The Strange Experience of Being Australia’s First Tech Billionaires

SYDNEY, Australia — Atlassian is a really boring software program firm. It develops merchandise for software program engineers and undertaking managers, with hits like Jira (for software program undertaking administration and bug monitoring) and Fisheye (a revision-control browser). And who might overlook Confluence (an enterprise information administration system)?

So why are its two founders family names in Australia?

Because Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes, each 39, are the nation’s first start-up-to-I.P.O. tech billionaires. And as a result of within the final yr, they’ve began to make noise.

Until not too long ago, they largely stayed out of the general public eye, at the same time as Atlassian grew to develop into a $20 billion firm. Now, as Australian politics tilt towards the suitable on international points like immigration, cybersecurity and local weather change, they’re rising as new political voices, getting in Twitter spats and lobbying Parliament.

The different purpose they’re now family names: In 2017, Mr. Farquhar purchased the costliest dwelling in Australia, a historic Sydney property that bought for 73 million Australian , or $52 million.

In December, Mr. Cannon-Brookes broke that file when he closed on the home subsequent door.

I met the Atlassian founders for just a few days in Sydney. Over brunches, a ferry experience and a birthday celebration, they advised me about their new roles in public life, and what it feels prefer to be the primary tech billionaires in a rustic the place wealth normally comes from mining or banking.

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

The two met as undergraduates on the University of New South Wales, the place each have been in a enterprise scholarship program sponsored by Australian firms. They have been inspired to hitch one of these firms after graduating, however as a substitute the 2 pals based Atlassian, stunning their academics and pals.

It was 2002. Doing a start-up was uncommon.

“It was disbelief, really — why would you not go with a sponsor company?” mentioned Christine Van Toorn, this system’s director and a lecturer on the faculty.

They relied on bank cards for preliminary financing. They marketed by going to developer meetups, shopping for beer for the room and placing Atlassian stickers on the bottles.

The firm took off virtually instantly.

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

The merchandise they created have been low cost and straightforward to make use of. They bought by phrase of mouth (the corporate employs few gross sales representatives). But Silicon Valley paid them little thoughts. When their buddy Didier Elzinga, founder of Culture Amp, was at a venture capital dinner in Palo Alto, Calif., an investor asked why people should care about Atlassian.

“And I said, ‘O.K. Tell me a company in the Valley that listed with a $5 billion market cap and where the two founders own 75 percent,’” Mr. 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, the 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.

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Mr. Cannon-Brookes’s father was the chief govt of Citigroup Australia. His son wears his hair lengthy, normally beneath a trucker hat. He has a shaggy beard and swears casually.

Mr. Farquhar’s roots are extra working class: His father labored at a service station, and his mom labored at McDonald’s. He is quieter, with close-cropped, sandy brown hair.

He was not too long ago upset that he hadn’t completed a marathon in beneath 4 hours (it was 4 hours and two minutes). When his inexperienced smoothie virtually overflowed its glass (however didn’t), Mr. Farquhar instantly thought of lenses: “Positive meniscus!” he exclaimed.

In their political activism, Mr. Cannon-Brookes is usually the general public face, posting on Twitter and speaking to the information media, whereas Mr. Farquhar focuses on Canberra, the capital — the place 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.

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,” Mr. Cannon-Brookes said over brunch (granola, not insects).

Mr. 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, Mr. Farquhar and Mr. Cannon-Brookes lobbied Parliament to change course and add more opportunities for international recruitment.

On a ferry ride to work, Mr. 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.

Mr. Cannon-Brookes and his family moved in a few weeks ago. He and Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 neighbors are offshore billionaires or really old Australian money — mineral money, gold rush money,” said Mr. Jones, the venture capitalist. “It’s been 100 years since most of the families on Sydney Harbor 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 work force 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,” Mr. Cannon-Brookes said.

And so every two years the Atlassian founders have hosted a private retreat, inviting every Australian start-up 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,” Mr. Farquhar said. “And I think we’ve got it better here.”

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