Canva makes it easy to create professional designs. It used to be that if you wanted to create custom but great-looking design assets, you needed to hire a designer. Now, its template-based software has made design accessible to all. The result has been exponential growth. Since its launch in 2013, it now has over 130M monthly active users from 190 countries, and they’ve collectively created over 13 billion designs .
Community has played a key role in this growth. Canva super users love to create and share educational materials around the platform, and its community programs accelerate this core growth loop.
In this deep dive, we unpack exactly how community drives growth at Canva, the programs they use to achieve this, and how it serves a truly global audience.
✔️ Origin Story: How Canva and the Design Circle community got started.
✔️ Key Growth Strategies: How its programs work alongside its core growth drivers to fuel rapid growth.
✔️ Going Global: How they use community to tap into local markets on a global scale.
✔️ Return on Community: What value they create for members and how that helps Canva’s business.
Here we go 🥽
The idea for Canva hails back to 2007. While studying at the University of Western Australia, Melanie Perkins taught other students design tools, like InDesign and Photoshop . She soon became frustrated with how difficult such software was to use . She wanted to make design software simple and collaborative by default and started to form a vision for the future of publishing. However, as Melanie says, “taking on some of the biggest companies in the world didn’t really seem like a very logical thing to do… so instead, I decided to apply this concept to school yearbooks and let students and teachers in Australia easily design and print their own” .
Together with boyfriend Cliff Obrecht, they formed Fusion Books, working out of Melanie’s mum’s living room, initially as a side project, working on it during evenings and weekends. But this humble beginning became the springboard for what would later become Canva.
Over five years, Fusion Books became the largest yearbook company in Australia and spread into France and New Zealand, too .
They were then joined by Cameron Adams who became the third co-founder, and his Silicon Valley credibility gave them what they needed to raise venture capital .
Meanwhile, they had begun work on the product which put a template gallery at its center, making it easy to get started designing, and far less intimidating than the blank page in traditional design software . This is important because user testing showed them that nailing the features of the product was only part of the work, they needed to give users the confidence to create too .
“It became quickly apparent that it was not just the tools themselves that were preventing people from creating great designs, but also people’s own belief that they can’t design.”
They delayed their launch by over a year, tackling this issue by perfecting an onboarding experience that focused on a user’s emotional journey and squashing their insecurities along the way .
Eventually, they were ready and the first version of Canva launched in 2013.
With a few high-profile investors on board, they got some early press and amassed 50k people to its waitlist . Alongside the product, they launched a series of free interactive design tutorials that people could use to learn basic design skills. This focus on education has been a consistent aspect of their go-to-market ever since, leading with providing value rather than trying to sell.
7 months out, 1.5M designs had been created on the platform .
“People were tweeting about Canva like crazy, they starting blogging about Canva, even creating their own Canva tutorials and workshops.” 
And they just kept on growing. By October 2014, 1 million users had shared their Canva-designed images on social media, blogs, and via email. That reached 4M by August 2015. By 2017 they had also gained some 294,000 paying customers and reached profitability .
Canva is a mass-market tool. Anyone from small businesses to students and teachers, individual creators, and Fortune 500 organizations can get value from it . But to get started, Zach Kitschke, an early hire and current CMO, says they identified a group of people that had a really frequent use case for visual content: “social media marketers and content creators… so we really started to zero in on that community” .
They zeroed in by nailing the product experience for common use cases, like creating social media posts and graphics for Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook. They created templates that made it easy to get started and began blogging about social media topics and trends, as well as going to conferences and events in that space .
Focusing on that use case led to virality - within a team, one user would refer their colleagues to create assets together, and then once published, it drove word of mouth as people would see a great graphic on social media and would ask what they used to make it. This became their core growth engine.
“Much of our growth has come through word of mouth and our users sharing about us.” 
This was the catalyst Guy Kawasaki jumped on after joining Canva in 2014. Guy is best known for his pivotal role as Chief Evangelist of Apple in the nineties . The quintessential hype man, his joining was not only a huge endorsement for what Canva was building, but he helped triple their users in two months. By tweeting about Canva to his network of millions, he helped spread the word among an influential circle of founders, executives, and investors and landed a bunch of press coverage along the way .
The pace of growth never let up. Now Canva is valued at $40 billion USD  and has raised more than $572M . They still have big ambitions though - they’re looking to grow from 130M users now to 1 billion by 2026 .
By starting small with Fusion Books before going broad with Canva, they formed a solid understanding of customer pain points, which led them to create an exceptional product experience. This combined with a generous free plan has enabled the quick growth of the product. But another key reason for their incredible growth is that everyone is focused on it. As Melanie highlights , “everyone is either working on long-term growth initiatives or shorter-term optimizations,” and their community team is no exception. Community at Canva takes the core word-of-mouth growth loop and takes it to the next level.
First formed in 2016, the Canva Community is now comprised of over 850,000 members with 150+ Canvassadors or Canva super-users . As Cameron explains :
“Investing the time and resources into building a community around Canva has been immensely valuable… We have facilitated this through online communities like Canva Design Circle to hosting workshops for nonprofits… and tailored teacher and student programs to growing our education communities.”
Around 80% of their activities happen online  and their efforts focus on seven core programs:
While this is now an extensive program, they initially got started with community for product feedback and development.
“Building a good product or service is not a one-and-done effort. You need to be constantly listening to your community and coming up with new, imaginative ways of evolving your product or service to meet their needs (and defy their expectations)”
That quote comes from Cameron , Canva’s CPO, and it’s something they’ve internalized. They partnered with the community early on to help build the product, initially leading individuals through design workshops, and then later doing the same with larger organizations too, when they built out their Teams product . Zach says this was “such an incredible way to get early feedback on the product” , and so they’ve kept at it :
“We're a community-led company. That goes back really to those very early days when we were running those design workshops with people prior to launch… Over time the scale that we're at has evolved, but we've hung on to a lot of those practices.”
They source product improvement requests from members and are sure to deliver on some of the most requested features. The other benefit to Canva is that when they give members early access to upcoming features, this helps members create new content, courses, and tutorials, which furthers Canva’s own product marketing efforts .
Community is the fuel that powers their word-of-mouth growth engine. Zach says :
“Most of our traffic comes from people literally telling others about the platform… there are literally thousands of small business owners sharing tips and tricks. There are social media marketers producing tutorial content on TikTok and YouTube. There are teachers swapping Canva lesson plans and we have this incredible community that is really growing around the world.”
This community of advocates started organically but is something that Canva has tried to support and foster through its programs, primarily by encouraging content creation. These consumer education materials not only help grow Canva Pro sales but that of its Teams product too. Through a B2C2B mechanism of bottom-up adoption, people see and begin using Canva at home and then want to use those tools while at work .
The Canva Teachers program, for example, is now one of their largest programs. Zach describes how “literally hundreds of thousands of teachers connect and share with one another, sharing things like their lesson plans, tips, and tricks in Canva, how they've decked out their classroom” .
Community members not only share creations on social media, but they’re creating and sharing templates within the product too. This growing library of templates makes Canva easier to use for everyone. Templates are so important that Canva provides financial incentives for creators to make more of them. Their Canva Creators program, for instance, enables people to publish and earn a commission from templates on Canva. Creators earn 35% from each sale of their assets and Canva paid out $27.6M in royalties for these in 2021, which was up 3x from the previous year .
They also had an affiliates program which had at its peak over 9,000 partners . As part of this, partners could earn a one-off commission of up to $36 for every new Canva Pro subscriber they referred . In the past, Canva worked with all kinds of organizations on this, including design agencies and media publishers. However, recently, they shifted the focus and qualification requirements to individual creators . Specifically, social media content creators, workshop facilitators, webinar and podcast hosts, and course developers with 5k or more followers on a target platform . Affiliates were supported through the Canva Champions program, a private Facebook group that helped to support affiliates and nurture advocates. Affiliates were also supported by a dedicated community manager with onboarding, training on the affiliate platform, and tips on creating content that converts. The strategy overall seems to be working well. Monica Silvestre, Head of Community at Canva, sees such advocacy programs as the way forward :
“It’s frankly the future of community building. I'm a true believer in… extending your network through your strongest advocates.”
For creators, these commissions can add up. Some members with large followings are now able to earn a living from their affiliate fees and royalties . Many such members are one of the only 50 current Canva Verified Experts. These are its top affiliates, content creators, and educators cherry-picked from one of their other programs. Members of this annual group get an exclusive badge they can add to their content assets, as well as early access to upcoming features, they’re included in beta tests, receive swag, and can connect in a private Slack channel. However, they sunset its traditional affiliate program in July and replaced it with the Empower Canvassador program in September, which still includes affiliate perks . The economics of making an affiliate program work is a balancing act between its benefit to the company while covering fees to the affiliate, the affiliate platform, and the internal staff cost to manage and run it.
Empower is a program within its larger super user or ambassador program, called Canvassadors. Canvassadors are volunteer leaders in Canva’s communities that inspire, educate, and connect the community. They share their deep expertise or knowledge of Canva with others by sharing tips and tutorials, answering questions on their Facebook Group pages, or by running events.
Country Community Manager for Germany, Cèline Riemenschneider, says it’s useful to have an Ambassador program to help scale your community efforts :
”There's only 24 hours in a day, but sometimes it's nice to have two or three more helping hands… I know that they can definitely answer questions from newer creators.”
In return, Monica says the job of the community manager then is to ask themselves, “What can I do that feels above and beyond for this group of people that makes it so that they're excited to continue promoting?”
For Canva, they’re incentivized with a Canvassador badge, they get free access to Canva Pro and receive exclusive event invites and early product previews before they roll out. They’re also invited to a private chat where they can connect with other Canvassadors and have direct access to Canva Community Managers. That private chat was initially on Telegram when they first started, however, this moved to Slack so they could have different channels for topics, and structure the community better . This moved again in a recent shake-up that centralized the program, and as part of that, they moved to Discord so they could have country-specific channels too . The program runs on an annual basis, with ambassadors having to earn their spot each year. Monica advises this approach, explaining that “you need to have engaged people and the more disengaged people you have the weaker it makes that community…. making sure that it's an annual program is a win-win for both sides” as it helps ensure high engagement .
“If you have a strong network of bought-in brand-aligned ambassadors… they become your biggest ally. And they will help you extend further into the community.”
Canva’s massive growth and scale bring with it several challenges. At launch, Canva was English-only, but now over 80% of Canva use is in a language other than English . Markets like Brazil and India are now some of its most significant. International expansion is a key way it intends to hit its 1 billion user goal, and they’ve invested significant resources in localizing not just the product but all of its customer-facing materials and has even created country teams to enable this.
Monica says that “it's the next frontier for Canva… making sure that we feel like a truly local product in all of these markets” and so the mission for the community team is to support that local footprint .
However, ‘feeling local’ means more than translation, as Cameron describes :
“How we think about expanding into new global markets is by building hyperlocal products — ones that are not only available in different languages but have culturally relevant and engaging features and content libraries that feel truly local.”
So that means things like, if someone searches for “family” in Canva, they shouldn’t just see pictures of Caucasian families. It can also mean geo-specific tweaks, like when someone in the Middle East searches for “city center,” they should see images of a Middle Eastern city and not New York .
As Rachel Carruthers, who led Canva’s internationalization and localization efforts, explains, Canva’s approach goes beyond pure necessities :
“Our top 10 languages actually account for around 90% of our non-EN user base… Most localization industry veterans agree that there is probably a sound business case for localizing a product into maybe 30 locales… but the vision for localization at Canva was born from an ethos of inclusivity… not only user bases that we think we can successfully monetize.”
As a result, their language support is much more extensive. They launched in Spanish in 2016, then in 20 more languages. In 2017, they added 100 more languages. In 2018, they took on more complex languages, such as right-to-left languages like Arabic, Hebrew, and Urdu .
This isn’t charity, though, it’s part of a long-term growth plan. As Cameron explains, supporting more languages “creates a really powerful network effect where word-of-mouth and social sharing are some of our largest growth drivers, helping us build a strong community of Canva advocates across the globe” .
For its community team then, this strategy means their focus isn’t just to encourage content creation, but to do so in each local market. Cèline explains how this works :
“We're trying to localize the product to be able to serve our customers in their own local language… we're trying to enable creators to be able to add their wonderful, beautiful designs to the Canva library in their local language, too.”
This isn’t a problem you can just throw AI at. They use machine translation to get 80% of the way for things like metadata, which isn’t user-facing. But for marketing and product content, they never use it as there’s too much nuance .
Design communities in every country have different behaviors when it comes to using products for their own personal and business needs . Also, as Jesse James Walker from Canva’s localization team shares, “we think it’s important that we get our playful, casual voice across to our users, regardless of the language they speak, while still sounding respectful and culturally sensitive” .
The preferred tone of voice can vary by nation, ranging from spontaneous and expressive to formal and exalted . And nowhere is it more important to nail such details, than when it comes to community. If you want to build real, authentic relationships, getting communication right is a necessity. That’s why they’ve invested in a country-specific community management approach. In addition to their core global community team, they now have community leaders in a growing number of countries. This includes Argentina, Brazil, Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, Philippines, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, and others. In some of their larger markets, they have multiple community managers.
Where to hire is of course an important aspect of this approach. Monica does this at Canva by running local programs and then “what should happen is we'll see a surge in people wanting to join the program. And that will help me dictate where I need to hire” .
“Find the demand first and then amplify on it, build on it.”
Much of what their country community managers do is transcreation. They’ll take source copy, assets, or a campaign from the global team and then adapt it to their target audience's cultural norms and experiences, generating new messaging that better fits the local community . Rachel describes how “adapting marketing materials to meet cultural expectations has helped us at Canva to better connect with our community” .
If you’re not able to build out country teams, then Monica recommends “spending time in these countries, making sure that you understand the cultural nuances of each market… If you can't empathize because taxes in Brazil are really a huge pain in the butt. Or other things like political conflict and things like that. If you can't empathize or relate or understand, it becomes very difficult to manage an international team” .
The benefits of their country-specific approach to community management go beyond language and culture to logistics too. Monica points out that “payments can be tricky” especially in certain countries. For example, “people love swag, people want swag, but it's almost impossible to get it into Brazil or even Turkey” and while there are some international drop-shipping solutions, you then have to buy items in bulk across markets, whereas it can be much simpler to work with local suppliers .
The country teams are managed by a central global team in a hub and spoke model. Monica says, “What I've learned is the best formula for international expansion is to have a really strong central unit with resources” .
What that looks like for Canva is key elements like onboarding and lifecycle messaging running from their central CRM platform, but localized to the relevant languages. They also have a core set of materials localized to support their teams. This frees up country teams to focus on outreach and community building, reaching influential creators to create materials and templates. To keep everyone aligned, Monica highlights that “dashboards are really important… It's really crucial that the local teams can get a sense of how they're doing against what the goals are“ .
Until recently this core community team reported to the Head of Content and Discovery, and then up to the COO, Cliff. However, there are other community teams and roles in both marketing and product teams too.
The Social, Content & Community team in marketing apply community insights and best practices to their social strategy. Jacky Barker, Social Lead at Canva, says that an important part of that strategy is the “one-on-one interaction piece, not just the content that we're putting out there, but how does someone feel when they come to talk to us” .
“We've always done really engaging one-on-one interaction. So if they come to us on Twitter, we might do a gamified graphic. We just surprise and delight by sending them swag. We are always wanting to make our community feel really valued when they come to us.”
This extends to other marketing communications, too. Zach says “What we're trying to do is elevate and celebrate our community and the things that they're achieving,” so when it came to launching their first brand campaigns for Canva, on TV and billboards, the campaigns centered around three stories of real Canva community members .
What’s more, through their community efforts they amass a lot of valuable data and feedback, and they not only use this to inform what they release in the product, but to also inform their content strategy. After all, if someone flags a difficult-to-use part of the product, that’s something they can fix, but it’s also an opportunity to educate their user base about it. Jacky says that they frame their “social strategy by paying attention to the community, not just the Canva brand, but really what the community needs and what's on their minds” .
Another area where community plays a role is within the ecosystem product team. They’re focused on growing an active community of developers and app partners through developer advocacy. Their work includes providing engagement opportunities and driving discussions around the Canva App Marketplace.
This year, they launched Canva Extend, its inaugural developer conference in San Francisco. During that event, they announced the establishment of a $50 million Canva Developers Innovation Fund . The fund provides financial grants alongside expert guidance to support app developers in building, growing, and marketing their apps on the Canva App Marketplace.
Canva’s Head of Ecosystem, Anwar Haneef, says “The fund is intended to be agile, so we can evaluate our users’ needs and the needs of our community and use it to build the most sustainable ecosystem possible” . The Canva Developers Community provides direct access to other devs and the Canva product team to help in building apps for the platform.
They also run a conference for end-users too, called Canva Create. The last one ran in March this year and was live-streamed to a massive 1.5M registrants. Zach says that “experiential has been a really exciting frontier for us… we had over one and a half million people tune in, so the strength of our community really shone through there” .
Growth at Canva has been like the proverbial rocket ship. It’s fuelled by an authentic, global community that creates content to help people get the most out of Canva. By accelerating this natural growth loop, I can’t see the rocket ship slowing down any time soon.
There you go! That’s how community growth works at Canva. Check out the sources below for more details. If you found this newsletter useful, please share it with friends and colleagues. And if you haven’t already, subscribe below. ✌️