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Canva - taking digital visual design 'wall-to-wall inside the enterprise'

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright May 26, 2023
DIY design tool Canva has a plan to put visual communications in the hands of every worker across the enterprise. We spoke to the co-founders, in London this week to open its European office.

Cameron Adams, Duncan Clark, Canva 2023-05 @philww
Cameron Adams, Duncan Clark, Canva (@philww)

Email, word processing and video conferencing have all become ubiquitous communication tools in the world of work, but visual design has never achieved mass adoption, remaining in the hands of professional users and their hard-to-use specialist tools. That could all be about to change if the co-founders of fast-growing DIY visual design tool Canva have their way. Its explosive viral adoption among freelancers, small businesses and social media influencers is now spreading into the enterprise, and that's all part of the plan. Cameron Adams, Chief Product Officer and one of the founding trio alongside CEO Melanie Perkins and COO Cliff Obrecht, explains:

One of the innovations that we launched ten years ago was that we took this incredibly complicated process and made it simple enough for 100% of the world to access design, as opposed to 1% of the world. So I think we view ourselves as really creating that category of digital communications for everyone.

The goal is to put visual communications — imagery, design, video, data visualization and more — into the hands of every knowledge worker, supported by design teams but without the resource bottlenecks that have historically prevented widespread use of visual design. Adams elaborates:

We're taking design wall-to-wall inside the enterprise. Rather than it just being that one design team within organizations, we want that design team to work together with all the people who are in the enterprise — and we're seeing it.

Enterprise acceleration

The ten-year-old company now has 135 million monthly active users, it has been profitable for the past six years, and just this week it surpassed $1.5 billion in annualized revenue. But it's only in the past year that it has started to rapidly expand its footprint in the enterprise market, doubling the number of team users to 6 million out of the 14 million total paid users. Much of that acceleration is attributable to the launch of Canva Visual Worksuite last year which added the ability to collaborate on digital documents, whiteboards, single-page websites and print alongside the core design functions, presentations, social media and video. That release also brought updates to the teams functionality, such as template permissioning and team reporting, and also saw the launch of an apps marketplace and the Canva API.

Then in March this year the company added a Brand Hub, providing new capabilities to manage design guidelines and controls across an organization's use of Canva, including approval workflows. Also notable were new AI enhancements including a video background remover and various tools that use AI to automatically generate designs, make edits or write copy, suggest images and layouts, sync soundtracks to video, or translate content.

The co-founders were in London this week to celebrate the opening of its European office in Hoxton Square, part of London's 'Silicon Roundabout' district, along with the launch of new interactive data visualization capabilities, which build on last year's acquisition of London-based Flourish, whose co-founder Duncan Clark now becomes Canva’s European Lead. The first Flourish visualizations roll out as Canva-native capabilities this week with the introduction of hierarchical treemap and packed circle charts. Its highly popular racing bar charts are set to follow by the end of the year.

Customers that the co-founders have been meeting during their visit illustrate the strides Canva is making in the enterprise market. Adams says:

We've visited companies like LEGO, we've visited agencies like WPP, who just signed a big deal with us, we visited agencies like Initiative inside IPG. When they see what Canva is capable of, they just get so excited at the possibility. Because they're thinking in terms of static PDFs, static slide decks that they email around, and when they see Canva working in the cloud, with full-motion graphics, video that you can drop in, a hundred million pieces of content that you can drag it to complete their design, they just get wildly excited about it ...

You actually have people inside the company pitching other people inside the company on Canva, 15 minutes after seeing it. It does really unlock something that people haven't been able to access before, and when they realize that they can do it, they realize the potential of it — potential to engage their customers, to create more pitches, to express their ideas, to get their teammates on board, and collaborate much quicker and much more effectively.

What we're seeing is that once you have one person inside an enterprise using Canva, that is just the beachhead that enables it to spread virally within the organization.

Sales teams often become that beachhead. He goes on:

Some of our biggest ambassadors are sales teams who pick up Canva because it's a fantastic way to communicate to their sales leads. One or two people on the sales team'll start using it, quickly the whole sales team is using it, that gets the attention of the brand team inside the enterprise. That brand team is like, 'What's going on here? How do we work with the sales team to produce the right content?'

They come and have a conversation with us and then we demo to them our Canva for teams product, which allows design teams inside enterprises to control the brand for someone. So still give the wider team the freedom and the creativity to create their own content, but make sure that they use the right logo, use the right colors, use the right fonts. They can also supply them with templates as well.

Extending design to everyone

The goal is not to do professional designers out of a job, but instead to extend the power of design to everyone in the organization with the support of the design team. He says:

Democratizing design allows non-designers to have better conversations with graphic designers and allows people to realize their ideas much quicker, and with much better quality.

Canva added collaboration capabilities in 2019, and it was the onset of the pandemic that first spurred take-up. This was a time when creating more compelling communications suddenly took on a new priority and helped put Canva on the map for business teams. He goes on:

We now have enterprises with 2,000 people using Canva. We're seeing teams of hundreds of people working very closely together inside Canva. And that's where we see the next phase of Canva's growth is, really in those massive teams. We actually have I think it's over 50,000 teams now in enterprises — companies larger than 500 people. We've got 14 million paid subscribers, 6 million of those are paid seats in teams. So we're already seeing a massive part of Canva's user base being people using it with their colleagues inside large enterprises.

That emphasis on collaboration means that Canva increasingly has to connect into other digital teamwork tools that enterprises use. The company has put a lot of focus over the past few years on making it possible to move content in and out of Canva, says Adams. Content can come in from CMS systems, DAMs, Google Drive, Microsoft SharePoint, or as PowerPoint files. PDFs are editable within Canva. Recent app integrations include Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Photos, Google Drive, Dropbox and Bynder. He elaborates:

Sometimes you just have to deal with those systems. You can't escape them. So you can export your content out of Canva. You can save it up to places like Google Drive, you can export it as a PDF, obviously, Powerpoint file, there's a whole host of different formats. Stuff like Zoom, we have an integration for that coming out. You'll be able to run your presentations from Zoom.

Many of the integrations will be showcased at the upcoming developer conference next month in San Francisco and online, which will act as the season finale of the current world tour. Many ISVs use Canva as a platform and have built capabilities on top of it, says Adams, including DAMs and content systems, image effect plug-ins, AI video presenters, and so on.

As the product's functionality expands, there's an ongoing challenge to keep it simple for new users at the same time as enabling more and more sophisticated capabilities. Canva remains committed to a product-led growth strategy, which means it has to continue to ensure new users can pick it up and get started straight away. He says:

We have a couple of product principles, one of which is that beginners become experts. So a beginner has a different experience to an expert, and they need to do different things. Our product needs to adapt to that. It needs to give them the simplicity upfront, but the richness behind that, so they continue their design journey, continue creating amazing content. Lots of our product processes internally are geared towards making sure that we're constantly monitoring that and building the product that everyone needs at every stage of their journey through using Canva.

My take

Canva's trajectory to date reminds me of several other technology rocketships that started out as a scrappy startup filling an unmet need, and suddenly transformed into a mainstream icon. Originating in Australia helps Canva fly under the radar to some extent, but don't be fooled by the founding team's laid-back Aussie demeanor. There's a steely drive behind their stated two-step plan, the second of which is "to do the most good we can." The first step is simply, "become one of the world's most valuable companies." So far, they have executed relentlessly.

That doesn't mean there aren't roadblocks ahead to navigate. It's not easy for a mass market company to make inroads with enterprise buyers, as the likes of Google and Dropbox can attest from bitter experience. Entering into the digital teamwork space has challenges of its own, as compatriot Atlassian can bear witness. Integration is a particularly big challenge, with enterprises keen to consolidate rather than extend the applications that make up their collaborative canvas.

Nevertheless, I'm drawn to the core mission of expanding the reach of visual communication. Connected digital technology is already turning former enterprise functional silos of operation into centers of excellence that provide support to business users in their everyday work. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of IT, where no-code and low-code tools are turning business users into application developers, supported by their IT colleagues. It makes sense that visual design should use the same democratizing technology, and it's also interesting to see the role that AI is playing in easing that path. Canva is to graphic design what no-code tools are becoming to application development — an AI-augmented means of bringing hitherto scarce capabilities to everyone.

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