What’s the main reason behind Canva’s success?
This week, my very special guest Mahesh Muralidhar details how he led People Operations at Canva (where he was employee number 25) from a small initial team to more than 200 across three offices.
If you are looking to make your next marketing hire, this episode is a must-listen.
We cover a wide range of topics including why talent acquisition is just growth marketing, why you should never underestimate anyone and Mahesh’s TimTam marketing hack that won him Uber as a client for his own startup.
Since this recording I’ve actually used a variation of this TimTam hack on a trip to San Francisco and it definitely had AT LEAST a 100:1 ROI!
So please enjoy this wide ranging discussion with Mahesh Muralidhar
What you will learn in this episode
- How Cliff and Mel from Canva convinced Mahesh to leave his startup (just when he was about to close the seed round funding) to go and work at Canva.
- Mahesh’s TimTam marketing hack that won him Uber’s as a client
- Why recruitment has been one of the major factors around Canva’s success
- Why talent acquisition is just like growth marketing
- Don’t compromise when hiring – wait for the right skillset
- Why you should never underestimate anyone
- How to be commercial when hiring
- Thoughts around business leadership
(The mighty) Tottenham Hostspur
Mahesh’s ‘hiring in football article’ (coming soon)
What business you would build on Mars?
I have very dry and geeky answers to these kind of things. My first response was, “What do they need? What do they want?” Then I was like, “Let’s make some assumptions.” I’m a tourist coming into this brand new country. We’re not going to sell probably something that I think is cool because it’s exclusive. Gold seems to be very attractive to people constantly, so if they don’t have a shiny thing or something that smells nice or something that drives an immediate kick of endorphins, I’ll find that out and then I’ll sell to them. I’ll just tell them that this is the coolest thing and make it super exclusive.
Get in touch with Mahesh
Brendan: Mahesh, welcome to the show.
Mahesh: Hey. How you doing?
Brendan: You’ve worked with two of Australia’s biggest startups. Obviously, being employee number 25 at Canva is pretty amazing. I just wanted to go back a bit. I mean, how did you first get started in the HR industry?
Mahesh: Actually, that’s a good point, Brendan. When you’re in a startup or a scale-up and definitely when you’re in a senior position, you shouldn’t consider yourself as part of a function. You’re a business leader. Definitely HR has a little bit of baggage around being this, “I’m Mr. administrative policeman.” That’s definitely not the way I look at it. To answer your question, got out of university with a stats and organizational change background. Was always interested in organizations. Stumbled into recruitment, which is actually sales and marketing. Did that for many years. Did an MBA. Was good at it. Then moved into strategy consulting, and then had an HR tech startup. Was about to close out my seed round of funding when I bumped into Cliff and Mel at Canva and they said, “Hey, why don’t you come on board?”
Brendan: Wow. How did they sell Canva to you at that time? Obviously, pretty early on.
Mahesh: Not many people have asked me this question. It’s a good question to ask. I hustled as part of my HR tech startup and I wanted to get some big brands. I hustled and got Uber as one of our clients. What I did was, we had so little money, I couldn’t afford a full box of Tim Tams. There were these three-packet Tim Tam things, and I went Monday to Friday and left them outside Uber’s Alexandria office, a small, little dingy office. Finally, the general manager got in touch. I said, “I think we can help you solve some real problems.” He said, “Look, if you just stop giving Tim Tams, we’ll sign onboard.”
Mahesh: I did something similar with Canva. I think Cliff, especially, was impressed by the hustle that I showed. He seemed to see that I looked at things from a first principles perspective. Recruitment was really important to Cliff and Mel, and they still value it. It’s one of the biggest reasons why Canva’s hugely successful, the people they’ve brought onboard and people strategy. I like to think that he saw somebody he could delegate this critical part of the business to. Until then, he absolutely wouldn’t do that, because he believed that the people he brought on board was so important. He was Canva’s first recruiter. That was nice and flattering when he gave the option. The minute I walked in to the office, I was like, “Something’s happening here. Something a bit different is happening here.”
Brendan: I mean, it must have been amazing to see that from such an early stage and have such big influence on the people that came in and started to shape the company as well.
Mahesh: The romance of that time was just magical. It was really magical. I remember when the whole Canva team could squeeze into an office this size. It took me about two weeks to finally get what Mel wanted to achieve. When that landed, I went, “Whoa. You need a lot of people. A lot more people.” It was just such a beautiful, optimistic, romantic time. We were going to change the world. They are changing the world.
Brendan: I mean, an amazing product also helps as well. Listening to Mel talk, she’s saying she’s only 1% through her mission to change the world of publishing. I mean, how do you find people that want to join on to these big causes? They may not me getting paid as much as they would be at a big corporate, for example. How do you sell that and how do you find the right people to achieve these big missions?
Mahesh: It’s actually not too hard. I think the single most important thing is you need to demand it. You need to demand a certain caliber and technical level. You get what you demand. You just refuse not to compromise. Now, the important thing is having a good understanding of what exactly you’re demanding, because it’s such a subjective thing. Assessing a person and a skillset is just a subjective exercise. You need to have a data-oriented way of assessing. You need to do that.
Mahesh: The single most important thing is demanding. Far too many times, and I’ve definitely made this mistake, we compromise. We go, “Oh, if we don’t get the skillset across the line this quickly enough, we may lose our project,” but the cost and the other side of the coin, the value-add of getting a person with the right skillset and just waiting, is huge.
Brendan: Don’t compromise.
Mahesh: Don’t compromise. Hey, I completely believe Mel when she says that. She’s tremendous. I had the chance to work with her closely enough and it was definitely inspiring at times.
Brendan: One of the big themes that I hear at Canva when I talk to people at Canva and hear Mel talk, don’t underestimate anyone. How do you, I guess, use that mantra when you’re talking to different people? I mean, I’ve heard different stories about how innovative and legendary the hiring process was at Canva. Can you tell us any stories of that and how you may have, I guess, underestimated people and then turned out to be winners?
Mahesh: Sorry. I also want to make a comment. I spoke quite highly of Mel just now. I must admit; I think Mel and Cliff go hand-in-hand. Cliff’s such a tremendous operator, too. I have oodles of respect for him. I like to think I don’t underestimate. You need to be very clear about what you’re looking for. I’ve started using this phrase recently: the anthropology of skills. Where does the skillset come from? Where is the origin of a skillset? Why is someone a really strong communicator? Why is someone good at numeracy? Why does somebody have really good verbal reasoning? We’re all born kind of the same. I mean, I’m sure there might be different bandwidths of IQ levels and so forth, but where’s that base level craft being taught? How is that maturing and evolving? Then we end up in this open marketplace where there’s this supply-demand equation on skillsets.
Mahesh: I think thinking through very clearly why is someone a good Java engineer, why is someone a good growth marketer, why is someone a good construction worker, et cetera, and breaking them down into areas allows you to form a much more unbiased view of what is good. What I look for is a signal of excellence. Have you shown servitude and sacrifice to become really good at something? Or have you somewhere along your career been at a place that would’ve demanded that of you?
Mahesh: That could have been an institution, that could have been a workplace, that could have been a family. That could be showcased through incredible writing through blog articles. That could be because you’ve been a national team Italian water polo player and then picked up computer science, because to become part of the Italian water polo team you would have had to woken up at 4:00 AM and swam 20 different laps. Are you somebody who has invested into your craft, become really good at something? Can I see some signal that would have occurred?
Mahesh: It might be even a very well-constructed cover letter which showcases… in fact, research shows the single biggest signal of top performance, and that’s referring to software engineering, is actually command of the English language. I mean, in the Western orient. I presume if it was Chinese orientation or in a different language it’d be how you express yourself. How do you write? Is it clear? Is it clean? Is it pronounced? Sorry, that’s a rather long answer.
Brendan: No, fantastic answer. After they’ve come onboard, they’re in line with the vision, I think a really underrated part of businesses and startups is the actual retention of their staff as well. Obviously, a high turnover, definitely not good for anyone, definitely not good for you. Talking of culture, an example that springs to my mind, when I did the Zappos tour in Las Vegas. They’re renowned for having amazing culture. There’s a statistic; it’s harder to get a job at Zappos now than to get into Harvard. They have a very low turnover, big focus on the staff. What are some of the ways that you’ve implemented, I guess, culture at Canva and Airtasker?
Mahesh: I think one of the things that I am definitely not a fan of and I cringe a lot is the notion of culture fit. It definitely grates me the wrong way. Nobody understands what that means. Culture is one of those words, like love, which is ambiguous. It gets thrown around a lot. What do you mean? Nobody really knows what it means. There’s no first principles approach. I mean, arguably, first principles of love is attachment and then you can break it down further. We won’t go down that rabbit hole. To make an assessment to understand and calibrate what is your company culture, for you to interpret that, for you to then assess what somebody else’s culture is, and then see if there’s a match within an hour-long interview is a joke. That doesn’t happen. When people come out and say, “This person is not a cultural fit,” usually what that means is, “I didn’t get along with this person.” Great. Let’s just say that.
Mahesh: What should you assess for? You should assess for very high technical skills, full stop. You should onboard someone into a culture, very much like an immigrant coming to a brand new country. You don’t go, “Hey, you don’t drink Guinness, so you can’t come into Ireland.” You don’t do that. Instead you go, “Hey, this is who we are. Are you going to create value? Come onboard. Share your stuff, and we’ll share our stuff. We’ll make it a better place.” That’s the way it should be. I think just having that mindset up top is really good. Having top performance is really good.
Mahesh: I’ll tell you, the single most important thing to be a great place to work is you have to win. You’ve got to win. Rather, you’ve got to feel like you’re winning. Success covers up all kinds of cracks, is the aphrodisiac, is the endorphin of making you feel like life’s great. If you’re not winning so much, then all sorts of cracks happen. Get your business right. Get your business model right. Get your business strategy right. Nail it. Then there’s this whole structural piece and stuff, which it’s actually not that difficult, in my opinion.
Brendan: I mean, obviously, you’ve worked with two massive startups. Personally for you at this moment, what’s in your business black box? What are you struggling with at the moment?
Mahesh: Look, I’m actually really excited. I’m redrafting what I like to think is the incentive architecture for the organization and making sure how we promote, how we calibrate people, performance management, assessment, levels, leveling, all of that. It’s an architecture, because one thing is connected to another is connected to another. You need to understand incentives. You need to make sure incentives are aligned.
Mahesh: It’s different personas. An engineer is different to a designer is different to a marketer, et cetera. You’re trying to construct this architecture. It’s very much like a product. You’re trying to create this landscape and trying to make sure that incentives are set up such that people want to win and a sense of fairness occurs. Yet, there’s a level of, “I want to play this game. This is a good game for me. This is a healthy game.” You want to set that up. I’m just doing that right now, which is quite fun.
Brendan: Awesome. Speaking of stuff that you’ve done in the past as well, for the small medium businesses that are listening right now, we’ve touched on the hiring process. It’s difficult, especially in the early days. Are there any quick tips or stories that we can give these guys to help them with making the right hire?
Mahesh: My biggest suggestion is be very commercial. When you’re hiring someone, you’ve got a wallet. You’ve got X money in your business account or whatever it is, in your bank balance. You can spend that on a marketing campaign. You can spend that on a new table. You can spend that on a sales campaign. Or you can hire engineers or designers and marketers. It is just capital allocation. Usually before businesses launch a new marketing campaign, they do a lot of thinking, they do a lot of research, they do a lot of work, but hiring doesn’t take as much time. It is just money. A CEO or leadership team, one of their primary jobs is to allocate capital. How are you allocating this capital?
Mahesh: If you’re going to hire someone, do work. Write a requisition document. Write a project plan. What are you going to get out of this project in three months? What are you going to get out of this project in six months? You can even do an NPV on it, if you wanted to. That’s basically what it is. You could spend the money on marketing, or you could spend the money on a person. At the end of the day, you’re trying to achieve a mission and create value for the business, so do work. Slow it down, and write a requisition document. A lot of times when you write a requisition document, you will change your hire. A job description is marketing. It’s marketing for candidates. A requisition document forces you to understand what you actually want from this hire. Do that.
Brendan: I mean, I’ve heard Canva and Airtasker, they don’t traditionally hire people that, as you were mentioning before, have the traditional backgrounds. Where are some good places where people can find, I guess, some alternate candidates, other than the traditional job board sites?
Mahesh: I think it’s not necessarily the traditional job board sites. It’s just growth marketing, really. Talent acquisition is just growth marketing. You need to be very clear what your channels are. A job board is a channel. Stack Overflow is a channel. Referrals are a channel. Direct applicants are a channel. Depending on the skillset you’re looking for, where do you think they’re going to be? Then go hustle and make sure that you have a significant growth marketing plan to get attention. It’s really not hard to differentiate if you put some time. You just need to be very cold and data-oriented about it. It’s not touchy-feely. It’s just a marketing channel. Get the marketing channel right.
Brendan: Touching on your personal area now, Mahesh. Are you a big reader at all?
Mahesh: I do read. I read a lot more articles than books, but I do watch a lot of YouTube clips.
Brendan: Oh, the YouTube rabbit hole?
Mahesh: Yeah, I do. What I do is I come across a book and I go, “Oh, this is good. I see enough signals that I need to pick this up.” Then I hack it by watching the condensed YouTube gist. I get, “Okay, this is the high-level principles. If I want to deep dive more, I will.”
Brendan: Any books that you would recommend to an audience?
Mahesh: Definitely. I’m a huge fan of Lean Analytics.
Brendan: Oh, nice.
Mahesh: I’m an HR professional. My go-to book is Lean Analytics. Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman. If you are interested in the people side of things, you should read Work Rules by Laszlo Bock, ex-Google. If you really want a big picture view of organizational structure, strategy, et cetera, there’s a book called Reinventing Organizations. I can’t remember his name. Darn it. He’s an ex-McKinsey guy.
Brendan: We’ll put all these books in the show notes. I’ll grab that name off you later. From a personal perspective again, is there any small investments, $100 or less, that you’ve made in yourself that has made a massive difference?
Mahesh: YouTube Prime, whatever the YouTube-
Brendan: YouTube Red.
Mahesh: YouTube Red. Yeah, that’s right. YouTube Red. I adore downloading-
Brendan: Downloading for later.
Mahesh: Downloading for later on.
Brendan: No Airtasker ads?
Mahesh: No ads. You know what the frustrating thing, though, is? It’s not consistent globally. Many countries don’t have the same licensing agreement with YouTube. You travel to Asia or somewhere else in Europe, and suddenly you can’t download videos. I’m like, “Excuse me? What just happened here?” You also can’t download on laptop. Still, five bucks a month? I use it heaps.
Brendan: Do you watch any of the original YouTube content?
Mahesh: What do you mean?
Brendan: They’ve rolled out a whole slate of YouTube originals.
Mahesh: Oh, no.
Mahesh: No. Everything I do, I do to learn. I don’t watch it for entertainment other than Tottenham Hotspur-
Brendan: You’re a Tottenham Hotspur fan?
Mahesh: I’m a hardcore Hotspur fan.
Brendan: So am I.
Mahesh: Oh, really? That’s brilliant. Well, congratulations. It’s been an epic season last season.
Brendan: Amazing season.
Brendan: Not the fairytale ending I was hoping for. What about hiring in football? That’s actually a pretty interesting area.
Mahesh: Brilliant. Look, I’m awaiting the article that I will write, drawing parallels between the recruitment strategies that different clubs have and different companies have. You look at the business model and the identity of a club and how they execute on hiring. There is a wage structure. There is different philosophy in regards to what the talent is. The way Chelsea and Manchester City hire is very different from Tottenham. This is a very cold, calculated business decision and how you execute.
Mahesh: In my opinion, it’s not about how you hire. You can hire any way you want. You can hire whoever you want. It’s about alignment. Do you understand your business strategy? Are you aligned in regards to who you’re hiring and how you’re hiring and therefore they will be able to execute on the business strategy? It’s not about which way’s better. It’s about, are you clear about who you are and then have you extended through the whole employee lifecycle this alignment there? I hope that makes sense.
Brendan: Oh, it does makes sense. I’m looking forward to reading the article.
Mahesh: So am I, to be honest.
Brendan: Where is this going to be published?
Mahesh: Medium, hopefully. I keep telling myself I need to start writing it. I need to start writing soon.
Brendan: What about Tottenham’s zero dollars spent for the whole season?
Mahesh: Look at the results, right? Look at the results.
Brendan: Close-knit team.
Mahesh: Look at the results. It’s interesting. I think a lot about this, actually, because the dollars per value created per top-tier football player is huge. The margins being made, the value created is huge. Therefore, there’s so much more science being put into. I was listening to a YouTube clip yesterday where they were taking about they had formed a very clear assessment on what are the best buys for Tottenham in the coming season. They talked about 3.3 dribbles this season, 2.2 passes this season. It’s so numbers-driven. Still, not perfect, but they’re measuring. They’re measuring, they’re measuring, they’re measuring.
Mahesh: In the same way at some point, I presume the open marketplace is going to be able to deliver this. I mean, it’s already started happening, right? How many uploads do you have on Github? How many Medium articles do you have? How many Airtasker jobs have you done? What is your rating level on Airtasker? At some point, measurement will come through. We’ve been in the age of information, perhaps misinformation, for a while recently. Perhaps we’re not too far away at all from the age of insights really coming through.
Brendan: That’s super interesting. We’ll put a link to your Medium account down in the show notes as well.
Mahesh: Thank you. No pressure.
Brendan: Just wanted to thank you again, Mahesh, for your time. Obviously super busy. A lot of big things happening at Airtasker. We have one final question. It’s a bit creative. It’s going to definitely stimulate a lot of thought. You’re on the first flight to Mars with Elon Musk and the first settlers aboard the Space X starship rocket. What business do you start when you land on Mars, and how do you promote it to the new Martians?
Mahesh: I have very dry and geeky answers to these kind of things. My first response was, “What do they need? What do they want?” Then I was like, “Let’s make some assumptions.” I’m a tourist coming into this brand new country. We’re not going to sell probably something that I think is cool because it’s exclusive. Gold seems to be very attractive to people constantly, so if they don’t have a shiny thing or something that smells nice or something that drives an immediate kick of endorphins, I’ll find that out and then I’ll sell to them. I’ll just tell them that this is the coolest thing and make it super exclusive.
Brendan: I like it. A bit of scarcity.
Mahesh: A bit of scarcity.
Brendan: A bit of customer research as well.
Mahesh: I was listening to a thing about… was it Hermès bags? They were these special bags that are really hard to purchase. I can’t remember. Like the brand Supreme. It’s really hard to get. Exclusivity goes a long way in regards to increasing price.
Brendan: Get that FOMO out there as well.
Mahesh: Get that FOMO out there. Totally.
Brendan: Mahesh, really appreciate your time today. I mean, is there anything you’d like to say or any actions you want people to take before we wrap up?
Mahesh: I think the biggest thing I’d like to say is, I remember when I was an entrepreneur and I had my own small business. It’s hard. It’s challenging. You have to go through a lot. Sometimes it’s thankless. Just wanted to give massive props to anybody who’s trying to do something really cool, create value. Know that it’s really good for everybody that they’re toiling and working really hard. I have so much respect for anybody that does something a little bit scary and steps out and goes, “I’m going to try to make something.” Just massive props to all the people who listen to this and go, “This is hard.” Massive props.
Brendan: It’s been fun, Mahesh. More importantly, let’s hope for a good Tottenham Hotspurs season.
Mahesh: Yes, indeed.
Brendan: One place better, the champions league winners. Guys, you can catch these show notes with everything that we said today at Metigy.com/Podcast. Mahesh, one more time, big thank you.
Mahesh: Thank you. Thanks, Brendan.