Atlassian founders carry the unique burden of being Australia’s first tech billionaires

Atlassian founders carry the unique burden of being Australia’s first tech billionaires
SYDNEY—Atlassian is a very boring software company. It develops products for software engineers and project managers, with hits like Jira (for software project management and bug tracking) and Fisheye (a revision-control browser). And who could forget Confluence (an enterprise knowledge management system)?

So why are its two founders household names in Australia?

Scott Farquhar, left, and Mike Cannon-Brookes at the Sydney headquarters of their company, Atlassian, Jan. 30, 2019. Though Australia’s first startup-to-IPO tech billionaires spent years out of the public eye, Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes have recently become household names by speaking out against the country’s political shift to the right.  (MATTHEW ABBOTT / NYT)

Because Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes, both 39, are the country’s first startup-to-initial public offering tech billionaires. And because, in the last year, they have started to make noise.

Until recently, they largely stayed out of the public eye, even as Atlassian grew to become a $20-billion company. Now, as Australian politics tilt toward the right on global issues like immigration, cybersecurity and climate change, they are emerging as new political voices, getting in Twitter spats and lobbying Parliament.

Another reason they are now household names: in 2017, Farquhar bought the most expensive home in Australia, a historic Sydney estate that sold for 73 million Australian dollars, or $52 million (U.S.).

In December, Cannon-Brookes broke that record when he closed on the house next door.

I met the Atlassian founders for a few days in Sydney. Over brunches, a ferry ride and a birthday party, they told me about their new roles in public life and what it feels like to be the first tech billionaires in a country where wealth usually comes from mining or banking.

“People are interested now in what we’re saying,” Cannon-Brookes said. “We have a voice. We have a sense of responsibility.”

It was 2002. Doing a startup was unusual.

“It was disbelief, really — why would you not go with a sponsor company?” said Christine Van Toorn, the program’s director and a lecturer at the school.

They relied on credit cards for initial financing. They advertised by going to developer meetups, buying beer for the room and putting Atlassian stickers on the bottles.

The company took off almost immediately.

“Within three years, we went from pariah to sponsoring the program ourselves,” Farquhar said.

The products they created were cheap and easy to use. They sold by word of mouth (the company employs few sales representatives). But Silicon Valley paid them little mind. When their friend Didier Elzinga, founder of Culture Amp, was at a venture capital dinner in Palo Alto, California, an investor asked why people should care about Atlassian.

“And I said, ‘OK. Tell me a company in the Valley that listed with a $5-billion market cap and where the two founders own 75 per cent,’” Elzinga said. “They didn’t need Silicon Valley.”

First they confused Silicon Valley. And then they confused Australia.

“The orthodoxy amongst the Australian tech companies is to stay away from politics,” said Alan Jones, founder of M8 Ventures, an Australian venture capital firm. “And then now there’s these guys.”

Their approach to policy is an extension of how they run a business together and live next door to each other: by relying on their differences.

Cannon-Brookes’ father was the chief executive of Citigroup Australia. His son wears his hair long, usually under a trucker hat. He has a shaggy beard and swears casually.

Farquhar’s roots are more working class: his father worked at a service station, and his mother worked at McDonald’s. He is quieter, with close-cropped, sandy brown hair.

He was recently upset that he hadn’t finished a marathon in under four hours (it was four hours and two minutes). When his green smoothie almost overflowed its glass (but didn’t), Farquhar immediately thought of lenses: “Positive meniscus!” he exclaimed.

In their political activism, Cannon-Brookes is often the public face, posting on Twitter and talking to the media while Farquhar focuses on Canberra, the capital — where this week he caused a stir by condemning a new law under which tech companies can be forced to build tools that help law enforcement get around encryption in their products.

“Sometimes we try the front door; sometimes we need to blow up the side door,” Cannon-Brookes said of their political activities.

Both became more interested in Australian politics after policies took a sharp turn toward the parochial, with the governing coalition abandoning efforts to address climate change and stoking fears around immigration.

That presented a problem for a company that needs to hire talented engineers, often from abroad. And so initially, the founders’ main goal was basic: to make Australia more tech-friendly and its politicians more tech-aware.

First, they hosted a coding class for elected officials and started working to get engineering into more curricula.

“It was like organizing the world’s worst wedding,” Cannon-Brookes said.

Still, it earned them some respect. “They do some wonderfully creative things,” said Julie Bishop, who was deputy leader of the Liberal Party from 2007 to 2018. “Mike and Scott have an enormously influential role to play.”

Australia just passed Switzerland as the richest country in the world as measured by household median wealth, and Cannon-Brookes thinks its reliance on mineral wealth has made the country slower to make tech investment or long-term economic change a priority.

Cannon-Brookes is especially passionate about climate change. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison has walked back Australia’s renewable energy ambitions, Cannon-Brookes has become a staunch critic.

“You’ve made me mad & inspired me,” he told the prime minister on Twitter, adding an expletive for emphasis.

Along with goading Elon Musk to bring Australia the world’s largest battery to help solve its power problems, Cannon-Brookes has been gathering others in the Australian business community to push Canberra. Peter Dutton, the home affairs minister, has told the Atlassian founders to “stick to their knitting.”

“His knitting is running the country well, and he doesn’t seem to be doing it,” Cannon-Brookes said.

He personally invests in alternative fuel and food sources, and he is especially interested in controlled-environment agriculture. “My wife and I have a big belief in the future of insects as a food source,” Cannon-Brookes said over brunch (granola, not insects).

Farquhar tends to focus on the issues aligned with Atlassian’s fortunes: cybersecurity (he says the new encryption law has cost the company customers) and immigration (he argues that the government is hurting recruitment and innovation by aiming to cut Australia’s immigration intake).

It is not at all clear whether he can influence the encryption law; potential amendments are due to be debated in Parliament this week, and no changes are expected.

But on immigration, Atlassian’s founders have moved the needle. After Australia’s skilled worker program cut several technology roles (including web developer) from its approved visa categories, Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes lobbied Parliament to change course and add more opportunities for international recruitment.

On a ferry ride to work, Farquhar pointed out the two founders’ houses, massive estates set into the lush Sydney hillside. Before they bought the properties, plans had been made to tear down the houses and develop the lots.

Cannon-Brookes and his family moved in a few weeks ago. He and Farquhar created a hole in the fence so their children could play together. One day a week, the founders pick up their children at school together and take the ferry home.

“It’s a changing of the guard,” Farquhar said, referring to the houses. “They were owned by two newspaper families. It used to be newspaper dynasties, and now it’s technology dynasties.”

It was a symbolically significant transition. The Fairfax family, a newspaper dynasty, had owned the properties since 1901.

“It was an establishment family, a very conservative family, very committed members of the Congregational Church, and they were mainstays of Sydney’s exclusive eastern suburbs,” said Bridget Griffen-Foley, a professor of media at Macquarie University in Sydney. “So it’s quite symbolic that the fortunes of the old media dynasty have been so affected by digital disruption, and now you’ve got tech billionaires taking over.”

This is a big change for Australia, where software entrepreneurs do not have the kind of cultural sway they have in the United States and elsewhere.

“Most of the mansions owned by the neighbours are offshore billionaires or really old Australian money — mineral money, gold rush money,” said Jones, the venture capitalist. “It’s been 100 years since most of the families on Sydney Harbour made their money.”

Money notwithstanding, running a growing tech company in Australia is a challenge, the founders said. Recruitment is hard. Two-thirds of Atlassian’s workforce is in San Francisco.

The founders have formed a cohort of friends with big tech companies outside Silicon Valley, including Daniel Ek, the Swedish chief executive of Spotify, and Ryan Smith of Qualtrics, who is based in Utah.

“We’ve got all the same problems,” Cannon-Brookes said.

And so, every two years, the Atlassian founders have hosted a private retreat, inviting every Australian startup valued over $100 million, which is about a dozen. They hike and fish. Families are invited. The goal is to encourage camaraderie and share best practices.

It is one of many reasons the two men say they would not leave Australia for Silicon Valley.

“I know the U.S. very well, and I know Australia very well,” Farquhar said. “And I think we’ve got it better here.”
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