Daring leaders build creative solutions from their bold visions, despite sometimes not knowing what the future holds. However, innovation is often an imperative and not a luxury. After a paradigm-shifting period, people across industries and the entire globe are living and building in a brave new world.
We bring together Melanie Perkins, CEO, and co-founder of Canva, Ara Mahdessian, CEO and co-founder of ServiceTitan, and Larry Fitzgerald, Jr., Hall of Fame athlete, investor, and philanthropist, to unpack how this past year has changed each of them as leaders and as people. They discuss the transformations their companies have helped spur and the necessary skills and mindsets teams need to adopt to set the pace of innovation during times of industry upheaval.
Ara Mahdessian, CEO of ServiceTitan, Larry Fitzgerald, Jr., NFL Athlete, venture investor, and Melanie Perkins, CEO of Canva
Watch the session!
Melanie Perkins: Hi, I’m Melanie Perkins, and I am the CEO and co-founder of Canva.
Ara Mahdessian: Hi, I’m Ara Mahdessian. I’m co-founder and CEO of ServiceTitan.
Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: Hi, I’m Larry Fitzgerald Jr. I’ve played with the NFL as a wide receiver for the last 17 years. I’m a passionate venture investor as well.
Ara Mahdessian: Given how much the world has changed, and how we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and crisis. How has all this changed how you lead? And how has this changed how you and your organizations make decisions? Maybe, Larry, we can start with you given your career in the NFL — all the things you learned on the field that might be applicable now and today, your ventures, both on the investing side and on the philanthropic side.
Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: Absolutely. I appreciate that. And I would say the biggest thing for me is in terms of my foundation. I have a foundation I’ve been running for the last 17 years, and it primarily is focused on youth education and breast cancer research, which took my mother’s life. And I really leaned in on that over the last year and a half because, as you know, funding around the world has been a lot less than what it’s been over the last few years, just due to so many people losing their jobs and the uncertainty and climate. And so, I really try to be more focused and intentional in the things and the projects that I’ve been working on. It’s brought me a tremendous lot of fulfillment. I’ve been able to involve my children in it which has even given me an added sense of value and responsibility when I see their passion for doing it. And so I think that’s probably been the thing that’s really kind of resonated the most with me.
Melanie Perkins: So, Ara, a question for you. What do you think has been the biggest challenge for you and your customers over the last year?
Ara Mahdessian: If I rewind back time to late March, early April, where the world was shutting down. I mean, at that point, we had no idea what was going to happen to the world. We had no idea what was going to happen to our lives, and we had no idea what was going to happen to our businesses. And as we looked into the data, we saw that while some customers were being severely impacted, other customers were actually thriving. And so this was our call to action to realize, in a moment of crisis, you can’t control what’s going on out there. But what you can do is determine your response and hope that if you act swiftly and you act decisively and you act correctly with the right plan, you can come out of the crisis better off than had you not acted at all.
We actually reached out to the community of all the tradespeople and contractors that are on ServiceTitan, and for those that were doing well, we asked them what they were doing differently in their businesses to not just survive but thrive through COVID and be able to continue to serve the families in their communities. And as we learned how they were adapting their operations, keeping technicians safe, keeping customers in their home safe, changing their marketing, changing the products and services in the home they were offering, we actually asked them if they wouldn’t mind if we could share these best practices with our 7,000 other customers. We spent three weeks building all the features our customers needed to interact with the homeowners in a contactless way. We procured a hundred thousand masks that we donated to contractors to keep their technicians safe. And we formed what is, today, the largest community contractors who rely on one another for best practices, tips, and tricks. And collectively, through the contractor’s efforts, through ServiceTitan’s efforts, the industry quickly began to thrive in revenue, significantly increasing to even before pre-COVID levels.
So, Melanie, this was the craziest year we’ve all led through, the toughest environment we’ve all led through. But you guys at Canva have continued to do astonishingly well. I know you guys were valued at six billion at one time. The last I heard was 15 billion. Who knows where it’s at today. What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome? And ultimately, how did you guys stay focused to see this kind of success?
Melanie Perkins: At Canva, we’ve always focused on solving real problems for our customers. And so, right from the early days, we wanted to solve problems to help make people be able to take their ideas and turn that into a design and communicate them really easily. But then, as the global pandemic hit, that really important and intense focus on our customers and solving problems that affect them, that transitioned really well to this new period, but they had different problems to solve. So students, all of a sudden, were working and were having to learn online. Businesses were having to move online, and people were having to work in ways they’d never worked before. And so, that really intense focus on solving problems for our customers transitioned through. So it did mean that a lot of people were creating less brochures and more online marketing materials. Students were creating less things in the classroom itself, and more things that were actually being done online and through visual and video communication. And so that transition was really aided by that continuous focus on solving problems that really affect our customers. We had three guiding principles right at the start. So, making sure that we’re supporting our community, we wanted to ensure that we’re looking after the safety and wellbeing of our community and then rallying together and growing.
And that really intense focus on looking after our team, looking after our community, and working together to solve their problems has been the guiding light and principle throughout this entire time, which has been really important. I think that if we didn’t have such an intense focus on solving problems and the impact that that has on our community, it would have been really hard to rally our team to do all the necessary changes that needed to happen. So I guess focusing on problems that affect real people was really important throughout this entire period of time.
Ara Mahdessian: Okay, I got to ask this question to Larry. Larry, there’s so much organizations can learn from high-performance sports teams. In fact, a lot of ServiceTitan’s culture around high-performance and a winning culture comes from a lot of the fundamental principles that are in sports. But I got to ask you, in professional sports, when you’re facing defeat, how do you keep morale high? How do you rally the group around the goals and the outcomes again and create the high-performance environment that is needed to win in professional sports?
Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: Well, I think the biggest thing, that you guys both know in your companies, is creating a culture — a culture of openness, discussions, creativity. You want to have an open dialogue with teammates and be able to gain and build trust amongst each other. And so, when tough times are upon you, you don’t turn on each other. You find ways to inspire each other and push each other to get the very best out of one another. And I think sports is a great microcosm of life. I mean, there are times you’re going to be knocked down and you’ve got to continue to get back up and persevere. I mean, we’ve all had to do that over the last year and a half, and it’s just that a lot more people were able to watch you when you’re playing professional sports, but there’s a lot of dysfunction behind the scenes. And your players going out there and being able to execute at a very high level sometimes trumps things that are going on behind the scenes. But as a leader, you do your best to try to motivate. You have 53 different people on the team from different walks of life, different religions, different socioeconomic backgrounds. And you just try to find what makes each person tick. Everybody’s motivated by different things, and as a leader, you have to find out what each person really is in it for, and that’s how I do it. And I think that’s been pretty effective for me over the past few years.
Switching gears, one thing I’ve noticed is in the cloud communities is the role of community. I want to know, what role does that play in your companies? And how do you create that environment where the community is very important to your organizations?
Melanie Perkins: Community is absolutely central to everything that we do. It’s literally why we built our product and what really inspires our team every day. It’s really central to absolutely everything we do, so not only is that why we built the product and the reason for our very existence, but it also is something that we need to continuously use to help inform our product roadmap. And so we have a weekly, we call it sit-down. It used to be a stand-up when we were meeting in person. And every week I’m showing off tweets from the community. We are listening to videos and testimonials. We’re listening to the problems, and that’s helping to inform our future roadmap. We’ve had over a million pieces of feedback from our community, and this is everything from suggestions to ideas from our community, telling us what they love about it. And so, I guess community is absolutely central to everything that we do and really the reason for our very existence.
Ara Mahdessian: Yeah. Great question. So we talk about innovation as serving unmet needs, and so I think there are two categories of this. There’s serving unmet but articulated needs where customers can describe their needs, the problems they’re having, the potential solution, and the value they would get out of that. And I think that often happens to be the easier form of innovation because you’re effectively told what the potential innovation is. And then there’s the second form, which is innovation being serving unmet, unarticulated needs, and that’s where even the customer can’t describe to you what a potential problem is or what a potential solution is, and you have to be able to observe this and figure it out. Or, you have to think about potential macro trends that are happening and how they’re going to impact the customers in the future and anticipate how you can innovate to make the customers benefit from that potential macro trend.
In our case, what we’ve done that’s been very effective and helpful for setting the pace of innovation in both categories of innovation is actually hiring a lot of amazing people from the industry into the ServiceTitan. We have over 60 industry experts that used to work at a plumbing company, an air conditioning company, electrical services company, or the like that are now full-time employees at ServiceTitan. And they range from people that used to be technicians in the field to being customer service representatives at a plumbing company to being dispatchers at an air conditioning company, to being general managers of these companies, to even being owners who built and successfully scaled and sold plumbing and air conditioning companies for 10, 20, 30 plus million dollars who then wanted to come and work at ServiceTitan to continue to innovate and help all the other hardworking contractors in the world through the ServiceTitan software.
Melanie Perkins: I’ve got a question for both of you. So what inspires you both to work so hard? Larry, I’ll shoot it to you to start with.
Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: I think you all can attest to this. You wouldn’t be in the positions that you’re in and have built the companies that you built if you didn’t have a burning desire to be the very best at what you do. And when your feet hit the ground in the morning, you’re really driven and focused on doing whatever that is you need to do for that day. I think it’s very important to be able to set short and long-term goals. You know you can’t reach those long-term goals, but I’ll set those short-term goals. So if it’s, “I want to continue to do a good job of building my culture from day-to-day.” Mentoring a couple of people on the team or in your organization that you think have great potential, but just are missing a few key ingredients to be able to be better team leaders in their roles. Or just small little things that you always are working on to achieve those short-term goals will help you reach those long-term goals.
And I think just that and wanting to see people be at their very, very best. There’s nothing better than me being at practice and seeing a guy work so hard after practice trying to get something that he’s been working hard for. And then you see it come to fruition on the football field. He scores a touchdown after something he’s worked on for week after week after week. That brings me a lot of joy to see that. And I can imagine you guys see those same results in young people that are working at your companies, and there’s nothing better than that. And as a leader, that’s what it’s all about — it’s empowering people and putting them in a position to be successful.
Melanie Perkins: Couldn’t agree more. It’s so very true. What about you, Ara?
Ara Mahdessian: We have three core values, and that’s why it’s so simple because there are only three motivations we care about. Number one is changing lives. We want every Titan that comes on board to feel so much fulfillment, so much value in their life by impacting the lives of others, whether it’s customers, whether it’s other teammates, or whether it’s the communities around us. That is what inspires them to work hard. Two is achieving the extraordinary that, as Larry mentioned, that Titans are motivated and get a lot of fulfillment out of doing things very few people have ever done before. And the last is building a dream team, to be able to work alongside so many heroic other Titans who are incredible at what they do. They help the people around them succeed and have such an incredible and fun time along the journey.
Those three things are what motivates me. I love every day I get a success story from a customer. Just two hours ago. I got a success story from a customer about how they grew their revenue from two million in 2018 to nine million this year. And these are not anomalies. If I have 7,000 customers, they get 6,000 success stories to share. This is what motivates me. I think this is what motivates so many other founders and CEOs.
Melanie Perkins: I would agree. So years and years ago, I was backpacking in India, and I met someone who was working at a computer cafe, and he was making literally a dollar a day, and he was working for 12 hours. He was away from his family, and he was literally working his butt off, trying to do absolutely everything he could to make money, and the maximum output of that was a dollar. And I, on the other hand, have had a great fortune. Growing up, I’ve had a great education, and I have this crazy opportunity to be able to create a company that has been doing really well. We’ve got this very simple two-step plan. Step one, build one of the world’s most valuable companies. And step two, do the most good we can do. And I feel like that is such a huge, not just opportunity, but incredible responsibility.
The fact that we’re able to make out, make progress towards step one, and we still got a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction. And then on step two, that is just such a huge responsibility. The fact that we can create a multi-billion dollar company that can be used by billions of people around the world to help people with our product itself, to be able to solve problems, and to help them achieve their goals, but then to be able to have this huge opportunity to be able to create — to really live up to that two-step plan it’s not really an option. You have to do that when you have that crazy opportunity presented.
I work really hard. That’s true. But the guy in the computer cafe, was working really hard. And so to have that opportunity, I think, is incredibly important. And it’s certainly what motivates me every day, to be able to create an incredible environment for our team, to be able to achieve their crazy big goals, to be able to create an environment for our community so they can achieve their crazy big goals. And then, hopefully, over my lifetime, I’ll get to help the world achieve some of its crazy big goals, which would be pretty crazy.
Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: That’s beautiful.
Ara Mahdessian: I love it.
Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: When I talk to a lot of founders, especially in the cloud space, I always hear them talk about just the lack of available talent. You know, engineers and software technicians. When you’re meeting with prospective employees to come work for you-all’s companies, what are some of the things that you talk to them about that would differentiate you from other companies that are competing for talent?
Melanie Perkins: We have been absurdly fortunate that we have had 130,000 applicants in the last year, and it was like 86,000 in the last quarter. So it was astronomical numbers. But that’s really different from in our early days. In our early days, I had to pitch everyone. No one wanted to join my team. It took me a year to find one person to join my team, and at that point in time, we’re having to do absolutely everything we possibly could to pitch. And if you look up Bizarre Pitch Deck, we’re the number one result because I created a bizarre pitch deck to pitch someone and to get them to join our team. So in the early days, it was…we’re having to really pitch the vision hard. Like, “This is going to be the future of publishing and design. We’re going to create a company that’s going to change the face of the internet.” And most people rejected us despite our best pitch efforts. But nowadays, we’re in a really fortunate position where a lot of people want to come and work at Canva, which is definitely a fortunate place to be in. I think that we’ve been able to differentiate ourselves because, firstly, when you’ve got graphs that are going in the right direction, that probably helps. But creating a company that really serves our customers and is so loved by so many people around the world, I think, that helps as well.
What about you, Ara?
Ara Mahdessian: It’s interesting. My co-founder — my better half, Vahe — he and I started ServiceTitan because, ultimately, our fathers were contractors. So we immigrated to this country at a young age. Didn’t have money, didn’t have jobs. They didn’t have knowledge of the language. They did all kinds of odd jobs to make ends meet, and one of those odd jobs ultimately happened to be plumbing and air conditioning work, et cetera. And then, they started their small contracting businesses. And we grew up watching all the pain points that they had, and it was wild, just how inefficient things were, how much manual labor everything required, and how much they would go work in the field 12 hours a day and then come home and spend dinners and then post-dinners, still processing shoeboxes full of receipts and taking care of invoices and calculating pay for other technicians.
And we realized there’s got to be a better way than this, and that’s why we created ServiceTitan. So for me, it’s very obvious to me why I would be so motivated and excited about solving these pain points for my dad and ultimately many of the contractors just like him. But what I’ve been completely shocked about and surprised by, and I never expected this, is how so many other people who have nothing to do with the contracting industry — their parents weren’t in the contracting industry — are similarly excited about the prospect of working at ServiceTitan. And I think it comes down to because they see these are incredibly hard-working people. They’re essential. They provide such critical services for our livelihoods. They see how underserved these hardworking people have been in the trades by technology, and they see the direct impact that they’re able to make on the professional and personal livelihoods of these customers. I talked about the millions of dollars that they’re able to generate in increased revenue for these companies, but I also talked about a lot of the personal success stories. And I think I’ve been shocked that other people are just this excited about this as I am, but very grateful that that exists.
Melanie Perkins: The final question for today: If you could achieve anything in your lifetime, so you’re like a hundred plus or whatever age you’d like to live to, and you’re looking back at your life, and you have been able to achieve anything in your lifetime that you would like to have achieved, what would you have achieved?
Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: I would definitely say, with how technology is advancing, I would just say bridging the technology gap in schools. And through my foundation, that’s what I try to do. I mean, when I go to the affluent schools as opposed to the lower-income schools, I think one of the biggest discrepancies I see is just access to technology. Through your cell phone, you can literally learn everything that’s ever happened in the course of the world at your fingertips. And to be able to give young people that advantage to be able to research and use that to find new creative things that they may be interested in that they don’t even know about, I think is very important. So I would do that.
And then, I have three sons. Just if they grow up to be good, respectful husbands, fathers, and community people, I will be elated. I mean, I think that, as parents, our toughest job in the world is just trying to get your kids on track. So I would say that’s high on the priority list as well.
Ara Mahdessian: I feel you, Larry.
Melanie Perkins: A life well-lived.
Ara Mahdessian: I’ve got three young boys as well. I’d love similar outcomes. Going back to what you asked. I mean, at the highest level, I’d love to solve all world suffering, whether it’s poverty, hunger, health, et cetera, at a lower altitude. Today, we do a lot of work with Children’s Hospital of LA outside of trying to transform lives in the contracting industry. We’re very passionate about helping little kids who suffer from health issues. I think that’s the most specific thing we do today. What about you, Melanie?
Melanie Perkins: So I’ll tell you where that question came from. When I was 15, I read a passage, and it was from a lady living in a nursing home, and she was 85. And it said…it was a whole reflection about how, if she could have lived her life, she would have done it over again and lived in a very different way to the way she had lived her life. And I feel like that’s sort of the perspective that I’ve held in going through, is thinking about if you go far into the future and make a decision based on that far in the future, what you’d like to think about going backward, what you would do if you were not looking at the building blocks in front of you, but thinking about things retrospectively. So I think about this a lot.
And I think that if I could do…the most powerful thing that I could think I could do with my life is to help make the world more effective towards its goals. And so, we have a hundred thousand nonprofits and are using our product to help achieve their goals, but thinking a lot about how could we help governments and nonprofits and people in the world be more effective towards achieving their goals. Because I fundamentally believe that there is enough goodwill. There is enough money. There is enough kindness. There is enough of everything in the world to solve the world’s problems. But I think that we’re not orienting ourselves to actually achieve those goals in the world as effectively as we could. So it’s a very big ambition. It will take many, many, many, many, many decades — my entire life. But I would love to be able to help contribute towards that over my lifetime. And if I could do that, I would be happy in my hundred-plus years if I’m so fortunate to live that long.
Ara Mahdessian: Well, you are no stranger to ambition, and you’re no stranger to accomplishment. So I hope, I actually expect, you will accomplish this.
Melanie Perkins: That’s very kind of you, and I expect and hope that you accomplish those very big, high-level goals as well. If we could, the world would be a better place.
Ara Mahdessian: Agreed.
Larry Fitzgerald Jr.: Melanie, Ara, it was a pleasure. I really appreciate you taking a little time to educate me on your guys’ fabulous businesses, and your soul for so many of our world issues. It was a pleasure to be with you guys.
Melanie Perkins: So lovely to meet you both and to chat with you today. Thanks for all of your great answers and questions.
Ara Mahdessian: The feeling is very much mutual, guys. Very humbled and grateful to be in this very esteemed company. Larry, Melanie, and then all the other incredible companies in the Forbes Cloud 100, thank you.