Mike Cannon-Brookes is a good example of why Wikipedia can be a bad first port of call to research an individual. Not only is the Atlassian co-founder’s wiki page surprisingly brief, given his influence on start-up thinking, it is dominated by rich lists and references to Cannon-Brookes as an “accidental billionaire” who last year bought a $12 million mansion.
It’s true – he did buy the house. There, in the mornings (schedule permitting), Cannon-Brookes and his wife Annie get their three young children dressed, fed and lunch-boxed. When asked how a family had changed him at Sydney’s Sunrise conference, Cannon-Brookes quipped: “I used to get up and find it hard to put my own pants on … now look what I can do!”
It is also true that Cannon-Brookes is very wealthy. Last year’s BRW Rich 200 estimated his net worth at $2 billion. The collaboration software company has over 75,000 customers and 2000 employees. Cannon-Brookes runs the business with his university friend and co-CEO, Scott Farquhar. “$10,000 bucks, two uni kids, it all got a little crazy and here we are,” he told Sunrise.
While Wikipedia is not wrong, it’s only when you turn to YouTube clips of Cannon-Brookes talking – eyes as bright as a boy’s and wearing his signature ball cap and jeans – that you get a sense that it’s not money that motivates him – it’s people. And the brilliant work people can do if you provide optimal conditions.
Though it’s been a steep learning curve. “My biggest mistake,” he told FORA.tv, “Was not understanding people enough and how important they are.”
What was your biggest mistake? It’s a rote question usually answered with a rote reply. Yet Cannon-Brookes has a way of voicing simple matters in a way that cuts through.
Part of that is due to his instinctive use of metaphor. When he talks about seeing the crossroads in a Manhattan city block, he’s talking about sharpening one’s business perspective. He uses an elephant tail/zoo metaphor to describe the tumultuous journey of a start-up business. Extract too much money from your customers without making them new things and it all falls over. Like “swiss cheese”, he says, or a house made from honeycomb.
On the topic of people, Cannon-Brookes’ insights are so compelling that he’s asked about it in most interviews – unusual for a technology CEO. Atlassian has been winning awards for years for its innovative HR practices, ranging from unusual recruitment strategies to its focus on being a workplace where employees are productive and happy.
But Cannon-Brookes is not all sweetness and light. He is notorious for his belief in hiring slowly and firing fast. “The only times we’ve made huge egregious errors is when we’ve let a good person in the wrong job stay around for too long,” he told Sunrise. Atlassian has had to fire a lot of people and it’s always “a very hard conversation”.
The company’s values are notorious for being brazen, a bit sweary and bucking the trend among corporations to feel phony or tacked on. “People are unable to be captured,” Cannon-Brookes told Sunrise. “You can’t keep your people. How do you get them to buy in? It’s the values, it’s the culture of the organisation, it’s the reason they choose to stay … and give that extra 5% or 10% to really make something special.”
A tour of Atlassian’s Silicon Valley HQ with The Future Of Work series reveals a light-filled, open plan office, lots of standing desks (one employee clocking 30 miles a day on a treadmill desk), a central area with bleachers to watch company presentations, games areas to hang and eat and a giant projector for friends and family movie nights.
Transparency goes both ways, too. Last month, Atlassian employee Tyler Smith blogged about his mental health issues and how his team worked around days where he didn’t “want to even so much as see anybody”. Cannon-Brookes tweeted the article saying it was “one of the best Atlassian blogs ever written” and a “huge issue in tech”.