After meeting at the University of NSW, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar founded software giant Atlassian in 2002. Now billionaires, they employ 1500 people in offices around the world.
What they have in common – a thick skin and mutual respect – and what they don’t: Cannon-Brookes is creative and big-picture, while Farquhar is practical and great in a crisis. Here’s what the winners of Australia’s best place to work for the second year running had to say about starting a successful business and working together.
“We were both 22 when I sent Scott [above right] an email suggesting we do something crazy and not get a real job. If we failed, we were both confident we could get a job if we needed to.
I never had any doubts about working with Scott. His nickname is Skip, for skipper. He’s the hardworking, super-smart kind of guy you want to have in the foxhole when things go wrong. He’s like an Eagle Scout – you know, the ones who head off into the Simpson Desert for 48 weeks with a bit of rope and a penknife.
I was more off-the-wall, always creative, trying to build things more than start things.
I didn’t know if we’d be successful as a team but in terms of picking a partner I had no doubts at all.
The business started with the two of us doing everything. We wrote the code, got the coffee and took out the trash. We each have an ability to do any job, which is really rare in a corporate sense. But now we have pretty clear lines of delineation between the parts of the company that each of us run.
We rarely disagree. If we found we couldn’t come to a decision there’s always rock-paper-scissors as a last resort but we’ve never come anywhere near that – we agree on 99.9 per cent of things. Over time you build up enough respect for somebody to go, ‘If you disagree, there’s probably a reason.’ You either try harder to convince the other person or you realise you might be on the wrong page.
I think the important things are honesty and a thick skin because we’re able to say, ‘Nah mate, that’s rubbish,’ and not take offence.
We used to socialise together a lot more before we had kids, though we did run into each other at Baby Bunting last weekend...
There are a lot of reasons why our partnership works. When everything is going well, it’s pretty easy for a whole lot of people to do things well. It’s when the business goes pear-shaped that you really find out who you chose to work with.”
“When I got the email from Mike, I was working at Sydney Water. Maybe the attraction of working with smart people made me say yes. It sounds like it was a big decision now but it really wasn’t. I was 22 and eating ramen noodles anyway; I didn’t want to get a real job and wear a suit to work every day. And if it all fell apart, I could go and sleep on my parents’ couch again.
We started off as a different company, doing third-party support. It was a terrible business to be in. I think Mike came in one day and said, ‘This support stuff sucks. Let’s go and build software.’
It was exciting in those days. Every day you’d come in and Mike would have a new way of working. If it didn’t work then we would do something else. Mike has always been a good idea generator.
But he didn’t do a very good job of taking out the trash. My girlfriend at the time always used to complain; she’d come in and the bins would be overflowing.
I think we have similar skills – we can both write marketing copy, answer support requests and write code – but Mike will look at a situation in a different way to me.
You’ve got to bring something to the table or else one of you is redundant.
I always think if you’re going to start a business, you need to find the smartest person you know who’s still stupid enough to start a business with you. Would I be as successful without Mike? In a word, no.” ￼