Cliff Obrecht talks Canva, start-ups and the road to success

22/11/2022 | 3 mins

Cliff Obrecht is one-third of the founding team behind the Canva, the ubiquitous design and communication platform which is used worldwide and is widely considered Australia’s most successful start-up to date. 

Born and raised in Perth, Western Australia, Cliff graduated from The University of Western Australia with an Arts and Education Degree, which he credits as helping him on his journey through the start-up business world and has become part of the company’s ethos.

“Education is something we really care about and we’re always trying to find new ways to help students and teachers get creative through our product, whether that’s giving all schools and districts free access to Canva or creating education templates for teachers and students," Cliff said.

"So far there are 30 million students and teachers using Canva, which we’re really proud about.”

Cliff Obrecht, COO of Canva

Image: Cliff Obrecht is COO and co-founder of Canva.

Alongside co-founders Melanie Perkins, his partner and fellow Perth local, and Cameron Adams, a developer from Tasmania, Cliff has overseen the rapid growth of Canva and acts now as its Chief Operating Officer, a role which he says is “a bit of everything”, and is focused on finding the path forward for the company.

The challenge is familiar to Cliff, who, alongside Melanie, co-founded Canva's predecessor, Fusion Books. 

Targeting the yearbook market, Fusion Books was a small start-up which eventually grew into the largest yearbook company in Australia and New Zealand, and acted as a proof-of-concept for the duo, who knew there was room for a design tool like Canva.

“We really believed that everyone should have the ability to design and visually communicate their ideas."

"At the time, design software was far too complex and expensive for most people," Cliff said. "We knew design was becoming an important skill and that there was a huge gap in the market for design tools that were both simple, affordable and powerful.”

The road to success, however, would still be difficult, as Canva struggled to engage investors in its vision for accessible design and communication tools, as the fledgling company looked for a foothold in the global start-up world.

“In the early days, our biggest challenge was finding funding and convincing investors of our idea," Cliff said.

"The start-up ecosystem in Australia was nowhere near what it has become today, so we spent a lot of time in San Francisco meeting with hundreds of investors to find people who believed in the idea. 

"At the time, many investors didn’t want to do overseas deals and we were trying to find a technical team to help build the product. We eventually found some great technical hires and raised some initial funding, but it wasn’t easy.”

Today, the company’s challenges and barriers are more related to its scale, as it expands its already 3,000 strong workforce and moves onto rolling out its newly announced Canva Visual Worksuite, alongside a new creator program and developer marketplace. 

Reflecting on his journey from a graduate with a big idea to COO, Cliff encouraged other young creatives and entrepreneurs to get involved and embrace the “just go for it” mentality.

“The world is moving too fast to sit on the fence or wait for someone else to do it," Cliff said.

"The start-up environment in Australia is a great place for ideas to grow, even in Perth, and you’ll regret not finding out what could’ve been if you don’t give it a shot!"


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