“No bullshit”: Atlassian’s Dom Price shares four key ingredients for scaling a startup

Atlassian, Dom Price

Atlassian's Dominic Price. Source: Supplied

Over 15 years, Atlassian has grown from fledgling startup to employing 2500 people across nine countries, and the company’s head of R&D and ‘work futurist’ Dom Price says it’s all down to strong company values — and strong examples from the top.

A lot of businesses don’t necessarily consider the transition from being a small, close-knit startup team to a larger one, and then an international one, Price told StartupSmart at the Next Gen in Business event in Melbourne last week. While it may be the same business, a lot of the time, everything else has changed.

Atlassian co-founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar may have been co-chief executives for 15 years, but that job has changed dramatically.

“Part of their role has been to constantly evolve, learn, un-learn, share their lessons learnt,” says Price. 

“They’ve continually evolved, and that’s then set the tone for the rest of us.”

So how should startup founders about to embark on a growth phase manage the transition? Where do they even begin? We asked Price for his words of wisdom.

Learn to let go

First, founders have to figure how to relinquish some of the control of the business. According to Price, that can be “the hardest thing for a founder to ever do”.

“Most founders are naturally control freaks, they’re naturally passionate and obsessive and they want to make [their startup] the best thing ever,” he says. 

“There’s a time when they are the person to make it the best thing ever, but then they have to do this weird flip and become the best leader ever, and let go of a whole load of other stuff.”

Failing to let go is part of the reason a lot of startups never scale, Price says, but the way to counter that is to hire people you can trust, and people who can do certain aspects of the business better than even the founder can.

Avoid decision fatigue

Price says when one person is making all the decisions, they can become “constipated”, and unable to make fast, high-velocity decisions effectively. And this only gets worse with scale.

While founders may be hiring smart people, Price asks: “How do you genuinely give them the power and the trust to make decisions? And how do you do that in a way where you don’t put this layer of perfectionism that all founders have?”

At Atlassian, teams are trialling a ‘DACI’ system for decision-making, considering who is the driver, who is the approver, who is consulted and who is informed.

The founder probably shouldn’t be the approver of most decisions, Price says. They may be informed or consulted, but if they’re the final decision maker, then every decision will go up and down the chain of command several times, and “the bigger you get, the slower it gets”.

Another approach to decision making — which Price admits Atlassian borrowed from Jeff Bezos — is the concept of ‘one-way door’ and ‘two-way door’ decisions.

One-door decisions are those that cannot be undone. These are “serious organisational changing decisions”, but, according to Price, they only make up about 0.5% of all company decisions.

“For organisations, certainly startups that are scaling, that view that all decisions need to be made by senior people doesn’t scale. It’s an inhibitor,” Price says.

Know your values

When a business is small, Price says, company values can be very evident, simply because of proximity to the founder, or founders, who represents those values.

However, when you start to scale, “the challenge is how do you live and breathe and demonstrate values every day”.

For Price, it’s about recognising behaviours that represent the values, and celebrating them.

“True values will scale with you as an organisation and they will help you determine the behaviours that you celebrate,” he says.

“The behaviours that you recognise, that’s the culture you create.”

Equally, however, founders should allow employees to make the values their own, putting more emphasis on some than others, “because we’re all in a slightly different environment”.

Atlassian’s values are: open company, no bullshit; build with heart and balance; don’t fuck the customer; play, as a team; and be the change you seek.

“I’ve put more credence on some than others,” Price admits. 

“A couple of years ago when I was transitioning roles … I was trying to be all things to all people, and the value of ‘build with heart and balance’ smacked me plush in the face.”

Trying to work across time-zones and projects, he found he was “doing nothing well”. Now, however, he’s more passionate about ‘open company, no bullshit’ value. 

“It’s the thing that, at scale, helps me understand what’s going on in the organisation and the trust that that openness builds enables me to just get on with my job.”

“We share information in advance, rather than waiting for someone to ask for it.”

All the values are relevant, Price says, but the focus can change depending on where you work in the business, or your circumstances at the time.

“It changes based on the week, the month, the year, what I’m working on, where my head’s at, whether the other people I’m working with are at — but all five are relevant to me.”

Use them wisely

Finally, Price stresses that company values have to be considered “in composite”.

“If you ever use a value in a singular sense, it tends to be being used as a weapon,” he says. 

For example, the ‘open company’ value could be interpreted by some to mean everyone should know everyone else’s salary. But Price asks: “Is that playing as a team?”

All of a company’s values can be offset with another, he says.

“Use them as something to open up a conversation, and when you use them, think about the other one that you need to link in.”

“If your idea of ‘open company’ means that everyone has an opinion and should be able to share their opinion — you can. But also build with heart and balance,” he says. 

“Have some heart. If your opinion is going to offend someone, that’s not cool.”

NOW READ: Why founders need to make sure their culture evolves as their startup does


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