Mike Cannon-Brookes: No ‘bullshit’ from Atlassian’s unconventional tycoon

Mike Cannon-Brookes: No ‘bullshit’ from Atlassian’s unconventional tycoon

We line up at the counter and Cannon-Brookes orders a skinless-chicken laksa. When it is handed to him a few moments later he piles a large spoonful of chilli on the top. “It’s damned good with extra chilli but I’m not sure the skinless is really influencing the health outcome,” he laughs.

My rice noodles with chicken and egg – a special the chef cooked up after I learned that laksa sauce is full of shellfish, to which I’m allergic – is delivered a few minutes later. We each order a bottle of sparkling water.

No bullshit

It’s been a big year for Cannon-Brookes. As markets have lost faith in many other tech companies, the Nasdaq-listed Atlassian has hit new heights on the back of strong sales growth.

In September hebought the Fairfax family mansion Fairwater in exclusive Point Piper for a price reported at close to $100 million, sans mortgage, an Australian record for a house that tested the unpretentious image.

And soon after waded into the energy debate by calling “bullshit” on Scott Morrison’s attempt to label electricity generated from coal as “fair dinkum”. As we eat and talk I learn Cannon-Brookes really doesn’t like bullshit.

Cannon-Brookes, the unconventional tycoon, is a source of endless fascination and my colleagues have loaded me up with questions. First, among all the other things he does when does he find time to run Atlassian? What is his daily routine?

It doesn’t start with exercise, he admits, but one of his goals for 2019 is to change that. It helps that he can share duties with his co-founder and co-chief executive Scott Farquhar and that he isn’t a big sleeper.

Atlassian gets 90 per cent of his time and family gets prioritised, which sounds tricky. He starts early – 5am or 6am – two days a week, to catch the growing US staff during their working hours and do the school drop-offs. A couple of others days he starts late and does school pick-ups and “other things” – of which there are many.

“I’ve always said you need to be very intentional with your time – I think that’s incredibly important,” Cannon-Brookes says. He aims to put family first, Atlassian second, other work third.

“What space is left tends to be very little, right? Unfortunately for entrepreneurs that’s usually friends, family, fitness,” he says. “It’s about having your priorities and organising your calendar. If you don’t other things expand and family is the one that gets squeezed out.”

Ardent advocate for clean energy

In his signature attire of T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, and unkempt brown hair and beard, Cannon-Brookes looks every bit the anti-establishment tech agitator.

But he is no loose cannon and chooses his words, and his targets, carefully: the federal government’s crackdown on skilled 457 visas, which are used heavily by the tech industry, for one, and R&D tax concessions which is another crucial issue for the tech industry.

Blackbird Ventures

Atlassian co-founders Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes in Atlassian’s early days. Supplied

Energy is less important for a software firm but is something Cannon-Brookes and his wife, Annie Todd, feel passionately about. They’re investing in clean energy finance – and new, less-resource-hungry food production methods – via their family office, Grok Ventures.

He notes that the rapid evolution of wind and solar energy – now cheaper than the cost of black coal for thermal generation – is outflanking coal technology. The Morrison government’s generation underwriting program is open to coal plant, but Cannon-Brookes is adamant that there is no economic, scientific or environmental rationale for this.

He launched his Fair Dinkum Power campaign in December to urge Australia to embrace not just 100 per cent renewable energy but 200 per cent – and export the surplus to Asia.

“We have got a couple of very interesting elections coming up in NSW and federally,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye.

Business Council of Australia

Being The Australian’s public enemy number one over his Fair Dinkum Energy campaign is something you get used to, Cannon-Brookes says.  Peter Braig

“I think we’ve seen a huge amount of climate and environmental anger,” he says, citing the Victorian state election and the Wentworth by-election.

“I think you’re crazy if you don’t think it’s going to be a big issue.” And while he’s not saying how, it’s clear he is planning to make a splash when the campaigns get under way.

His Fair Dinkum Energy campaign made Cannon-BrookesThe Australian‘s public enemy number one. It’s something you get used to, he says.

The government calls Labor an economic wrecker for its pro-clean-energy policies but Cannon-Brookes says that’s “total bullshit” and Labor should be more ambitious. But he also wants to know where are the plans to replace the thousands of jobs in coal – a $70 billion industry that’s going to disappear in the next 25 years.

“If it was a company and you were running a strategy session you’d say, ‘Gee, that renewable industry – it’s going to be massive in 25 years. Let’s go and invest in that.’ And we’re unable to say that as a country.”

Not buying the BCA’s line

When I ask him about Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott’s remarks inThe Australian Financial Reviewthat Labor’s proposal to raise the emissions reduction target to 45 per cent from the government’s 26-28 per cent would risk higher electricity prices, lower living standards and fewer jobs, he makes a now familiar assessment: “Total bullshit.”

Now that Atlassian has a market cap of about $31 billion it would be a great catch for the BCA, which has a distinctly old economy air. But some of the business lobby’s positions rub Cannon-Brookes up the wrong way.

Atlassian isn’t a member – its only business association is TechSydney – and Cannon-Brookes won’t comment directly on the BCA. But his remarks suggest the peak lobby and its members – banks, telcos, retailers, miners and energy companies – have succumbed to the temptations of incumbency.

clean energy finance

Cannon-Brookes with wife Annie Todd. Supplied

“The problem for a big business is your goal of delivering customer value and innovating and creating things switches to self-preservation once you reach a big enough stage and self-preservation is a dangerous thing, ironically, for a lot of other stakeholders,” he says.

“Effectively you’re saying, ‘For me to continue to make money I need something to slow down or not change,’ when it should change – which doesn’t agree with my world view.”

Cannon-Brookes thinks business doesn’t have to play politics and go along with group positions with which it doesn’t agree or have an active interest in, such as old-style labour relations debates which aren’t useful in a software firm with a highly skilled workforce that needs to be kept happily motivated.

“I think it’s interesting to see how those lobbying groups go in the long term. I do think if you zoom out and think about it totally logically you need a continual balance between capital and labour,” he says, drawing parallels with political parties as well as employers and unions.

‘Overly profitable’ banks

Cannon-Brookes is a big picture guy and that is reflected in his investment choices. Among them is Tyro, an upstart “neo bank” for small business that aims to disrupt the “overly profitable” big banks. He backed Tyro long before the royal commission exposed “truckloads of bad apples” in the sector.

Tyro aims to improve banking with cheaper loans, better deposit rates and a more resilient network than the big banks. He is also invested in Brighte, which provides consumer loans via solar installers for solar panels.

“Banking profits per person are vast in Australia and they should not be. If you look [globally] you’d have to argue it’s slightly uncompetitive at some level – otherwise they shouldn’t be able to make this much profit,” he says.

He worries that the dearth of tech companies in the ASX200, which is dominated by banks, miners, telcos and retailers, is a risk to the nation’s enviable living standards.

food technologies

“Banking profits per person are vast in Australia and they should not be,” says Cannon-Brookes. Louie Douvis

“We are 1 per cent of the world’s GDP. We have to be 1 per cent of the world’s primary production of technology – otherwise our economy is going to go backwards,” he says.

So he is frustrated that the fears of bush politicians derailed former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s national innovation agenda. “I think the tech industry was very excited about that and very disappointed that it had such a muted effect,” he says.

He was especially frustrated because the politicians who tore down the innovation agenda didn’t have any alternative ideas – and rural industries need tech to thrive.

Food tech

The lunchtime crowd is starting to thin out, but we power on. Cannon-Brookes tells me his skinless chicken laksa was “great – hot, spicy”. My mildly spicy noodles were delicious. The exchange brings us neatly to the subject of feeding the world.

Cannon-Brookes is passionate about agtech and has invested in alternative food businesses that aim to produce more food with fewer scarce resources to feed the planet’s nearly 8 billion people.

There’s the maggot – or “fly larvae” – farm near Canberra. These “onsite waste consumption devices” can recycle food waste from breweries and wineries into dense protein, consuming nine times their body weight a day in the process. The protein can be used to bulk up livestock – or as a powder for gym nuts.

Insects and bugs as a food source are a passion of his wife’s that Cannon-Brookes has embraced. Cricket flour, he says, is healthier, higher protein and better for the environment than water-guzzling wheat flour. He fears this will make him sound like a crackpot but comes back to, “How are we going to feed 8 billion people?”

Sustenir is a high-tech vertical indoor farming company started by two Australians in Singapore. It aims to grow fruits and vegetables – strawberries, kale, lettuce, beans, tomatoes, potentially grapes for winegrowing – cleanly, using a lot less water and energy, and more cheaply than if they were grown in Tasmania and shipped and trucked to Singapore.

George Bernard Shaw

Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar in 2015. 

How would you like your laboratory steak?

Then there are artificial meats, in which Cannon-Brookes has invested via Blackbird Ventures, which he helped establish. It’s easy to imagine Barnaby Joyce’s head exploding at the thought of laboratory steaks, which are produced without cows, water, methane emissions or corn feed, on minimal land.

The steaks cost a bomb, but the cost has already come down from tens of thousands of dollars a steak to about $500. Cannon-Brookes says food technologies can mimic the fast “learning rate” of solar panels, phone cameras and other technologies, and eventually get the cost down to $2 a steak.

Grok and Blackbird are big investors in Zoox, the automated vehicle start-up whichsacked its Aussie founder Tim Kentley-Clay in August. Cannon-Brookes is cagey about it, praising an initially disgruntled Kentley-Clay as the “drive” and “hustle” without which Zoox wouldn’t be where it is.

Zoox aims to put fully autonomous vehicles on the road in California in 20 months’ time – a more ambitious task than Tesla’s automated driving evolution – and it’s not unusual for start-ups to change CEOs on the home stretch. Cannon-Brookes enthuses about the safety and efficiency benefits of automated electric vehicles, but accepts they will have to be demonstrably safer than human driving to earn public acceptance.

He can talk endlessly about artificial intelligence and machine learning – he is more optimistic about the future than others such as Tesla founder Elon Musk and he defends Musk as the classic George Bernard Shaw “unreasonable man” without whom all progress is impossible.

“If you look at Tesla, if you look at SpaceX, and I’m sure in 10 years’ time if you look at the Boring Co, they will go down as momentous achievements in technology.”

We’ve been talking for nearly two hours and it’s time forAFR Weekendto settle up what has been one of our cheapest lunches ever with one of our wealthiest lunch partners. Cannon-Brookes muses that his exercise regime might just be walking the four kilometres between home and work. The lanky tycoon isn’t planning to hit the gym with the aid of fly larvae protein powder or anything like that.

The bill

Malay Chinese, 1/50-58 Hunter Street, Sydney

less-resource-hungry food production methods

“We are 1 per cent of the world’s GDP. We have to be 1 per cent of the world’s primary technology production of technology – otherwise our economy is going to go backwards,” Cannon-Brookes says. Peter Braig

  • Skinless chicken laksa, $12.70
  • Rice noodles with chicken and egg, $12.50
  • 2 x sparkling water, $6

Total $31.20

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