What the Trello Acquisition Means For Atlassian

Disclaimer: I used to be a Senior Product Manager in the JIRA team at Atlassian, where I launched a new project and task management tool for business teams — JIRA Core. These thoughts and opinions are my own.

At USD 425 million, Trello is Atlassian’s biggest acquisition yet — that number represents 7.7% of their total market capitalisation, and looking at the last reports of their cash assets (USD 266 million on 30 September 2016), it’s probably fair to say that the USD 360 million cash component almost broke the bank. The earnings call on 19 January 2017 should be pretty interesting, but shareholders seem to be positive about it.

The question is, why would Atlassian spend that much money on a product that is in some ways very similar to the ones they already have? After all, Trello helps teams manage tasks in a visual way, but JIRA already has 2 types of boards that not only do the same, but are vastly more sophisticated in terms of functionality and the underlying technology.

Cloud First

When Atlassian first released JIRA in 2002, businesses still preferred running their own servers to keep software and data secure. While Atlassian does have a cloud offering, customers do express some room for improvement.

Trello, first released in 2011 when the IT landscape and zeitgeist was already changing, was built for the cloud first and for the cloud only. This allows Trello to experiment and iterate much faster, avoid a lot of the complexities that come with maintaining Cloud and Server products at the same time and it also allowed them to build a simpler way to connect with other apps.

The Atlassian Marketplace lists about 330 add-ons being available for JIRA Cloud but over 100 more for JIRA Server. The limited set of APIs for JIRA Cloud compared to JIRA Server could be one part of the problem. For Trello, there is no way to see publicly how many integrations have been built, but given the lower barriers it is unsurprising that “trello integration” brings up almost twice as many search results on Google as “jira integration”.

Trello is embracing the Cloud and their team’s experiences will no doubt lift the game for Atlassians other products.

Will we see Atlassian building a server version of Trello, like they did with HipChat? Only time will tell, but there is an important reason that makes me doubt it.

Simplicity > Feature list

Atlassian has traditionally followed a bottom-up adoption model. It is a fundamental part of their business that teams can simply adopt software, tinker with it to adapt it to their needs and run with it — no enterprise sales cycle required. When Atlassian started, their customers loved this new model, especially technical teams which just wanted to get on with changing the world instead of sitting in sales meetings. Atlassian went for the longest time without any sales people — it is not despite that but because of it, that their main products like JIRA are so well known and loved by teams all over the world.

However, from having built several different products myself, I know that one thing has changed over time — people’s willingness to tinker with new products. These days, if something doesn’t “just work”, people lose interest very quickly. Our lives are faster and we have simply very little time to waste on figuring out how something works. Meanwhile, JIRA’s functionality has expanded drastically. JIRA’s biggest strength, in my opinion, is how flexible and adaptable it is. But at the same time, that is its biggest weakness.

At Atlassian’s annual customer conference, Summit, we showcased some of the most common use cases. Although JIRA was originally built for software teams, there are many marketing, legal, HR, sales and other teams embracing it.

Now, in Atlassian’s acquisition announcement, they mention how Trello’s “card system is intuitive, easy to use, and instantly familiar, which has made it extremely popular with teams across marketing, legal, HR, sales and beyond.”.

It looks like the patterns are the same — these teams need flexible task management tools, but the new breed of teams want to use something that “just works”. Want a hint that Atlassian thinks this is the future? In their own announcement, they encourage their customers to create a Trello account. But in Trello’s announcement there is no call-to-action for creating a JIRA account (even though revenue wise, this might be an up-sell as JIRA has no free version).

MAU — Monthly Active Users

As the acquisition announcement points out, Atlassian and Trello

have identical milestones towards achieving our missions: for our tools to be used by 100M people.

What a superior experience and low barriers to adoption in a market that is has a fundamental need for task management solutions create is magical growth and momentum. And with that comes marketing power — so it’s no wonder many companies have MAU as their top metric. With Trello’s user base, not just in terms of raw numbers but also in terms of their demographics, Atlassian can secure its position with small, forward-thinking teams. They will also be able to expose their products to individual users who use Trello for personal projects. These individuals will now get exposure to Atlassian’s other products and will be able to take these into the companies they work for or with.

The more products of a brand a customer uses the better — that’s how Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook became some of the most valuable companies in the world. It’s no surprise to see Atlassian, a multi-product company from the very early days, heading down that route.

Verdict

Whatever the future holds for Atlassian, JIRA and Trello, this is exciting new with lots of opportunities and upsides for everyone involved. Now several other companies will have to up their game to keep up. Asana was very late to introduce boards like Trello and JIRA Core already had, they might be in an even more difficult position when Atlassian combines Trello for example with HipChat to create a fully integrated task management and communication experience — something they already announced.

For Atlassian, I believe this was exactly the right move. One of the questions that remain is: With that much overlap between their tools, how will a user who has not heard of neither Trello nor JIRA or Service Desk figure out what’s best for them? How will JIRA users decide between JIRA Agile boards and Trello once the products are integrated? There might be a little more tinkering we will have to do after all, but whichever one you end up using, these tools are going to become a whole lot better — which is going to be great for every team!