In 2020 we are all familiar with startups. If you don’t work for one yourself or have a close friend that does, then you’re living under a rock. But in 2002, when Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar launched Atlassian, the response they received as university graduates with other promising offers wasn’t as familiar. And in Australia, a country slow to pick up on the tech boom, it was practically unheard of.
Mike and Scott’s partnership starts like many great friendships do – college. Both were in the same scholarship program at the University of New South Wales in 1998. They built a friendship and a partnership, both ambitious and intelligent. Like all students in this program, they were expected to join one of the Australian companies sponsoring the program.
Instead, they started Atlassian.
Let’s put this timing into perspective: The launch of the most famous tech start-up ever, Facebook, was in 2003. The location made it even more unique – Australia not diving into the tech start-ups like in the US for instance. Especially a start-up that’s product isn’t as graspable to the common person who isn’t versed in intra-business technology software.
And those people aren’t alone. The Sydney Morning Herald referred to Atlassian in one of their headlines as “the $30 billion tech giant no one understands”. But that’s the thing. The idea behind what Atlassian does is so businesses don’t have to think about what they do, and instead focus on growing their businesses.
To put it simply, Atlassian creates software to help businesses and teams work better. And not just any businesses, but the businesses. Jira, the first piece of software released by Atlassian helps organizations like NASA and Tesla with project management.
The rest of the history of Atlassian – a true tech giant worthy of its Greek Titan inspired name – stays off the normal path. For most start-ups, funding comes from capital that’s sought out from external investors. After all, venture capitalism is its own industry at this point. Mike and Scott didn’t take that route.
They took on debt to fund their project – $10,000 dollars of it put on credit cards. Most people who go thousands of dollars in credit card debt don’t come out on the other end being industry-shaking billionaires, but they have proven to not be like most people, just as Atlassian has proven to be different than most companies.
This includes how they marketed their new product. Atlassian has never had a giant sales team, instead relying on internet sales. The original marketing strategy was going to meetups for developers and buying them beers – with the Atlassian sticker on the bottle.
Their marketing strategy relied on a quality product at a low price and the word of mouth from happy customers. And it worked.
That remained true as Atlassian began to take off. Even now Atlassian only spent 19% of revenue on sales and marketing, far less than similarly placed tech companies. Reuters would attribute this strategy to Atlassian’s success at their 2015 public offering: “Atlassian’s IPO success underscores investors’ positive reception to a company that saves money on marketing by foregoing a traditional sales team in favor of offering free product trials and a web-based sales process.”
Atlassian also prioritized charitable work from early on. In 2006, only 4 years after launch, the Atlassian Foundation was created along with a pledge to donate 1% of equity, product profit, and employee time to charitable causes.
In 2013 as an incentive to raise $40,000 for charity, Scott, known for having long hair usually tucked into a trucker hat, said he would shave his head into a mohawk then dye it blue. And he did.
HipChat, a web service for internal online chat and instant messaging, was acquired by Atlassian in 2012. Its office web chat features would become so valuable that Atlassian sold it to Slack, a pioneer in changing how offices communicate.
In 2017 Atlassian bought Trello, a collaboration tool for businesses ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies. After picking it up they worked to make it even more useful and compatible with existing software.
The effort to make it easier to work together goes even further with Atlassian Marketplace. There, Atlassian has over 4,000 apps to help businesses integrate their products more easily into what they already use. For companies who use Atlassian products, Marketplace makes it easier to find new products that fit what they have or discover new apps to integrate.
The Atlassian Marketplace allows customers to look through a single website to browse extensions without taking them to separate pages for each individual app. It also means customers don’t have to deal with separate vendors. Instead of having to figure out how to deal with Atlassian and the vendor of the add-on, Marketplace streamlines this so Atlassian handles the challenging part.
Marketplace supports third-party developers and app makers, making it easier for them to reach a consumer and market their product. Atlassian Marketplace makes everyone happier: The consumer, the developer, and the company.
Atlassian has grown to earn its name. It’s valued at around $30 billion today, a far cry from the 10 grand credit card debt of its beginnings. Despite this, the founders, Scott and Mike haven’t let it change them.
Now they use their platform as Australia’s first tech billionaires for good. They’ve become activists in the realms of global warming, cybersecurity, and immigration.
Mike and Scott are still close. Next-door-neighbor close, in fact. The founders purchased two huge houses that once belonged to giant newspaper families right next to each other, truly ushering out the old and entering the new.
The history of Atlassian is something to pay attention to. Those houses the founders purchased? The two most expensive in all of Australia. Sure beats living under that rock.