The unicorn roadmap: Guy Kawasaki on startups, entrepreneurship and his role as Chief Evangelist at Canva

Sarah Kimmorley
Dec 1, 2020 · 23 min read
Guy Kawasaki, Chief Evangelist at Canva, speaks with Bede Moore, Managing Partner of Antler, Australia and New Zealand, in a virtual fireside chat.

Guy Kawasaki, Chief Evangelist for Canva and a renowned technology figurehead, joined Antler Australia for a virtual fireside chat last week. The discussion was led by Bede Moore, Managing Partner of the local arm of the global VC firm and was live streamed across the globe.

Over the course of the discussion, Guy reflected on his career, how to truly innovate and create a meaningful brand, along with other insights that have seen Canva propel to international success.

You can watch the live stream here:

Or below is a transcript of the discussion. This has been edited for length and clarity.

Bede Moore (BM): Hi, everybody. Great to be with you all again from whatever part of the world you happen to be in. I am delighted to be here today with Guy.

I first got to know of Guy many, many years ago on the campus at University of New South Wales where he was described to me as a global technology powerhouse. And it was in the course of reading up for this interview that I really got to understand, precisely, why those terms were used about him.

Guy is obviously a famous marketing guru, but he’s also a serial author. He is a venture capitalist, and he’s also an executive fellow at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. He is so renowned in part because he popularised this concept of Evangelism Marketing at Apple starting in the 1980s. For those of us who are in Australia, I think much more well-known to us is that he has recently extended this evangelism to Canva, where he’s the Chief Evangelist, which is obviously having a very large impact given their recent success.

He is the author of numerous books, Wise Guy, The Art of the Start 2.0, How to Drive Your Competition Crazy. He is an authority on the subject of marketing at VC and entrepreneurship. He is also the creator of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People Podcast, he’s a brand ambassador for Mercedes-Benz and he is a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation.

And I just learned while chatting to him that he is a surfer who claims falsely that Santa Cruz is better than Bondi. So, with that only small glitch on his record, I welcome Guy Kawasaki to the call.

Guy Kawasaki (GK): You forgot one more very important data point about my credibility, which is I am an adjunct professor for the University of New South Wales, so how do you like that?

BM: That’s why they hold you in such high regard down there, Guy. Finally, that’s the final piece of the puzzle.

Firstly, I feel it would be remiss sitting from where we are in Australia, and you based in California, without stating it’s been a big few weeks over there in regards to elections and COVID. What’s the feeling? What’s the impact on the local tech community?

GK: I think that America in general, at least 51% of it is breathing a sigh of relief that probably democracy won’t die. All of that is good news, but having said that, Coronavirus is just exploding here, and it’s not like you get approval for a vaccine on Monday and on Tuesday, everybody takes it, on Wednesday. So I think we’re in for a rough, I don’t know, three, or four, or five, six months and it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but at least you know that there are vaccines. So that’s a huge, huge development for us.

I think Australia and New Zealand has shown that it’s not fricking rocket science. You just have to wash your hands, don’t go into bars and crowded places, and wear a mask. How hard could that be?

BM: Look, we’ve been watching the stock prices of tech companies just been going crazy. What’s your view in terms of the impact of this crisis? I know it’s broad to say the tech sector, but broadly, do you think it is going to be a lasting impact? Do you think it’s been positive? What happens when the world does resume to normal in 12 months (fingers crossed)?

GK: I will tell you that I don’t think there’s anyone more surprised than me that the stock market has done so well for the past four years, because I’m not exactly a pessimist, but from the outside looking in, I would say, the United States has been running a mock for four years, and I can understand a blip upward because Biden is elected. But up to 10 days ago or so, what was the explanation for the stock market doing so good in the middle of a depression or recession, and people are dying? How do you put two and two together? If you want to make money in the stock market, just ask me what I’m doing and go opposite, I guarantee you, you will make money.

I like to make another point though, for entrepreneurs and I would assume that many of your listeners are entrepreneurs, I would say that the level of the stock market has absolutely nothing to do with your business. If the stock market is booming, you’re still five years away from getting into the market, if the stock market is tanking, it doesn’t really matter because you’re not a publicly traded company.

Now, if it’s tanking, it affects the psyche of investors, but that makes absolutely no sense because the investments you make in an early stage company today, won’t go public for five or six years, so what difference does it make? None whatsoever. But a lot of it is just pure emotion.

BM: Look, perhaps one of the best examples of this is, companies like Zoom — they couldn’t have been better placed to benefit from this. The fact that we’re doing this on Zoom rather than waiting for you to come down and surf at Bondi from California is the fact that this remote working has become a major trend in new businesses. And with that and as more people collaborate online — this has been a big thing for Canva from what I understand, something like 40 million people are logging onto Canva every month, which is a 25% increase over the last four months? That’s insane — do you think this is going to continue happening for businesses like Zoom and Canva? Or do you think as I said, it subsides once you get a Covid vaccine?

GK: We have modest goals — we would like every graphic element and design element in the world to be created with Canva. Yes, there’s the right place at the right time, but what I think Canva has done is democratised design. Prior to the pandemic, in the undemocratic world of design, you either solicited bids from outside designers or you waited in the queue for your design department to be able to do your project. Or you bought or rented Photoshop and you spent six months learning how to do anything. That’s the market that Canva entered into and democratised, because now you don’t have to buy expensive software, you don’t have to wait for the design department, and you don’t have to get external agencies to do your work, you can do it by yourself. That was already the foundation of Canva. And then this pandemic comes along and now collaboration at a distance is even more important.

The pandemic has forced us to learn to collaborate internally, because it’s not like we’re all going into the office without our mask and breathing all over each other, we’re all working remotely too.

There are a lot of bad things that came out of the coronavirus, and we’re not over it yet, but I think we’ll look back and we’ll say, “Wow, that really forced us to innovate, to get to the next curve, to develop new techniques, to figure out new ways of working, and collaborating, and communicating.” That post-coronavirus will remain in place and I think make the design of graphics and communication much more efficient.

BM: I totally agree with you.

I’m interested to know about your relationship with Canva, because obviously you’ve been doing this now for several years. And obviously, there was a point at which you started a conversation with them and you must’ve been considering, hey, I want to become the Chief Evangelist for this company?

GK: Okay. I don’t want to burst your bubble because you probably think that I’m going to tell you, “I looked at 10,000 pitches and I reviewed so many business plans, and I met with so many CEOs, and I used all my judgment, and my wisdom, and my intelligence, and my vision to pick out Canva.” Let me tell you how it really went down— Seven years ago, I was already active in social media, particularly Twitter (before Twitter was just for Russian bots) and I wanted a graphic with every tweet. So Peg Fitzpatrick, who was working with me on my account, found Canva and she started making all my graphics with Canva. Canva then noticed that I was using its product, and one day they tweeted to me.

I kind put two and two together and I said to Peg, “Isn’t Canva what we use to make graphics?” And she said, “Yes.” I said, “Do you like it?” And she said, “Yes.” And I said, “Should I help them?” And she said, “Yes.” And that was the due diligence. That was it, literally.

Obviously we met, I met Cliff, Zack, and Melanie at my house a few weeks later, which was just perfect timing. I wasn’t looking for a job. I was perfectly fat, dumb, and happy just doing my thing. I call it ‘Guy’s Golden Touch’. ‘Guy’s Golden Touch’ is not that whatever I touched turns to gold but rather whatever is gold, Guy touches. I’ll tell you something. It is very easy to evangelise something great, and it is very hard to evangelise shit. So, the key here is to find, make or affiliate with something that’s great because then evangelism is easy.

BM: I listen to that story and I think to myself, it’s a mark of incredible hustle on behalf of the Canvas team to have been attentive enough to know that you were using it, to get in touch with you. That’s an impressive play by those guys.

GK: Years later, I found out that they were just blown away that I responded, so I should have asked for more equity. But that’s a lesson for entrepreneurs: If you don’t ask, you don’t get. No guts, no glory. The probability is low if you ask, but the probability is zero if you don’t.

“That’s a lesson for entrepreneurs: If you don’t ask, you don’t get. No guts, no glory. The probability is low if you ask, but the probability is zero if you don’t.”

BM: You mentioned Canva’s goals of getting everybody to design anything with Canva — I’ve read that when they got started, they were actually trying to build a school year book business or something? And honestly like, okay, that’s a good vision, but it’s not the same vision as what they have now. In the time that you’ve been working with them, has the vision changed and become dramatically larger?

GK: Okay. The story goes is that Melanie and Cliff were at the University of Western Australia, and she was teaching students how to use Illustrator and Photoshop, and she noticed how hard it was for them to use those products. And one of the things that was really antiquated was the production of school yearbooks, because it was literally cutting and pasting with scissors, and paper, and that kind of stuff. And so she thought that surely there must be a better way than having to deal with this. So, that was the first application. Then they noticed that people really loved creating their own school books, so they thought, if they like creating their own school yearbooks, then surely they would like to create their own flyers, business cards, presentations. And then as soon as social media happened, where everybody wanted graphics for Twitter, and graphics for Facebook, and albums, and avatars, the story goes that they saw this greater need for the creation of graphics.

But I will also tell you an another truism that I’ve discovered through my career, which is, the victor gets to reinvent the story anyway you like. The loser is not visible, so you don’t care. And I will tell you a story that perfectly illustrates that.

If you ask Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, why he created eBay, he tells the story that his girlfriend at the time, now wife, was a toy collector and one of the toys was a Pez dispenser, the candy dispenser. Pezs are to America what Tim Tams to Australia. So she wanted to sell her Pez dispensers online and there was no way for her to do this. So her boyfriend created eBay, so that people could buy Pez dispensers online. That’s the story they tell about the genesis of eBay.

Now, I will tell you, I have first hand knowledge of this and that is a total bullshit story. That story was made up after the fact, and really what Pierre Omidyar wanted to do using micro terms was that he wanted to see where the demand curve and the supply curve intersected, and where the demand curve and the supply curve intersect is the perfect market clearing price. But to get a perfect market clearing price, geography is a problem, because if you have a used printer in Palo Alto, California, and you have a buyer in Miami, Florida, how do you get that printer to Miami? So he created a marketplace, an online marketplace, so that distance became less of a factor. So if the buyer is in Miami and the printer is in Palo Alto, eBay can make the clearing price happen. That was his microeconomic theory, but it just took me five minutes to explain the microeconomic Keynesian theory of eBay. It’s a much better story to say, “Oh, my girlfriend wanted to sell Pez dispensers, there was no way, so I created eBay.”

BM: I do like that. Was there something similar at Apple, this same thing that it had come out of something a lot more?

GK: The genesis of Apple truly is that Woz wanted a personal computer. And since there was no personal computer, he built the personal computer.

And then come to find out it wasn’t just Woz wanted a personal computer, really there are now literally tens of millions of people who want a personal computer. And so that is not such a different story from Melanie, seeing that students are having a hard time with Adobe products, and so she saw the need to create, and she wanted herself to use a product that was much simpler and easier than the Adobe products.

This leads me to a theory for venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. I think many people when they try to figure out what’s the genesis of great tech companies. Often they ascribe it to a large and growing market that everybody foresaw, and using McKinsey analysis, or an Accenture analysis, or a Harvard Business School analysis, they search for graphics that are going to explode.

Basically, my theory is that two guys in a garage, which is the Apple story, or a guy and a girl in a spare room, which is the Canva story, build the product that they want to use. And then luckily, they’re not the only two people in the world who want it and bada bing you have Google, you have Yahoo, you have Apple, you have Canva. That’s the genesis of those companies.

It’s not because they saw a large and burgeoning market and it was like, “All we need to do is get 1% of the people who want personal computers,” because quite frankly, in 1976, nobody knew what a personal computer was.

BM: One of the things that I think you notice with all of these companies is the culture incredibly tight — what sort of impact do you think clear values and culture has in creating the success of a company?

GK: I think it’s very hard to separate the two. One of the problems with listening to people like me or reading business books is that none of the stuff we spew out is truly scientific. If it was scientific, there would be a controlled experiment. We’d have two equally qualified founders; Melanie and Susan, equal capacity, equal market, equal technology. Everything’s the same except one variable, and we’re going to just test that variable. There’s a no hypothesis and we’re going to do a statistical analysis.

You could try to do that in business, I honestly don’t know how you could ever do that, but if you tried for scientific rigor, you would lose timing, so you can’t have both. You either got to go for it and wing it and hope you’re lucky, or you try science and be too late. When asked this kind of question, it’s hard to answer — did the culture create the success or the success create the culture?

In a culture where everybody’s cooperative, working, happy, and trying to dent the universe, odds are, you’re going to create great products. On the other hand, if you have a great product and sales are exploding, probably you’re going to have a great culture because if things are exploding and things are doing well, then guess what? Then you have money to buy foosball, and you have money to make lunches, and you have money to go on off-sites, and you have money to do all these kinds of things. But if your product sucks and you don’t have money, you can’t buy the free sushi and the massages at your desk. That’s why it’s very hard, and the people need to be able to separate correlation from causation. That’s a great danger. When companies visit Silicon Valley, they go to the Facebook campus and there’s a place you get hamburgers, a place you get Thai food, a place you get barbecue. There’s a place where you can learn woodworking, there’s a print shop for making t-shirts. There’s ping pong, volleyball, foosball. The dentist comes to the campus, you can have your car in the parking lot, they’ll change the oil. And so you look at all that and you say, “Oh, I went to Facebook. Facebook is so successful. And they have sushi, and they have foosball, and they have ping pong, and they have the mechanic come, and they have the dentist come.” And they go back to Australia, or New Zealand, and say, “We’re going to do all that stuff, and then we’re going to be like Facebook.” It’s not that simple. You’ll just have a company full of people playing foosball and eating sushi all day. You have to separate correlation from causation.

BM: One of the questions coming from the audience, Angelina in fact, is something similar to this — What were the three things that allowed Canva to be successful vis-a-vis its competitors in your view, if it was not the foosball table?

GK: I think it was a clean slate approach. They did not come from the direction of, “We have this super powerful app in a box with a 500-page manual, and now we’re going to convert it to a cloud-based system.” If you have application mindset shrink-wrapped on disks or CDs, it’s very hard to get to a cloud-based mindset where you’re changing design types all the time, and you’re adding all the time. It’s not a bunch of annual releases, but it’s a release every few weeks, it’s a completely different mindset.

Obviously the vision of Melanie and Cliff to say, “There must be a better way.” It’s like Woz saying, “What I’m going to do is make a cheaper mainframe.” That’s not what he said, he did a completely different curve. He was unencumbered by many computers and mainframes as Melanie was unencumbered by shrink-wrap software. And so there’s the clean slate and there’s a thing that there must be a better way, which is different than saying, “Let’s make what the existing product is slightly better.

It’s like you could harvest ice in the winter. Go to a frozen lake or pond, cut the lake or pond harvest ice. But then the next curve is where you have an ice factory, now you freeze water any city, any time of year. And then the next curve is the refrigerator curve. This is even better than the ice factory because you didn’t have to live close to the ice factory, you could have your own ice factory called a refrigerator. But let me just point out to you that none of the ice harvesters became ice factories, that none of the ice factories became refrigerators company.

I’ll tell you one more frightening story. So in 1975, an engineer at Kodak invented digital photography. Wrap your mind around that. Kodak in 1975 invented digital photography, who listening to this right now is using a Kodak digital camera? Zero. All right. Now, what happens? Imagine you’re the person who has invented the digital camera at Kodak, and you go to your boss and you say, “I have figured out a way nobody has to buy film anymore. Isn’t that fantastic?” You would get shot. What is your boss going to say? “Hallelujah, man, you just created a way to ruin our business.” That’s what happens. Imagine you’re working at Adobe and you said to your boss, “I figured out a way where people don’t have to buy Photoshop anymore.” I can tell you that that person isn’t going to have a long career.

BM: We’ve got a lot of questions coming in, asking you about your views on the difference in the culture between San Francisco and Sydney. The difference in the tech communities here, Europe, US. Do you have any overarching views on that?

GK: I would not even limit this to Canva Sydney versus US tech companies. I have been all over the world and I have met entrepreneurs all over the world, and no one may agree with this, but I think that entrepreneurs all over the world are more similar than they are different. Now, you guys might be eating Vegemite and we might be eating couscous or something, but I will tell you that tech entrepreneurs are more similar than they’re different. They view the world as half full, not half empty. They view the world as unlimited potential. They view the world as taking on the status quo. And so I can’t tell you that, okay, so the culture is completely different in Sydney or America.

“Tech entrepreneurs are more similar than they’re different. They view the world as half full, not half empty. They view the world as unlimited potential. They view the world as taking on the status quo.”

BM: Anna is asking a follow-up question. She’s saying, “What would you say are the traits of these people?”

GK: I would say that no matter where you are in the world, one thing is, you should always hire people who are better than you at what you want them to do. My theory is that A players hire A players, even better, A players are A-plus players. B players on the other hand, they hire C players, and C players hire D players. And this leads us to pretty soon, Z players, which is what we call in Silicon Valley, ‘The Bozo Explosion’. It should be a source of pride that when you look around your room, if you’re the CEO, you should be able to say that, “He’s better than me at finance, she’s better than me at marketing. She’s better than me at operation. He’s better than me at evangelism.” It should be a great source of pride that everybody in the room is better than you at what they do then you, because then you have created a great team.

“It should be a great source of pride that everybody in the room is better than you at what they do then you, because then you have created a great team.”

BM: I have to know more on what The Bozo Explosion is, because that just sounds like an amazing phenomenon.

GK: The Bozo Explosion is when a company grows really rapidly and they don’t keep up their hiring standards. I’ll tell you, one piece of data for The Bozo Explosion happening is that all of a sudden, there are lots of positions that require MBAs. If you work for a company and you see that a lot of positions require MBAs, let me tell you something, The Bozo Explosion is happening. It would be better to have a small, great team that is hampered by size than to have a team that you just threw bodies at the problem.

Now, let me give you another corollary to that. My experience is, especially in a startup, that you should not be so obsessed with hiring “the proven person,” because I think in many cases, the proven person cannot adjust to a startup. Let’s take an extreme example. Let’s say that you need someone to run an engineering product or engineering project. And so you say to yourself, very intellectually valid, you say to yourself, “We need a proven engineering manager. Let’s get someone from Google, or Microsoft, or Apple, or Facebook, or Instagram. Because those people they’ve built billion-dollar companies. They know how to scale, they’re know how recruit, they know how to manage. Let’s just get somebody from Google and bring them in to our startup where we have $1 million in seed capital, and it’s three of us sitting around a table that we bought at IKEA.” Now, don’t get me wrong, that person could be brilliant, that person’s going to be perfect for you, but I would also make the case that that so-called proven person who has been at one of those large companies for 10 years, in that 10 years has always worked for a company with very high brand awareness, with infinite money. He or she had a personal assistant who had a personal assistant. They had free sushi and foosball and all that, and they were always buying, not selling. Now, they go to a small startup, there’s no brand awareness, there’s no capital, and they’re selling. They’re not buying anymore, they’re selling, they’re begging people to put their product in. That’s a whole different world, man. Completely, utterly different world.

BM: When my wife and I were building our first business together, one of the best pieces of wisdom I heard was, if you’re hiring a sales guy, you should always hire a sales guy with an amazing track record at a shit company, not a shit record at a great company because it easy to sell Google. Selling for the competitor, not so easy.

Another question from the audience: “What advice do you have for startups that are struggling to focus because they have a tech solution that can solve many problems?” How do they choose what problems to solve and what ones they should pick?

GK: Listen, first of all, that’s a quality problem, so let’s assume it’s true as opposed to delusional. That’s a high-quality problem. That happened to Macintosh. Macintosh was rejected after introduction. The introduction was great, don’t get me wrong, but a couple of years after introduction, we hit the wall.

We thought it was spreadsheet, database, and word processing machine, come to find out it’s a desktop publishing machine. So I just want to address the 99% of the entrepreneurs out there that your problem is not going to be, “Oh my God, we have so many markets, we don’t know which one to focus on.” Your problem is going to be, “Holy shit, we’re not succeeding at any market, what are we going to do?” That’s the problem you should worry about.

Now, let’s just say that you are the one out of 100 that has the opposite problem. Frankly, I don’t know how to answer that question because I’ve never been in that situation, but I think to a large degree, the market will tell you, and I think it’ll be pretty obvious where you should go.

BM: There’s a lot of people asking for different forecasts from you, so I’m going to start with your views on the Future of Work, and workplace culture now that remote and hybrid models are here to stay.

GK: Okay. Let me answer this question generally. I think that nobody has a clue. I could build the case that many of us got so used to not having to commute, so used to using Zoom, so used to having a different kind of life that we’re never going to go back.

I could also make the case that there’s going to be a large group of people saying, “Oh my God. Thank you, God. I want to send my kids off to school, I want to cook one meal for them a day, not three. I don’t want to be worried about whether their Zoom works or not. I just want to have adult conversations. So there may be people who are just dying to get back to the office.

I don’t know, I really don’t know, but somehow I find it’s hard to imagine that we’re going to go back to where we were.

BM: Here’s one for you, as we’re coming to the end — One of the earliest questions were, “Can you tell us, please what your top books are?”

GK: Okay. Book number one is a book called If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland. It’s obviously written for writers, but you could substitute any creative task for the word write. So if you want to program, if you want to market, if you want to sing, dance, if you want to make movies, whatever it is. If you want to write, will unleash your creativity, it will help you overcome the negativity in your world frequently caused by internal negativity.

Book number two is a book called Influence by Bob Cialdini, the person on Remarkable People that you should listen to, and he talks about social psychology, how to influence people. And every entrepreneur should read that book.

The third book is a book called Absolute Value, and the gist of Absolute Value is that in the old days, there used to be the product adoption lifecycle, where the pioneers told the early adopters, the early adopters told the risk takers, the risk takers told the conservative people, the conservative people told the laggards. So product flowed linearly. The gist of Absolute Value is that that world doesn’t exist anymore, and if you take an example of books, it used to be that you waited for the New York Times book review to review a book before you bought it and read it, okay? That doesn’t happen anymore. Now, a book goes on for sale, you go to Amazon’s listing, you see that there are 54 and five star reviews. You click and it’s in your basket, or is on your Kindle. You’re not waiting for the New York Times to disseminate from high, which books are the ones to read.Because information now is fast, and furious, and cheap, and ubiquitous, and pretty much unidentified from who is coming, that changes marketing fundamentally. There is no guru of design that blessed Canva and said, “You should use Canva.” It was because Trixie, and Biff, and Tom, and Harry, and Michael, and Sashi, and Muhammad, they somehow found Canva and they loved it, and they use it. It’s not because they read the Wall Street Journal and the Wall Street Journal said, “Use Canva.”

BM: I think that the person was asking you about what a Guy Kawasaki’s best book.

GK: Oh, my best books. For this audience, my best book is The Art of the Start 2.0. That’s the book where everything I know about entrepreneurship is in there, and that book, no shit is the defacto manual for starting a company in a lot of places in the world, a lot of schools, so The Art of the Start 2.0. My latest book is called Wise Guy. Wise Guy is a collection of stories of my life. It’s not a memoir or an autobiography, it’s really like, “This is what happened to me and this is the lesson that I learned.” So it’s like Chicken Soup for the Soul, only all Guy’s stories.

BM: I want to just take a minute to talk about Canva’s new initiative, Design for a Cause, which is a partnership with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. Do you want to talk about it, Guy? I’ll hand over to you.

GK: Listen, in the DNA of Canva is a great sense of social responsibility, so not just to make a buck, but the work and to make the world a better place. And this is one such program to work with the UN. It is such a sincere desire of Melanie and Cliff to make the world a better place. A lot of people say that, but this is really true about them. And it’s true about me too that my mantra for my life is to empower people. Yeah, it is a great program.

BM: I think it’s on until December 8th and what you do is just to go onto Canva and you should be able to find the details on the site.

Awesome. Guy, it’s been a really fun time, very, very enjoyable to chat with you today. Thanks for joining us all the way from California. We look forward to speaking to you again in the future.

GK: All right. Thank you, everybody, and everybody, be well, and remember, although you guys know better than we do obviously, social distance, wash your hands and wear a mask. I hope that people in America hear that and do that.

Antler is currently recruiting for its upcoming cohort in Sydney. If you want to build your next company and as Guy says “Dent the universe”, join Antler here: www.antler.co/apply