Aussies know rugby, Uggs and Shiraz. But tech?

Brendon Thorne | Bloomberg | Getty Images

We all have Australia to thank for a number of delights: The Great Barrier Reef, Vegemite, "Crocodile Dundee" and Ugg boots come to mind.

A surprise edition to that list of exports has emerged of late—in the form of software. Australian tech companies with names like Atlassian, Nitro, 99designs and Invoice2go have been growing rapidly since opening shop in the San Francisco area and are luring big time venture capitalists eager to ride the wave.

Unlike Silicon Valley start-ups, which tend to burn through tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars before making any money, Australian software developers are impressing U.S. investors with their ability to quickly turn and sustain a profit.

None made quite as big a fundraising splash as email marketing company Campaign Monitor, which last April raised $250 million in a financing round led by Insight Venture Partners. It was the first slug of institutional cash for the company since its launch in 2004.

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"This is a company that's been profitable since day one," said Alex Bard, a former Salesforce.com executive vice president who joined Campaign Monitor as chief executive officer in September. "We wanted to have enough dry gunpowder to do the things we wanted to do to execute on our mission and the market opportunity in front of us."

Campaign Monitor is putting that money to work, announcing last week the opening of its North American headquarters in San Francisco, along with plans to double in size, adding 100 employees in 2015.

Immediate profitability for Australian tech start-ups is born out of necessity rather than desire. The Silicon Valley model of raising money ahead of generating revenue and consistently turning to venture capital to finance growth was never available in the country of less than 24 million people, whose major exports are minerals like bauxite and iron ore.

Tech-heavy countries China, Japan and Israel have long had greater access to early-stage investor dollars.

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Nitro, an electronic document signing and collaboration company, was founded in 2005 and raised less than $7 million in its first nine years. Then in November, it announced a $15 million investment from Battery Ventures to finance the transition to a cloud and subscription business.

"Raising money for us was about funding our second chapter as opposed to keeping the lights on," said Nitro founder and CEO Sam Chandler, who moved the company from Melbourne to San Francisco in 2008 and now employs more than 150 people. "Ten years ago we didn't have any options."

As much headway as the Australian tech sector has made on the global stage, it still doesn't have the breakout public market hit in the U.S. needed to capture mainstream headlines.

That event may be around the corner. Atlassian, a Sydney-based company that led the Aussie tech diaspora, has a private market valuation of $3.3 billion and is marching toward an initial public offering.

Atlassian's co-founders

Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founders of Atlassian
Source: Atlassian
Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founders of Atlassian

Atlassian, which opened a San Francisco office in 2005, sells collaboration tools that let software development teams share code, work together on projects, manage workflow and communicate.

Not only did Atlassian get started in a place with little venture capital, but it did so in 2002, during the depths of post dot-com misery.

"At the time, it was hard to raise money if you were in Silicon Valley with a hot idea, let alone if you were a fresh out of college Aussie in Sydney," said Jay Simons, president of Atlassian, which now has 1,300 employees, including 300 in San Francisco. "Bootstrapping was the only way to go."

In the process, Atlassian created a highly efficient sales model, with transactions occurring entirely online and without the need for salespeople. In its fiscal year ended June 2014, Atlassian recorded 44 percent revenue growth to $215 million. Last month, the company named Erik Bardman, a former finance chief at Roku and Logitech, its chief financial officer.

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To this day, Atlassian hasn't raised any outside capital to pad its balance sheet. Investors have so badly wanted a piece of the company that they've poured in $210 million by purchasing shares from the founders and employees, most recently $150 million last year.

Accel Partners, best known for its record-setting return on an early Facebook bet, was the first to buy Atlassian shares in 2010, with a $60 million secondary purchase.

Xero: Capitalizing on the'work from home trend'
Xero: Capitalizing on the'work from home trend'   

Since then, Accel has repeatedly tapped Australia for talent, investing in the crowdsourcing design service 99designs, online foreign exchange company OzForex and, in September, web invoicing app Invoice2go.

The Palo Alto, California-based firm also participated in last year's Campaign Monitor financing, and in February invested $100 million in Xero, a publicly traded cloud accounting firm that's located in New Zealand and listed on the Australian and New Zealand exchanges.

Rich Wong, who led Accel's investment in Atlassian, says one advantage some Australian companies have is their global reach at a young age. That's because serving the small local market can only get companies so far, compared to the U.S. and China, which are plenty big to support domestic businesses.

"They're built to go global early, so they've already dealt with things like charging in multiple currencies, and Internet marketing in multiple countries," said Wong, who started going to Australia in 2009. "We continue to look for and believe there are a lot of great opportunities coming out of the region."

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Slowly but surely, an Australian venture community is forming. A firm called Blackbird Ventures sprung up in 2012 and has made 10 investments, according to its website, while Startmate has emerged as a popular start-up mentorship program.

Public U.S. companies are getting in on the action, too. Last year, online travel agency Expedia spent $658 million on Wotif, an Australian web travel firm, to expand in the region and take advantage of surging demand for transport to China

"Clearly we want to be in Asia," said Expedia Chief Product Officer John Kim, who recently returned from his first visit to the team in Brisbane. As for the group of developers coming on board, "the tech talent there is pretty good," he said.

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According to the global university rankings from Times Higher Education, eight of the top 100 engineering and technology schools in the world are in Australia, the third most of any country behind the U.S. and U.K. That list includes the University of New South Wales, where Atlassian co-founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar studied.

Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar go well beyond running their own pre-IPO company. They're local investors, teachers and advocates for Australian tech and, thanks to their decade of experience scaling in the U.S. and beyond, highly prized advisers.

"Mike and Scott are kind of the Larry and Sergey of Australia," said Simons, referring to Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. "They're super active in the ecosystem."