Robin Zhang

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Robin Zhang, CEO, Canva China

For a long time, the capability to design has been limited to a few people, well-versed in advanced designing software like Photoshop. But among Generation Z and in the digital business landscape today, there is a growing need for high-quality, cost-effective and visually appealing designs. So, millions of users everywhere are hindered in their design tasks, because they don’t know how to use complex design software and where to find high-quality design contents. This is especially true in China where in graphic design fields, free and high-quality design software and contents are relatively short, compared to the huge market demand.

Canva entered the China market in 2018, to address this issue, with its simple but powerful mission of “Empowering the World to Design” through simple, easy-to-use, intuitive and effective tools, originated in Australia and adopted internationally at a fast speed. Anyone, even without formal design training, can use Canva’s services, supported by high-quality ingredients or resources like millions of photographs, fonts, illustrations and templates. In just a few minutes, users can create and use attractive designs for personal, commercial or charitable purposes.

However, when Canva met China, one of the most world’s most successful economies with roughly one-fifths of the world’s population, they played with an idea to start Canva’s services dedicatedly for China, because the Chinese internet environment is totally different compared to the rest of the world and Chinese contents and ingredients are almost zero.

So, one of the co-founders, Cliff Obrecht, reached out to Robin Zhang, a former founding member of LinkedIn China and then the head of consumer and product marketing at LinkedIn APAC. Though he hadn’t heard of Canva until then, he was greatly impressed by Cliff’s passionate introduction to the company’s mission and was also invited to join in their new China project i.e., as the CEO of Canva China.

Before deciding, Robin did some homework, by quickly evaluating various aspects of Canva’s business. He soon realized how valuable the company was: its services had an immense potential to solve the real pain points of design professionals, the young generation Z growing up with social media and business from all sizes, all with a very bright, healthy and sustainable business model as well as a worthwhile mission. So, he joined Canva, as the CEO of Canva China, in late 2017.

A Difficult Challenge: Setting up Products in China from Scratch

“The Chinese market is different compared to the rest of the world. The entire internet ecosystem is very different too. For example, the western world uses social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, but we use WeChat and Weibo instead in China. Some of the western user experience is largely shaped by Facebook and Amazon, but our user experience is shaped by different companies i.e., WeChat and Alibaba,” Robin says.

Robin gives more examples: the QR code is extensively used in Asian countries but westerners don’t rely on QR codes as much. Chinese users’ design needs are very different too because the characters in the Chinese language are peculiar, requiring lots of vertical lines—very different from the English language. While there are thousands of easily available, open-source English fonts, creating custom Chinese fonts takes lots of time and effort. So, such nuances of the Chinese market required Canva to approach China carefully and creatively, discarding conventional growth strategies.

“With my experience at LinkedIn, I knew that Canva could only succeed in the Chinese market with really strong commitment from the company’s founders as well as its employees, to the China project, to its users and to the local China team. Thankfully, I received the help I needed. The founders showed immense commitment, trust and support to a local China team, making it a top priority until we could successfully launch Chinese products,” Robin says.

Over the past three years, Canva China has launched a Chinese product, empowered over 13 million Chinese users to design and built a first-class online design service through two offices in Beijing and Wuhan. Its website, specifically for Chinese users, brings together around 60 million high-definition pictures, fonts including Chinese and English, original templates, illustrations and various other visual elements. Chinese users enjoy unique features too like setting up a profile through mobile phones, a mini Canva app in the popular WeChat app and many Chinese fonts. So far, Chinese users have published over 60 million designs at www.canva.cn.

“Our biggest challenge now comes from the Chinese market itself, because we are trying to change the way people think about design. We have already provided products that change the design game. But we are also growing together, fostering the growth of this market. The second biggest challenge comes from ourselves because there is no other successful design company like us in China. We can’t copy anyone. We still want to establish a healthy, sustainable business model by properly understanding Chinese users’ design needs and providing a suitable product,” Robin says.

Establishing Business and Empowering Others

Canva’s success is primarily thanks to providing a service specifically for pressing design-related needs of the modern professional, social media operators and young internet users. The company invests lots of time to study its users’ needs, to understand their concerns and to develop an adequate product to help them. So, its core value proposition is helping non-designers perform their design tasks well, easily and effectively, through simple, intuitive tools and in very little time.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, most businesses had adopted cloud technology and remote working globally. There has also been an increasing demand for productivity improvement tools like Canva. Because Canva’s products are consumer-ready, highly standardized, easy-to-use and easily accessible on any device through the cloud or internet, its business has been continually growing too.

“We look forward to helping users perform better at design tasks. We also want to help them do their jobs better, in general. We’re also trying to understand the design needs of various segments of users and we want to also create a customizable user experience for different types of users. While we are already giving our services to professionals today, we want to optimize the entire process of design further through automating key functions,” Robin says.

Robin could fortunately bring together a strong team in the past three years, covering vital functions like products, engineering, design, marketing, communication, sales and people. Together they started building the foundations of Canva’s products in China, providing design templates and contents for China users, as well as developing products with unique features for Chinese users.

Canva China won the “Great Place to Work” award from ‘The Great Place To Work Institute’ in 2020 and became the third country that Canva won the prize globally. The average age of Canva China employees is between 28 and 29. To work with the young generation, particularly Generation Z, while managing their good and bad to drive company growth is never an easy thing. According to Robin, Canva’s values and culture play important roles in driving the teamwork. In general, Canva’s values have been recognized widely. Its six values: set crazy big goals and achieve them, make complex things simple, pursue excellence, empower others, be a good human and be a force for good, has been fostering a healthy, productive, supportive and positive professional environment. As David Noel from Soundcloud says: “When they started out, our co-founders believed that they were creating a great product. Then they realized that they were creating a great company that creates great products. Finally, they realized that it was most important of all to create a culture that enables the creation of a great company that creates great products.”

“We also believe in being a force for good through social programs. We donate 1% of our entire profit, equity and time to charity annually. We also give our paid products to all non-profit organizations in the world for free because we care about our community,” Robin concludes.

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