The whole ‘Atlassian’ thing is so cool, it should be easy to hate.
Over 12 little years, the Atlassian software company has grown from a Sydney shed start-up (before start-ups were even starting up) into a $3.5 billion international venture admired by techs and entrepreneurs the world over – not only for its products, but also for its zero-sales-staff, “simplicity is core” model.
Its founding team of two (Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar – graduates who refused to swap jeans for suits) has evolved into a family of more than 900 people so frequently celebrating ‘Best Places To Work’ awards that they self-identify as ‘Atlassians’ rather than as employees.
With beer on tap, jelly beans on bean bags, board meetings over board games, in-office yoga and dogs in the office, Atlassians float between Sydney, San Francisco, and Amsterdam generally being brilliant and brainstorming the future of the world as we know it (“From medicine and space travel to disaster response robots, our products help teams all over the planet advance humanity through the power of software”) – while playing pool.
Make no mistake, these are the very clever, very cool kids.
The kicker is, they’re so damn nice.
When Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar launched Atlassian, it was with The Atlassian Foundation attached. Espousing the original One Per Cent Model; one per cent of Atlassian profits, one per cent of equity, one per cent of software licenses, and one per cent of employee time is donated to nonprofits. And this charitable engine has ticked over as Atlassian’s JIRA and Confluence products have wiggled their way into the bedrock of digital business through smart starter licenses.
12 years on, an estimated $3.5 billion company share valuation injects more than beer and skittles into the Foundation. Add to a corpus of approximately $35 million the $7 million already working in global grants, and the Atlassian Foundation – a private ancillary fund – is sitting on a tidy $40 million to distribute at 5 per cent, or approximately $2 million, every year. And dripping with the ‘Be the change you seek’ values that make Atlassian so successful, the Foundation is a source of company-wide pride.
Enter Mel – Foundation Manager
A one-time BBC journalist, two years ago Melissa Beaumont Lee’s only connection to Atlassian was up against the glass of its Sydney office.
“Atlassian is my husband’s favourite company,” she says over tea and muffins on a lounge in one of the Sydney office open-plan playrooms. “Every evening on our walk home from work he would squash his face against the glass and look in, drooling at the wonders of Atlassian. He would turn to me and say quite seriously, ‘This is a great company. This is the best company.’”
When a job ad appeared on Seek for a part-time Atlassian Foundation Assistant, Beaumont Lee recognised the brand logo and applied. “I thought I’d be helping with some daily admin,” she admits, laughing at the ensuing escalation of her role in the Foundation’s evolution.
At that stage, the Atlassian Foundation had approximately $1 million in its coffers and was managed solely by Foundation Head and VP of Operations, Andrew Rallings. Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar had already established a philanthropic connection with John Wood’s Asian nonprofit Room to Read (inspired by Wood’s book, Leaving Microsoft to Change The World), but otherwise the Foundation was without a focus. Beaumont Lee rolled up her Altlassian t-shirt sleeves.
“The first year was our ‘Pilot Year’,” she says. “I knew that I wanted the staff to be a part of the Foundation’s processes, so I sent out a survey that asked all Atlassians to rank 1-20 the causes they would like to see supported. We had close to 100 per cent participation, and education came out the clear winner. I think quite simply that a lot of software professionals are the products of good education – their opportunities are not lost on them.
“Then I met with The Salesforce Foundation – a US/Australia tech company who are doing great things with their One Per Cent Model. I asked them, ‘How do you mobilise your people?’, and they explained their Foundation Council. My reaction was, ‘I want one.’”
Council is core
The Atlassian Foundation Council is a 15-strong global team of staffer volunteers, each serving a two-year term on a staggered rotation. Regular meetings are held via video conference to propose and nurture local partnerships, and to grant awards to nonprofits of choice (pending board approval). With a distilled vision statement of “Advancing humanity through the power of software and education”, partnerships are heavily skewed towards education, and will include local causes of choice: the San Fran office has adopted a neighbourhood elementary school; the Amsterdam team nurtures young softwarey kids.
Meanwhile, Atlassian continues its role as the main bread-injector for Room to Read (to the tune of $3.5 million loaves), impacting an estimated 170,000 children, building 230 libraries, constructing or renovating 13 schools, sponsoring 1500 young women, and publishing 13 local language children’s books.
“New employees will often tell us that they join because of the Foundation,” Beaumont Lee says, “but employees also leave because of it too. They get engaged in local projects, or they visit Cambodia to volunteer, get inspired, and then leave to launch NGOs of their own.”
As if producing cutting-edge, personality-filled software that reaps billions in love and profits for charity wasn’t enough, Atlassians are also busy fundraising for Movember, painting art for charity auctions, hosting gaming nights to inject even more money into Foundation projects, and spending their volunteer days (five each per year) building even more philanthropically-minded platforms such as MakeaDiff.org (a dating site for charities to find tech experts). Even the arcade machine that sits in their Sydney playroom raises funds for a local Men’s Shed.
Grabbing hold of hairy and audacious
Beaumont Lee says that the joy of her role is in the grantmaking, and that the day she found Australian Philanthropic Services to assist with the administration of the Atlassian PAF was one of great celebration. “They manage all the accounting, look after governance, set up the auspice structures needed to give overseas. They answer all my questions, and let us get on with the good stuff. When I discovered APS, I went home and had a glass of wine! We’ve had some fantastic assistance. Even now, through a grant we made to Social Ventures Australia, we are benefitting from a brilliant business analyst who helps source staff for our skilled volunteering program.”
As Atlassian swells in profits and staff, and the Foundation steps up from giving an annual $500,000 to a minimum $2 million yearly distribution, the time is ripe to think even bigger, Beaumont Lee says, adding that the Foundation leadership and Council is working on its Theory of Change: the hunt for “a big, hairy audacious goal to move towards.” Also swelling is Beaumont Lee’s Atlassian t-shirt, poised as she is on the edge of maternity leave (and world domination).
“I already want to come back from leave early!” she whispers guiltily, adding that she is glad the Foundation structure, Council, culture, and “ownership by the staff” is in such a place that she can step aside with full knowledge that the model is self-sustaining.
“That’s the thing at Atlassian; if you’ve got an idea, they let you run with it. I took an admin role but saw that we needed a strategy, so they let me build one. The passion of the people here is impossible not to get swept up in. Truly, this is the best job I will ever have in my life. My dog Pencil is going to hate staying at home.”
This story was first published in Generosity in July 2014.