When you enter the family home of Mike Cannon-Brookes, the first thing you notice is that it doesn’t look too… techy.
You might expect the home of a software billionaire to be all flatscreens and shiny surfaces. But, the 1918-era home on the edge of Sydney’s Centennial Park – which made headlines in 2015 when Mike and his fashion designer wife Annie purchased it for AU$12 million – is not a James Bond-esque lair of gadgets. Although it’s certainly quirky…
Chandeliers hang from the entrance hall ceiling next to giant sculptures of ants, which look like they’re climbing above the doorways. The walls are lined with photographs of prehistoric skeletons (Annie’s latest collection for her fashion label, House of Cannon, was inspired by the Chinese city of Zhucheng, known as ‘Dinosaur Valley’, where palaeontologists have found more than 10,000 fossils).
The centrepiece on the dining table is a crocodile skull sitting on a cushion of grass, whilst Lego men are strategically positioned as pieces of art.
“We chose almost everything in here together,” says Annie, as the couple sit side-by-side on a couch on their sun deck. “I think some guys tell their wives, ‘You handle the house,’ but Mike wanted to be part of it.”
One wall of the hallway is covered in photographs of the Cannon-Brookes’ three children: Max, 4, Scout, 2, and seven-month-old Tigerlily.
The largest picture – which shows the oldest two kids cuddling adorably – is purposefully hung upside down so they look like they’re sitting on the ceiling.
This sums up the pair, both as business founders and as parents. Together they are the best kind of power couple… because they never set out to be one.
When Mike and his university friend, Scott Farquhar, decided to launch Atlassian 13 years ago, their modest aim was to earn the average graduate starting wage offered by many top-tier firms at the time – AU$48,500 a year.
Since then, Atlassian’s software has helped more than 50,000 organisations to track, collaborate, communicate and streamline their processes. Their clients include Coca-Cola, Twitter, CSIRO and a little organisation called NASA. The US space agency is currently using Atlassian software with the Curiosity rover on Mars.
The start-up, which was initially funded by a credit card with a AU$10,000 limit, has, you could say, surpassed their expectations. In April 2014, Mike and Scott became Australia’s newest billionaires, when Atlassian announced it had closed a financing round that valued the company at US$3.3 billion. Meanwhile Annie, who is originally from the US and studied at French design school Esmond, launched House of Cannon two years ago with a mission to create “conversation-starter clothing” inspired by her love of travel.
Although Annie admits she’s not naturally tech-savvy, the fashion brand’s strategy is anything but behind the times. When the label originally launched it was only available online, yet it’s now stocked in boutiques across Australia. When House of Cannon recently opened a pop-up store in Paddington, Sydney, every transaction was processed solely through an iPad system.
But that’s not the only way the fashion and tech worlds are merging. Mike believes that all companies fit into one of two brackets: either becoming a software company or being disrupted by one. So, how is this true of his wife’s profession?
“I think prints and the design side are getting more technical,” says Mike. “I was at a conference where they demo’d a fabric which can conduct electricity without hurting the wearer. The demo was a USB stick but the USB cable was made of fabric. I don’t mean fabric with wires in it, literally just a piece of fabric which you could run information through. You could [in theory] send signals around your body. You could have a T-shirt which charges your phone.”
Digital customisation is also on the rise. The latest House of Cannon collection includes a dress with a speech bubble on it, whereby any store which stocks the dress can choose the words that are printed within the speech bubble – meaning they can make the messaging more appropriate for their customers.
“I think we’re going to see a shift towards fashion driven by function,” says Annie. “One of the menswear designers who showed at New York [fashion week] had a jacket with a little camera embedded in it, which takes a photo of your life every 30 seconds. What you’re wearing can document your life and even help you to make better choices. You can start to notice if you always have the same routine. What happens if you change it? Do you get to the office five minutes faster?”
Speaking of routines, how do theirs differ? “I need a lot less sleep,” reveals Mike. How little sleep exactly?
“I can do four hours,” he admits. “Last night I had three but that’s unusual. I can’t do that sustained. If I get six hours, it’s pretty good.”
In the past 13 years, Atlassian has grown rapidly and now has more than 1100 employees with offices in Sydney, Amsterdam, Manila, Austin, Yokohama and San Francisco. “As [a company grows] you get a lot more issues,” admits Mike. “Even if you’re trying to plan a staff event, it’s a lot more complicated. Okay, what do we all want to do? Ten people are easy to please, but do a thousand people really want to be on a boat?”
It might seem like a small dilemma – whether or not to socialise on water – but rewarding staff is an important part of Atlassian’s culture. They have twice been named the ‘Best Place to Work in Australia’ in BRW’s annual poll. This might not be surprising when you hear that new hires are given a travel voucher so they can go on holiday and begin their new job feeling refreshed.
“We spend a lot of time with grads and new hires,” says Mike. “I do a huge number of ‘town halls’ where I get 20 employees together and do an ‘ask the founder anything’. I think it humanises us as a company. In my job now it’s all about recruiting the right team and putting them on the field. Then they have to play the game right. That’s the biggest thing that keeps me up and worries me.”
It’s also the area where he turns to his wife for help. “I think Mike would argue that he’s the numbers person and I’m the people person,” says Annie. “He seems to think I’m better at reading the more subtle interactions between two people, so he’ll come to me to ask a question about employees.”
On top of this, Annie turns to Mike for advice on numbers and processes. He is also her (tongue-in-cheek) muse. In 2016, House of Cannon will launch its first menswear collection. “Because I have such a good model on my hands here,” she jokes.
“We’ve always been super balanced about work,” says Mike. “You can’t put life on hold to run a business. No job is important enough to sacrifice it all.”
With such successful, creative parents, are any of their kids showing early signs of where they will go? “I think Max shows a love for both creativity and technology,” says Annie. “It’s funny because I would say we’re the least pushy parents in the world and also the most pushy parents. I want them to try all things so they can find out what they want to do in life. But I really wouldn’t care what that was.”
At this moment, Scout runs out onto the balcony dressed in a tutu and climbs onto her mum’s lap.
“As long as my children are happy,” says Mike. “I’m not going to push them to be a doctor or anything. I don’t think either of us has followed the straight-and-narrow path, so why would we expect them to?”