Hard yakka: Why Atlassian's founders are the pride of Australia's startup world
A few years ago, Mike Cannon-Brookes was invited to speak to a student entrepreneurial society at a Sydney university. The co-founder of Atlassian, one of Australia's most successful software companies, showed up to the venue in cut-off jeans and a T-shirt. One of the workers who was setting up the venue mistook him for IT support. When Cannon-Brookes walked in the room, the worker asked the scruffy entrepreneur if he could get the projector, which was acting up, to work. Not one to disappoint, Cannon-Brookes said "Sure," and fixed it.
It would be difficult to more perfectly encapsulate the disposition of the self-made Aussie Entrepreneur. Atlassian's other co-founder, Scott Farquhar, tells similar stories of new employees bumping into the founders and not knowing who they were.
"How long have you been here?" one asked Farquhar on his first day at the company.
"Oh, about 11 years," the surreptitious boss replied.
"And what do you do?"
"Well, I'm kind of in management."
In the US, there's a lot of talk about Zuckerberg's hoodie and founders who work from laptops at the same desks as the rest of their teams. But Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar (pictured above left and right respectively), who are both 33, take tech-casual to another level. When I visit their offices, housed in a converted Victorian-era bank building in downtown Sydney, we chat over beers raided from a fridge in a community space on the sixth floor. Farquhar, who used to sport a mohawk and a goatee, is wearing jeans and sneakers with a long-sleeve T-shirt, while Cannon-Brookes rocks a fisherman's sweater, a tatty baseball cap emblazoned with the Atlassian logo, shoulder-length hair, and an unkempt beard that wraps around his neck like moss on the trunk of a tree.
These guys are the heroes of Australia's nascent startup ecosystem. Atlassian has not only been hailed as perhaps the country's coolest company, but it is a name routinely invoked as a role model by anyone with a stake in Aussie startups. In 2011, it recorded a $100 million year of revenue without a single salesperson. When Sarah Lacy wrote about the company last year, she noted that it had achieved 40 straight quarters of profitability and had a compound annual growth rate of 43 percent for the last five years. In 2010, Accel Partners sunk $60 million into the company, the largest enterprise deal the VC firm had ever done. [Disclosure: Accel Partners is an investor in PandoDaily.] It now has 400 staff in Sydney, and another 200 in San Francisco.
The founders in particular are held up as humble titans in Australia. Both are known for giving back generously to the startup community, and for investing in homegrown companies. Both are investors in the new Blackbird VC fund that was founded in part to address a lack of Series A funding options in the country, and both are involved with local accelerators and incubators. They have a shared fortune of $480 million, according to Australia's BRW magazine. Incidentally, they each have one child and another on the way.
"They're no bullshit," says Ahmed Haider, the founder and CEO of Zookal, who also happens to be the guy who organized the event at which Cannon-Brookes was enlisted to fix the projector. Haider says that talk in particular helped convince him to drop out of university to pursue his entrepreneurial ambitions. "They're two very real guys and they went out to make a dent in the universe."
For Haider, the Atlassian founders showed what's possible to achieve in Australia by following their dreams and sticking to their ideals. "I never heard anything like that before," he says. "It was like, 'Wow, it's possible to do that and still make a living." He doesn't know any young entrepreneurs in Sydney who don't look up to Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes.
Those comments were echoed by everyone I spoke to in Sydney's startup ecosystem this week. When asked to name an Aussie success story, the word "Atlassian" was the first to come out of people's mouths. One of the reasons they're so proud of the company is that it proved it is possible to reach Silicon Valley scale and riches without having any of the benefits of actually being in Silicon Valley. By the time Accel invested, Atlassian already had close to 20,000 customers and many tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue.
When Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes started Atlassian straight out of university with a $10,000 credit card in 2002, they couldn't rely on venture money to sustain the company. There were few local investors interested in the tech sector, and Australia wasn't on the radar for Valley VCs. The word "startup," in fact, wasn't even part of the Australian business lexicon. Like most other Australian tech companies, Atlassian had to prove its worth by earning revenue from day one. It did that with the release of its issue-management software Jira. The next year, it launched content collaboration tool Confluence. The company was an early mover in the software-as-a-service sector, distributing its products solely through the Internet and relying on Google AdWords to get the word out. By 2004, it had 2,000 paying customers.
Another big part of why the Atlassian founder are so popular in their homeland, however, is they embody Australian ideals, including a delicate mix of straight talk, modesty, and the ballsiness to take on a global market. That much is reflected in the company's values, which include the clarion calls "Open Company, No Bullshit," and "Don't Fuck the Customer." Young entrepreneurs look at them and see themselves. Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar built the company on their terms without having to play by anyone else's rules in a market that was stacked against them. Rather than scrape and bow at the foot of high-powered American investors, the VCs came to them. It's not just a case of an underdog Aussie company taking on the world, it's a case of the world coming to an Aussie company.
The next major step in that reverse-colonization process is likely to happen this year in the form of a much-anticipated IPO. Cannon-Brookes says the company will be cautious and patient in its approach to going public and that the event is not in the company's "immediate plans." One has to assume, however, that it will come sooner or later. It has been more than two years since that enormous round from Accel, and Cannon-Brookes concedes that there's no point in "delaying it unnecessarily."
However, he is also quick to downplay a potential IPO's significance. "It's not a victory line," he says. "It's a financing event."
Spoken like a true Aussie.