5 Lessons I Learned From Starting My Own Business

From the ground-up, check out how one startup built momentum, a team, and tough skin against the naysayers.

Building a startup takes a long time: it’s been seven years since I first came up with the idea for my startup, a graphic design program Canva.

At the time I was teaching design at university and realized that design was going to be completely different in the future. It would be online, collaborative, and simple.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about running a business, from hiring our first staff member to building a product that people love. Here are five of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past few years:

1. SOLVE A REAL PROBLEM

The most important thing for a startup is to solve a real problem.

Find something that is truly significant—a problem faced by lots of people. With Canva, the problem was that creating engaging, professional looking graphic design was incredibly difficult unless you had expensive software and spent years studying.

2. START SOMEWHERE

There’s no way I would be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t taken that first step seven years ago.

As university students, my cofounder Cliff Obrecht and I sat down and mapped out a plan for our first company, online yearbook generator Fusion Books. We borrowed some money from family and found a contractor who agreed to build the first version of our platform. We were naive and didn’t know what a startup was or even who VCs were, but that didn’t stop us.

The first step is to start. The road will become clearer as you go.

3. FOCUS ON THE TEAM

Building a team of great people who believe in your vision is essential to building a great company.

Prior to finding our tech cofounder, Cameron Adams, both Cliff and I spent months meeting every engineer we could, going to conferences, hackathons—anything and everything. We eventually found Cameron.

It’s happened time and time again. Our tech lead, David Hearnden, was working at Google when we first met each other. Almost a year later he joined our team. It took a very long time to build our team, but we now have some of the best people in the world.

4. DON’T LISTEN TO NAYSAYERS

There are people who will tell you your idea is too big, or you’re too young, or you don’t have the right skills. Ignore them. Solve a big problem that you care about. If you have the vision and drive to make it happen, then keep plugging away. Starting a company is a long journey. No one cares about your idea unless you can show them why you do.

5. BUILD MOMENTUM

Whether it’s with investors, press, or customers, you need to create buzz around what you’re doing.

We became a trending startup on startup networking platform AngelList when we raised our seed round simply by asking investors who had supported us to write testimonials and endorse us.

It’s the same with press. Each new news story helps drive excitement and interest in what you’re doing.

Melanie Perkins is CEO of Canva, which has grown to 400,000 users and has generated more than 2 million designs since its launch eight moths ago. In addition to being a passionate entrepreneur, Melanie is an avid traveler and has backpacked around the world. Connect with Melanie on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user photophilde]

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7 Comments

  • sarahlynn32950

    I really like these lessons. Very nicely written and useful article. I especially like the first point you make about solving a real problem. On that subject there is a great book recently publish by David Silverstein that I highly recommend. One Dot, Two Dots, Get Some New Dots is a fantastic resource for learning problem solving techniques through gathering information (dots). http://www.davesdots.com/

  • Solve a real problem, that's really the key. Then to have the persistence to tell the story over and over to those that have the problem, and in many cases don't yet know it. Even when presented with empirical evidence that clearly suggest change will do them good, apathy and reticence still often reign. This is when you cannot be shaken, cannot back off, but need to plow ahead through those naysayers and the noise of how it's "always been done before" And then, it happens. The world, your target market, gets it. And that bloody trail you left behind has away of healing quite quickly.

  • Melanie Perkins

    Thanks for the comment Tom. Solving a real problem is definitely the most important thing when starting a company. Every industry can be innovated, and there’s definitely no shortage of problems to be solved!

  • Great post Melanie, I agree that you just need to start somewhere and keep going. Thanks for sharing your journey and for creating Canva. I couldn't be without it!

  • Melanie Perkins

    Glad you liked the post Tracy. Thanks for all your support! We have lots of exciting things to come.