100 Languages and Counting: International Growth at Canva

As a fan of international tech companies, I have loved watching Australia-based Canva grow and expand all over the world over the years, most recently achieving a $6B valuation. The graphic design platform Canva offers has become a hugely important tool for marketers globally. I’ve been using Canva for more than five years myself, both for work, and as a tool for volunteer activities. So, I’m a pretty big fan of their product. What follows is an interview between myself and Rachel Carruthers, who heads up localisation and runs international operations at Canva.

Rachel Carruthers, head of localization and international operations at Canva

How did you end up working in global growth and localization at Canva?

After working in localization for almost 5 years in the Bay Area, I moved to Australia in 2015 to pursue a Masters Degree in Media Practice at the University of Sydney. Not long after graduating in 2017, Canva reached out to me as they were looking to build out a localisation programme. At first I told myself that I’d left the localisation life for good — but we all know it’s hard to stay away! Melanie Perkins, our CEO, had a vision of getting Canva into over 100 languages (a very daunting objective), and over the next year our team built out the workflows and infrastructure in order to achieve this. Working with a handful of LSPs, we established workflows within our TMS environment that would make our production much more scalable.

In early 2019 I began working more closely with the International Growth and Ops side of the business as well, and today oversee both faculties. Currently, Localisation and Growth are still separate (although closely tied) parts of the business, but my team and I are looking at how to bring these pieces closer together under a new Globalisation umbrella that addresses growth holistically through both international marketing channels and product localisation. Our vision is to create a bottom-up, truly local experience for our users that meets them where they are.  

What does the international business look like today?

Today Canva has 4 brick-and-mortar offices around the world. Our HQ (and original office) is in Sydney, and we have a sales office in Texas and mixed-faculty offices each in Beijing and Manila. We also work with various contracted growth specialists across about a dozen markets, who range from designers, to content writers, to SEO specialists. 

We’ve actually just crossed the 1,000 employee threshold worldwide this month, which is a crazy milestone! While the majority of our employees are still based in Sydney, all 4 of our offices are growing quite quickly.

Despite only having a relatively small handful of global offices, we do have a wide scope of growth focus which spans Latin America, Europe and Southeast Asia. Brazil has actually just overtake the US as our #1 market by MAUs (monthly active users), and LATAM is a major overall focus for growth over the next few years as mobile users come online much more quickly than ever before. Countries in Latin America represent 5 of Canva’s top 10 markets by MAUs, which speaks to that opportunity overall!

Globally, around 65% of users across our platforms (Web, Android and iOS) are using Canva in a language that is not English. While this represents our growing international user base, what’s perhaps even more relevant is that almost 80% of our users are from markets outside the Five-Eyes (US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand). This indicates that there is an opportunity to develop a localised our product beyond just a translated UI, and that language and currency optimisations are only the beginning of what it means to have a truly local experience.  

Who drives international growth and what has the journey looked like for Canva so far?

Back when I joined the company in 2017, international growth was primarily a product of SEO. There wasn’t a structured team per se, but more of a group of people who were focused generally on growth which included pushing growth channels into new markets. A tremendous amount of Canva’s growth was driven through on-page SEO as well as SEO outreach and link building, growing our domain authority in key markets. 

Today our international growth functions sits inside of the Marketing and Engagement group, which houses almost all of our marketing channels (excluding SEO). This makes it much easier for our handful of market leads to collaborate with stakeholders like the ASO team (focused on organic app store growth), paid marketing teams, and social media team. As mentioned above, we’re now looking to develop more of a Globalisation focus, which would pull the localisation speciality under the same umbrella, in order to have a more cohesive approach to global growth.  

When it comes to the practicalities of who owns international growth at Canva, it’s actually quite multi-faceted. On one hand, we have 3 market growth leads in key markets, as well as one based in Sydney who is managing that market from HQ. However, these leads are quite dependent on our more centralised model for growth strategy, so they don’t necessarily develop market-specific strategy so much as they do market-specific insights. That being the case, the HQ-based marketing channel leads also cannot drive international growth in key markets without the local insights that the market leads (and other growth contractors) provide. The result is a kind of “cross-hatch” approach to growth ownership, with the HQ-based specialty leads owning global strategy and market leads providing insight and localisation of those global strategies.

What does the localization program look like at Canva?

Canva’s Web App platform is available in 100 languages. However, we only translate 44 of them daily, and the others we translate for once a month to save on costs (as strings can often change through the course of a month). This is generally fine for the user experience, as our top 10 languages actually account for around 90% of our non-EN user base. Our landing pages are in 29 locales, while our Android and iOS apps are in 38 and 42 locales respectively.

Based on our 2020 numbers this far, we process an average of almost 900k words per month, or almost 5.4 million words in the first half of this year. The largest translation effort is upkeep of our Web App platform, followed by our SEO landing page translations and our in-app assistant content. 

As for content, we translate everything from product UI, SEO landing pages, campaign marketing materials, article content for our Learn blog, emails, IAMs, template content, user help content….pretty much anything you can think of 😉

We have 8 folks total including myself in more of an advisor role, and they’re all PMs aside from our LQA lead. We’ve just recently gotten a localisation engineer who works on the i18n infrastructure pieces, but he technically belongs to the infra team.

Why did the company go into 100 web app languages, so early? 

As touched on above, it was always Mel’s vision to have Canva in as many languages as possible. While most localisation industry veterans can agree that there is probably a sound business case for localising a product into maybe 30 locales or so (and even that may be a stratech, depending on the product), the vision for localisation at Canva was born from an ethos of inclusivity. Our mission is to “Empower the World to Design” — and when we say “the world” we mean “the world”, and not only user bases that we think we can successfully monetise. Our driving force was to ensure that anyone in the world could use Canva in their native tongue, and to not make assumptions on our users’ behalfs about the way they want to engage with our product. 

More than anything, it’s been a dedication to celebrating diversity, and one of the many ways we’re working to ensure that all users can see themselves in our product. In that same vein, the focus of the localisation team today is centered around building out our template, photo and design elements libraries to be much more representative of our global users, and making sure that we’re giving everyone the tools they need to design in a way that feels local to them.

How do you partner with other functions at the company?

Although embedded in the Product function, Localisation at Canva is pretty cross-cutting. We work with product managers and engineers to provide support for localisation best practices, and help roadmap product localisation needs as early on as possible in product development (measure twice, cut once!) This also involves working with the Infrastructure Engineering group (essentially the solutions architects of the business) to ensure that our localisation pipelines are well integrated into our product release cycles. For example, back in 2017 we had a weekly release cycle for both our Web App and our native apps, which has since evolved to a daily release cycle for the Web App and twice-weekly release cycle for the naive apps.

We also work with the marketing arm of the business on global campaigns, helping to decide which campaigns (and sometimes, which parts of a specific campaign) are more relevant for global audiences ahead of the actual translation work. 

As the needs of the business are changing, we’re now working to establish a dual programme and product focus within the Localisation specialty — almost like a front-of-house and back-of-house model. The programme focus is centered around making sure that the business’ localisation needs are met in an efficient and scalable way, while the product focus is responsible for supporting the product managers across the business in localisation roadmapping and even future localised product vision.

What have been some of the biggest lessons learned and challenges overcome along the way?

I’d say one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is to try and bake localisation education into company-wide policy and education as soon as possible in new starters’ “curriculum”. In most companies there exists some sort of onboarding period or workflow that new employees go through, and one of the best things a localisation team can do is to establish that knowledge, even if relatively surface level, early on. It also helps to establish relationships with the new employees, and helps them understand that you (and your team) are the go-to folks for any potentially nebulous or scary localisation questions. Get them excited early on, so they see localisation as an opportunity, rather than a challenge.  

What advice would you give to other people leading international growth and localization at tech companies, and SaaS in particular?

Consistently re-evaluate your approach to international, especially as your company goes through periods of rapid growth. What worked for you a year ago may not be working today, and we can often get trapped into systems or processes that we’ve outgrown. It could be the tools your localisation team are using, the types of vendors with which you’re partnering, or even the way that international is structured within the organisation. 

Secondly, don’t forget to step back and re-evaluate if your programme is meeting your users’ needs as best it can. At the end of the day, we’re here to give our users the best possible experience, and a truly successful international programme should be constantly focusing on establishing this.

Wise advice from Rachel. I particularly love Canva’s focus on inclusivity and building a global user base, even for markets they cannot easily monetize. What are your key takeaways? Share in the comments below!

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, product development, and localization. She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and business. Nataly grew up in rural Illinois, lived in Ecuador, and resides in Boston (for now).

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