James Henderson

6 lessons in business from a serial entrepreneur

Growing up on a vineyard in a little farming community in rural Victoria, a young Andrew Thomas would sell grapes for 30 cents a bucket.

Rising to 35 cents on occasions – no doubt in line with inflation – this little hustler didn’t yet realise he was addicted to entrepreneurship.

Fast forward to the present day and this serial start-up founder has built two businesses from the ground up – services and product – with a legacy spanning more than 20 years in Australia.

“I always wanted to emulate Richard Branson’s approach to business,” noted Thomas, an avid reader of founder books.

Andrew Thomas (Atlastix)

First cab off the rank was Thomas Duryea – a managed service provider (MSP) and system integrator founded in 2000 by Thomas and university co-founders Micah Smith, Evan Duryea and David Stagg.

The business was acquired in a multi-million-dollar deal by global player, Logicalis, in 2015. The combined entity served over 500 customers with IT services and solutions revenue at more than $150 million at the time of Thomas’ departure in early 2017.

Today, Atlastix – evolved from AtlasPlato and founded in 2018 – provides an advanced operational insights platform disrupting the observability industry.

Collectively, Thomas houses a treasure trove of knowledge regarding how to build market-leading technology businesses from scratch, offering unvarnished advice for aspiring founders seeking a similar path.

In navigating the highs and lows of entrepreneurship, Thomas offers six key lessons in business:

  1. Hire A-graders
  2. Functionalise the business
  3. Build relationships (but cold call if needed)
  4. Commit to technical excellence
  5. Take it personally, but have a relief valve
  6. Don’t forget to scale

Hire A-graders

While successful entrepreneurs naturally fall under the spotlight, a core supporting group of supremely talented individuals always lurk in the shadows. Out of sight perhaps but undoubtedly essential to success – just ask Richard Branson.

“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

That famous line – delivered by the founder of Virgin Group which houses more than 71,000 employees – chimes with many a company owner who understands the importance of finding and keeping exceptional talent.

“Surround yourself with great people, you can’t do it on your own,” Thomas advised. “The magic comes from those first few people because that is the largest group of people that are aligned with the vision you have and they want to pull in the direction that you want to pull in.”

Finding “great people with a great heart” remains a non-negotiable for Thomas, supplemented by strong technical capabilities and a “piercing focus”.

“Someone who buckles down and follows the dream,” he explained. “If you get a few people like that in the room, you can do more than 100 people. What we built at Thomas Duryea was something special and I will probably work forever to try to emulate that again.”

Functionalise the business

At one stage, Thomas Duryea scaled from $3 million to $30 million in revenue within 24 months, hiring 50 people in 50 weeks to keep pace with increased market demand.

“But we didn’t know how to run a business and had days of leeway in terms of cash flow,” Thomas admitted.

Having floated the start-up as a group of students without outside investment, the company was running as close to the wire as possible – dangerously close on occasions.

“We were working in Tokyo on a big project for Cadbury and we literally ran out of money,” Thomas recalled. “We thought we were heroes and that everything was going well but we just hadn’t built the business correctly, we had no processes. We were hiring people so fast that they would start their jobs and not know what to do.”

“Surround yourself with great people, you can’t do it on your own”

Andrew Thomas (Atlastix)

Following a sobering flight back to Australia from Japan, Thomas and co discovered the root cause of the problem.

“I still remember the day,” he said. “We literally found this drawer, pulled it out and tipped it upside down on the boardroom table and it was full of blue slips from our distributor, Tech Pacific. They were invoices on us that had never been turned into invoices on the customer.”

During the transition from boutique consultancy to value-added reseller, nobody in the rapidly expanding business had thought to create a process for invoicing hardware.

With cash flow soon freed up and a system in place, the young co-founders sought mentorship to avoid such heart-stopping instances in the future.

“We brought in some coaches and they recommended that we functionalise the business,” he added.

“The idea of looking across the company as a sausage machine and understanding what measures we needed end-to-end, how people could functionalise their roles and outlining what success and failure looked like.”

Simple on paper, accepted Thomas, but significantly more challenging to implement in practice.

Build relationships (but cold call if needed)

Customer acquisition during the first four years of Thomas Duryea was entirely relationship orientated, that reliable method of simply building a network by doing a good job.

“We met a couple of people as contractors during the late 1990s, then we met another and another,” Thomas said. “We built a solid reputation within local government but it was purely relationship – we did a good job at one department and were asked to meet the next one.”

Capitalising on the emerging VMware opportunity “changed everything” for the business – which spearheaded the virtualisation charge in market – prompting the decision to build a dedicated sales team.

From the boardroom of the company office on Cubitt Street – housed in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond – the VMware pitch was pioneered in Australia.

Sitting on weekends building the value proposition, the team perfected the presentation to the point in which they could not only articulate this to a customer but execute against all deliverables.

“We just turned up the heat,” Thomas said. “We perfected the art of cold calling. One morning, we booked introductory meetings with 50 new organisations.

“We brought on 100s of customers during that period, one after another, and we said to each that only two things mattered to us – we value technical excellence and we value relationships.”

“We didn’t know how to run a business and had days of leeway in terms of cash flow”

Andrew Thomas (Atlastix)

Thomas Duryea stood against those mission statements project after project, promises the business could keep due to such a strong pool of talent.

“You can’t make those promises unless you have A-graders at every point in the chain,” Thomas advised. “We were going up against IBM who was telling customers, ‘you need to buy 100 pizza boxes’ and our position was, ‘no, you can buy four’.

“IBM said that VMware wouldn’t work in the enterprise but we had the capabilities because everyone in our team, from technical to admin, was A-grade.”

Commit to technical excellence

More than two decades on from creating the mantra of technical excellence, Thomas still lives and breathes the mission statement. Even when committing to the cause is painful, demoralising and expensive.

The re-platforming of Atlastix is a recent example of making a tough call capable of reversing years of work and bucket loads of investment.

“We have literally just crossed the chasm,” said Thomas, in reference to the final stages of a lengthy product overhaul. “We had to re-platform the entire product. We’ve doubled down and reinvested hard against a complete uplift in capability.”

Caused by a series of poor decisions during the early phase of the business – “spending a lot of money and making bad calls” – making the move to essentially start again emphasises that for entrepreneurs, mantras are written in stone.

Even with the emotion and exhaustion of initiating such an overhaul still raw and recent, Thomas smiled and quoted Elon Musk: “Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends.”

And that is all part of following the mantra.

“You cross divides every now and then when you have to say, ‘hey, we’ve got to rebuild this almost from scratch’,” Thomas acknowledged. “But the key is, ‘can we make it across? Thankfully, we’re coming through the other side and have made it.

“We are now positioned to maximise the potential of generative AI and huge volumes of data, making that available to organisations to power decisions now.”

Boasting a 300x performance increase on prior platform capabilities, the process resulted in months of planning and weeks of false starts.

“We’re away now so let’s go,” Thomas added. “It’s an endless process but our foundational capabilities are next level.”

Thomas said Atlastix continues to “stand on the shoulders of giants” with the adoption of “wonderful” open source software, with even the earliest incarnations of the platform resulting in high retention rates among customers.

Turbo-charged by a user base now spanning the entire Australian enterprise – including manufacturing, finance, government, telecommunications and healthcare sectors – company revenue has doubled year-on-year.

“While we build, we sell,” Thomas said. “Some of our partnerships are white-labelled and we power a lot of global decision making through other organisations but we don’t sing from the rooftops because it’s not our place.”

Andrew Thomas (Atlastix) recently completed 100km at the Ultra-Trail Australia in the Blue Mountains, with a painfully impressive time of 22:33:09 alongside industry friend and colleague Adam Beavis.

Take it personally, but have a relief valve

Speaking as a serial start-up founder – “who has never worked for someone else” – Thomas conceded that entrepreneurship is “totally addictive”.

Winning is a drug but the true satisfaction lies in the concept of having an idea that doesn’t exist and being able to make it happen. For Thomas, that surpasses the dollars and cents.

“If you can bring something into existence, that’s addictive,” he noted. “That’s against all odds because people can’t initially see the vision and you have to bring them along on the journey.”

With the benefit of hindsight stretching back more than 20 years, Thomas now appreciates the difference between services and product companies – “it’s become much more personal with Atlastix”.

“At Thomas Duryea we sold other people’s stuff, we were representatives of VMware,” he explained. “Yes, we crafted the technology into our own solutions but even with our private cloud, that was built using other people’s kit.

“Now at Atlastix, we’re writing something and building a platform. It’s insanely personal – the highs and lows are more extreme.”

Perhaps the expectation is that an inspiring entrepreneur with thousands of customer wins under his belt could afford himself perspective when a deal goes south, consolidation that there’s plenty more fish in the sea.

A services business may afford that luxury but not a product company.

“If we lose today, I take it personally,” Thomas admitted. “When people used to say no in the past, we’d just think it was because we didn’t represent VMware well enough. Now this is my heart and soul representing everything I’ve worked for so yes; I take that as a no to me.”

On the flip side, the highs are “outrageous” should the tender return a yes.

But whatever the verdict, Thomas strongly advocates the importance of having a relief valve factored into decision making activities. His release comes from running, having recently completed 100km at the Ultra-Trail Australia in the Blue Mountains, with a painfully impressive time of 22:33:09 alongside industry friend and colleague Adam Beavis.

From a day-to-day perspective, a morning running group with like-minded CEOs and entrepreneurs helps keep the anxiety monster at bay.

“Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends”

Elon Musk

“When I’m not running 4-5 times a week, I become edgy,” he said. “Don’t try and think your way out of a thinking problem, go for a run. If you don’t run, then walk or meditate – just get out because you must get physical with the brain after a while.”

Originally hailing from Melbourne – and now based in Sydney – Thomas used to run The Tan Track around the Botanic Gardens to provide much needed clarity during the stressful early days of Thomas Duryea.

“I learned to run back then and I ran The Tan so many times,” he recalled. “Sometimes I would just run and run then go sit on the grass to clear my mind. If you’re stressing, why would you sit there and stew on it? Leave it. Get out.”

Don’t forget to scale

Thomas acquired the idea of moving into data consultancy before exiting Thomas Duryea in recognition that this was the new currency set to dominate the market.

The initial go-to-market offering – then under the banner of AtlasPlato – was to challenge organisations to understand the truly difficult problems that remained unsolved and assess whether those problems could be addressed at speed.

“We would come in and do these sprints against executive challenges,” Thomas outlined. “They would ask a question and we would turn the data around. We were doing wildly fast engagements but we found it very hard to scale as a business as it was high brain-drain consulting.”

Acknowledging that the budding business wasn’t going to transform into McKinsey overnight, Thomas used the consulting experience to understand CIO roadblocks first-hand before embarking on a significant shift in approach.

Out with AtlasPlato, in with Atlastix.

“Did I make all the same mistakes twice?” Thomas asked. “I made a heap of mistakes during the early consulting period but I was coming into a completely new industry.

“This time around, my appetite for risk is lower. I have a young family and I didn’t in the last business. But you must take the risks. We’d be growing faster if I was younger and didn’t have people relying on me.”

Offering advanced operational intelligence, Atlastix goes to market as an enterprise monitoring solution that provides a “holistic approach” to observability – real-time insights combined with granular historical indexing across both logs and metrics.

“The fact that we’ve arrived here with the ability to ingest billions of data points a day and query across short timeframes – for us, it feels like, wow,” Thomas said. “Our intention is to be really successful globally and that’s going to come with a sales push at some stage in the next six months.”


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