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 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,”


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.

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