AUSTRALIA’S $8 BILLION KINGS OF TECH
This is the greatest Australian success story you (likely) know little about – a story that begins when a Sydney university graduate, bored by his parttime IT job, says, “Fuck, I don’t want to be working with average people doing boring things.” He teams up with a former classmate, and funded by a $10,000 credit card, starts Atlassian – a software company recently valued at $8bn and which is now an integral cog in Australia’s bid to become a globally-respected tech player.
Think Richard D James, minus the niche sense of cool, memorable limo and arse-shaking of Aphex Twin’s defning ‘Windowlicker’ video. The air they work in is heavy with the tinny heat of the many machines, lightly spiced with a scent often found clinging to passionate, all-night gamers. It’s at this point we frst sight our unicorns – two Sydneysiders, each sliding towards their forties – who late last year became Australia’s greatest ever start-up success story. It was in 2002 that university mates Mike Cannon-brookes and Scott Farquhar founded Atlassian. That they did so with a $10,000 credit card is now tech folklore.
Today, those same two guys are worth a billion-plus each; Atlassian is valued at more than $7bn and the company’s suite of software products is used by more than 50,000 global customers, from companies including Facebook, NASA – yes, that NASA – Twitter, Tesla, ebay, Amazon, Cochlear, Virgin Media, Audi, CISCO, Linkedin, Skyscanner… seriously, we could be here a while. The bulk of the company’s 1500 employees work out of Sydney with a few hundred spread across global offces – namely a lavish, San Francisco site, one in Austin, Texas, London and smaller spaces in Manila and Amsterdam. In tech terms, Mike and Scott, well, Atlassian, is what’s known as a unicorn – a start-up valued at Us$1bn or more. Once little more than a desirable tech myth, there’s now a growing list of largely disruptive global players – Uber, Airbnb, Snapchat, Spacex – company that, again, highlights the achievement and positioning of this homegrown outft. For all the money and success, the tale of Cannon-brookes and Farquhar runs well beyond the fact they’ve built a business that rests on an equal fnancial footing to Qantas, worth a slice more than James Packer’s Crown Resorts and which easily eclipses ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s Fortescue and Coca-cola Amatil. The simple fact they’ve achieved so much, from Australia, adds to a larger discussion about what can be achieved by the local sector; about the glaring necessity for the country to reposition itself as a viable, globally recognised and attractive tech player. In a time of federal political chat that, when not dominated by what Peta and Tony may or may not have done with a fork in Canberra, is littered with words like ‘innovation’ and ‘ideas’, what Atlassian represents, what these two unassuming men have managed to achieve, is not only inspirational, but very important.
Mike Cannon-brookes grew up aware of money in Sydney’s water-lapped east. His parents’ continual travel (father, Michael Cannon-brookes, set up Citibank here in the ’80s), meant a lengthy and lofty primary school commute for the youngster – boarding school in England. He’d return four times a year, accruing Qantas frequent fyer points like few his age, eventually settling into high school at Sydney’s prestigious Cranbrook School, where the old boys rollcall features Packers James and Kerry, David Gyngell and Murray Rose, a former Sydney Lord Mayor and Chief Justice of New South Wales. Cannon-brookes labels his harbourside education “broad” – a couple of seasons of rugby (he played fullback) sitting alongside regular academic placing towards the top of his year group. “I’d have been regarded as academic but I wasn’t particularly a hard studier,” says CannonBrookes, a tall man who looks like you’d imagine a techie called Mike: baseball cap slung low, a soft, bearded jawline, white T-shirt and jeans. Shoes removed, he’s sporting a pair of kaleidoscopic socks. “I’d do just enough to get by,” he continues, “and with natural ability, I did pretty well, though I would pick subjects that I enjoyed, so it wasn’t such a problem.” He opted for two-unit maths and computing and claimed the school’s technical drawing prize “a few times”. It suited his proposed future path – eyeing off life as an architect. Interestingly, poetry was also a “thing”. “Yeah – I liked it, and used to write a bit of it back then. I enjoyed it more than literature, there were fewer words and it was more about meaning so you could make up all sorts of bullshit…” The recollection sets a smile across the lightly stubbled, lithe face of Farquhar, himself in navy T-shirt and jeans (maroon sneakers, mind). He’s perched next to his billionaire buddy in a nondescript glass offce that really shouldn’t accommodate four (the other, beyond GQ, a PR woman eagerly taking notes – or maybe she’s just doodling?). “You liked it ’cause you have the attention span of a gnat,” lobs Farquhar. “That and an ability to bullshit.” The 36-year-old came from Sydney’s working-class west. An early interest in computing saw him claim a year-6 technology prize before landing at the selective James Ruse Agricultural public high school. It was geeky (his words) and he continued to dominate a subject list inclusive of maths, English, physics and chemistry. It was in 1998 that Farquhar and Cannon-brookes frst came together – freshmen in business information technology (BIT) at the University of New South Wales. Each had been offered placement, on scholarship, ahead of completing the Higher Schools Certifcate (HSC).
“I certainly did [the course] because it was a $15,000-a-year tax-free scholarship,” says Cannon-brookes. “I guess it was a bit of a left turn, but I’d always enjoyed computers… And the course was half commerce, fnance and economics and half computer science, tech stuff. So it turned out to be perfect for what we ended up doing – not that we knew it at the time.” BIT meant a tight-knit class of about 40 scholarship students – all of whom quickly became aware of each other, forming friendships under a faternal bond of camaraderie. But it wasn’t instantaneous. “Mike was pretentious,” says Farquhar of his frst impression of his co-founder, the recollection delivered with a grin and locked gaze. For Cannon-brookes, university was fun, and an opportunity to meet people further afield from his cliquey Rose Bay school set. “All my friends growing up were from the east and, yeah, I liked uni for the fact we mixed with people that you wouldn’t have otherwise – it brought together people from different areas, with different attitudes.” As it does for the majority, the relative freedom of tertiary education meant drinking. A lot. “The highlight was the harbour cruise,” offers Farquhar, reminiscing about his formative party years and tenure as student association president. “You’d rock up to the bottle shop and say, ‘I need $3000 worth of alcohol please.’ It was just ridiculous and involved a particular punch that perhaps wasn’t all that sanitary.” He rattles off a brutal measure of boozy ingredients – four litres of cask wine, four litres of orange juice, a bottle of vodka and a bottle of rum. Tinkering with side projects, rather than too much punch, saw Cannon-brookes’ grade average slip as his attention was diverted from core course study. “I went from a HD in semester one to 52 in my last.” Shortly after, he dropped out – a contentious move given the school couldn’t simply replace a scholarship student. He went on to co-found the technical business, The Bookmark Box, which was sold to blink.com in the US. Then came ‘shop’ work doing “all sorts of random things”. By now, Farquhar was engaged in work placements. “I was at Sydney Water, in this horrible building on Bathurst Street. It was an IT project [he was a developer] and it was going badly. I remember they’d tell me how to do something one way, and then I’d do it another and get better results. And I was like, ‘Fuck, I just don’t want to do this when I graduate – I don’t want to be working with average people doing boring things.’” In 2001, Cannon-brookes fred off an email to a few former classmates – curious to learn if anyone wanted to join him on a new start-up. ‘Bored of studying,’ read the simple note. ‘Atlassian is far more interesting.’ While several BIT students showed initial interest, Farquhar actually pursued it, even though it was the worst ever time to be considering such a move, the tech industry defated after the dotcom crash; fnancial backers collectively moonwalking away from the sector. Still, the pair wanted to work together and for themselves. Atlassian forged ahead. The early days were as imagined – especially if you watch Silicon Valley. The pair remained positive and had fun, though the experience was lined with poverty. And chicken skewers. “We paid ourselves $15,000 [across] the frst two years – that’s 300 bucks a week. Rent was $125 a week, so that left $175 a week to live on. I remember three chicken skewers and satay sauce and rice at the local Thai place was $6. “And they never wanted to sell us just that – they’d be like, ‘And for main?’ ‘No, that’s it’, and here’s my $6. In 50-cent coins. Yeah, they were tight times.” Atlassian started out providing customer service on products developed by others. Based in a shared terrace in Sydney’s inner city Glebe, behind the thenpopular Valhalla Cinema, house parties were often interrupted by overseas phone calls seeking aid in the early hours. The most sober of the pair would take the call at 2/3/4am, talking the client through debugging or why things weren’t working. Their initial ambition, they confirm, didn’t run beyond a desire to eventually make $49,500 a year – the graduate starting salary at PWC (now owned by IBM) at the time, where many of their former BIT classmates ended up. “They were the biggest recruiters out of the scholarship program… so if we did something and were able to make the same money, then we saw that as a big win,” says Cannon-brookes. While Atlassian was fnancially viable from the outset initial
major wins (read: lucrative deals) came from creating their own products. Time in tech support may have forced this hand earlier than anticipated, though they were always creatives and destined to develop. Targeting fellow developers and project managers with a suite of products that aim to achieve increased, streamlined productivity and communication, Atlassian’s frst product, the project-tracking tool, JIRA, remains the fagship. Today it’s well-supported by Confuence and Hipchat, alongside others such as Bamboo, Clover, Crucible, Fisheye and Bitbucket. “We make and sell software products, packaged or sold online, to help people be more creative,”
“MIKE AND SCOTT SHOULD BE APPLAUDED FOR THE ACTIVE LEADERSHIP ROLE THEY PLAY IN THE LOCAL TECH SECTOR. THEIR SUCCESS, IS HELPING TO INSPIRE YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS ACROSS THE COUNTRY.” MALCOLM TURNBULL
says Cannon-brookes. “And we’re in a whole lot of different domains and different teams – from technical teams to IT teams to fnance teams to HR teams to local teams; helping them in a whole bunch of different ways to make them more productive.” That the focus is to assist teams – over the individual – is key. “Go back 200 years and you could accomplish a lot as a single person, but if you look at how complicated the world is [now]… things are accomplished by teams. People aren’t getting smarter or faster, actually all the bottlenecks are really about getting things out of my head and into yours, or sharing information or getting people on the same page and not duplicating work around an organisation.”
The company’s success is also about doing things differently – a point furthered by former classmate Niki Scevak, himself a tech success with Blackbird Ventures, a company he cofounded which funds local startups eyeing off global greatness. “The frst product sold really well – straightaway they had customers giving them money,” says Scevak, “but it was really their reaction to that positive information – they doubled down at every stage and [formed] this longer term view of [Atlassian] producing multiple products, not just one.” It’s an approach that bucks traditional tech wisdom about concentrating on a single product and sticking to it. “They went against the grain of standard advice early on,” adds Scevak. What’s more, they also rewrote the sales book. “Usually with enterprise software you never know the price – you have to play a round of golf or have a steak dinner with some guy in a suit. You ask what the price of the software is, then he’ll ask what the budget is, and magically, the price of the software matches what’s in the budget. “Mike and Scott said screw it, let’s make it really low friction, let’s be transparent, make it cheap and accessible and let’s sell to the person who uses the software. “I realise that this mightn’t sound like a big thing, but it was absolutely ground-breaking and critical to their success.” Continued on p183.
Scott (left) wears navy wool jacket, $2600, by Dior Homme; navy jersey T-shirt, $390, by Giorgio Armani; indigo cotton ‘Petit Standard’ jeans, $250, by APC. Mike wears black wool-blend jacket, $1299, by Hugo Boss; black cotton ‘Flinton’ jumper, $340, and black cotton ‘Van’ jeans, $380, both by Acne Studios.
Scott (left) wears black cotton ‘Bowery Open Mouth’ sweatshirt, $160, by Saturdays NYC; navy jersey T-shirt, $390, by Giorgio Armani; indigo cotton ‘Petit Standard’ jeans, $250, by APC. Mike (right) wears olive wool/ angora felt coat, $2995, by Bally; grey cotton ‘Ditch Explanation Slash’ jumper, $170, by Saturdays NYC; black cotton ‘Van’ jeans, $380, Acne Studios; laptop, Mike’s own.
Mike (left) wears olive wool/angora felt coat, $2995, by Bally; grey cotton ‘Ditch Explanation Slash’ jumper, $170, by Saturdays NYC; black cotton ‘Van’ jeans, $380, Acne Studios. Scott wears black wool-blend black jacket, $1299, by Hugo Boss; black cotton ‘Bowery Open Mouth’ sweatshirt, $160, by Saturdays NYC; navy jersey T-shirt, $390, by Giorgio Armani; indigo cotton ‘Petit Standard’ jeans, $250, by APC. Grooming: Gavin Anesbury at Viviens Creative.