The culture myth
Zach Kitschke

The culture myth


In this blog, Zach Kitschke, Head of People at Canva, explains why you shouldn’t try to copy and paste culture that you see elsewhere. Instead, the key to creating a great culture is focusing your efforts on building a “People System” based on strong values.

There’s always the inevitable awkwardness when someone asks me what I do for work. As I often explain, it’s a bit of everything!

Our People team have a very broad remit here at Canva — we’re responsible for every part of the team’s success: hiring great people, building and supporting teams, helping everyone grow and develop, evangelizing our culture and product, and creating a workplace everyone loves coming to every day.

As we’ve grown, we’ve had a bit more interest in how we do things. I often find myself showing people around Canva, as they’re interested in learning how we’ve scaled.

When I tell people that our whole team has lunch together every day, I often get this blank stare, then a laugh. “Are you serious?” they say. Then they see a rock climbing wall. And a coaching room…

Often they then say “oh we should copy this idea,” and jump to how it could work for their company or organisation.

Fair enough, I do the same. I see a company with a great culture, and start to cherry pick the things they’ve done. But every company is different. The founders are different. The DNA isn’t the same. You can transplant some great idea you’ve had, but the organization is likely to reject it if it isn’t aligned with your values.

Building a winning culture really requires understanding what type of company you want to build, and tailoring everything back to that. We’re not and will never be a Blackwater Capital, a Google, or a Bain & Co. We’re Canva, and we want to own that.

You can’t copy and paste culture

So many people focus on how to create a great “culture” — they’re usually striving for more innovation, a more empowered team, or to be a better workplace for millenials. But you can’t copy and paste culture — it’s an artefact of how and why you do what you do. It’s the result of how you do things, and the million decisions made by your team each day.

The starting point for creating culture is your values. But values have to be lived to mean anything. For us, even when we had 5 people, we made decisions in a certain way:

  • We’d break for lunch every day and eat together. Our CEO Melanie Perkins had done work experience at a PR agency, and when lunch came around, had no one to eat with. From this experience, we decided to provide lunch, and set up our space as long tables: that way, there’s always someone to sit next to. It’s encouraged to pull up a seat next to anyone (with continuous onboarding of newbies, we want everyone to feel comfortable).
  • We’d set big goals and celebrate our wins. Before we launched Canva, we had a huge countdown timer, and held a big celebration when we launched. We’ve since done all sorts of things: had a plate smashing ceremony, released doves and even had own very own mini La Tomatina festival.
  • We’d spend weeks trying to craft the perfect onboarding experience. When we started testing our first version of Canva, we realized people were scared off by the fact they didn’t feel comfortable designing themselves. The team spent weeks hacking together an onboarding that ensured everyone loved their first experience.

As we grew we needed a better way to articulate this innate “operating system” that we all intuitively understood, and so we put these into words — resulting in our 6 values:

Canva's values

So if the starting point is values, what comes next?

Building values into a “people system”

The way I think about it: when you design a product like Canva, you are creating a closed system where all the pieces work together. We recently rolled out a Design System for Canva, that systemises and bakes in lots of decisions:

  • We want the product to be integrated and simple for our community to use
  • We want the same patterns to apply when you take similar actions, so you don’t have to re-learn the product
  • We want it to be efficient and easy for our team to design and build features

It’s the same for a company. There’s an innate values system — and operating model — that our People team spends a lot of time unpacking and building upon.


DISCLOSURE: We haven’t figured out all of this stuff by any means. But I think what’s got us so far, is the way we think about solving People challenges!
For example, in the context of this system:
  • When we think about introducing structure, we don’t just hire managers. We think — what’s actually the best way to hit crazy big goals, and empower others to own their success? We scaled our onboarding by letting anyone be a mentor.
  • When we think about performance management, we don’t just introduce an annual performance review. We think — how do we create a culture of feedback and help everyone learn and grow? We come back to setting individual goals and using a “journey” to talk about development.
  • When we think about training, we don’t just deliver workshops. We think — how do we actually instill behavioural change and have everyone pursuing excellence in all areas?


How does this affect how we do things?

Earlier this year, we set out to refine our mission as a People team and settled on: Build the most effective and engaged company in the world.

For me, the two things are inseparable: we wanted to be the “best” company in the world, which comes back to all of us having a massive impact with everything we do, constantly building amazingly effective teams, helping each other to grow, and creating a great working environment that helps everyone succeed.

So, how do we do that on a practical basis, in a way that aligns with our “People Operating System”?

Here are some examples of how we guide decisions for our People team, and the impacts on our culture:

1. Set teams up to plan big and move fast

A few years ago, our team had expanded, and what used to be a highly effective group — in tune with another and able to move fast — started to slow down. There was too many people doing too many things and we needed to divide our attention.

So, we started to untangle how we could each best contribute to the mission — setting out a series of goals that various “teams” could rally towards:


All our goals from January 2016, including the goal to “Launch in Spanish

All our goals from January 2016, including the goal to “Launch in Spanish” — we’re now in 100+ languages and used in every country in the world

Season Openers

As we grew, we doubled down on the idea of team as mini startup. In fact, we even got our teams to develop a pitch and present to our awesome investors over at Blackbird.

We realized the format was really powerful, and not long afterwards, we launched our “Season Opener” — a far more interesting alternative to a quarterly planning conference.

Now, we do this at the start of every season. Every part of the company gets a chance to present what they’ve achieved in the past three months, and share what their next big goal is. We also use it to celebrate what makes Canva unique.

Our last season opener had a Spring fair theme, with circus performers, song-and-dance, and fortune tellers all helping each team share their wins:

A highlights reel from our recent Spring Season Opener


How it fosters our culture

It’s an incredible way to bring all of Canva together, and as a result every team has a huge big goal they’re aspiring towards and the same level of context across everything we’re working towards.


Health Checks

Another principle we’ve adopted as we’ve scaled is that all our teams and individuals at Canva should be accountable and have ownership over their work. We all own our own success.

We introduced the Health Check as a way for teams to self-diagnose any potential challenges that stand in the way of being as effective as possible, and formulate their own action plan. Run once a season, these health checks often result in actions like:

  • Organizing more social activities as a team — build a sense of community and belonging within the team
  • Identifying new hiring needs — preempt future needs for the team and ensure we’re adequately staffed for the next few months
  • Changing how the team meets and works together — adapting our team meetings to ensure they’re helping us be effective


How it fosters our culture

Team Health Checks ensure everyone on the team is responsible for identifying problems and working together to find a solution that works. Lack of clarity? Raise it. Lack of team connection? Organize more social activities.

Ryan Cavanaugh


Caption: The Canva Print team goes mini-golfing!


2. Help people ride their wave

An individual’s journey through a company mirrors that of someone using a product. Say you sign up to Canva on the recommendation of a friend. You probably sign up knowing a little, but once you log into the platform, you’d find yourself experimenting with different applications.

You experience a “newbie high”, where you feel exhilarated when you create something that looks cool. Then you start to want to do more and more, and realize you have a skills gap. You can’t get the desired look you set out to achieve.

That’s when you start receiving trigger emails chock full of content to guide you — tutorials about design, feature prompts to show you how to add text, color guides, suggestions on how to download your design in different formats.

If we take that same analogy and apply it to someone who joins our team, we find a lot of similarities to the user experience - in this case, the newbie experience.

There’s a fine balance — it’s about riding the edge of the wave without falling off.

In actual fact, we mapped this emotional journey out for our team and identified a pattern:


Emotional rollercoaster graph for new starters


Craft “onboarding” experiences

Focussing on the first 3 months, we realized there were two areas we needed to work on to ensure we counteracted the natural “lows” in the journey for our newbies:

  • Empowering our mentors. We launched a tailored mentoring bootcamp, which is split into three phases: setting up the mentoring relationship, giving feedback, and dealing with potential challenges.

Our Canva mentor mentee relationship

  • Frontloading key context. We just launched a new onboarding bootcamp, that takes people on a journey over the first week. This bootcamp introduces newbies to Canva life by getting them involved in a range of tasks, activities and sessions about our values and specialty areas, with the purpose of imparting a sense of belonging as quickly as possible. The bootcamp starts by with a breakfast meet and greet with their mentors on our ground floor, followed by an office tour and getting them set up on their laptops and key tech. We then dive into a session with the co-founders about our vision and values. Newbies go through a series of specialty sessions including a Design Lab and User Testing session and a fun scavenger hunt around the office to help them familiarize themselves with their new surroundings.

How does this look? Not only do we have an in-person bootcamp for both our mentors and our new hires, we’re also experimenting with things like an email drip for mentors.

Here’s an example of what they receive:


Mentor reminder email

There’s a lot of times when you’re catching a new “wave” and need some help to navigate the ups and downs:

  1. Starting at Canva
  2. Starting a new role
  3. Becoming a mentor
  4. Becoming a team lead
  5. Changing teams

Each of these different “user” journeys should trigger training, support and clarity of expectations so you can succeed.



How it fosters our culture

Our onboarding experience is critical to the success of everyone who starts. By focussing on teaching mentors to be amazing, we’re ensuring we’re creating a culture of empowerment every day. We’re also trying to target people at the right point in their journey with the content and information they need to know.


The Canva Journey

As we’ve scaled, people have asked “what can I do to grow?” This has become a greater need as we’ve scaled to 350+ people and beyond.

In 2016, we anonymized the data and aggregated all the feedback from a 360 degree review (where every member of the team requested feedback from those they worked most closely with), and identified “4 towers”, that related to people’s success, or their opportunities to grow.


4 towers

4 towers

More recently we picked this up again, as teams were starting to build out their own skills maps. We realized, after trying to simplify this as much as possible, that the same things that help an Engineer to be successful also help our People or Customer Happiness teams to be successful too.

So recently we launched our very own Canva Journey, which is designed to be a forward-looking map that anyone on the team can use to identify areas to grow.


Canva Journey

Canva Journey

There are a few important principles we’ve baked in:

  • It’s future looking. We’re not using it as a performance tool. It’s about identifying a goal or two that each person can personally work towards to help them be most effective this season.
  • It’s not about climbing up levels. The aspiration isn’t to be the top of everything. Our best engineer could be very high on craft and strategy, but have room to grow in other areas.
  • It’s impact oriented. We want people to aspire towards impact. All the skills in the world are useless if you can’t channel them. It’s self-driven. People should use this as a self-diagnostic tool, and work with a mentor to create their own action plan.

We’ve also launched a series of workshops, based on the experiences of people who excel at a particular skill, so everyone can learn from them what excellence looks like and how to mirror their success in practice.



How it fosters our culture

Our Canva Journey makes skills development simple. By boiling it down to 1 page and aggregating the factors which we think make people successful, everyone can identify their own opportunities to grow and develop. We encourage everyone to pursue excellence and support that ambition with training.


3. Create a workplace for everyone

Handing over clubs

One of our most successful initiatives as a People team hasn’t even been run by us. Realizing that people were organizing their own social events and activities within their own teams, and recognizing we couldn’t organize everything ourselves, we decided to let anyone start their own “Canva Club” and receive $200 per month in funding, as long as they had more than 10 members and had met 4+ times.

We now have a club for almost everything, all run by people with a particular passion. You just have to scroll through our Slack channels to see:

  • Tennis club
  • Wine club
  • Board games club
  • Surfers club
  • Parents club
  • Pasta club
  • And literally, almost anything else you could think of…


Board games club at Canva

Board games club at Canva

Board games club at Canva

How it fosters our culture

By creating a simple framework, there’s now a variety of club that bring people with the same interests together. We’ve empowered everyone to create their own communities internally. This has helped increase belonging, and has been one of our most popular perks and initiatives as a company.


Final thoughts

Aspiring to a great culture is something we all do, but it’s important to know what your company stands for. We don’t all have to be the same, and different cultures work for different companies. The key thing is to have a clear sense of what matters to you, and the rest follows.

We’re a few years into our journey here at Canva, and are really just getting started. There’ll be lots of new challenges to solve in the coming years, but something I hope we’ll always come back to is finding the best way to scale that fits our values.



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