Localization Leaders
Localization Leaders

Localization Leaders: Meet Canva’s Michael Levot

This month, we sat down with Michael Levot, Head of Localization at Canva. Canva is an online design and publishing tool with a mission to empower everyone in the world to design anything and publish anywhere. Their platform is currently available in over one hundred languages.

Join us as Michael shares his best practices for working with other departments company-wide, how localization plays a key role at Canva, and what their biggest market challenges are. Read the full interview, or watch the videocast below:

Watch our discussion with Canva’s Head of Localization, Michael Levot

To start out with some context, can you tell us a bit about your career path and how you ended up in your current position as Head of Localization at Canva? 

The early part of my career I spent studying and teaching linguistics, which was sort of how I got into localization in the first place. My first role was working agency-side for a company that did AI annotation and other language technology data collection. I was very lucky that there was a role at Canva in localization in Sydney in about the two months that I was looking for a job, so you could say I won the lottery there.

The company has grown more than tenfold in the time that I’ve been here, so there have been a lot of natural opportunities to increase the scope of responsibility as more people have come on board and opportunities have come that way. The literal way that I came to be in my position is that my wonderful mentor and manager, Rachel Carruthers, has moved into a slightly different role at Canva, still in the international space, and that gave me an opportunity to move out of the marketing localization space and into localization across a few different verticals.

Since you started out at a translation technology company, you must have become well-versed in the tech side of localization, which I’m sure has been a huge advantage.

Yeah, definitely. I think that has been a big advantage coming into a technology company and also on the localization management side of things. Having a good understanding of where a lot of these translations and other resources and data that we work on end up, as well as understanding the tools that they’re trying to improve, is very valuable.

You said you started out in marketing localization, and now manage multiple parts of localization. So, how is localization actually structured at Canva? How do you guys approach it?

It’s in constant flux at Canva – as things have changed, we’ve changed our team’s structure.

When I joined, we were a team of five people who were each focusing on different needs within the company. And then we went through a phase of being a sort of an anarchistic syndicate of people scattered throughout the company, which was a really fun time. And I think we gained a lot of understanding of the different business needs.

Now, we’re a little bit more mature. We have a lot more people because there’s a lot more parts of the company that require localization. We’re a group of four teams with a few sister teams that aren’t actually under our umbrella, but that we partner with really closely. 

We’re a product localization team, meaning we work with product teams and designers, engineers and those sorts of specialties. We’re a marketing localization team, as I mentioned, and a localization operations team, which is kind of more focused around localization technology. They manage our translation management system, for instance, and monitor quality across all of those different verticals. And we have an internationalization engineering team, which is composed of infrastructure engineers, the clever people who actually make things tick and work together — so, we’re very grateful for all of their work.

That sounds awesome. Are all those teams in one department, then?

Yeah, three of those teams are housed in our marketing division at Canva, which is kind of a strange place for some of those teams to be, but just happened through the development of how Canva has evolved. And the engineering team is housed in the infrastructure part of our business with more appropriate managing lines and things like that for our engineers. So they’re a little bit different.

What a great evolution. Many times when a company is new to localization, management might not initially be convinced that localization is a worthy investment. Do you have any advice on how other departments can grow, even if it’s one translator or a localization manager at a company that wants to push for something more?

Yeah, I certainly can’t take credit for it. But I think the biggest factor for us has been that people like Rachel Carruthers, our CEO Mel Perkins, and some other people like Hitomi, Georgia Vidler and others have really done a great job of instilling the value of localization at Canva – not as a business need or as a tool for business growth, but as something that would enable people to use our product. We believe we have a really valuable tool that helps people to improve their lives and enable them to grow their own businesses. Which I’m sure sounds a little bit like I’ve been “drinking the Koolaid” at Canva, but it is true. I think we hear all the time that people have been able to use our tool for their own personal success. We have a great free product.

I think the point is that people really respond to values and that’s a really powerful way of communicating the importance of localization that isn’t related to the bottom line.

That said, I’m definitely a numbers person and I think we’ve had some really great partnerships with other teams by learning their needs and by speaking in the metrics and product terms that they understand and that drive their needs.

For example, recently we partnered with our customer support team who look after our Help Center, Frequently Asked Questions and our customer support email. We worked really hard to understand what they were trying to achieve. We understood exactly what metrics they were trying to move. They were interested in helpfulness ratings where people say, “Yes, this was a helpful interaction.” They were interested in deflection where people say, “I was able to resolve my own problem without having to raise a ticket,” and we were able to really sell what we were trying to do in those terms.

And I should say that we also were very lucky that they had a wonderful product manager, Anna Kelk, in charge of that team, who was very interested in localization and had empathy for international users who might be trying to resolve the problem. So we got lucky in that respect, but the whole engagement was really productive and I feel like that’s a great example of how we should be going about showing the value, the sort of bottom line value of localization to product teams.

You can’t do it in localization terms. You can’t talk about word rates, you can’t talk about results. Well you can, but you need to frame them in the sense of something that’s relevant to that team.

That’s a great approach. When it comes to putting localization into action, were there any markets that were particularly challenging to break into?

Yeah, I’ve been asked this question a few times, and I feel like the answer is always really boring because it’s the same markets every time: Japan, Germany, China, India. 

These markets have unique ecosystems for search and cultural and material barriers that are different to other parts of the world. So I think they’re always a little bit unique. We’ve had great success in those markets, but only because we’ve worked really hard at it.

I’ve been trying to think of a more unique answer to a question like this, and something that’s more surprising. Where we haven’t had the success that perhaps we might expect on face value is the whole continent of Africa, including North Africa and Arab states in the North. Not to be naïve about it, there are of course economic differences as well as differences in Internet and technology access compared to Southeast Asia or Latin America. But there are also these huge digital economies within Africa, like Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa and other places where the Lingua Franca is English. In many cases, it seems like a product like Canva – which is free, has a value proposition based around enabling small businesses and individuals to monetize their own assets – should be able to rapidly, rapidly scale in Africa, and that hasn’t been the case for us yet. So that’s something I’d really like to understand more to really make an impact in that region.

In other regions like Southeast Asia, Indonesia (where we’ve had great success, actually), Japan and Korea, we know that there are different search ecosystems. They use Naver instead of Google, or they use wallets instead of credit cards –  these sorts of things. My understanding at least, and I could be very ignorant here, is that in Africa, Google is still the dominant search platform. Smartphones are proliferated through a lot of the continent, or at least the more wealthy parts of it. So it seems like there shouldn’t be complete barriers to adoption in this region. It’s a little bit surprising to me and something further down the track I’d really love to devote some time to.

That’s so interesting! To wrap things up, do you have any advice for other either budding localization managers that are just starting out or someone that’s interested in the industry and hasn’t quite jumped in yet?

Yeah, I think similar to what we were discussing earlier, I had the benefit of really being able to indulge in the craft of localization and language technology for the first full five years of my career. By that, I mean I was always interested in the technicalities of quality, with measuring quality and the post processing as we called it – being able to automatically detect errors and those sorts of things. It’s very “in the weeds,”exactly the opposite of what you might expect to benefit someone who’s looking to move through management levels.

But it meant that when I got to Canva, which was a completely foreign animal to me, having moved from vendor side to buyer side, I had the luxury of really being able to just completely devote all of my time and energy to learning what the business was about and being completely immersed in different parts of the business instead of trying to figure out how to do the nuts and bolts. I think that was really beneficial to me.

I don’t know if I can recommend it because I’ve never tried it a different way, but it definitely was a very enjoyable way to go about things as you get to really commit yourself to two different things at different times and never feel like you’re split between two different masters. It was a really good way to go about it in that respect. And if you’re a big nerd like me, it’s just fun.

Great advice! This leads us to our rapid-fire questions…What’s your favorite language?

Shahmukhi, which is Punjabi, is spoken in Pakistan. It has haunted me my entire career. Every time I have a challenging language, it’s always shown up. So I’m going to go with that one because I love a challenge.

What’s your favorite localization tool?

Hot take, but Google Sheets.

I should elaborate before I alienate some of our other tools. Do not use Google Sheets for doing localization, but for analyzing localization and for quickly spinning up ideas or hypotheses. It’s definitely the most useful tool, apart from Canva, that I use day to day.

Favorite place you’ve traveled to?

I’m appallingly poorly traveled, unfortunately, but I’m going to say the tiny town of Volos in Greece, near Thessaloniki, which is where some of my family live. I spent some beautiful time there.

Best localization advice you’ve received?

My first week at Canva, Rachel Carruthers sat me down and said, “Dollars and cents.” She didn’t elaborate, so I’m not going to either.

What’s the most successful market that you’ve invested in?


What’s your localization nightmare?

I once had the CEO of Canva direct message me because I had broken the Canva homepage in a localization initiative. She was very, very lovely about it, as she always is, but I still wake up in the middle of the night every now and again thinking about it.

Who’s your localization role model?

Rachel Carruthers and Simon Hammond, who are two of the most talented and generous people I’ve worked with.

And which brand is your localization crush? 

There are a few of them, but I think Spotify has some of the coolest localization. They get to work with music, which is really fun, but they also do a lot of really cool stuff with creative imagery, Spotify Wrapped, their playlists and with their social media as well.

Read more Localization Leaders interviews for insights from global industry leaders

author post

Corinne Sharabi

Corinne is the Social Media and Content Lead at BLEND. She is dedicated to keeping global business professionals up to date on all things localization, translation, language and culture.


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