Building Better CMOs
Building Better CMOs
Zach Kitschke (Canva) Transcript
Zach Kitschke:
Say yes to the opportunities that come along. Sometimes you don't know where that will take you, but I think when you focus on doing what the business needs and saying yes, even if it's taking on a project outside of your comfort area, by working on the things that are a priority for the company, that will give you an incredible amount of exposure to the different challenges and business priorities but is ultimately the greatest way to learn and grow.

Greg Stuart:
Welcome to Building Better CMOs, a podcast about how marketers can get smarter and stronger. I am Greg Stuart, the CEO of nonprofit MMA Global. We have three goals: to change how we think about marketing, to understand the challenges CMOs face, and to unlock the true power that marketing can have. Now, this podcast is not a place for hero worship or how great CMOs are. There's lots of places for that. Instead, we're going to talk about real leadership in marketing and what it takes to drive growth today.

Today's guest is Zach Kitschke, the CMO of Canva. He was employee number five there and has worked there in a number of roles for over 10 years. Canva was founded to make good design much, much simpler and accessible to everyone. Zach is going to share with us about the origin story, why Canva is leaning into AI, and what CMOs like him get out of working with professional coaches. You can find a full transcript of this interview and more at And if you like the podcast, do me a favor and leave a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. If you don't like the podcast, email me, seriously. I'm I'd love to hear from you. But now let's get to my conversation with Zach Kitschke.

Hey, welcome to the show today, Zach Kitschke from Canva. Great to see you here today. How you doing?

ZK: Good, thanks, Greg. Good to see you again.

GS: Where are you by the way?

ZK: I'm at home in Bondi, in Sydney, Australia at the moment.

GS: I think an enviable spot in Australia, correct?

ZK: Yeah. It's actually... we're the opposite to you folks, though, where we're going into winter. So I'm sitting here rugged up in the cold today. It's not the sunny Bondi you see—

GS: Wait, wait, wait. Zach, I've been there. You do not have cold, Zach. You don't have cold.

ZK: No, no, that's true. Cold for us.

GS: You kind of remind me, I had a brother-in-law and sister-in-law that lived in Argentina and they used to wear coats and I was like, "You wear a coat here? What for? It's beautiful all the time."

ZK: Yeah, you can't tell a New Yorker it's cold, right?

GS: No, no, no, no. Not here. Not at all. No, no, no. The whole northern part of the United States is pretty damn cold sometimes. Zach, listen, I really appreciate you being here, and I'm super excited to talk to you about Canva and some of the work that you guys are doing. It's an extraordinary journey. Those who don't know the company... In fact, you know what? Let's set the stage a little bit for people. So we have a company now with an extraordinarily strong valuation that was started not that many years ago, right?

ZK: That's right. Yeah. We launched back in 2013, so we'll be celebrating 10 years this year. And really the mission of Canva is to empower the world to design. We launched back in 2013 with this vision to take design software—which was complex, expensive, difficult to use at that point in time—and to make it really simple, easy, and accessible to everyone. And so with that, we launched Canva. These days, over 130 million people are using the platform in 190 countries all around the world to create everything from social media posts to presentations to videos to T-shirts, the list goes on and on and on. So we've seen this incredible growth over the last few years, which has been very exciting, obviously, to be part of.

GS: How many employees now, Zach? How big is the company?

ZK: We're 3,500 people globally these days.

GS: Crazy. It's just crazy what's happened there. And if I remember right, was it the largest fund for an Australian startup or something? There was something early about that, right?

ZK: Yeah, early on it was the largest seed funding round for an Australian company. So we had raised $3 million back in 2013, and then in the last couple years we reached a valuation of $40 billion. Been growing profitably over the past few years as well. So it's been a tremendous ride.

GS: Yeah, I don't know if you can say, but I think what I've read is that a company that's nearly doubling or is doubling every year?

ZK: Yeah.

GS: Something crazy like that. It's amazing. It's an absolutely incredible story, especially... I lived out in Silicon Valley, I was a part of a startup that went public during the dot-com. I've been through some of those experiences, but I don't think there's anything I've heard as dramatic as what Canva has been. And what's interesting about it, too, is it started with a very simple mission that you're still incredibly true to, right? You've not deviated, the product has advanced, but the solution is, in essence, still the same.

ZK: That's right. And I think that is a huge part of Canva and our story. Our founder, Mel, has been incredibly consistent in driving us towards that mission. And she came up with the idea actually when she was teaching design software back at home in Perth on the other side of Australia. And at that point of time was observing students using tools like Photoshop and InDesign, and I guess just started to question whether there was a better way, an easier way to do things.

And she was looking at products like Facebook, which had hit the market and were obviously taking off. And so came up with this concept for making it available online. And I guess through the mission to empower the world to design, that was really a response to this sort of philosophical belief that her and her co-founder Cliff had, which was that design and visual communication should be something that everyone can access no matter your income, your skill level, or where you live in the world. And so that mission continues to drive us today, and it's obviously amazing to reflect on where we've gotten to at this point. It's a big mission. We talk about empowering the whole world and there's billions of internet users, so we've still got a very long way to go.

GS: Now, what's particularly interesting about your part of this story, Zach, is you were employee number five. And I think if I heard right, you were just hired for one day, they didn't even know if they needed you, right?

ZK: That's right. It was one of those situations where I think I wanted to be part of Canva more than they wanted me at the beginning. I actually came in for a one-day contract to help write the media release for our very first funding round that I was mentioning earlier. So I was actually, prior to Canva, writing full time as the editor of a small publication that had launched to cover the tech and startup space in Australia, this sort of emerging space. It was a real interest area of mine. And so I thought that was a great job, but like many startups, that business wasn't able to turn a profit. And so I found out one day that the business had run out of money, which meant I was out of a job.

GS: That's usually how that works, that's right. Yeah.

ZK: Yeah. At the age of 21, I was thinking, "Oh my gosh, how am I going to pay my rent? I need to find something else." I'd moved to Sydney for that previous job from my hometown, and I guess I started to reach out and ask a bunch of people for advice. And one of those people happened to be one of our very first investors from Blackbird Ventures, a local VC firm here in Sydney. And he said, "You should chat to Mel and Cliff, we've just invested. I don't know if they're looking for anyone right now, but it's worth a chat." And so he put me in touch and sort of set the course in action.

GS: And I guess they liked your first press release on that day. Did they ask you right then to come back the next day or did they say, we'll get back to you later?

ZK: They asked me that afternoon. Yeah, I spent the day trying to get my head around what they were up to and put this press release together, and they said, "Why don't you come back tomorrow?" And here we are 10 years later.

GS: And so on a daily basis you keep waiting for them to say, don't...

ZK: That's right.

GS: ... come back tomorrow

ZK: Every afternoon.

GS: You just keep showing up.

ZK: That's right.

GS: Exactly. Just to check in. Now, and what's funny about you, too, Zach—because this is going to be interesting when we get to the talk about marketing, the whole point of this conversation—you were first doing comms, then you went to product, I guess?

ZK: Yeah, at that point, I guess you have to remember it was five of us around a little table. And so everyone is a jack of all trades at that point. So in those early days, I was helping with comms and our marketing but took on our customer service and was even cooking lunches with Cliff for the team. And so as we grew, I sort of handed over some of those responsibilities and trained up our customer service team and built that function. Then I moved into product, which was a great experience, helping to build our premium version, which is now called Canva Pro, and launch that. Really great introduction into that world. Then Mel and Cliff asked me to move into the HR space and build out our people function. So spent a couple years immersing myself in the world of HR.

GS: Just because they had nobody else who could pick it up, but I guess they thought you were a workhorse, I guess or something, right? I don't know.

ZK: I don't know. I don't know. But that was a fascinating experience and really enjoyed the opportunity to build out some of our important programs on the people side, like Canva University, which is our learning and development function and internal coaching team, the HR function. So I did that for a few years and then they tapped me and said, "We'd love you to help build out the marketing function. Building this brand's a real priority." So that's what I've been doing now for the last few years.

GS: When did you take over as head of marketing?

ZK: It'd be about three and a half, four years ago now.

GS: And how big was the marketing department at that time? For a sense of scale, how many people?

ZK: It was pretty small. We, at that point, didn't have a creative team, we didn't have a product marketing function, we didn't have a growth marketing team. So there was a handful of really passionate, great folks doing some great work in things like SEO and a bit of performance marketing, but really, it was definitely a build.

GS: And in some regards to the business, I think, if I get the history having talked to you in the past, is that it really did just kind of take off on its own. When did you go, huh, darn, this thing might be a really big deal? What was that point?

ZK: I reflected on this and I don't know if I can pinpoint a specific point. I think I was so caught up in the mission, having met Mel and Cliff and come on early on. I was absolute belief that this was a huge need and—

GS: So from the very beginning, you got it, it made sense to you.

ZK: Yeah. And then I think when you're working towards a mission like that, it's just like, okay, one step after the other, this kind of relentless pursuit of trying to get there. In the early days, you have to remember we had nobody, and so we were doing things like running workshops at the local library to get people in to learn about design and inadvertently signing them up to our product and platform. And there was weeks early on where it was this kind of desperate exercise of how we're going to get the next five users, 10 users, 50 users, and it felt like that went on for a long time.

And then we started to see some of that viral effect taking hold, particularly in Australia, and in sort of social media, the marketing community where we definitely solved for a really strong use case. And then we caught Guy Kawasaki's attention, the former chief evangelist of Apple. And so he actually came on as an adviser back in 2014. And so that was definitely one of those moments where it was like, okay, it is pretty cool that someone like that, with that kind of profile, he's using the product and sees the value. And so some of those endorsements along the way definitely gave the team a little bit of that momentum and faith that we were on the right track as well.

GS: Yeah, I love it. Yeah, I love it. I've heard your story. It's an incredible thing. So let's shift to our topic here for Building Better CMOs. You weren't trained as a marketer originally, you didn't work for a big-time CMO to get taught the job. You got a big team. What's your team now? I think you've told me 300-400 marketing. What's the marketing size?

ZK: About 400 people. Yeah.

GS: Yeah. It's big. You got a lot of people. Okay. What's interesting, though, is that you have a product that can appeal to marketers and those who appreciate marketing, I guess, at some level. So the question I always like to ask first is: in your experience, in your exposure, from your unique position, what do you think marketers, maybe even CMOs, don't really fully understand about marketing that you think... Obviously, the subtext of that, that you think they'd be well served to be more focused or experienced on?

ZK: The number one thing, I think, is that marketers really need to be careful that buzzy tactics don't become a replacement for good strategy. That's definitely something that I've learned along the way, and I think it can be really easy to get caught up in chasing the generation of that buzz and forget that the primary goal that we're here to serve is to ultimately drive the business. And for marketing, that comes back to getting people to choose your brand and drive sales ultimately.

GS: What's the experience or exposure you've had that's taught you that buzzy metrics or buzzy dynamics aren't really the thing to go after?

ZK: In our case, it's been seeing what has really driven the business, and I think some of our most effective marketing is not necessarily the stuff that people look at and maybe will celebrate or be most interested in externally. It's the kind of stuff that does the hard work. And that can be things like testimonial-driven advertising or it can be the SEO work that we do or things like that, that really drive things forward. And I think what it really comes back to is having strategic clarity on what you're there to try and do and what is the brand message and the business objectives.

And I think when you're really clear on that, it really helps make sure that every single tactic or marketing technique that you're evaluating is laddering up to that macro strategy. And so I think that can be something that you can lose sight of, and you can end up getting excited about tactics that don't connect to that North Star or the strategy. And sometimes being able to say no is actually the most important thing in my take.

GS: Yeah, I think what I'm hearing you argue for is a very practical, maybe even rational articulation, communication about what Canva can do for those who orient themselves towards the necessity for design of some kind. Is that what you're trying to say? It could be somewhat taking the emotion out of advertising, which a lot of people believe in. But what do you think?

ZK: No, I don't think that's true. I think it's being really clear on what it is that your brand stands for, what the product is there to do, and ultimately what's going to drive that with your community. If I think about what that has meant for us at its core, our mission is to empower the world to design, as I've shared. And we do that through the products that we offer, making them simple and easy and delightful to use. And so for us, we come back to our core values and our principles, which sort of feed through everything that we do. So some of the values, as an example, make complex things simple. So for our product experience, we spent many, many, many years and focused an incredible amount on making sure that every interaction someone has with the product makes them feel smarter. They're not having to pick up big textbooks to learn how to use, they can easily get from A to B.

And we hold ourselves to a very high bar on that and do a lot of testing, actually, to validate that that experience continues. And so before we launch anything, do an incredible amount of testing and push ourselves to really make the product experience as simple as possible. And we do the same thing for our advertising as well. So our creative development, we put through its paces, and so we hold it to the same bar when we're testing. And so we'll actually ask people a number of questions that come back to: are you likely to use this product or recommend it to a friend? And do you feel like you could use it yourself? And we found that those two bars are incredibly important to pushing our creative to the most simple and effective communication of the message and showcasing the design experience. That would be one example.

GS: Hey Zach, are you able to share what your net promoter score is?

ZK: We won't ship a new product unless we're reaching nines or tens on the question of how likely are you to recommend this product to a friend or co-worker. So it's an incredibly high bar that we hold ourselves to.

GS: Not everybody says it's a nine or 10, do they or there has to be nines and tens in the group?

ZK: Consistently nines or tens, yeah.

GS: Because listen, if you're advocating for even an 80 percent net promoter score, that's extraordinarily high. Apple's a 70 percent last time I looked. So a lot of this is about building a better mousetrap. How do you really do that? Talk to me a little bit about the marketing and some of the marketing you do. Like I said, I heard testimonials is an element of it, certainly trying to be available, take advantage of SEO when people have some intent orientation to things. I hear that. What else are you doing from a marketing standpoint that you think is really working?

ZK: A few things that have been really big for us over the last little while, a huge focus on experiential. So we had just recently our Canva Create event here in Sydney in March. It was our second event in a major—

GS: I saw John Costello was there and was featuring photos from it. It looked like fun. What'd you do?

ZK: We held our first Canva Create actually in September of last year, and it was a big product launch moment that we held in Sydney and brought together our community from around the world. And then we dialed it up and did it again in March. And so in March we launched a range of new AI tools that we had integrated into our product suite and some brand management functionality. But what was really fun about that was the incredible enthusiasm and the excitement from our community. And so for the event, we held it in Sydney, broadcast it around the world. And to give you a sense of the scale, we had over 1.5 million people from our community tune in to find out the latest around those features. So experiential's been a big part, as you can imagine. Off the back of that, community has been a huge driver for us as well.

So we have spent lots of time and energy facilitating and enabling our global community. So we have hundreds of thousands of teachers that are part of our official communities now globally that come together and share their lesson plans, their tips and tricks in the classroom, and supporting one another on Canva. Content creators, a big community of content creators that help create templates for the Canva library, small businesses, freelancers. So community's been a huge part.

I'd say PR and communications all the way along. That was the only lever that we had to play with in the early days. So telling the story of this startup no one had heard of, try to generate awareness and build momentum. So that really started with the founder story, the incredible story of Mel, and Cliff in particular, trying to get this business off the ground, pitching hundreds of investors and being rejected and pursuing Canva through to where we are today. So PR has driven incredible visibility and helped with that word of mouth. And then more recently, over the last few years we've really dialed up and been doing a lot more brand building and brand advertising. So that's been newer for us with a big focus in the US. And so—

GS: What's the messaging in the brand building? What's either the tagline or what's the messaging for people?

ZK: It is that Canva makes it easy to achieve your personal and professional goals through design and visual communication. So what we've really found has worked best there is very clear products, communication, and education, as well as starting to showcase the value pieces that we stand for as well.

GS: I think Canva has, as a company, very product focused. I get all that. Really focused on trying to do the heavy, hard lift of making it simple, which is a funny way to put that, but it takes a lot of extra effort to get that right. And I think most people experiencing most companies or products is that they're not designed for people. So you're getting that right. But you are a company that's thinking differently. So talk a little bit about how AI has now played into it, which is all the buzz out there. There's not a person not talking, a company's not talking and focused on AI. What has Canva done around that?

ZK: It's hard to avoid the conversation at the moment, isn't it? It's definitely the topic on everyone's lips, and it's certainly been something that we've been really focused on over the last few years. Look, I'd say for us, we see AI as this incredible new opportunity and, as we're already seeing, it's totally reshaping how things are going to be done in the years to come. Yeah, our journey actually started in 2013 at this moment of technological change, and it was really only at that point in time with things like HTML5, the acceleration of mobile devices and tablets, the deployment of high-speed internet to more countries and markets, that it was possible to actually reimagine design software which had come in a box and reimagine it being browser based and online. And so we were born at a point of technological change, which really actually enabled our product to come to life.

GS: Oh, okay. So you caught a real moment in time also. It was really the right product need for the right time and environment and technology at some level. Is that what you just said?

ZK: Exactly. It was actually a few years earlier, it literally wouldn't have been possible to build Canva because the technology wasn't there to enable it. And so that was a really critical piece. And there was a lot of technological challenges, actually, that needed to be solved in order to make Canva run in a browser, be responsive at the speed that you would expect. And so that was a really exciting and interesting technological challenge for our CTO, who was ex-Google. There was a lot to kind of work through, but it was this incredible sense of opportunity. And I think similarly today, it's the same mission for us. How do you help someone go from an idea that they have to a design as quickly and as seamlessly as possible? And so what AI opens up is this incredible new technology that can totally reimagine the journey to get from A to B.

And so that's really the lens that we've viewed it through. And we started a couple years ago on that journey. We actually acquired a company called Kaleido, who had been building visual AI tools. And so they actually built the incredibly popular feature that we have called Background Remover, where you can click one button and have the background of any image removed. We launched the same feature for video more recently, and then now with the launches in March, we have rolled out an incredible range of AI tools that really cut across the whole design journey. So from the very start of the journey when you're staring at that blank page being able to describe the design that you'd like created. So the sixth birthday invitation with a dinosaur theme, and we can generate that for you from a text prompt.

The ability to use text generation. So we have a tool called Magic Write which can write your email or generate 10 copy suggestions for a Facebook ad or summarize or edit your content for you. Through to one of my favorites, which is the ability to take any design and, with a click of a button, translate it into more than a hundred languages. Really, really core part of our mission and something that we struggle with on the daily marketing in so many markets. That's a bit of a taste, but it's all with that lens of how can we take the new technology and use it to make the design process simpler and easier?

GS: Hey Zach, what's it take for you to be doing AI? How much energy, effort, resources, how many people hired have you oriented that? I work with chief digital officers a lot, and they're kind of tasked within their companies with figuring it out. I think that people could use some guidance. What's a leading-edge, future-oriented, technology-driven company, how do you go at that? And what advice do you have for people, for companies?

ZK: Yeah, for sure. It started for us a few years ago with bringing that talent in. So Kaleido, that acquisition was a really important first step in that space.

GS: How big was Kaleido, by the way? How big was that company when you bought it? How many people, for example?

ZK: I have to double check, but it'd be maybe 10, 15 people at that point in time.

GS: Okay. And this is small, very early stage. Got it. Okay.

ZK: And then I'd say we have really accelerated the building out of our machine learning data capabilities, a lot of those foundational elements, as well as in the AI space. But the interesting thing, I think, for us is we have really aligned the whole company around this space. And so we have, across Canva, an AI roadmap that all of our different product teams are contributing to. So it's been something that we've been building the capability up around. And then with the launches in March and the work that we're doing, we're really seeing that as a sort of embedded focus across every part of our product. That's for sure. And I think as you think about AI, it's definitely a mix of building in-house, leveraging what's out there in terms of the models that are being evolved, all of the open-source technology as well. So it is evolving so quickly as I know everyone's very, very well aware. And so I think for us, we've just seen it through the lens of it's something that we need to be bringing into the product and evolving and learning from as we go.

GS: Hey Zach, let's shift gears here a little bit. So, often I ask people about the challenges of rising up through corporate America in order to get to the top spot of CMO. You built a good relationship, established credibility, and have become a useful, powerful, dare I say, tool in the toolkit of the Canva management team to really get this thing organized. And it's had extraordinary growth. There's just no question about how successful the company has been. And almost, if I've listened to you carefully over the years, without a blip. It never did. But growth has its own challenges, doesn't it? It's not just easy all the time. Talk a little about the challenges, in particular, for Canva and what you've faced in trying to help Mel and company run the business.

ZK: For sure. Growth is very much a blessing and we're incredibly fortunate for the growth that we've had. But when I'm interviewing people, I do spend a lot of time to really ground them in what it's really like because I think people can have a different interpretation coming into a hyper-growth organization. And the reality is we are currently at point A and we want to get to point B and so have this big dream of where we can go and where we can take it. But we often joke internally, we're 1 percent of the way there, and I think Mel's been saying we're 1 percent of the way there since we started. So we haven't made a lot of progress.

GS: Wait, wait, let me get this right, 130 million customers. What'd you tell me? What'd you say earlier?

ZK: 130 million, yeah.

GS: And it's still not enough? Okay, well I guess maybe at some level, I guess if we did the math, that might be 1 percent. You're right.

ZK: Yeah, maybe 1.5 percent now. I don't know. But yeah, some of the things that I think people often find challenging is that there's a lot of building. You don't come to a company like Canva because you want a place where everything's figured out. So every single system and process and aspect needs to be built and often reinvented every six, 12 months. And that goes everything from your planning process to HR and your people processes through to how you build products, literally everything. And that could be something that's a struggle for people. We often talk about this notion of having to hand over your Lego as things grow. And it's a great analogy that I really like because you come into a company, maybe it's 50 people and you get very used to doing the job that you are doing. And so you might be the only HR person at that point, but then the company doubles, adding a whole lot of other complexity and suddenly you need more help and you need more people to come in with different expertise.

And it can be a real personal challenge of feeling comfortable to hand over something that felt like it was yours. But we talk about that notion of being really, really important. So as the company grows, people need to specialize more and more and to see the value in bringing in people more experienced than they might be and handing things over, that's a big one, I would say. Keeping teams aligned and focused and prioritizing as well would be another. I'd also say we have this concept of the hypergrowth gap that we talk about a bit. And so if you imagine most companies, you're growing maybe a couple percent a year, 10 percent might be an astonishing growth trajectory. And that has all sorts of challenges and a different set of challenges as well. But at an individual level, there's a pressure to evolve and to learn and to grow in that context.

But then if you move to a context where you're doubling year on year, you imagine the same pressures on an individual. Someone has come into a role—and I often say you'll come into a role at Canva, and if it's not already, it will very soon be the biggest role that you've had in your life. And so it's very, very hard, if not impossible, to evolve and to learn as an individual at the rate that a company grows. And so we talk a lot about how do you actually fill that hypergrowth gap. You do so by hiring people that are better than you and building a really great team around you. You do it through advisers, tapping the experience of wisdom and folks that have seen the thing that you're about to tackle. And you do so through constant learning and skill development as well. So that's an incredibly important part of evolving as a company like Canva grows.

GS: Give some examples of what you personally have done to make yourself continue to be successful in a company. Listen, that's the clear trajectory here. You've played a number of different roles. The founders obviously really trust you. You've built a good relationship, you obviously operate from a similar culture and set of values is usually what that kind of thing suggests. But what have you done personally to continue to perform and deliver for the company?

ZK: A few things, I would say, that have been really important. One has been really hiring. And so really focusing on bringing in the expertise around you and building the right team and organization. So that's very much been the journey for me in building our marketing organization these last few years. That had to start with really prioritizing what were the most important areas, first and foremost. So the thing that we were doing really effectively was organic SEO. And so the next opportunity area was really layering on growth marketing, so performance and life cycle and channels like that. And so I really immersed myself in that space and hired someone great to come in and help build that team. And then I could turn my attention to the next challenge, which was product marketing, really important focus for us. Then it was scaling our brand marketing function, so building that team, immersing myself in that world, and so on and so forth.

So hiring out the team and building the bench, I would say. Number two is finding the right advisers. We've been really fortunate as a company to have had incredible investors and advisers over the years, and I've done the same personally. So if there's a new area or a new frontier, the first question I'll ask is who in the world is the expert at this? And go and spend time speaking with and learning from them. And we've brought on some incredible advisers that have worked with me now for a number of years, and they've helped on everything from hiring to strategy and tactical decisions as well.

So that's been a really important one as well. And then the third thing, I'd say, is actually just the importance of sharing it and building a community internally. So something that I'm really grateful for is that there's an incredible bunch of people across Canva that all go through the same journey. And so just having that support system and people to bounce stuff around different functions or at different stages. So being able to share what's working well in one place or pick someone's brains on how they've tackled a particular aspect of scaling has been really important as well.

GS: Who have you most counted on, Zach, to help you in that regard? I don't know if I need a name as much as maybe what their role is or who basically they are.

ZK: I can give you a couple examples. So in the people space, to rewind a couple years ago, as I was building out the people function, one of the areas that we were really keen to invest in was professional coaching for the team. It was something that Mel and Cliff had had the opportunity to participate in and found incredibly valuable, and I had the opportunity to work with an external coach as well. And so we decided that we were going to set up a coaching team and build out an internal group of coaches that could support our teams both professionally and personally. So in that instance, we actually brought on an adviser who I worked with really, really closely. So they really helped me understand the whole world of professional coaching, the practices, the approaches, sort of methodology.

GS: Zach, what did coaching do for you, or what have you seen it do for others?

ZK: What it provides is a chance to step out of the day to day and almost go up to the balcony. So this is sort of a metaphor of the ballroom and the balcony, and I think we can get so busy and swept up in the day to day, the immediate challenge, the frustration, all the overwhelm. And what I think coaching does as one practice here is to help us go up to the balcony and look at the situation, the chess board, how we're thinking, interpreting, and reacting to a scenario to break things down and to help provide a point of reflection.

So the thing that coaching really helped for me was that opportunity to step out and really focus on the priority areas, some of the personal skills that I wanted to build and to have that kind of accountability and time set aside for that. So that was on the professional coaching side. And then more recently on the marketing side, had a range of advisers, but the best that come to mind as I think about this is people with that experience, so breadth of experience that they can bring. They've solved the challenges that you have before, they could be a thought partner and a confidant, close enough to the business and the organization but also a couple steps removed to be able to bring that perspective. And that is incredibly valuable.

GS: I've been around early stage and stuff, there tends to be an awful lot of change. Has the coaching been what you help manage people to change or do you hire for people who adapt to change? Or do you think that you kind of get people in, we see if they adjust and if that environment doesn't work, it doesn't work for them? How do you look at that?

ZK: So change is definitely the only constant in growth. And what I really look for when I'm interviewing and hiring people is people that have been able to previously not only adapt to change, but to thrive and to drive it. And so yeah, that's something that we really screen for in the interview process.

GS: How do you screen for that, Zach? How do you screen for people open to change?

ZK: We do a range of things. It's actually a really fantastic interviewing technique I like, which is called top grading. And so basically goes along with the premise that people's past behavior and approaches to situations and their past achievements is a really good predictor of their future achievements as well. And so really digging in on previous history, not just what they've achieved but actually how they've approached it, how they've had to learn and to grow and evolve through those situations. And what you're really looking for is people that have a high internal locus of control, they see themselves in the driver's seat versus the world sort of happening around them. They've taken on and been given opportunities. So those elements are really, really important. And the values and ways of working that are sort of innate to who they are and how they operate.

And then the second thing that we do is more practical. So we spend time giving people a real prompt, so a real challenge that they would face coming into Cava. And so this is really about seeing how people actually think, their thought process to solving a problem or achieving a goal. And we found that to be a really important predictor of how they would come in and operate. And so that whole process gives people, I guess, a chance to see what it would actually be like working at Canva, most importantly. And then for us, it gives us a chance to see how they operate and think and would come in and build their area.

GS: Hey Zach, you guys do a thing called seasonal openers. Can you talk a little bit about what that process is and how you guys operate? I think it's about building productive or quality teams, I think, of some sort. Give us a little bit more.

ZK: Sure. Season openers have actually been an incredible part of how we've continued to set goals and rally the company towards our North Star mission. So we started a few years ago actually when the company was pretty small. And what we would do back then was every three months, every team in the company would actually get up as though they were a small startup, pitch the goals that they were going to work towards for the upcoming three months, and share the wins that they'd had over the past season before.

We chose seasons because we didn't like the corporate notion of quarters. So that brought some fun to the exercise and every season we would pick a theme. So for winter before, we've had a Winter Olympics theme season opener with indoor snow and a kind of crazy opening ceremony. And we have a lot of fun. We've done all sorts of themes like that along the way, and that's been a really amazing part of our culture. It's grown as we've grown and so these days... Well, there's a lot more people. We still do that across the company where we bring everyone together, the whole company together, and it's a fantastic way to keep everyone swimming in the same direction, aligned on what's happening across the company and what we're striving towards.

GS: Well, Zach, it really does feel like you guys have put in a lot of really solid process and thoughtfulness, especially for a company that's as young and has grown as fast as you all have. Who really drove that orientation to... I think at some level it's really building a very strong company rather than building what the company's doing. It's a great product. So there's no question about that, but you've been equally focused on building a great company, is that right?

ZK: Yeah. I often explain that we are a product-driven company, first and foremost. We are the product. And that has meant there's been a focus from the founders on the product experience, in particular Mel, who spends a great deal of her time there. But I think equally important, alongside focusing on the platform that we've wanted to build and the impact we've wanted to have, there's been this incredibly intentional focus on the company and the type of company that we want to build and the culture that we want to create as well.

GS: Yeah, no, you can hear it from everything you said. The company's incredibly focused on being almost methodical about how it's going at that. Maybe there's a different choice of words there, but very process oriented and foundational. It's very smart, very smart. You may have already identified, maybe you want to call them out by name at this point, I'm not sure, but who else in marketing, either person or company, do you, Canva, who do you guys most admire?

ZK: So many. I'll start with maybe some of the obvious ones. I'd say Apple, I just continue to admire and I admire the journey that they've taken. The focus on product, first and foremost, with a human-centric lens, the simplicity with which they tell their product story and the way that their values and what they stand for come through in everything that they do would be a big one. Airbnb, I think similarly, that's human centricity but also the velocity of product development and evolution on that front. Some others for different reasons. I think it's been fascinating watching companies like Impossible Foods particularly create a new category and, through things like partnerships, really get that brand and approach to thinking about food into the world and so visible. So those are a few off the top of my head.

GS: Wow, those are very good. Yeah. Peter McGuinness, who used to sit on my board here, is now over running Impossible Foods. It's been a great company. He's going to continue to make it an even greater company. So kind of final one for you. There's a lot of young marketers out there. I guess I'd ask you what advice do you have for marketers, maybe even those who are outside the tech space, maybe outside of San Francisco, New York City. What advice do you have for them? Let's just go with that.

ZK: The number one thing I would say to focus on is to say yes to the opportunities that come along. And sometimes you don't know where that will take you. But I think when you focus on doing what the business needs and saying yes, even if it's taking on a project outside of your comfort area or something that on the surface level mightn't have been the thing that you necessarily wanted to do, by working on the things that are a priority for the company that will give you an incredible amount of exposure to the different challenges and business priorities but is ultimately the greatest way to learn and grow. And that's definitely been the case for me. I think I've been curious and interested, and so putting my hat in the ring and saying yes to work on products really meant that I was able to immerse myself in that whole world and learned an incredible amount.

Same thing with people and HR, and equally so I've learned that that's not the right space for me. And while I learned a lot and had a lot of fun learning about things like coaching and learning and development, that sort of helped me on the path to marketing. But I would say where I am now, all of those different experiences really helped me in terms of the context across our organization. And I draw on those experiences each and every day as well. And so saying yes and just taking those opportunities and seeing things as a learning opportunity, I think, is one of the most important things.

GS: I'm a little bit older than you. You've created an awful lot of wisdom for yourself and obviously through the experience you've had. And you know what I hear the most in you, too, which I really appreciate, is a real sense of both gratitude and equanimity in the opportunity you've been given. I've gotten to watch you now for a few years since John had introduced us. It really is amazing. Your parents should be proud of where you've come and what you've done and especially what you guys have done with the company. It's really incredible. Congratulations. It's phenomenal.

ZK: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks a lot, Greg.

GS: Thanks again to Zach Kitschke from Canva for coming on Building Better CMOs. Check the show notes for links to connect with Zach. And if you want to know more about MMA's work to truly unlock the power of marketing, please visit, or you could attend any of the 30 conferences that MMA operates in 15 different countries, or feel free to just write me Our producer and podcast consultant is Eric Johnson from Building Better CMOs' researcher is Aneta Palevska. Artwork is by Jason Chase. And special thanks to Lacera Smith. This is Greg Stuart, I'll see you in two weeks.

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