Ottawa-based CanvasPop raises $3.3-million seed round

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CanvasPop co-founders Nazim Ahmed (left) and Adrian Salamunovic. Photo by Jordan Wiens.

In a big white warehouse on Hamilton Avenue, a local company has been turning customers’ photos into works of art without a cent of venture capital for nine years.

Now, Ottawa-based CanvasPop says it has landed a $3.3-million seed round with hopes of remodelling the crowded custom printing market.

The investment is led by Celtic House Venture Partners and BDC Capital, with a few familiar local names in the mix. Shopify’s Tobi Lütke and Cody Fauser are on board, as well as Med-Eng co-founder Richard L’Abbé.

Though the company would be considered old in startup years, co-founder Adrian Salamunovic tells OBJ the firm’s growth has been a “natural progression” since he and partner Nazim Ahmed launched DNA11, its original iteration, back in 2005.

“This is the ultimate bootstrap startup: a couple thousand dollars and two friends,” he recalls.

Who are CanvasPop's Ottawa angels?

Richard L'Abbé

  • Co-founder, Med-Eng, acquired (2007) by Allen-Vanguard in $650-million deal
  • OBJ CEO of the Year (2003)
  • Has been an informal advisor to CanvasPop for many years

Cody Fauser

  • Former chief technical officer of Shopify
  • “Good friend and technical genius” - Salamunovic

Tobi Lütke

  • CEO and co-founder of Shopify
  • OBJ CEO of the Year (2014)
  • “He loves to participate and help local startups. We’re very proud to have him on board.” - Salamunovic

In 2009 the firm relaunched as CanvasPop, creating custom prints on a range of materials from canvas to throw pillows. Since then, the local company has sold to more than 450,000 individual customers and amassed millions in revenues.

The firm now has roughly two dozen people in its Ottawa offices – they’ve long since moved on from Ahmed’s apartment – with a production facility in Las Vegas that employs anywhere between 40 and 100 during the high-volume holiday season.

Standing out from the crowd

It’s a crowded market – competitors include Vistaprint, Shutterfly, Snapfish and Photobox, to name just a few – but Salamunovic says the Ottawa company has always been nimble, quick to jump on the latest tech. CanvasPop was the first in the world to integrate with Instagram for large-scale prints, he says.

Salamunovic says CanvasPop is also looking at acquiring companies with a solid customer base in an attempt to consolidate the market. The firm has been approached for M&A before, but he says they’re not interested in selling at the moment.

Salamunovic says the firm is going to refocus on mobile for the future, as photography is increasingly a smartphone-first affair. The artsy startup intends to funnel its fresh funding towards new products and continue to develop offerings like the ones that have already gotten their prints onto thousands of customers’ walls.

“As a bootstrapped business, we never had the room to try to create new product lines,” he says.

“We’ve always been innovative, but this money allows us to be a little more innovative.”