The importance of food at startups
“Cliff, I cannot … I just cannot eat any more sausages.”
That’s what Ollie – our first backend engineer – said one day, while expressing his dismay at the quite limited culinary options we’d offered thusfar at Canva. For a change, we got Turkish takeaway.
I have fond memories – in a rite-of-passage kind of way – of Cliff cooking sausages on a sandwich press next to the bathroom door in the shared office that Canva started out in. Paired with sausage sandwiches would generally be a unique apple/almond/lettuce salad that your tastebuds slowly became accustomed to over the course of a few months. Those moments sharing simple, uncomplicated food are one of those great bonding experiences whose survival I wear as a badge of honour.
Food has been amazingly central to the Canva story. We take great relish in using it to celebrate our key moments: whether that was going for authentic Austrian schnitzels whenever we grew by a million users, or letting birthday girls and boys pick their favourite dish for everyone to have at lunch. (In an appropriately pretentious manner I chose charcuterie and crème brûlée.)
Free lunch is one of the most cited modern startup “perks”, but Canva’s lunch started with humble origins: it was the perfect break in the day where we could unwind and really connect with each other. Great ideas often evolve from humble beginnings, and I think that’s been the case with the way we approach our food.
From sandwich press sausages we migrated to an electric wok (which we still cooked on ourselves); then to a part-time chef, who became a full-time chef (on an electric wok – thank you Song!); to a dedicated kitchen; to an industrial kitchen, and a fully decked-out cafe (which often gets mistaken for a real restaurant by strangers who wander in and order takeaway coffees). The “Vibe Team” who keep everyone watered and fed have become a vital part of our operations and – led by the incomparable Chef Chris – also champion sustainability at Canva and our drive to be a force for good.
When talking about what makes a successful startup you’ll mostly hear a list of team, vision, execution; food isn’t often at the top of that list. But it has certainly been a big part of Canva’s success – in developing the culture that we want to foster, forging strong teams, and breaking down the silos that can often develop at growing companies.
I’m a big fan of collision theory: the belief that chance encounters and unplanned interactions between people generates some of the most innovative ideas. CERN – the place where the World Wide Web was born – is an exemplar of collision theory; not only literally via its Large Hadron Collider, but also through the way that it brings diverse groups of people – scientists, engineers, and technicians from hundreds of countries – into open group structures where they can interact, collide, and innovate. This model of sharing ideas – combined with a team that has psychological safety – is also an ideal framework for an innovative, rapidly changing startup.
I was reminded of this when we moved into our new building a month ago. All the office levels were ready but none of our communal spaces were. No cafe. No bar. No communal lunches. We immediately lost the connective tissue that enabled collisions across far-flung parts of the company. When our cafe space reopened a couple of weeks ago it was like being born again; you could immediately feel the lifeblood of Canva pumping through its arteries again, making us feel like one unified team.
In “Creativity Inc.“, Ed Catmull praised the layout of Pixar’s main building, which was highly influenced by Steve Jobs’ thinking around the matter:
“Most buildings are designed for some functional purpose, but ours is structured to maximize inadvertent encounters. At its center is a large atrium, which contains the cafeteria, meeting rooms, bathrooms, and mailboxes. As a result, everyone has strong reasons to go there repeatedly during the course of the workday. It’s hard to describe just how valuable the resulting chance encounters are.”
Ed Catmull, Pixar
Food will forever be an important part of Canva because it plays that role as a matchmaker, promoting chance encounters. Some people might look at it as just a bottom-line expense, but the real value of it is immeasurable. Unrivalled in the way that it brings our team together, forges bonds, and provides the lubrication for our ongoing innovation.