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Global Platform Partnerships: Rachel Carruthers of Canva

Rachel Carruthers

As the Global Platform Partnerships lead of Australia-based Canva, a worldwide design platform with users from over 190 countries, California-born Rachel Anne Carruthers discusses Canva’s global blueprint and how they tailor their marketing strategies to specific countries or regions such as India and Indonesia. She explains how culture affects users’ design experience and platform behavior, ethical dilemmas about incorporating certain icons and symbols, how Canva operates in China, business practices in the US vs. Australia, and challenges of localization in Silicon Valley during her previous times there.

Highlights:

Canvas growth strategies.

Offering design elements based on regions of the world the users.

Adapting marketing based on regions of the world.

How culture affects users’ design.

Cultural icons and symbols that don’t work with a global platform.

USA vs Australia business practices

Rachel Carruthers bio:

Joining Canva in 2017, Rachel was originally responsible for leading Canva’s product and marketing localization and internationalization efforts. She worked to ensure that every user has a truly localized experience (be it on the Web App, iOS, or Android platforms) while leading cross-functional globalization initiatives to support Canva’s long-term international growth strategies.

In March 2023 she shifted gears to focus on some of Canva’s key platform partnerships, driving comarketing opportunities and amplifying new product launches. So far, her favorite thing about her time at Canva has been the convergence of language and design, and the anthropological aspect of how culture can affect users’ design experience and platform behavior. Prior to moving to Sydney to pursue her Master’s degree in Media, Rachel was working as a Senior Localization Project Manager back home in Silicon Valley, servicing high-profile tech enterprise clients.

Rachel is deeply passionate about language, food, and culture, and loves to travel whenever she can. Being from California she also loves being outdoors, as well as working in animal foster care.

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Full Transcript

Since today’s guest is an American who resides in Australia, I thought it would be appropriate instead of an actual blooper with a sign to give some examples of “Strine,” which is Australian English or Australian English slang, so that if anyone does encounter Australians, either in this country or going there, you can actually understand what they are saying.

So, for example, there are quite a lot of them. If anyone talks to you about a cozzie, that is a swimming costume or a swimsuit.  A dunny is an outside toilet. Good to know. If anyone talks to you about ear bashing, that means the person is nagging you. It’s important to know that an esky is a portable cooler, a snag is a sausage, a sunny is sunglasses, and a tinny is the all-important can of beer. 

So, with that, today’s guest is Rachel Anne Carruthers. Rachel is the global platform partnerships lead of a company called Canva, which many people know. Canva is an easy-to-use, drag-and-drop visual communications tool designed to empower anyone in the world to design anything from social media to objects such as mugs to websites. 

Before joining Canva in 2017, Rachel was originally responsible for leading Canva’s product marketing, localization, and internationalization efforts. She works to ensure that every user has a truly localized experience, whether on the Web app, iOS, or Android platforms while leading cross-functional globalization initiatives to support Canvas’s long-term international growth strategies. 

In March 2023, she shifted gears to focus on some of Canvas’s key platform partnerships, driving  co-marketing opportunities and amplifying new product launches. So far, her favorite thing about her time at Canva has been the convergence of language and design, and the anthropological aspects of how culture can affect users’ design experiences and platform behaviors.

Before moving to Sydney to pursue her Master’s degree in Media. Rachel was working as a senior localization project manager back home and in Silicon Valley servicing high-profile tech enterprise clients. Rachel is deeply passionate about language, food, and culture and loves to travel wherever she can. And of course, being a good Californian, she loves being outdoors as well as working in animal foster care. 

Delighted that you are with us.

Thank you so much for having me, Philip.

So perhaps we could start by your telling us what kinds of country markets Canva is currently targeting.

OK.

So, I guess maybe just start at the beginning. Frankly, we’ve kind of, and I’ve said this before in other places, but we actually kind of took like a bit of a bottom-up approach when it came to global growth and therefore localization, and that we rolled out our localization program to over 100 locales before we had a proper kind of market-by-market, international growth strategy.

And as a result, now we’re actually focusing on upwards of 20 or so key markets at once in different areas that are at varying levels of maturity with regards to our growth program. I think like any other business, we’re looking predominantly at North America, South America, a few key markets in Europe, a few key growth markets in Southeast Asia, and Australia of course. We’re quite lucky to have adopters from over 190 countries right now using our platform. So, we really are a global platform.

It’s marvelous. You mentioned Canva’s international growth strategies. Can you give some examples of what they are?

Well, again kind of starting from the bottom up. We’ve really started with the localization-first growth strategy, which meant that we were focused in the earlier years on localizing Canva’s platforms, be it the web app, or the mobile app, both iOS and Android. Things like our print offering and subsequently our template library and everything in the product localizing that into a bunch of different languages. Like I said, over 100. 

And that was the first port of call and now we’re looking at developing marketing teams in several different regions. Marketing teams were growth specialists, social media, marketing specialist performance marketing, digital marketing, that sort of thing. We even have creative teams in those markets to be able to help… support, I should say… our creative marketing efforts as well. So there really isn’t a one size fits all for the model. We really kind of are looking at taking a tailored approach to what each market or region really needs for success after laying that base layer of making the product available to anybody.

You mentioned digital teams or I guess design teams as well, and certain countries prefer certain kinds of let’s say, cartoon characters for example, certain design elements or certain colors or images that other countries don’t. Do you get involved with that? Perhaps offering different kinds of design elements again for certain regions that you would not offer elsewhere?

So, the team that I was formerly on, Global Services, which is the one looking after Canva’s localization efforts, was, I think, more heavily involved in that earlier on; the team was responsible for localizing all of the template content within the library. But then also working with local designers to produce any market-specific content such as you mentioned, kind of certain design elements or things like that, for example, looking at what our user needs might be in India creating localized design elements they can use on social media graphics. Now we have specialized teams within Canva who are actually doing the designing and producing these graphic design elements. 

So, it wasn’t our team, but where Global Services came in was to help advise and consult as to what might be beneficial to have certain markets, and over time teams spun up specifically to service this need, and then they were able to do their own research as well.

When you mentioned India on the holiday Diwali, it reminds me that, I don’t know if it was McDonald’s, but one of the hamburger companies entered India, of course. The Indians don’t eat beef or strict Indians [Hindus] don’t eat beef so they had to create other kinds of burgers, whether it was lamb burgers or soy burgers or something like that, and I presume it’s the same kind of process when you are entering some of these markets where cultural elements that you would use in one place would not work in another.

That’s exactly right. I mean, it’s all about checking our kind of own biases at the door in terms of what we think other markets might not just expect, but an example of that would be, oh, Valentine’s Day actually, right? 

So, if we are saying, OK, we want to make sure that we have Valentine’s Day content within the library. You know, we might have a lot of hearts. We might have different types of couples holding hands or kissing and they might be either design elements or photos within templates themselves. In certain markets, namely ones that have large Muslim populations, modesty is much more important. And things like showing couples kissing in a template might be considered inappropriate. 

So, we need to make sure that we take a look at our own biases and what we consider appropriate or desirable and put that kind of thought process into what we’re elevating for users in certain markets.

And do you have any teams on the ground in each country that will advise this? Or do you do this internally through employees from those countries?

Oh, it’s a bit of a mix. We operate with both models really; it just depends on the market.

Are your marketing strategies essentially the same worldwide, or do you alter them for specific countries or regions, not the platform itself, but the marketing of the platform?

We definitely have a bit of a global blueprint. I would say that we then tailor or tweak depending on what the needs of the markets are. So, for example, if there are market-specific channels or social media channels that are really important to target, then obviously we’re going to tailor our marketing. Our digital marketing content strategy accommodates that.

But we generally start with a kind of a global blueprint because you don’t want to be reinventing the wheel every single time you kind of enter any market.

Right.

You mentioned in your bio how culture affects users’ design experience and platform behavior, and you’ve touched on this to some extent. But can you elaborate on some ways that culture affects what you’re doing?

Being in this role, I’ve learned so much about how different cultures relate to design and what the role of design is in their everyday life. I think one of them is a bit of an outdated example at this point, but I still find it so fascinating. About five years ago, WhatsApp actually went down and crashed in India because in India it’s quite common for people to send Good Morning messages via WhatsApp and Good Night messages via WhatsApp and these are usually like gifs or animated images that are quite heavy data-wise. 

And so, you have, you know, a billion people sending a message at the same time over the same platform twice a day and, you know, it turns out the server can’t handle that. Frankly, not shocking. And it’s something like that that you just wouldn’t… I wouldn’t have considered it to be a thing until I’d heard that story. 

But the point of that is we go, oh, this is very much. The use case of design in people’s eyes, is something small, something simple, but they’re creating designs. They’re accessing designs and sending them to each other as a way to stay in touch and communicate every day, twice a day. 

So, we, you know, made sure that we had a lot of Good Morning and Good Night messages as well within our template library available for Indian users. Things like that.

It reminds me of a separate story, but somewhat related. Since you’re from California, you may know the company Jelly Belly. They make jelly beans. I assume they are still headquartered near San Francisco, where our office is based. Years ago, and since we are in the language translation business, – we’ve been doing this for over 30 years – but in our first maybe ten years, probably our first seven years… they came to us with a menu, just a brochure that had different pictures of jelly bean flavors, and the translations were not difficult. There were maybe 35 or so jelly bean flavors, and different colors of jelly beans, and they wanted this translated for languages all around the world, including Hebrew and Danish. And I remember the Danish translation team came back to us to say, “No self-respecting Dane would never eat a popcorn-flavored jelly bean. We cannot translate this.”

And the Israelis for Hebrew had some similar reactions to some flavor of jelly bean that no Israelis would ever eat.  But we just had to tell Jelly Belly that terribly sorry, but in Denmark, please, perhaps you should drop your popcorn-flavored Jelly Bean.

Right.

What else can you tell me about how Canva marketing is done in terms of targeting specific countries? It’s the same platform, but are there other marketing issues or financial issues that arise? Do they differ by country, for example?

I don’t think there’s anything terribly unusual for us that I think any kind of company would probably come across in terms of being able to calibrate across different markets for the ROI that you want to see, I think I wouldn’t say challenge, but our main focus is that we’re kind of constantly calibrating our user growth. 

We measure our user growth through monthly active users and their use versus our revenue growth. And you know in each we do a ton of organic growth efforts. We have many owned channels as well, but obviously, we have the marketing budget to spend on both of these acquisition targets and it’s about calibrating your marketing budget so that you’re not cannibalizing the free organic kind of growth that you might see in a market via digital marketing.

You know you can spend so much, but there’s always going to be a bit of an overlap and that kind of calibration is always going to shift as well because there are different influences that are different factors that will influence, I think user growth within a market that is also outside of our control, right? 

So, it’s constantly kind of tweaking and adjusting our budget and our spending in certain channels to make sure that we’re spending wisely and efficiently.

What are some of your largest markets? I presume the US is the largest, if not among the largest, but you mentioned Southeast Asia, for example, Indonesia. Is that a large market just because of the population size?

So, Indonesia is a big market for us. Brazil is as well; the Philippines and India are both climbing pretty quickly. So, it’s really the markets that you’d expect, frankly, the ones that are very online. The ones that are also heavy social media users, as we obviously found that it’s a huge product market fit for us as well. 

We’re looking more towards markets that are, how can I say this, increasingly online. So, there are certain areas of the world where digital connectivity is growing exponentially faster than other places. India is one of those places. Obviously, certain countries in Africa are also the case. So yeah, we’re looking to basically meet users where they already are via our product offering.

I’m changing hats for a moment. Are you in China and Taiwan at the moment? I assume Taiwan, yes, but China also?

Yeah, we are. We have a chart. We have a few Chinese teams. Actually, we’ve been in China for I want to say about five years, five or six years. And one of the reasons that we have a whole team in China is not just the localization requirements. Well, I suppose this is actually a localization requirement. We actually built our China product on an entirely different technology stack, or I should say entirely separate stock because of the Great Firewall of China. 

So, we actually needed to build the product to be housed, you know, within China. Otherwise, the connectivity would have been horrendous for any users trying to access the tool from within China. So, we built an almost mirror kind of version of our product that we then again tailored for the Mainland China audience, again things from content to product offerings, different types of connections, and in terms of what platforms users can share designs to things like that, we are alive in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but that is on the global Canva product.

And in China, does the government restrict certain images or certain ideas that you’re not allowed to say?

That’s another good question. We haven’t had any discussions with the government around that specifically, but I think that because we have a design team based in China we know where the fault lines are, I suppose, and as a design company, we’re not necessarily looking to populate the library with anything incredible and it’s really about creating a platform that users can use to then express themselves and do what they like. 

So, we’re just there to give the building blocks really. So there hasn’t been anything restrictive or anything like that.

Interesting.

One of my past guests was talking about it in a different context of course, about the concept of love in different countries. The symbol of love in the Western world is diamonds. A diamond ring of course, is the symbol of love and engagement. But that was not the case in Asia or in East Asia, where in Japan, for example, Korea, and China, the idea of giving a diamond to symbolize love is simply not part of the cultural tradition. And I’m wondering if those kinds of issues also arise where there may be certain holidays. Are there other cultural issues or icons or symbols that simply don’t work across a global platform?

Oh, absolutely, you know. I remember when I first started, the issue of having it was quite a sensitive topic obviously, but there were symbols in our library that looked a lot like swastikas. That is because …

They are religious symbols. 

They’re highly religious, highly revered symbols for Buddhism, and around a lot of Indian holidays as well. We see those as part of really important religious designs. Now you know, obviously, it was raised for our attention. Somebody saw it as a swastika, which is very easy to do and, you know, was appalled that we could have it in the library. 

And it’s, you know, how do you have that discussion? Right. Who’s wrong there? It’s a really difficult one. Because on one hand, you know we absolutely don’t want to offend or hurt anybody, or we absolutely don’t want to promote any hate-filled ideology, bigotry, racism, or anything like that. I’m Jewish, you know, I saw this, and I was looking at it like, I’m just not sure how to tackle this one. I’m also a student of Asian religious art, so I was very conflicted. 

And, you know, at the same time, you don’t want to remove something that’s highly revered and highly relevant and has been around long before a Nazi party was, right? So how do you tackle something like that? 

And fortunately, we have the ability to, for the lack of better terms, turn on and turn off certain content types in different parts of the world, so that has made challenges like that easier to navigate, but it’s still going to be a discussion point. And I think it, I think it should, I mean this is now much larger than Canva, right? It’s how we look at iconography and who owns iconography and who owns the story of iconography. 

But stuff like that is what I find, you know incredibly fascinating, but again, you know our top priority is really making sure that users are both represented and feel safe and seen while using our products, being able to hide or show or elevate certain content on a kind of language-by-language basis definitely helps that.

I presume you could have separate libraries like one for Buddhism, one for Hinduism, one for Christianity, and so forth.

I mean, we could, but then at the same time, who are we to say, OK, you’re in this country, you only get that library? So, in America, which library would we want to be showing all of them, right? Because all of these types of people live across… in it’s across the world. 

So that’s kind of I guess what I mean when I say that I find the anthropological side of all of this quite interesting. You know, there’s very often not a strictly right or wrong answer, but I think when it comes to our product, they’re obviously clearly the right things to do and wrong things to do in terms of how users feel when they use our product.

Since you are in Australia and since you are from the United States as a good Californian, how do the business methods differ between the two countries — the United States and Australia – or perhaps interactions with people or expectations that people may have. How can you describe those?

I would say that it’s more of an attitude difference between Australians and business and Americans and business, so Australians are much more again, I should also say with a grain of salt… All of these are sweeping generalizations as well. 

But generally speaking, Australians have a much more relaxed nature about them than Americans do. I don’t think that comes as big news to anybody, right? But that trickles down, in the day-to-day way of doing business in terms of how people communicate, the urgency in which they communicate and for time frames in which people expect to get things done. 

It’s kind of this classic American. What is it? Americans live to work and so much of the rest of the world works to live. And I think that Australia falls into that category much more. 

So, I think the biggest, most obvious tangible example is just work-life balance. That’s what I found. So firstly, the amount of holidays that we have. In Australia, having four weeks off is the standard, whereas in America it’s two weeks and just the approach to self-care and things like if you’re not feeling well, it’s OK to take a sick day. You know, you’re not like that guy who is slacking off because people get sick, whereas in America, I remember I felt like I couldn’t even take my two-week holiday [vacation]. You just felt bad, you know, you didn’t want to be the person who was gone, and you didn’t want to put your work on to other people. 

And so, there’s a bit of that in terms of how those trickles down into business. I think coming from specifically San Francisco and Silicon Valley and working in tech historically for so long, it’s been the epicenter of the tech world. And so, there’s a kind of attitude of anything relevant, anything good, anything successful is going to be coming out of Silicon Valley. And that’s changing tremendously not just from within Australia, but especially in the Anzus [Australia- New Zealand-US] region. You know, markets like Singapore you know are growing massively. And I think that’s really amazing. I think that it’s helping to kind of shift the cultural narrative in terms of what it means to be successful in the tech world. I love when people think that we’re an American company and I get to go no… We’re Australian, very much Australia. And I think I’m a bit of a red herring as well. If they’re speaking to me and they know from San Francisco, then it’s like, OK, well, then yeah, the companies in San Francisco. 

So, it’s true. To be very blunt, I think with American business, there’s this very America-centric way of looking at things, looking at the world and thinking everything good is right here. It’s just not the case. And I think the rest of the world knows that more than Americans do, that was the main difference.

I assume that Australian business life is very casual and very informal, so most people, I assume, are addressed by their first names. And that is true in the United States as well, much less so in Europe, where you have titles with people and the equivalent of Mr., Ms. and so forth. In Australia, is there more of an open-door policy where you can go into the boss’s office at any time and just give ideas or is it more formal like making appointments or scheduling something in advance to see someone?

I think it definitely depends on the sector that you’re in, right? So, if you’re in the banking sector, for example, right, yeah, things would be much more formal. But famously, the tech sector is very informal and in Australia even more so. 

I can speak for Canva in terms of what our policies are and the answer is yeah, there’s absolutely an open-door policy. I mean, it’s obviously much more difficult to get time into, you know Mel or Cliff or Cam’s calendar these days and it was for me and let’s Say 2017. Which is totally understandable. They’re very busy people.

But there is absolutely an open-door policy in terms of if anybody has thoughts or feelings or feedback on what they want to see, on anything within the product, within the company culture, within our policies and procedures, really anything, there are a myriad of mechanisms that we can loop into and they get addressed, they actually address it, it means a lot to our founders that we are very much an organization-run company and everybody’s values are incredibly important and it’s something that I’m really proud that we’ve been able to maintain that culture of openness and feedback throughout all of our tremendous growth over growth over the last several years. It’s something that’s a tricky balance, right, to try to maintain, but it’s something that’s really important to the way that we run our company.

You’ve mentioned Silicon Valley, working in Silicon Valley as a senior localization project manager. What kinds of local localization challenges or difficulties did you encounter and for which kind of companies?

Oh, which kinds of companies? Well, I was working again, mostly in the tech sector when I was working to relocate. And the types of challenges we came across, I would say we’re more… They were less on the kind of a technical localization sort of side and more in like processes and ways of working because all of the clients we had obviously had different ways of working and we had one client that even despite being a really large organization, well, maybe because they were a really large organization still are. 

I work a lot in silos and so you might have one of our localization teams, you know, doing work for this specific product function over here and another one of our localization teams working with that product function over there. And in theory, there’s a lot that you can co-leverage in terms of things like translation memories, style guides, processes, all these. But because of the style, the client silos, A&B didn’t talk to each other and very intentionally that made our work a bit more difficult. 

And you know at the end of the day, we’re like, you could actually be leveraging a lot more savings and efficiency here, which is kind of counterintuitive, of course, of the way that we want to run because we wanted to do our best job and be the best, most efficient project managers and program managers that we could be. So that was a little bit of a struggle sometimes, but at the end of the day, you know, you’re working for your client, and it’s got to be what works for them. So, you know, we would make things work.

In terms of technical localization challenges, though there weren’t too many. I think maybe some of the most challenging content sometimes was working for an online travel booking company and if there were, say, things that would happen like a volcano would go off, you know, in a certain part of the world that’s going to stop traffic, air traffic that’s going to stop flights and all of these things. 

And so, they need to send out calls really urgently to a lot of their users. And so, it would be getting things done really quickly. I mean, anybody who’s worked in the localization industry can tell you about a number of tight turnaround projects they’ve had, I am sure. But we’re talking about, we need this in two hours now because it has to go live within three hours because this flight is going to make sure that we have processes set up for things like that.

It reminds me of many years ago, again around here, in Year 2 or 3 perhaps of our own company. We got a call from Apple Computer saying that Steve Jobs during his first incarnation at Apple was going to give a press conference and they needed his remarks translated into five languages within one hour so that they could be disseminated around the world to the international media. 

Fortunately, they gave us the lead time so that we could set up the translation teams and have everything ready. This was way before Translation Memories and way before even I think the Internet. Anyway, we did it and…

It was nerve-wracking.

Well, this is why I’m gray, but that’s OK. 

On a personal note, you say that you love animal foster care, and I was wondering what kind of animals you fostered, both in California and then separately in Australia.

So predominantly cats and kittens, really. I adopted a few animals back in California, but I’ve mostly been fostering here in Australia and working with a no-kill organization called Maggie’s Rescue that finds cat colonies in different parts of Sydney or work with shelters so that they can leverage their foster network to make sure that cats are put down or anything like that. 

So, I’ve had two or three batches of kittens here over the last year, which has been pretty cute. It’s a good solution for someone like me who loves having pets, but then also I’m on the move as well. So less of a commitment, but then I also get to feel like I’m helping as well and giving the kittens a chance at life that they may not have had. So yeah, I love it. I love animals.

So, no fostering of koalas or wallabies?

If that was allowed, I’m sure people would. There are a few different wildlife sanctuaries around it. 

But there are a few places, not terribly far from here, where they’re kind of like wildlife sanctuaries that people can go visit, but also a few people who like around south of here, near just past Bateman’s Bay, which I’m sure everybody I mean, there are many around Australia obviously, and more when you get into the more rural parts of the country. 

That is 4 1/2 hours south in an area called Mogo. A woman running… I guess it would be a sanctuary… for kangaroos. I don’t think she has any koalas. She’s got some oldies, maybe some wombats as well, and it’s mostly that she has the land and that she’s in touch with Animal Rescue and Care because wombats and kangaroos specifically, they’re kind of like our deer and rabbits. 

You know, you drive down the highway, you see these sorts of things. She doesn’t even have to really go get them. Although she does, she’ll take in some that have been injured, like when we had the really devastating fires of 2019 going into 2020 mass devastation, which was just horrendous to see. There were a lot of shelters like hers and different sanctuaries taking in a lot of animals to help them recover and nurse them back to health, which is amazing to see. So maybe one day that’s the future path for me as well. Kangaroos are significantly more work than kittens, I think.

Yes, from kittens to kangaroos, but sure.

I don’t know if I had the stomach for that, really.

Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close?

No, I mean I just, really appreciate getting the time to chat with you today. It’s always fun to dig into the little bits and challenges of the international, you know, marketing and international business world. 

So, thank you for giving me the time.

Thank you, Rachel. It’s a pleasure speaking with you, and I hope all of our viewers and listeners will join us next week for another edition of Global Gurus and their stories of international business.

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