Why Atlassian and Slack are sending each other gifts, and how startups should learn to embrace competition

Mike Cannon-Brookes

Earlier this month Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes launched a campaign against the demerger. Source: supplied.

If a competitor launched in their market, most startups wouldn’t think to offer congratulations to the challenger, much less offer them a box of sweet treats.

But that’s exactly what Slack did to congratulate Atlassian for launching it’s Stride messaging platform last week.

The Stride platform offers a range of new features to Atlassian customers, including a ‘focus mode’ option to mute messages and notifications, as well as an option to schedule meetings and allocate ‘actions’ and ‘decisions’ labels to messages on the platform.

Stride is the successor to HipChat, a team messaging service that Atlassian acquired in 2012. It competes directly with Slack‘s offerings, which were launched 2013.

When Slack celebrated its first birthday, Atlassian sent a congratulatory cake in acknowledgment of the HipChat challenger, and Slack celebrated this gesture of “good grace and fair play” by returning the favour via a box of cookies for the Stride team last week.

It was a gift that was well received by HipChat manager Steve Goldsmith, who took to Twitter to acknowledge the show of sportsmanship and announce “Game (still) on”, referring to the years-long rivalry between the two workplace messaging platforms.

So should more startups learn to welcome competitors with open arms, and have a bit of fun with their startup peers?

Stuart Richardson, co-founder of Melbourne co-working space York Butter Factory, and startup advisor to the likes of private jet startup Airly, says competition “creates a forge” where startups can innovate and build their next generation of products, and should be viewed as a “positive influence” rather than a threat.

Australian startup founders should be “subscribing to a model of abundance” by being generous and accepting change, according to Richardson, but instead many currently “tend to subscribe to a ‘zero sum game’ where one has to win and one has to fail”.

“If that’s the game you’re playing, then you’re playing the wrong game,” he warns, suggesting that entrepreneurship is about challenge and collaboration, rather than adversarial competition.

“Entrepreneurship in its inherent nature is about, ‘how do you create something extraordinary?'” he says.

“You don’t do that by beating the hell out of your opponent for your own personal gain.”

Richardson praised the “jovial way that Slack and Atlassian have been playing it” and contrasted it with the “unfortunately overly-competitive nature” of pitting city against city in competition over Australian startup hubs.

“We’ve [York Butter Factory] been vocal over how much of a waste of energy city versus city is, particularly when there is a big market out there,” he says.

Read more: York Butter Factory and Tank Stream Labs join forces to end “city rivalries” and call on others to do the same

“Today’s competitors could be tomorrow’s allies”

Richardson says “competition is healthy” for startups, as long as it’s taken “in the spirit of good sportsmanship” — a notion that he says should pervade in the business arena.

“There’s good winners and bad winners, and there’s good losers and bad losers,” he says.

He also observes that in the ever-changing startup world, keeping good relationships is key, because your competitors may one day be your closest friends.

“The business world is changing so fast that today’s competitors could be tomorrow’s allies,” he says.

“The relationships you form shouldn’t be hostile, unless you want to burn bridges.”

Healthy competition not only spurs innovation by challenging a startup’s existing offerings, it can also hold a mirror to a startup’s internal culture, exposing the supportive, or aggressive, nature of its workplace.

Richardson says this gift exchange between Slack and Atlassian is “a very positive reflection of the cultures of both” and shows “how valuable the people and the culture are” in those organisations, which are able to “not take [themselves] too seriously.”

“That’s what it comes down to — everyone can have an idea and a business model, but it’s the people who create and grow the business,” he says.

Richardson is adamant that there’s “no room” for aggressive, hostile or negative culture in startups, because “you can’t have people climbing over each other to get to the top”.

Instead, Richardson says startups should build a culture of support which extends to their competitors, and which will ultimately lead to “a culture of extraordinary performance”.

StartupSmart contacted Atlassian and Slack but did not receive a response prior to publication.

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