SYDNEY — Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes, worth $2.51 billion, is one of the biggest success stories in Australian technology history. But he revealed on Friday that throughout the journey he’s had “no idea” what he’s doing or how he even got there.
“Have you ever felt out of your depth? Like a fraud? And just kind of guessed-slash-bullshitted your way through the situation – petrified that at any time someone was going to call you out?” he asked a packed crowd at the TedXSydney event.
“I felt that way for 15 years and have since learnt that it’s called ‘impostor syndrome’.”
Cannon-Brookes recalled the time he was “terrified” to interview Atlassian’s first human resources manager, having never worked anywhere that even had an HR department.
And there were the numerous times, as a young entrepreneur, he sat in board meetings in a T-shirt, surrounded by executives in suits.
“Acronyms are flying around, [and I’m] feeling like a 5-year-old as I surreptitiously write them down in my notebook so that I can look them up on Wikipedia when I get home later.”
“Most days, I still feel like I often don’t know what I’m doing,”
While Cannon-Brookes said that he was not offering a solution to the impostor syndrome, a chance meeting made him realise that it’s just human nature and that even the most successful people can feel this way.
The Portuguese billionaire
In the early Atlassian days, Cannon-Brookes travelled to Europe to represent Australia in an international entrepreneurs’ awards contest. At a dinner, he sat next to billionaire Portuguese businessman Belmiro de Azevedo.
“At 65, he’d been running his business for 40 years — he had 30,000 employees. Don’t forget, at the time, we had 70. And he had 4 billion Euro in turnover,” said Cannon-Brookes.
After “a couple of wines”, the Australian entrepreneur admitted to de Azevendo that he felt like Atlassian “did not deserve to be there” and that at some time “someone was going to figure this out” and send he and co-founder Scott Farquhar back to Australia.
“I remember he just paused and just looked at me — and said that he felt exactly the same way. And he suspected all the winners were feeling that way,” said Cannon-Brookes.
“And despite not knowing straight away really anything about [our] technology, he said that we were obviously doing something right and we should probably just keep going.”
The incident, he said, helped him realise the impostor syndrome was very common and that success did not ever quell the feeling.
The most recent moment of insecurity came in March when a Tesla executive said in Melbourne that the company’s batteries could solve South Australia’s energy problems in 100 days. On a whim, Cannon-Brookes tweeted Tesla founder Elon Musk to ask if this was true.
That conversation between global tech giants famously triggered a national conversation about renewable energy and ended with Musk guaranteeing a solution for South Australia in 100 days or the installation would be free.
The Atlassian co-founder then found himself in the middle of a media storm about a topic – batteries – that he had no expertise in.
“I remember thinking to myself ‘Shit, I kind of started something here and I can’t really get out. If I abandon the situation, I’m going to sort of set back renewables in Australia and just look like a complete idiot.”
But Cannon-Brookes didn’t let the situation panic him — he spent the next week talking to experts including scientists and politicians to bring himself up to speed.
“I even managed to pull off a passing impression, let’s say, of an energy expert on ABC Lateline.”
Cannon-Brookes told the TedXSydney audience that it was okay to feel out of depth — adding the best way to tackle insecurities is through knowledge.
“It’s okay to be in a situation when you just can’t press the ‘eject’ button. As long as you don’t freeze – as long as you harness the situation, don’t be paralysed, and try to turn it into some sort of force for good.”