When you’re a billionaire tech entrepreneur and prolific tweeter there’s little to stop you being heard. But for the Atlassian co-founder, finding a political voice has been a gradual process.
The political awakening of Mike Cannon-Brookes began in earnest last year. That was when he leapt out of the business pages and into mainstream consciousness after a Twitter bet with an even more prominent tech entrepreneur, Tesla founder Elon Musk, over South Australia’s energy crisis. The bet resulted in the world’s biggest lithium-ion battery being built in the state. It also thrust Cannon-Brookes head-first into the culture wars, winning him praise from clean energy advocates and criticism from sceptics who saw it as a publicity stunt.
Since then, the co-founder of software giant Atlassian – Australia’s biggest tech success story – has voluntarily appeared at a Senate hearing on the future of work and opined on social issues ranging from immigration to education. In so doing, the 38-year-old billionaire has become Australia’s proxy for the tech moguls who increasingly stride the world stage – and a spokesman not just for his own industry, but for a new global economy.
The day we meet at Atlassian’s offices near Sydney’s Martin Place offers some delicious symbolism. Less than a block away, Telstra, an icon of a bygone corporate era, announces plans to slash 8000 jobs. The scene inside Atlassian couldn’t be more different. Everyone seems young and upbeat, plants adorn the foyer, almost every wall is a whiteboard – lest an impromptu team meeting be required – and nobody has a permanent office.
I’m ushered past the company’s other co-founder, co-CEO and co-billionaire Scott Farquhar, who is working at a standing desk, and into a boardroom overlooking the historic General Post Office.
There, a heavily unshaven, barefoot Cannon-Brookes, wearing a baseball cap and white T-shirt, is seated. “Hey,” he says.
You’re now effectively a celebrity in Australia, and a hero to many in the tech and start-up communities. Is it weird to be famous?
It certainly comes out in odd occasions. People know your name and come up and start chatting to you, and you think, “F…, have I forgotten this person, or met this person?” If I don’t know anything about someone and they seem to know everything about me, it’s an odd experience. I mean, you get used to it. I find it bizarre when people take surreptitious photos. I always wonder what they’re going to do with that photo. You quickly get a radar for people treating you differently, but I try not to be defensive about the whole thing. I don’t want to put up walls.
We’ve had our fair share of odd experiences at home: people wandering around sticking their heads over walls, stuff like that. [Cannon-Brookes and his wife Annie have four children.] You have to kind of roll through it, though. Your alternative is to become a hermit and hide, and that’s not going to make you very happy.
Do you find that discussion of your wealth is awkward?
I find it very, very strange that it’s people’s definition of success. Success for me is not defined by a number in a bank account, but for a lot of other people it is. Well, I don’t know if it is, or if it’s just the easiest thing to judge. It’s a scoreboard, it’s countable. People never talk about jobs created, or products created, or the impact those products have had on the rest of the world, or any of that sort of thing. Whenever the rich lists come out it’s the worst time of the year. It’s great if it motivates people to go and start a company, but yes, the constant discussion of wealth doesn’t help. There’s no upside, only downside. Unless you want to kind of show off in a weird way. But then buy a freakin’ billboard, right?
How did you get interested in politics? Were you interested in public policy growing up?
I had zero interest in public policy or politics! I’ve been asked that a lot. Like, are you going to run for prime minister? No effing way. Are you going to join politics? No. Were you in the Young Liberals or Young Labor? Neither. I had stuff to do in university. They [student politicians] just seemed to sit around and talk a lot. Ha, that’s a bit unfair. But, no. I had no desire to do any of that stuff.
So what got you interested?
A lot of issues that I’m interested in happen to require politics to solve them. Which means you have to learn something about that shadowy, dark world of Canberra. But it is not an interest area; the process in itself is not interesting to me. I think it’s what you have to do to get things done. If you look at the few times we’ve gone through the front door, and the times we’ve just broken a side wall down, sometimes breaking the side wall down is the easier way to get shit done. You can’t just constantly be turning up with a tank and blowing holes and stuff, it’s not going to get you very many friends, but we just try to call it like it is.
Public policy does not interest me. The country making some shitty decisions that should be changed? That interests me. How do we get the country to change those decisions? Unfortunately you have to get involved with politicians sometimes.
“There’s no doubt if you zoom out to a philosophical level, technology is the single biggest driver of human progress. But none of that human progress, of any kind, is a linear path,” says Cannon-Brookes.
Tell me about the bet with Elon Musk. Did you know him before those exchanges?
There is always a conspiracy theory that it was concocted in the back room, which is kind of hilarious. Sometimes those things spiral.
That’s one of the weird parts about Twitter. I still haven’t met him in person. We spoke on a phone call. It was super brief.
What was he like?
A bit odd. I mean, he’s a fascinating dude. We’re all probably a bit odd. He obviously fires from the hip as well. So we collectively fired the right set of shots that created some popular interest. The South Australian government came to the party in a big way, very quickly – which they should be given big credit for. I love Jay [Weatherill, former SA Labor premier]. I’m disappointed he got voted out. The way he and [federal environment and energy minister Josh] Frydenberg got in that big fight … If anything, the feds have been so wishy-washy. There is no clear position on where they stand, it seems to change. At least in South Australia, they had a very clear position of what they wanted, and they were willing to put money on the line and experiment with stuff and try stuff that might be unpopular. It worked, and for politicians that showed quite a lot of guts.
It seems you saw a problem and the solution appeared logical to you, but for the politicians it was divided along tribal lines, which bogged down their attempts to fix it.
Yes. For me, there are two problems with politics. One is, people start with a given position. They can’t apply logic to it, they can’t sit there and go, “What is the best solution here? Let’s go with that,” because there are interest groups, there’s how does that decision affect all sorts of other people. Someone asked me the other day, “What’s the biggest thing you would do if you were prime minister for a day?” I’d say get rid of one level of government. We’re a nation of 25 million people. It’s insane, that’s smaller than some US states, yet we have three tiers of government.
So the South Australia solution, on every scientific basis, totally obvious. And I’m really glad that it’s been proven by three different groups to be working beyond everyone’s expectations. It’s not only that we thought it would be good, it’s doing way better than people thought it would.
The second problem with politics is government’s inability to experiment. Government is unable to say, “Here’s an idea. Let’s try it.” They have to be, “Here’s a plan. It’s going to work.” And then it has to work. That’s where business and government are quite different. We experiment with lots of things. It fails. We learn. We sit and ask, “Why did it fail?” We try something else. Experimentation in government is really, really hard to do because you get voted out, or the other guys are like, “Oh look at those idiots, that was never going to work.” And that’s really tough. I don’t know how you change that other than somehow the population accepting that we can get stuff wrong – that’s what experimentation is. But if everything has to work, then it requires so much upfront planning and costs and everything else that it’s just crazy hard.
Think about the entirety of what start-ups are: lots of experiments going on constantly that work or don’t work and then flame out. We all learn something, then we try to build another one. The other thing that’s tricky for government is it’s very hard to do long-term planning. I don’t know if we should change three-year terms to four-year terms, but it’s very hard for them to do real long-term planning.
I’m always worried about politics where you get people who are trying to push an agenda. I feel comfortable that our agenda is a country-led agenda rather than anything else. We’ve fought hard to be here for a long time and are pretty passionately Australian. [Atlassian shares are listed on the US Nasdaq exchange, and the company is officially domiciled in the United Kingdom. But its biggest office remains in Sydney, with more than 1000 staff.]
I’ve heard you’re going to be spending more time in the US.
Not more time, just differently. I went there 11 times last year for less than a week, which is pretty disruptive to families. I’m going to do one or two bigger blocks and one or two smaller blocks to make it less disruptive. So we’ll see if that works.
It’s just constantly trying to find the right strategy. I don’t particularly want to move there. There’s an obvious gravity to move. Neither Scott nor I have a desire to live there full-time, but work has certain requirements and constraints so we try to operate within those. Technology is built by people. It’s still a people equation.
What are some of the bad decisions you think we’re making as a country?
Immigration. I just feel very bad about the whole situation, personally.
Do you support a “Big Australia”?
I do. That’s where it gets politicised [Laughs]. Do we have the natural resources for a bigger population? Yes. Do we have a successful history of growing a bigger pie for everybody in Australia by immigration? Yes. Has it always been easy? No. It’s always been hard! It just feels like we’ve gotten more successful as a nation, so we’ve tried to sort of shut the door a bit more. In a weird way, it becomes racial. It’s not an economic or philosophical argument. The challenge there, too, is it requires forward planning. I was just in China for a few weeks, and again there are a lot of good things about China, and a lot of not so good things about China. It’s a complicated place, but one of the things that’s amazing is their ability to do long-term planning and stick to it.
Would you attach a label to your political view – say, libertarian?
Nah, libertarian seems like it gets into anarchist territory. No rules, total personal survival. They want, as far as I understand it – and I’m no expert – almost no government. Self-sufficiency. I think regulation has a totally valid place and there should be regulations for a whole lot of things for consumer protection.
A lot of government policies are quite sensible. They give you a platform to build on top of. So I’m not at all suggesting they should be torn down. If you look at, you know, public schooling and public health care, public welfare, those are necessary common goods. And that can only happen by lots of people paying tax and a small group of people saying, “Hey, I’m going to take a piece of that tax revenue and put it towards this benefit for everybody.”
I don’t understand the world of, “I just work for myself and everybody else works for themselves.” It’s almost like believing you don’t need insurance.
I’m fascinated by the politics of the tech industry. In the US, most people in the industry would support the Democratic Party. That’s why billionaire venture capitalist and early Facebook backer Peter Thiel revealing himself to be a Trump supporter was such a shock. Although there do seem to be more techno-libertarians emerging over there now.
I don’t think there’s any point in choosing a political side and sticking with it. That’s part of the problem. If anything I’m a swing voter, and I think more people should be swing voters. Sometimes you agree with parts and disagree with parts. [But] it’s probably not a very good way to be if you want to become a politician. I look at some of the politicians, and I’m very disappointed in their inability to be able to speak their minds. Having known a lot of them personally, I’m like, “You really think that?” And they say, “No, I think the opposite, but the party position is this.” On both sides. I find that a hard concept.
Is it hypocritical for you and Scott to be weighing in on all these policy issues when Atlassian doesn’t pay company tax in Australia?
It’s pretty simple. It’s the job of any citizen to say when they understand things aren’t going the way they think that they should. We certainly have some viewpoints on things like immigration and energy that I believe aren’t going in the right direction as a democracy, in our country. And I’m happy to say and share my views when I think that, and debate other people who think differently.
What do you make of Elon Musk squabbling with the media? [Musk recently attacked journalists who criticised Tesla, and said he was planning to set up a crowd-sourced site to rank journalists and media outlets based on trustworthiness, called Pravda.]
He’s trying to do an incredibly hard thing [Tesla is trying to mass-produce electric cars. Musk’s other main company, SpaceX, is developing reusable rockets for space travel]. And yeah, he probably needs as many supporters as he can in each of these businesses. I can sympathise with trying to be very careful about not being stretched too thin, because it’s not a healthy place to be. He’s an incredibly talented individual. They are a big customer [of Atlassian] and they have been really, really good to us, and it’s kind of cool to know that we’re a part of almost everything they build, in some small way.
The people you meet from Tesla, they want to change the planet. It’s not just a company out to make money selling cars or roof tiles or batteries. They really believe that decarbonising the planet is the mission they’re on. But it still has commercial reality. No doubt they’re burning more cash than people ever thought possible – and does it work, or not work, at the end of the day? That’s a whole separate interesting bet.
You spend a lot of time in the US. The dark side of the tech industry seems to be a big theme there.
Totally true. And I’m always surprised that people suddenly realise there’s a dark side to it. But I’m very close to it all. There’s no doubt if you zoom out to a philosophical level, technology is the single biggest driver of human progress. But none of that human progress, of any kind, is a linear path. It comes with ups and downs, rivers and valleys, and that’s hard. Generally, humanity gets it right. We generally err on the side of improving things more than we make them worse. But it’s not always three steps forward. It’s sometimes two forward, one back. Moderation is important.
Pick sugar, pick technology, pick sports. Moderation is important in any of those things. If you entertain your kid 24 hours a day with an iPad, they are probably not going to turn out so great. But at the same time, technology is important. So we’re obviously bullish on the learning of technology and understanding it in some way, and you kind of only get that through some form of playing with it.
Many tech billionaires are trying to change the world through “moonshot” experiments, truly ambitious projects with potentially revolutionary results, such as exploring space and eradicating malaria. You put $100 million of your own money into Zoox, a company founded by another Australian that’s trying to build an electric-powered, autonomous taxi. You also agreed to join its board. You must have a lot of conviction about it.
My time is pretty precious, so if I’m going to put effort and money behind something, I want it to be something that I’m pretty passionate about helping bring to existence. Zoox is one of the most ambitious companies I’ve come across, and that makes it more exciting. The logic of the model, taking the biggest three transformations hitting the auto industry [electrification, autonomy and ride-sharing] and putting them all together at the same time, taking them to the limit of human visibility today – that’s the way it should be done.
Five of the world’s most valuable companies – Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft – are from the tech sector, the biggest and most powerful on the planet.
It’s going to be fascinating to see what society does about Big Tech, because it’s only getting bigger. It’s growing faster than the biggest industry ever has. There’s no doubt those five companies are particularly powerful. The interesting game to watch over the next 10 years will be whether those companies get into other industries faster than those other industries get into technology.
Does Netflix become HBO before HBO becomes Netflix? That tech versus old industry battle is going to be fascinating.