Life after launch – Cameron Adams, Canva
Canva’s CPO and Co-Founder Cameron Adams explains why your product launch is only the first one percent of your journey.
Cameron Adams is riding high as one of the co-founders of the wildly popular startup Canva, but it is the lessons he learned during his previous product roles that have helped contribute to Canva’s ongoing success.
As part of the team behind Google Wave and also as a founder of email startup Fluent, Cameron was able to closely witness why new products crash and burn, even after a strong launch.
“Launch day is nerve wracking and feels like the end of a long journey. But really it is your product’s very first baby step. The reality of what happens after launch is a roller coaster. You have to work hard to get more users and make sure your product grows.”
Cameron shares some of his experiences, large, small and otherwise, expanding on the lessons he has learned.
It was through failure that taught Cameron how to turn ‘launch’ into ‘launching pad’, opening the door to his involvement with the user-friendly graphic design platform and stratospheric success story that is Canva.
Google Wave – A product without a clear vision
Cameron joined Google in 2007 as a product designer for the ambitious Google Wave product, which was set to revolutionise communications, including email. One designer, five product managers and 50 engineers worked on this project. Google Wave was a startup within Google, a different approach that was ‘stealthy’ and was shrouded in secrecy, even from people who worked at the company.
“Being at Google comes with a lot of pressure and when you launch, people hear about it.” says Cameron.
“But having such a large team made it difficult to juggle exactly what the product was doing. There was a lot of input and a lot of different ideas in building a vision of how communication should be in the modern world. Some people were focused on technology and real-time communication. Others wanted to talk collaboration. Then there was the idea of a company agnostic platform.”
After a few years of development and secrecy, a demo was set for the Google IO conference, to unveil Google Wave to the world. Users were invited to add themselves to a waiting list, which had proven successful with Gmail. Three million people put their hands up and waited for six months to see the product.
Finally, the rubber met the road and Google Wave was launched.
But… as Cameron explains, the eager users ended up sitting in chat rooms by themselves. “This was a problem that should have been solved at launch. In the end the users actually had to solve the problem for themselves.”
The second problem according to Cameron was that people actually like email. It was going to be hard to prise them away from something that even today remains ‘the lifeblood of business’. Google Wave had decided not to blend with email. Everything you did on Wave had to stay on Wave, which created siloed experience without notifications and little ability for collaboration.
Problem #3. Wrong market. The original vision was for consumers to share photos and chat with friends. After release, Wave didn’t get much resonance from this audience. Instead, the uptake was from business users. They wanted to collaborate and create threads etc.
None of these problems were insurmountable. However, Cameron explains that having such a large team made it hard to change direction. Lots of teams had the consumer-based focus and they didn’t want their project to be ‘killed’.
In the end, Google Wave was public for ten months. There were 500,000 active users, but on a Google scale, this simply wasn’t good enough. The team dispersed and many left Google as a result.
Cameron explains part of the reason for this failure. “Startups and big companies have a tough relationship. Creating a startup within a company is quite challenging.” A four-person startup is hungry and panicked to get things happening. At Google, with a big budget and a huge team, there wasn’t the pressure to get something out and make sure it worked well from the get-go.
Fluent – A runaway success without a strategy
Stepping away from Google himself, Cameron started a product called Fluent, a new take on interacting with email. Fluent had some new features and functions that were designed to make using email easier. According to Cameron, the focus was on the product experience and design, which he had seen as an issue with Google Wave.
Initially, the response to Fluent was very positive. However this happened after an accidental launch.
The original plan was for a subscription based model. A small pool of alpha users were trying the product out through an open sign up page. Then a journalist got involved. A ‘preview’ for a future story ended up being in the paper a week later. Cue tens of thousands of users joining the waitlist in a short amount of time.
From this accidental launch, VC backers emerged, with promises of big $$$.
However, as Cameron explains, the VC process isn’t straightforward or easy. Those investors had a lot of questions that needed answering covering the running of an actual business. During that time, Cameron and his colleagues weren’t able to do product development. Bugs were piling up, existing users were getting frustrated and Fluent began a downward slide.
In the end, no funding came through. Cameron and his team had learnt a lot about building a business as well as a product.
Key lessons from Fluent:
Rule #1 Stay operational! You can’t pause to go and raise money, you need to keep moving
Rule #2 Stick to your guns. Cam explains that their original vision got skewed and be the time he and his team tried to re-focus, it was too late. To quote Mike Tyson – “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.
Canva – the success story!
Canva is a graphic design platform for people with no design skills. This platform started small, with barely any wait list. It now has over 15 million users and numerous languages and is being used all over the world.
Cameron attributes success of Canva to the diversity of the team, which initially consisted of three experts, one in product, one in design and one in engineering.
Building Canva took one year. There was extensive user testing – a lesson Cameron had learned from not doing it on Google Wave. User testing validated the team’s vision, helped to streamline the onboarding process and also highlighted a lack of confidence amongst users to the design process, which was able to be rectified before launch.
Having engaged a marketing person, Canva had a smooth initial launch – with little fanfare.
After the ‘GO’ button had been pressed, Cameron thought “What now?” The fact was, however, that Canva had only taken one step in its long journey towards success.
“Growth was not linear or exponential,” explains Cameron. “It became a matter of trial and error. The steps of what you go through after launch – that’s what’s important.”
Canva relies on AARRR, or what’s fondly known as Pirate Metrics. This stands for:
This gives you a framework for deciding what you should be working on. If a project doesn’t match any of these things… throw it out.
Cameron delves into two of these for the audience at the 2016 Leading the Product conference.
For Canva, word of mouth has been a big win, with fantastic customers who love sharing.
The hard work came from SEO. Cameron explains that a few months after launch the company encountered an SEO expert who showed them the light of helping customers to find your product in natural and meaningful ways.
A content strategy helped to build a network of people who were linking to pages about how to create flyers using Canva. Executing this plan was one of the key contributors to Canva’s growth. Read more about this on the Canva blog.
Keeping customers happy and improving the product are the constant focus for Canva.
But the question is: do you fix the broken stuff or do you do the shiny new stuff?
Canva collects data from users about what they want, which helps to align the vision. One of the most important aspects has been through the customer happiness team. This crew is always listening to people and engaging with them, creating data that flows through to the product team.
At one stage, customer happiness data wasn’t getting looked at, but Canva has since leveraged it to improve their product. They even have ‘fix it’ days with people focusing on eliminating bugs that customers complain most about.
Key takeaways from Cam’s ten years in product
- Have plans and strategies for growth – not just launch
- Great products are defined by how they change – not how they look at launch. You need to meet the needs of your growing market
- Not all teams are created equal. Sometimes the launch team isn’t the best growth team.
About Cameron Adams
Cameron is a co-founder and Chief Product Officer at Canva, an online design platform that has quickly become one of the most exciting startups in Australia.
From 2007, Cameron spent 3 years helping Lars and Jens Rasmussen – co-founders of Google Maps – realise the design vision for their ground-breaking communication tool Google Wave.
In 2011 he founded an ambitious email startup with two other Google alumni before meeting Mel and Cliff and deciding to help them build the beginnings of Canva. He now leads the product strategy and design for Canva’s apps, which grew from 1.5 million users to over 7 million users in 2015 alone.