Monday, March 28, 2011

Notes from an Entrepreneur - Scott Farquhar

Two pieces of common entrepreneurial advice are, “Trust your intuition,” and “Believe in yourself,” which can often sound like throwaway lines – unless you were listening to Scott Farquhar, co-founder of Atlassian Software, during his occasional address at UNSW’s March 17 graduation ceremony. 

Atlassian is an Australian success story, redefining the development and distribution of enterprise software, and was announced as a Technology Pioneer for 2011 by the World Economic Forum. One of Atlassian’s key differentiators is that their products can be used by anyone, not just large companies with six-figure budgets for enterprise software systems.

Scott says, “We decided that we wanted every company to be able to afford our software. Everyone from a 20-person consulting company to the world’s largest corporations should be able to use Atlassian’s products.  

“So instead of selling our software for $100,000, we sold it for $1,000. Of course, you need to sell a lot of thousand dollar software to make a real business. And if you’re going to sell lots of software, you need to sell to more than just Australia. So we decided to market our products online, and buy ads on this quaint little search engine called Google. 

“There were a million reasons that people told us it wouldn’t work. ‘People won’t buy without talking to a sales person.’ ‘People don’t want to use their credit cards online.’ ‘You can’t sell to someone without calling them up!’… 

“Luckily, we didn’t have any money to hire expensive sales people, so we decided to keep doing what we were doing…We now have over 300 staff working for us, and still not one salesperson! 

“My point is that the conventional wisdom is often wrong! Don’t let others’ opinions drown out your own voice, and have the courage to follow your own heart and intuition.” 

This is exactly what Scott and his co-founder, Michael Cannon-Brookes, did although it wasn’t always easy, especially in the beginning. 

“In order to survive long enough to build our first product, Mike and I earned some money doing 3rd party support work. Having been impressed by the answers we gave, one of our customers called up and invited me to Amsterdam to see if I could help get a 50-person software project back on track.  

“We needed the money, and despite not having any previous experience at this - I said of course I could, not a problem! 

“I was completely out of my depth…And then - the day before I left to go over there - the client called and asked if I could flick them my resume. I said ‘Sure, not a problem – I’ll send it through straight away.’ I remember thinking – ‘I’m 22 years old, I haven’t graduated from university, the closest I had been to a software project was group assignment at university, and the last time I wrote a resume was to get a job at Woolworths when I was 14.’

“…As it turns out, in the first week I was there I was able to help them a huge amount. So much so, that they actually sat me down and asked me why I was doing such a better job than the previous consultants they’d had in. 

“On the 4th day, I was alone with the boss [and he] asked: ‘We noticed you didn’t have any dates on your resume - how old are you?’  

“At that moment, the question wasn’t whether I would tell the truth or not, but instead, how much was I going to lie? 

“I stammered – ‘Ah, ah, I’m 26.’ He looked completely unconvinced. At that point, I thought I’d be packing my bags for home. After what seemed like an eternity, he leaned forward again and said, ‘Scott - I thought you were much older than that.’ 

“Don’t ever let age be a barrier if you think you can do the job. Throw yourself in the deep end as soon as you can, and then learn to swim like crazy.” 

Scott finished his address with this memory;

“When I was studying for my HSC, part of my English course was to study poetry. I can’t say that it was my favourite subject, but there is one line from the 19th century poet – Robert Browning - that has stuck in my head since that time. 

“Browning said, ‘A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?’ It was his way of saying - you should always reach for the stars, always attempt challenges that are slightly beyond what you are capable of. 

“I’ve lived by that motto every day - that my reach should always exceed my grasp.”

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