How I Landed an Internship at a $6 Billion Startup at 17

Click-baity title, I know.

But I've had a few people (some, who I've never met) ask me questions on how I landed a gig as a Product Manager Intern at software startup unicorn, Canva. So I thought it would be nice to share a detailed step-by-step on how I did so as a reference point for anyone out there searching for their next internship or wanting to stand out in front of a recruiting process.

❗️ DISCLAIMER❗️

I would like to point out that my journey to working at Canva is not a full-proof process I recommend you replicate, and that I certainly had support in getting there. However, I hope it'll inspire you to pursue an opportunity wherever you are at in your journey.

Your approach may also differ depending on what type of firm or industry you want to work in.

Context

To give a bit of context...

  • Canva only runs internship programs for university students who have studied their course for a minimum of 12 months
  • Canva does not run an official Product internship program
  • Canva only encourages people to apply as Product Managers if they have 6+ years of experience in product management
  • Thousands of people apply to work at Canva every year, however, their application acceptance rate is less than 1%

Before I started on this journey, I knew none of that. So I thought the process I was about to go on to get work experience or an internship would be wayyy easier (it wasn't). But even so, I was able to bypass all these facts and intern as a Product Manager for 3 months.

I'm also not stating these things to brag about what I've accomplished! But to highlight through my story that with the right attitude and effort you can sneak past a lot of ideas and beliefs, which feel "set in stone" and create your own opportunities.

So without further ado, here's how I managed to land my dream internship at a $4.7 billion startup straight after high school.

Work Experience?

As a Year 11 student, in 2018, I started a business focused on providing work experience opportunities to high school students. The reason being was because, any sane person wouldn't buy a house without investigating the property beforehand, nor would they buy a car without doing a test drive first - but so many young people jump straight into a career or uni degree without even testing the waters. This startup was focused on giving young people the opportunity to experience something hands-on before deciding if it was for them.

Fast track to April 2019: A lot of scholarship and early entry opportunities were opening up which prompted me to think more about where I wanted to go after high school and what I wanted to do myself. I didn't have a clue!

Which made me realise the irony in planning a future career without having something formative like work experience to guide that decision and also telling other people they needed to do work experience to plan better.

Being someone avid about startups and design, what company was better to see what that was like than the largest startup company in Australia with a design-centric product, Canva? It was the perfect cross-over. Except for one thing... I didn't know how to get there.

LinkedIn is Your Best Friend

LinkedIn has a 35-50% average open rate on cold contact messages compared to 14-23% via Email. Meaning that potentially half of the people you reach out to, regardless of if you've met them before will see a pitch, sell or message you send them.

By connecting with people and sending messages on LinkedIn, you've just massively opened up the door to so many people you could be communicating with and learning from.

Not only that, but you can also leverage the fact that you're a young person. Due to the scarcity of young people on LinkedIn, by simply having a profile (a good one, mind you), you can come across as more entrepreneurial and stand out in a sea of people.

So, how did I apply that to connect with Canva?

On LinkedIn you can search most professionals on the platform.

So all I had to do were find people in HR or the "decision-makers" and get in touch. Below, is the first message I sent to someone who was a Lead Recruiter (let's call him "Dave"), and to my surprise, I got a response.

"a force for good" is one of Canva's organisational values ☺️

We had an email loop about what was involved, but then Dave asked me about something I didn't even think about. He wanted me to send my portfolio.

Showcasing Your Best Self

Expectedly, I wasn't going to be able to sneak into a massive company like Canva that easily. And when he requested my portfolio, it was a bit of an "Oh sh*t" moment, because I didn't have one.

So I was about to try to make a herculean effort and pull an all-nighter to prepare an award-winning graphic design portfolio with the small pool of experiences I had in extracurricular activities while I was knee-deep in assessments in order to get back to him quickly.

A mentor of mine told me I was being stupid (which was true). And luckily they did because it allowed me to not rush the process and actually

  1. Build up more experiences in the interim to later put in my portfolio and
  2. Have the time to create something I was proud of and could impress other people.

The decision-maker in this case was not going away anytime soon, and neither would his job hang in a balance if I didn't reply with my portfolio straight away. It was fine for me to take time with the process of developing something, as long as it was going to be kickass.

Why Touchpoints Are Important

However, if I wasn't going to send my portfolio straight away, then the next best thing was to create touchpoints so he wouldn't forget about me - and this applies to any relationship you try to build.

If you're friends with someone you would likely try to check-in or hang out with them at least every once in a while.

The same principle applies for a network of people you try to build. Examples of things you might to touch base with your network could include:

  • Asking them a question via email, LinkedIn or other messaging services
  • Sending a blogpost or article that "reminded you of them"
  • Asking for a quick 10-minute phone call
  • Asking them out for coffee

I'll have to admit though, I wasn't perfect at this because I was unsure of what to contribute to my recruiter friend, Dave. So instead, I saw on my newsfeed an event where I thought he could be around and "coincidentally" meet.

And following my gut intuition, he was there!

I know the stalker approach might seem off-putting, but the value of doing that was that I became more memorable in his mind. When we chatted, he was blown away by the extra yard I went to learn more about Canva and engage with the company and told me most university graduates wouldn't go to that extent themselves.

For any competitive process, this is the impression you need to give to the decision-maker to amplify your chances of success.

As the year got busier, it was harder to find the time to build my portfolio, but I still found ways to engage with the Canva by attending events and meeting people in the company. This way I was able to create some buzz around my name in the organisation.

2nd Level Connections VS Cold Reachout

If you've ever done a bit of networking before, you would've heard of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level connections. Below you can find an image below of what I mean.

After completing my HSC and having the time available to create my portfolio, I reached back to my Canva contact with my work. Although, as a bit of an anticlimax, my query wasn't able to get past him. Blocked by a barrage of questions and concerns of insurance, who would host me and the logistics of the program, I was stuck.

I had to find another decision maker.

Who that key decision-maker was... ended up being an art teacher at my school who's brother was one of the first employees at Canva.

Which showcases the power of 2nd level connections.

A lot of times when we need people for help, we look to people in our immediate network and their skillsets and strengths. But a lot of power in networking is seeing how you can build relationships and find opportunities through the people they know. And these people who have these opportunity-unlocking connections, can be people you least expect.

During my time at school, I would often shared my desire to do work experience at Canva when plans about the prospective future came up. By chance, I was able to have this conversation with this teacher, and from my reputation at school, she was willing to make this opportunity happen.

A Foot in the Door is All It Takes

Once I was able to grab the attention of another key decision-maker, I submitted my portfolio again.

Despite me wanting to do this work experience much earlier in the year, there was a silver lining here because they were impressed.

Using the time I had post-school and experiences I had built up throughout the year I was able to deeply craft my portfolio AND include a page specific to Canva to re-iterate why I was someone they would want in the first place. While all they were looking for was a standard design portfolio by going above and beyond the brief, I became someone that stood out.

If you're curious, you can access my old portfolio here

Tying this with the efforts Dave made to try make the work experience happen, Canva able to see how much work I was willing to put in to get the experience so they made it happen.

I ended up doing 2 weeks of work experience in February this year, which led to a proposal for a 3-month Product Management internship following it and now an offer for a full-time Associate Product Manager role.

So the message I want the hone in now is that if you're able to grab the attention of the decision-maker and get your foot in the door, you can create opportunities that would never have even existed before with the right attitude and right effort.

The internship and role I was offered at Canva was never formerly advertised but instead of waiting for the door to open, I created the door.

What's a job, internship, or opportunity you want to pursue, and what's stopping you from creating the door?

Hopefully, this story strikes some inspiration for you. Read more here for a comprehensive guide on more principles + case studies that you can apply to help you create your own career opportunities! 🎉

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ABOUT ME

I write about my learnings in health, tech, and lifestyle design. I’m still navigating the journey of being a 20-something.

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