Narrow focus yields digital success for app start-up, publishing companies

By Michael Beach

Seven West Media WA

Perth, Australia


Simplicity is what we all strive for — whether it is the clean lines of modern design, the lightbulb moment, or even the elegance of a streamlined workflow.

But, as well all know, simplicity is damn hard work. It can often feel like that cliché of war: 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

In the past month, a few interesting examples of simplicity have resonated with me. Two of them are from the city where I live (Perth, Australia) and the other in London.

Canva's owners took a simple plan for an app and ran with it. Photo by Jeremy Piper.
Canva's owners took a simple plan for an app and ran with it. Photo by Jeremy Piper.

Perth is fairly remote if you spin a globe. It’s closer to Jakarta and Bali than the better-known Australian cities such as Sydney and Melbourne.

But being remote in a progressive city can have its advantages. Original thinkers often rise quickly in smaller cities — if they don’t give up. And isolation fuels originality.

So Perth has a rich creative history in fields such as music, from AC/DC’s original screamer Bon Scott through Kevin Parker creating Grammy-nominated albums from his Fremantle backyard as Tame Impala.

That creativity is now being seen in digital.

About 10 years ago, a young couple had a basic idea while studying at the University of Western Australia. What if you could build a simple graphic design app? Something that anyone could use.

And, so, Canva was born.

But this is back in 2007, just a year after Twitter had launched with its one simple big idea.

Melanie Perkins, who even now is only 28, and her boyfriend, Cliff Obrecht, started out in the lounge room of their house in suburban Duncraig, not far from where Red Bull F1 driver Daniel Riccardio grew up. As their idea evolved, they made the extremely long flight to San Francisco, which is too familiar to Australians looking for support and capital, and the knockbacks for their 1% of inspiration — the simple idea — became all too familiar.

“Sometimes it will feel like it is impossible,” Melanie told my colleague Nick Sas last week. “But I say just get started and keep going. You never know where you’ll end up.”

Here is where they’ve ended up: Venture capitalists now make the trek to Australia to court them. Canva has a valuation of US$300 million and 10 million users and is looking to expand fairly rapidly. And last year, Melanie, the CEO, was named the second-richest woman under 40 in Australia, with US$60 million beside her name.

Two of their key backers are former Google executives Lars Rasmussen, who co-founded Google Maps, and Wesley Chan, who was behind Google Analytics and is now with VC Felicia Ventures. What they get from the Silicon Valley experience, apart from money, is that invaluable advice of how to scale up a business while keeping the original idea and culture intact.

Culture is fairly irrelevant in the beginning because it’s intuitive. It’s usually a couple of people with an idea and oodles of passion. The culture reflects their personality, work ethic, and ambition.

But that original seed is vital as a company grows, regardless of how the branches spread. And it becomes vital and also difficult to maintain when all your employees are no longer in the same room — or even the same country.

Facebook, for example, has been extremely clever at this, but most businesses struggle in the inevitable transition from a lounge room or garage to a global operation. Google found that the inevitable breaking point was each time the business doubled its number of employees. And no amount of planning could prepare them for the inevitable stress hurtling their way.

So that’s why the ex-Googlers are so important for Canva and any company that’s expanding, whether it’s a traditional one with dark wood boardrooms or a new one with a ping-pong table that doubles as a bar.

Canva’s home base is in Surry Hills, a once downtrodden part of the inner city of Sydney where Rupert Murdoch’s Australian empire has always been based. But it’s now Brooklyn-cool because the old rag trade warehouses and cheap rehearsal rooms are perfect for start-ups and property speculators. It’s the perfect base from which to spread their tentacles to Asia and beyond — just as U.S. companies build Asian offices from the other side of the globe.

Closer to my home, in fact, in our office, we also had a simple idea. It’s nowhere near the scale of Canva, but what’s more important is how the idea evolved.

Our newsroom is roughly a year into one of the more interesting media experiments going on in the world. I’ll write about it in more detail in a future blog post.

But the quick scene-setter is we have recently built a newsroom that produces a six-days-a-week newspaper, two top-rating daily 30-minute television news broadcast bulletins, a daily top-rating 30-minute current affairs show, a regional newspaper chain production hub, and a 24-hour Web operation bringing it all together. And across the hall, our radio station broadcasts to a state nearly four times bigger than Texas.

So on one floor, we have journalists of all persuasions breaking down boundaries and a fast-growing bunch of developers with a ringside seat to the action.

Our experiment is evolving rapidly and being closely watched, particularly in the Australian media scene, where a possible overhaul in media ownership rules could see our newsroom become a template for others to follow.

One of my side gigs is sitting on Walkley Foundation Advisory Board, which, apart from judging Australia’s answers to the Pulitzers, recently teamed up with Google to run a hackathon as part of an international series.

Our company had never competed in a hackathon before, but we figured it made sense for the journalists and developers now eyeing each other across the newsroom to get to know each other better.

So we flew a three-person team consisting of Assistant Editor Ben Martin, Head of Development Joe Hardy, and Designer Sophia Lewis across the country to compete against teams that mostly caught cabs from their offices at News Corp, Fairfax, the ABC, and the Guardian.

The first thing they realised was, as a general rule, the other teams didn’t work in the same room with each other like they did. And their simple idea was a cracker.

What if they could turn the gobbledygook of secure police incident reports we receive with all their mysterious codes relating to various crimes and places into an orderly and visual live map? And what if we even geo-located the TV news vans so the chiefs of staff would immediately know who was closest to the action?

They knocked it all together in less than 24 hours.

In developing Beat, team members took one idea and focused on it instead of trying to do too many things.
In developing Beat, team members took one idea and focused on it instead of trying to do too many things.

But what’s really interesting is what happened just before they were about to make the team’s four-minute pitch for their product, Beat. A Google manger war-gamed their project and immediately cut to the chase: “That’s three ideas. Focus on the best one and sell that.’’

Great advice. Keep it simple, stupid.

Our team duly won the hackathon, and the prize was an all-expenses paid trip to Vienna in June to compete against the best in the world. Not only did they build something that other newsrooms around the world could potentially use, but they succeeded in learning the process to quickly turn a simple idea into reality, which we now use across the company.

And a free trip to Vienna certainly got the rest of the office’s attention, too.

The final lesson in simplicity I noticed was from London last week. The Telegraph, which pioneered the hub-and-spoke newsroom, rolled out its new bespoke content management system (CMS). I have an unhealthy interest in newsroom CMS after running our editorial and advertising project last year to upgrade our Danish CCI system from NewsDesk to NewsGate.

Like most CMS, it gives you umpteen options for every workflow, so our team spent many hours locked into a windowless room, workshopping the simplest route possible for our users.

As I said, simplicity is damn complicated.

The Telegraph trashed its publishing systems and built its own with the goal of making it as simple as possible for its journalists to build and publish stories. In a complicated world, staff realised they needed to make life as simple as possible for the people at the heart of their business.

The system sounds not that far from The New York Times’ spoke-like CMS, Scoop, and is similar to a news gate variation that CCI is now in the final stages of taking to market.

Three very different projects, but all bound by the same fundamental idea: Simplicity.

About Michael Beach

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.