Scott Farquhar likes to joke that one of his masterstrokes has been to ensure his co-CEO at Atlassian, Mike Cannon-Brookes, does most of the work.
“I think when we started it was 50/50,” Farquhar said. “My genius has, over the years, been to make sure that Mike does about 90% of the work. I’m doing about 10%.”
Banter aside, the partnership between Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar – who were named at the top of Business Insider’s coolest 100 people in Australian tech list this month – is one of the most successful you’ll find in the business world. They have been co-founders and co-CEOs of a company that is now worth over $US6 billion for 15 years – a remarkably persistent partnership for any business sector, let alone in the fast-moving world of tech.
Naturally, many wonder what their secret is. So we asked them.
Their over-riding message is perhaps counterintuitive: it’s not about separate but complementary skill sets. Quite the reverse. They see a huge amount of overlap between their individual skill sets, which allows them both to run the entire company on their own, should the need arise.
Here’s how they explain it, starting with Cannon-Brookes.
(The excerpt from our conversations – and there’s lots more to come – has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Business Insider: You’ve been working together for more than a decade. How has relationship that evolved over time?
Mike Cannon-Brookes: Like any relationship, it goes through ups and downs. Obviously we’ve had a lot more ups than downs and it revolves around trust and openness and honesty. We’re both pretty thick-skinned so the honesty is pretty high, which is good. We learn pretty quickly as a pair. We spend a lot less time hanging out now than we used to, just through virtue of having kids and various other things, [so there’s less time together] outside of the office that we hang out, but we still do.
BI: How often do you communicate? And what’s your chosen line of communication?
MCB: We’d be in touch by chat multiple times an hour. There’s a high frequency of communications even when we’re overseas we make sure that the high frequency of communication is maintained… Obviously we share a little complex of meeting rooms here. We have desks next to each other and our EAs sit next to each other so the spontaneous bumping into each other time is high during the day – by design.
BI: A lot of partnerships where there’s two people, they kind of have complementary skills. You have the cliché good cop, bad cop kind of relationship; are there complementary characteristics of you both that you think helps make the partnership successful?
MCB: He’s probably the better one to ask about all the stats and figures. I’ve always said that I think the advantage we have is we have heavily overlapping but not completely intersecting sets of skills. Whether that’s 60% or 80% I don’t know, there’s some significant overlaps so we don’t have massive disagreements about things because we’re completely on opposite poles, if that makes sense.
At the same time, while we can do each other’s jobs and have both at different times run the whole business so we both have the breadth of experience and skill necessary to do it, we still have different viewpoints that add value over time.
If we’re 100% the same person then you’d only need one, not two. It’s that blend just when the two, I find it hard to describe it. It’s sort of like 60% overlapping. If you’re 100% overlapped, you’d only need one person. If you’re 0% overlapped, you’d have a lot of tension.
Business Insider: Scott, how would you characterise your relationship with Mike these days and how has it changed?
Scott Farquhar: You hear stories of someone later in their stage of life partnering with someone who’s younger I always think that doesn’t work out because you not have to be pretty similar outlook and skills set but you also need to be in similar stages of life. Mike and I have gone through the similar stages of life together from university through starting Atlassian, and family and kids and other things. That’s been really important for us.
BI: Within the dynamic between the two of you, how would you describe the most important complementary or contrasting character traits?
SF: We have a lot of overlapping traits. We’ve both done every aspect of the business from cleaning the bins to setting product strategy. We’ve both done everything. I think that’s, sometimes that doesn’t get reported on in that sometimes one person does one thing and one person does the other. We’ve been really lucky to have two people can both run the whole business and I’m a member of [leadership institution Young Presidents’ Organisation] YPO and a lot of single founders I know who really struggle because they don’t have a peer that really understands the business top to bottom with them. I think most of my skills and Mike’s are overlapping, [in a way that] we can both run the whole business.
Also from the BI Tech 100:
- FULL LIST: The coolest 100 people in Australian tech
- Canva CEO Melanie Perkins says the company’s only getting started in its drive to reinvent digital design
- Why Paul Bassat believes Australia’s size is no obstacle to global tech competitiveness
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