have the skills to do that. And helping them communicate their ideas and bring them into the world and make them a reality.

Stephen Cummins

Welcome to 14 minutes of SaaS, the show where you can listen to the stories and opinions of founders of the world’s most remarkable SaaS ScaleUps.

In this episode, we have the Man in Blue himself, Cameron Adams co-founder and chief product officer with Canva. He’s a product designer team builder and SaaS scaler-upper extraordinaire. He reflects on his main designer role in Google Wave – a failed attempt to eat Slack’s lunch, forming a rocket ship loved by more than most called Canva, Chief Evangelist Guy Kawasaki’s contribution, and how he evolved towards making himself the author of his own destiny, as an update subsequent to this interview. In May 2019 canvas raised around 70 million dollars – leaving the company with a red hot valuation of 2.5 billion US dollars…

So today on 14 minutes of SaaS, I’m delighted to have Cameron Adams, Co-founder and chief product officer of Canva. How are you?

Cameron Adams

Pretty good. It’s pleasure to be here.

Stephen Cummins

Tell me you’re story right the way up to heading into the working world.
Cameron Adams

You’ve only got like a 14 minutes … right?

Stephen Cummins

That’s true. He he.

Cameron Adams

So getting back to childhood … my Dad owned a computer store. So me and my brother would often be hanging around there and we would sneakily slice open the video game boxes and copy the games on the computer and reseal them very carefully and put them back on the shelf. And we always… we always messed around with technology in that way. And we had a whole range of technologies and we started off with cartridge computer using old cassette tapes and eventually graduated to a to an XT and then a 386 and kind of stayed in the windows environment for a long time. Yeah, and then eventually, you know, I’d always messed around and never did anything formal throughout high school. And then in university got interested in computer science.

Stephen Cummins

Cool. And … not that long after universities set up a design agency. Which won some incredible clients like Atlassian, and TedX and NEC. 
How formative was that whole experience for you as an entrepreneur?

Cameron Adams

It’s interesting. I think the web came a little bit later to Australia … then definitely in the United States. So it was somewhat easy to get clients in Australia then, you know, they weren’t too many people building great websites or that really understood the technologies …. Having my blend of design and technology really helped. So I could work with these people to come up with a great design …. and then also implement it in a really robust way. Working with clients is always an interesting experience and I did that for about six years and I think it, yeah, it helped me understand the basics of running a business. I wouldn’t say I was like the ultimate business men but, you know, billing clients … talking and then getting requirements and building something that… that made them happy was really great learning.

Stephen Cummins

Cool. I’m amazed that your persistence in your kind of personal project called the Man and Blue. It’s been going since the beginning of the millennium. How important has that been for you as a focus and for your success.

Cameron Adams

Yeah, it’s been going 18 years now. I mean I really thought about that and I thought ‘Wow …how old am OI?’. It started out as just a playground for me to experiment with design and with technology and try out a bunch of things. And through that process of learning I kinda wanted to share that with people. And for me around that time 2000 or 2,001 – it was a really exciting time because those particular technological direction being pushed in the moment on the web which was web standards – and CSS and JavaScript were just emerging then. Nowadays, they are kind of very old technologies but back then no one really knew much about them. So you could do new things with them every day and write them up and share those with people and feed off their ideas and it’s a really good community. And yeah, I started writing a lot of my blog and tried out a lot of things and I got a bit of attention. And ultimately got me a few book deals to write about some of the technology. Yeah, I think it was… it was highly formative in many ways yeah – getting clients and meeting new people and networking and… and helping me get to where I am today.

Stephen Cummins

 

How were you prized away from Google. You were a UI designer helping Jensen and Lars Rasmussen the Google Maps founders with their creative vision for Google Wave. That must have been very exciting. First of all how was that? … in a second, how could you leave it?

Cameron Adams

Google was a really interesting experience. So I tried to get into Google a couple of times – mostly on the technological front. I’d interviewed as a JavaScripter – and I wasn’t quite good enough to be a pure engineer there. I totally forgot about it. And then one day, one of my good contacts who I’d met through my blog … got in touch and said Google is looking for a designer if you’re interested. And I went and met Lars Rasmussen who is one of the founders of Google maps. And yeah, he had this really interesting project that they were working on and looking for contract designer. I didn’t have to do any interview. And it’s this top secret project that had I think only three people working on it when I joined up with them. And it was totally secret from the rest of the Sydney office – nobody around the world knew about it. It was basically Lars, Jens, a guy called Adam shuk and, Larry and Sergei over in Mountain View – they were the only ones who definitely knew about. They were prototyping something – and they needed a bit of design to get the user experience, you know, making sense and… and working. I worked with them for about six months on a contract basis.

And they took that prototype to Larry and they said ‘this is what we want to build’ … ‘give us budget’ and they said go for it. And then Lars flew back and he said to me ‘Would you like to go work in Google full time. I’m like ‘sure’. That’s the way you get into Google without actually interviewing. Yeah, I spent four years on that. It was a massive rollercoaster. There’s a lot of people kind of know about Google Wave and the ups and downs and went through. And the project kinda ended about four years after it started – and I looked around Google at the time to find some interesting things to work on. Google plus was just being developed at the time. And we tried a couple of our own projects in the Sydney office but ultimately, I think the drive from me was to kind of be in control of my own destiny and create something where I was actually adding a huge amount of value. So that led me to leave and startup my own thing.

Stephen Cummins

Eventually, you got to Canva. When you were deciding whether or not to get involved in that. You know, could you see kind of the complementary quality of the three founders was that… was that a big reason why you decided to take a bet on it?

Cameron Adams

Yeah, that was that’s pretty much the main reason I went forward. Well. I mean, there are lots of contributing factors. I spent a year after Google to do another startup with two engineers from Google new.

Stephen Cummins

Was that Fluent?

Cameron Adams

Yeah that was fluent and we were creating a new type of e-mail product somewhat similar to… to what eventually got released as Google inbox and mailbox and, those types of things this. This is a couple of years prior. And we… we had reacted to what we’d seen at Google. So Google is an extremely engineering focused company … and at the time design was a fairly nascent specialty there … and product managers – they are also extremely engineering focused. So the three of us left Google with the intention of being a much more product and design focused company. And the thing we left out of that was business focus. So none of us were great businessman and we didn’t end up being able to get enough funding and revenue generation through that product.

But luckily towards the end of it Lars introduced me to this woman called Mel. Mel Perkins. I went to go talk to her. And they were looking for some technology advice at the time. I had this product that was written in flash – it was designed for making school yearbooks. And they wanted to kind of scale that up and… and make this bigger vision that they’d had. And she told me about this idea she had for Canva – and it was really exciting to me because I have… I have a graphic design background and technology. So I don’t, you know, it kind of really mashed. And I could see in Mel and Cliff, the two other legs of the stool that I would really need to contribute to a successful company. And I brought the design and the technology. Mel and Cliff brought incredible vision and business hustle and just an ability to get things done … and lead a massive company. So it worked out beautifully.

Stephen Cummins

Sydney is my favorite city in Australia, although I haven’t seen her Brisbane. Is it a good place to scale company?

Cameron Adams

Yeah, it’s been amazing for us. We… we go to silicon valley every now and then – not too often actually, but when we do we feel ‘this is a very different scene … it’s entirely competitive. There’s lots of churn and the companies the employees leave and come and go quite frequently. Here in Sydney, we’ve built up a really loyal bunch of people at the company and they believe in our mission and the culture that we have at the company is also like incredibly attractive. We… we try and make it the place where we want to work … and the place where we want to build relationships with people. So it’s almost a family in that sense and the lifestyle in Sydney kinds of feeds into that as well. It’s amazing sunshine in the middle of Winter last week and it was still 20 degrees celsius. Yeah. And it’s just a great lifestyle – but paired with people who are really passionate about the work and… and want to create something massive.

Stephen Cummins

Fantastic. Guy Kawasaki is a guy most people recognize and he’s been on board with you for quite some time as your Chief Evangelist … How important has he been for your success.

Cameron Adams

Yeah, he played a really… really big role at the time. So he’s probably been with us three and a half years. I think we stumbled across him in the news using Canva for some of these social media posts and the marketing. And we kinda recognised that and got in touch with them. And he was super excited about the product. And what the company was trying to do. And we eventually convinced him to come on board and he’s been an amazing megaphone for us. He has a worldwide audience, goes to conferences pretty much every week and speaks about his experiences … and manages to weave Canva in there. And show Canva to people around the world who’ve never heard about it before. So, yeah, he’s an amazing messenger and communicator for Canva.

Stephen Cummins

And what is your vision for Canva in the next few years? What would you like to see it develop into?

Cameron Adams

We always like to say that we’re only one percent done … and it’s pretty much true most of the time …. So even though we’ve built an amazing product and an amazing team … our ambitions are so much bigger and our central mission is to bring design to everyone in the world – and make it accessible to everyone in the world. And that can be across a range of different areas …. presentation websites, social media posts, making business cards. You know … who knows…VR … and giving people this ability to create great design even though they might not know exactly how to go about it or think they have the skills to do that. And helping them communicate their ideas and bring them into the world and make them a reality. And there’s so many areas we are not in and we still want to get into them. And the areas we’re not in, we want to go deeper into.

So the next two years is all mapped out – that even the next 10 years. I think we’ve got enough work to keep going. That’s what excites me.

I mean there’s probably two areas – there’s like my very personal intrinsic drive which is about exploring new things and coming up with new ideas and new ways to combine design and technology to create like a different experience. And then through Canva I’ve seen a lot of a lot of good that we’re doing for the world as well – which is incredibly inspiring. So being able to offer a tool which is you know, ostensibly about creating graphics but really empowers people to take their idea into the world and kinda change their own lives.

And the number of stories that we’ve seen of people using Canva to start up their business or find new volunteers for their Charity or raise funds … It’s been incredibly inspiring and that’s what drives this day to day is those stories and this vision of people being able to… to control their own destiny and improve the world themselves.

Stephen Cummins

I’ve seen you talk about harnessing your naivity. Could you expand on that?

Cameron Adams

Yeah. Entrepreneurship is probably about 50 percent having a vision of why you wanna make a dent in the universe. And deciding to go after that kinda requires you to ignore a bunch of things that either you don’t know that other people would be scared about. So having that naivity can give you the drive to kinda confront those problems – even though you don’t know how big they are. And also you have to be constantly be questioning things and diving into the ‘why?’ Even when your working with the product team – so you’re working with the product team and the designers. So you’re working with engineers or designers and asking them why I’m drilling deeper into the methodology. And they’re understanding helps you kind of think about the way they think of it … and make sure that you’ve got the right solution. You’re gonna tweak the little things that can improve  design. Or cut down the timeline that you need to do things and essentially get things done.

Stephen cummins

Canva is a graphic design platform that has raised $157M dollars on a $2.5B valuation, founded in 2012 and HQ’d out of Sydney. It has 713 employees – that’s a whopping 130% increase over the last 2 years. Half of them in Australia (mostly Sydney) and almost 30% of them in the Philippines. It has several smaller offices dotted round Asia and in Brasil. Employees have an average tenure of 1.7 years, but that low number is just a reflection of it’s hyper-growth rate – tons of new recruits.

It’s ranking for customer and employee success is outstanding. On G2 it’s the top ranked Display Ad Design Software for both customer satisfaction and ease of use. And on Glassdoor 94% of employees would recommend the company to a friend.

In the next episode, Cameron talks about the importance of trust and feeling safe to express oneself and contribute ideas. How Canva is continuously evolving it’s average contract value upwards as it moves into the enterprise. It remains a grass roots technology that anyone can use. But it has the habit of creating evangelist often that leads to seeded growth and internal virality within larger organizations. I feel that the biggest insights from Cameron are, not surprisingly, given his passion for design in particular – and also for SaaS, are around product development, innovating, and the challenges and excitement of helping effectively build teams within the context of a hyperscale entity.

Stephen Cummins

You’ve been listening to 14 minutes of SaaS. Thanks to Mike Quill for his creativity and problem solving skills and to Ketsu for the music. This episode was brought to you by me, Stephen Cummins. If you enjoy the podcast, please don’t forget to share it with your network, subscribe to the series and give the show a rating.

 

 

14 Minutes of SaaS