Guy Kawasaki Aims to Democratize Design Through Aussie Startup Canva

4/16/14Follow @wroush

Guy Kawasaki was once chief evangelist at Apple, the firm that redefined personal computing in the 1980s and 1990s and went on to become the world’s most valuable company. More recently, he went to work for Google, helping to promote the company’s Motorola hardware division (which has since been sold to Lenovo).

So what’s the Silicon Valley celebrity doing joining a 20-employee startup in Sydney, Australia, that few people in America have yet heard of?

If you know Kawasaki or have followed his post-Apple career as an author, speaker, startup guru, and product evangelist, his new role at Canva will actually make perfect sense.

Canva makes free graphic design software that runs inside a Web browser and is intended to be extremely easy for non-designers and non-artists to use. That’s in contrast to costly brand-name software like Adobe’s CS6 design suite, which is so complex that there are more than 100 courses devoted to explaining it on the training site Lynda.com.

“I am into democratization,” Kawasaki says. “I think Apple democratized computers and Google democratized information, and now Canva is democratizing design.”

Kawasaki isn’t moving to Sydney. But he is a full-time employee of Canva, which is backed by $3 million in seed funding from U.S. and Australian investors, and he says his job will be “to bring the goodness of Canva” to the world through his speeches and social media activity. He’ll also be opening up his Rolodex to the company to help with business development in North America.

“I am going to resurrect the title chief evangelist,” he says. The last time he actually held that title was at Apple, back in 1987.

At Apple, Kawasaki helped launch the Macintosh, then went on to careers in database and e-mail software, venture investing, and Web publishing. In recent years, Kawasaki has stayed on the public stage through his writing, including his 2013 self-publishing bible APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, and his 2011 book Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions (which we reviewed here).

He also served what he calls “a one-year tour of duty” at Motorola, where his job was to use Google+ and other channels to mobilize a community of fans around the Moto X. The company promoted the customizable phone as the first Motorola phone developed under Google’s full supervision.

Kawasaki decided to leave Google after CEO Larry Page sold Motorola to Beijing-based Lenovo for $2.9 billion, saying he wanted Google to focus on its Android operating system rather than try to compete in the mobile hardware business. “Lenovo buying it has put everything up in the air, and not everything has fallen back down yet,” Kawasaki says. “I decided not to learn Mandarin.”

Guy Kawasaki with Canva co-founders Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht.

Guy Kawasaki with Canva co-founders Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht.

Kawasaki says he was introduced to Canva by Peg Fitzpatrick, a New Hampshire-based social media marketing strategist who helped to promote APE. “I used it to make a few graphics for blog posts, and out of the blue, they wrote and said, ‘Hey, we noticed that you’re a user. We’d love to tell you more.’ The rest is history.”

Borrowing from the playbook of his old friend and mentor Steve Jobs, Kawasaki describes Canva as an “amazingly simple” design tool that’s intended to “empower the rest of us” to create digital graphics—meaning, for example, freelancers or small business owners who need to produce Web art, ads, business cards, or presentations. With a simple drag-and-drop interface and a library of templates and stock art, users can build simple graphics in minutes, and publish them as PNG files that can be shared on blogs, Facebook pages, Pinterest pinboards, and the like.

The company is an outgrowth of Fusion Books, a school yearbook publisher based in Australia. While teaching design at the University of Western Australia, says Kawasaki, Fusion co-founder Melanie Perkins had noticed “how much trouble people had with the high-end tools” like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe InDesign.

That led to the creation of Canva, which unveiled a beta version of its design platform in April 2013. The company has won backing from a slew of Silicon Valley investors, including 500 Startups’ Dave McClure, former Shutterfly CEO Dave Bagshaw, Mint.com chief technology officer Jean Sini, and Charles River Ventures partner Bill Tai.

“I think to be successful at social media, you have to have graphics,” Kawasaki argues. Yet it’s often “very hard to figure out what graphic to use” with a blog post or a status update. Most art on the Internet is protected by copyright; stock images can be cliché; and hiring a designer can be slow and expensive, even through a crowdsourcing platform such as 99designs.

“Let’s suppose you’re writing a blog post about ‘The Five Factors for Success in Silicon Valley,’” Kawasaki says. “Yes, you could go find a picture of Google headquarters, or you could type ‘success’ into a stock photo site and find the stereotypical picture of one black woman, one Chinese guy, and one white guy staring into a computer screen. In Canva, you would click on the icon for social media, you would instantly search over 100 templates and pick one, and make a headline that says ‘Five Success Secrets for Silicon Valley,’ and it would give you a PNG. The whole thing would take under a minute.”

Canva has 330,000 registered users who are creating 100,000 new designs per week, according to Kawasaki. The site is completely free to use, unless you incorporate images from Canva’s library of stock images and illustrations, which cost $1 each. But “you could go a long time in Canva without ever encountering a graphic that you have to pay for,” Kawasaki says.

Down the road, the company may charge for premium features, such as the ability to remove the Canva logo from the finished image. “The philosophy right now is, let’s get critical mass,” Kawasaki says. “If we get critical mass, trust me, we will figure out the business model.”

Kawasaki says Canva isn’t out to destroy Adobe or other makers of graphic design tools, but rather to open up graphic design to “people who never would have been designers.”

His own reasons for putting his considerable clout behind the little-known startup?

“It’s 80 percent that I like the product,” he says. And the other 20 percent, he says, is the fact that Canva is run by “young people untainted by Silicon Valley jadedness.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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