A Research Report for Vision Masters from Intelliversity
We’ve all heard the old saying “never judge a book by its’ cover.”
But we do just that a lot of the time, don’t we?
Often, we judge ourselves most harshly. We judge ourselves for not being perfect, not living up to our own or others’ expectations. We fear that we aren’t enough, don’t look good enough on paper. Fortunately, not every would-be entrepreneur gets stuck in that rut. Instead, they show the rest of us the way out.
If you’re in that place, or have been there, or fear being there as the stakes get higher in your enterprise, take heart in the story of Melanie Perkins, Founder, and CEO of Canva. Ms. Perkins wasn’t born to great wealth, wasn’t a savant, doesn’t boast an Ivy League degree (or any degree), wasn’t connected to the Silicon Valley crowd, didn’t gain notoriety through massive self-promotion online. But she had a compelling idea: professional quality graphic design shouldn’t be difficult for the average person. She spun that idea into a grand vision: Everybody should be able to publish their own graphic designs simply and elegantly. She created a company around that vision. Now she’s on her way to unicorn status. You can do the same.
Eight years later, Canva is a global company with customers in 190 countries. They’ve completely disrupted the desktop publishing industry by making graphic design easy enough for everybody. Thirty people now create a new design using Canva every ten seconds. Ms. Perkins didn’t let the glass ceiling of her own perceived weaknesses, nor those imposed from outside stop her. Instead, she held to her vision, did whatever it took to grow it, learned to overcome her fears, built a trusted team, successfully pitched a Silicon Valley ‘whale,’ then turned it all into a billion dollar company.
All by the age of 30!
Read on to learn how she did it, with five key ideas that you, too can implement to find success . . .
Idea #1: Go niche before you go wide
I call this idea launching into a “beachhead” market before going into broader markets. It takes patience knowing that you are not forsaking larger markets, only delay them.
As Ms. Perkins relates in an article written by Kathy Caprino in Forbes, “try out your idea by going niche before you go wide. We tested the idea for Canva with our first business, Fusion Books, which was the idea of Canva but for the very niche market of designing high school yearbooks in Australia. Once we’d learned a lot and proven the idea, we were ready to tackle a much larger problem—empowering everyone to design anything.”
Many entrepreneurs believe that to impress investors they must demonstrate a gigantic market along with a winning strategy to enter it broadly. But savvy investors know that few new companies have the bandwidth or capital resources to execute on such a broad strategy out of the gate. Investors do want to see that you know what the broad market is for your product or service, where that huge upside potential lies. But they’ll generally appreciate that your plan is to tackle one great niche first. I’m told by one of the bankers who were present when Jeff Bezos was first pitching Amazon that a major factor in their eventual backing was that Bezos realized that someday millions of people would buy millions of different products online, but that his plan was to prove it with books, then music.
Idea #2: The investor whale is surrounded by other whales and fish — even big ones
Ms. Perkins’ experience confirms what I have found with many successful startup stories, that a keystone investor will help find some or all of the other investors you need if you have a memorable message he/she can communicate easily.
How to properly pitch the whale (or any investor) is something I’ve written extensively about in this space. One tactic is to appear as the kind of person they are used to backing. For Melanie Perkins, just 22 years old, as well as being an outsider in Silicon Valley, fitting in was a perceived challenge. She says, in the article referenced above in Forbes, “I was really nervous and I felt out of my depth, trying to pitch Canva with a paper print out of our slide deck because I didn’t own an iPad, all the while eating lunch so I didn’t look stressed. [The investor] was on his phone the whole time and I thought he was completely uninterested. And then I got back to where I was staying and realized he’d been introducing me via email to his network, so it was quite the opposite!”
As I’ve repeatedly advised in this blog, a major part of what investors put on the line for you when they say “yes” is their reputation. Part of that is due to their habit of sharing the most memorable pitches they’ve heard with their colleagues. That’s how your pitch can go viral — in the right places. Sure, a million people might like you on Facebook, but when one key investor gets you the right ten “likes” with other investors, that will make a huge difference in your chances for funding.
Idea #3: Pitch as often as possible, to whoever will give you an ear
It may take 100+ pitches before you find your capital. You have to be able and willing to handle that, even though at Intelliversity we believe there are faster ways to that goal. Talk to me about the faster track. For now, here’s more about how Melanie did it.
Kate Stanton and Hywel Griffith, writing for the BBC, explaining that “It took Melanie three years before she got an investment from Silicon Valley. But in 2013 Canva was launched, backed by $3m, and with former Google executive Cameron Adams joining Melanie and her boyfriend Cliff as a co-founder. Melanie says it was worth the wait. ‘It was three years between first pitching to an investor and actually landing investment,” she says. “This is an incredibly long period of time, and we had hundreds of rejections along the way.”
Some say pitching is just a numbers game. Show up enough times, you’ll eventually get a “yes.” That may be true if you’re pitching vacuum cleaners door to door. But when pitching investors it is also a game of applied learning. Every pitch that ends in some form of “no” is an opportunity to hone your abilities. That’s where good mentoring can be vitally important. An experienced mentor (especially one who is or was an investor) can assess your pitch for weaknesses, assess your presentation (how you look, act, speak), offer meaningful feedback from the eyes of an investor. All those rejections are learning experiences, but they also serve two other important functions. First, they make you tougher — as in more resilient — quality investors love. Second, as Ms. Perkins related in the BBC article referenced above, “I think that process was really helpful for us because it meant that we had to refine our pitch, and really get our strategy down before we started. So when we landed that investment we were able to execute quite quickly and effectively.” There was a method to Melanie’s madness.
Idea #4: Know your place as CEO and stay in it
Ms. Perkins followed the path I’ve advised repeatedly in this blog: 1) The Founder/Vision Master should remain in the CEO role (in most cases); 2) He or she must have a trusted COO or President/Execution Master, and 3) He or she must learn to trust that COO or president enough to delegate a great deal to that officer.
As the authors of the BBC article referenced above report, “Melanie remains in the main chief executive role, and Cliff [Obrecht]- who is still her boyfriend – is the chief operating officer. The couple also still own Fusion Books but have appointed a team of managers to run that business. The authors then relate the wisdom of Ms. Danielle Logue, an associate professor at Sydney’s UTS Business School. Ms. Logue believes that the ability (I would also say the willingness) to delegate is of crucial importance to young senior executives. Ms. Logue says that ‘having the right people in, recruiting the right people [is crucial], because you can’t have bottlenecks in decision making, and having it all left up to the founder to make these decisions.’ This is part of developing the trusted relationship that has consistently proven successful between the Vision Masters and Execution Masters of young companies that succeed massively.
Idea #5: Hold fast to your grandest vision
We’ve seen this pattern before, where Vision Masters see their company in the future as much larger than they are currently, much larger than in fact their own business plan calls for. This is the “Vision” part of “Vision Master.” If I’m any indication, investors like knowing there’s a big vision, a “stretch” vision, along with the more limited goals in a “realistic” pitch deck.
Ms. Perkins encapsulates this notion perfectly in an article by Yolanda Redrup in Financial Review. “At each stage of Canva we have to think 10 to 100 times bigger than we are,” Perkins says. “That was a fact when there was only a few of us, and it’s still the same today. Our dreams are much bigger than the size of the company we are.” The ability to hold to the grand vision, while working with your trusted associates (e.g., Execution Master, Board, Mentors) to accomplish each step on the journey to the grand vision is the essence of vision mastery. Your job is to embody the grand vision, communicate it to the team, then delegate the execution to trusted associates. That’s how Melanie Perkins did it — the perfect design for business success.
- Drive + Vision can trump experience or the perfect resume when it comes to getting capital
- Even perceived weaknesses can be turned into strengths — often with the help of trusted mentors
- Melanie Perkins had little experience, little capital, was a Silicon outsider, but held to her vision
- She built Canva into a global powerhouse with a trusted Execution Master and one whale investor
- You can do the same, no matter where you find yourself or your company today.
- The five guidelines that led Ms. Perkins to success can lead you there, too.