June 13, 2023
“I remember a day or two after it happened, just suddenly feeling this huge weight of the business on my shoulders,” recalled Christie Russell, the wife of the late Nick Russell.
“25 people with 25 families and 25 mortgages all relying on us for rent, as well as my own little family. I was in my kitchen in hysterics and called the accountant screaming, ‘what are we going to do?’, there was a heaving weight.”
Nick – who passed away in early 2021 – was a father, husband, friend, colleague and mentor. He was inspiring and intelligent, unique and unforgettable.
With entrepreneurship running through his veins, the affable leader created Katana1 (K1), a Sydney-based technology consulting firm built in partnership with close friend and co-founder Ross Ogilvie.
In the days following his tragic passing at the height of COVID-19, Christie not only had to mourn the loss of her loving husband and support their young children but sail a company ship in the eye of a storm without its talismanic skipper.
“At that point you just need someone to say, ‘don’t worry, we’ll help you. We’ll be there. It’ll be fine’,” Christie said. “Luckily, I had Ross, who already felt like family.
“I thought that all I’ve got to do is just put my head down and get through each day. If it falls over, then it falls over and I’ll just deal with that then.”
Nothing did fall over however, due to Christie’s unwavering display of personal courage and resilience, supported by deep levels of financial acumen and expertise.
When Nick was running the business as Managing Director, Christie operated on the sidelines as a background figure – providing financial support but seldom interfering with daily operations.
“I just assumed Nick would look after everything,” she said. “Luckily I had been there since day one so I had the benefit of knowing what we did and who our customers were, our margins and how to bill people.”
Despite possessing a strong CV – garnered during more than 11 years at Citi – Christie acknowledged initial fear at how she would, “as the wife”, be perceived by the industry.
“Who does she think she is just stepping in?” Christie would question. “I remember going to an event about 12-18 months later and someone said to me, ‘we were all watching and wondering what was going to happen’.
“I think some were surprised that we survived and actually done well.”
Just don’t mess it up
With Christie assuming day-to-day responsibilities in the business, Ross also transitioned from Director of Technology and Consulting to Managing Director – it was a case of all hands on deck.
“We both felt like imposters,” Ross acknowledged.
More specifically, Ross likened the transition to that of Steven Bradbury stunning the world by winning a speed skating gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“Everyone just fell over in front of him and he just skated through, and I was similar as Managing Director,” he said.
The pandemic was a “dire” experience for Christie, who was locked down for long periods as a single mother now tasked with taking care of their family while running her late husband’s business.
Ross and Greg Rancic – Solutions Architect at K1 – would provide human connection by regularly visiting and playing cards but regardless of the group support, “I was stuck”.
“I thought running the business would be way easier than being a mother at that time,” noted Christie, with a dry dose of dark humour. “But being at home with the kids was brutal and really hard.”
Given K1 was the brainchild of Nick, Christie felt a deep sense of fear that he’d be looking down becoming “really cranky” if they messed it up.
“I’d say looking up,” interjected Ross, with a smile. “We almost rush sold the business when Nick was sick.
“He didn’t think he was going to die so in hindsight, we probably should have had a will but he didn’t want to do that sort of stuff because he used to go for hypnotherapy and was a bit of a hippie in some regards.”
Armed with the benefit of hindsight, Ross said selling the business during that period would have been “quite terrible”, recognising the importance of becoming focused to help process the relentless wave of grief flooding down on them.
“We had a lot of people reach out to help but the problem was that Christie and I didn’t know what we didn’t know, so we didn’t know what to ask for,” he added.
Christie also came to value the added responsibility during such dark days – “if I had to sit at home with my thoughts, I would have struggled.”
Setting an example for their young children also played heavily on Christie’s mind.
“For my daughter, that women work and for my son, that women can have whatever role they want,” she said.
Team full of rockstars
Creating the brand of K1 following a few drinks in 2011, the logic of the name is that clients are samurais and a samurai is never without their trusted Katana. And trusted Katanas does K1 have in abundance.
“Nick and Ross set up a company that they would always want to work in by hiring rockstars,” Christie said. “We had and still have such a great team of very smart people.
“The team are my favourite people to hang out with – because there’s such a good group but also when you’ve been through something like this, it brings you all closer together.”
Most organisations say the right things but behind the scenes, seldom do they follow such public displays of affection towards employees and company culture. K1 is different in that sense.
“I needed to do a clean out and Ross sent a meeting invite to six guys in the office on a Saturday to come over and help load a skip bin at my house and they all turned up,” Christie remembered. “That was staff and customers and they all gave up a Saturday – that sort of stuff just kills me. It overwhelms me.”
United in spirit but bonded by tragedy, a strong culture flows through the corridors of K1. To the extent that management was hesitant to initiate aggressive growth plans in case the office dynamics changed, while continuing to double down on staff.
“If we hire rockstars, let’s treat them like rockstars,” he reaffirmed. “We pay them the best expenses per month and it’s not just for phone and internet, they can use them for whatever they want for $350 per month, plus work from MacBook Pros worth $5000.
“The idea is that we almost over-provision them and provide everything they need to be successful. All they need to do is try.”
Don’t be fooled by such generosity of spirit however because a rather large caveat exists.
“When something like this happens, you no longer have the patience for people who are taking the piss,” Ross said. “We are more brutal now and we will shoot them a little quicker because we have seen a few people come in and start to poison the culture.
“Some of our senior staff say that those people need to go and work somewhere else to understand how good K1 is. These people will call three months later and ask for their jobs back but it’s too late.”
Representing a never ending process of constantly keeping a watch on culture, Ross said the success of K1 is entirely based on the staff.
“Odd approach” pays off
The strategy of keeping positive deployed by Ross and Christie is playing out in the numbers with the business reporting a record FY22 while recently surpassing $40 million in revenue.
“It’s seems like we only just got to $24 million so we’ve gone from $30 to $40 million,” Ross outlined. “People ask what’s working but we don’t always know.”
Perhaps it’s the brand because K1 has personality. Of the many thousands of technology providers operating across Australia, only K1 offers branded ‘rad’ t-shirts on the company website.
Options are Metal, Samurai and Hectopus with sizes ranging from XS to 2XL. Men have the choice of round neck block or tall while women can select either round of vee neck.
“Marketing was a new direction for us but that was also when I thought I was about to get fired,” Christie laughed. “Every time Ross wanted to talk with me in a meeting room at that time, I just presumed he was going to say things weren’t working out but it was to ask my thoughts on hiring a marketing guy.”
The reason why K1 has taken such an “odd approach” to marketing – notably on LinkedIn – is because the business is “fishing for customers”. This approach is based on publishing funny content on social to seek out customers with the required character to work with a super-talented but super-fun team.
“As opposed to working with say, NTT or Telstra,” Ross added. “Before we used to do marketing that wasn’t really about us – cold calling campaigns and all that sort of thing but it never worked.”
Who wouldn’t want to work with a company that…
Remember the slogan… “crap at marketing, great at computers”.
“We get most of our customers through word of mouth and we’re starting to get our name out there,” Ross added. “Most people go, ‘oh, are you those idiots on LinkedIn?’ so we don’t always know if it’s a good or bad thing.”
Oh, and check out the company ‘Trophy Room’, housing glowing customer testimonials from Qantas, NSW Government, Deloitte and the University of Wollongong to name but a few.
But perhaps the best customer reference, comes in the form of Yifan Gu, then CTO of Earth AI.
“I told our Google account manager that we needed technical help. I was immediately escorted into a taxi, and the next thing I knew I was locked in a room full of crazy long swords and intense-looking people. They forced me to work out our cloud solution. I was so scared that I finished the draft of a full solution in under 4 hours. Will definitely do it again. Seriously though, Katana1 is rad.”
Speaking with the knowledge that an image of himself wearing a bear head is circulating on LinkedIn, Ross does wonder in his quiet moments whether Nick would agree to such a radical approach.
“When we first started K1, we would battle because he’d want me to wear cufflinks, suits and ties and my response would be, ‘I’m not a banker’,” he stated. “I think Nick would have loved it but not sure whether he’d have taken his shirt off on LinkedIn…”
Inform your opinion with executive guidance, in-depth analysis and business commentary.