After attic start, Axios making all right moves for success

THERE seems to be a tradition in software development that companies start off somewhere small, cramped and preferably attached to the family home.

Bill Gates famously launched Microsoft in his family garage back in 1975, and Apple computers began life as a garage start-up.

Edinburgh firm Axios Systems, now selling its software internationally, began life 16 years ago as an idea and a couple of programmers in founders Tasos and Ailsa Symeonides’ house in Eskbank.

Rather than the garage, though, Axios was set up in the Symeonides’ attic.

Today it is an international business, with customers across Europe and the United States and two Australian companies poised to sign up.

A recent deal with the US Federal Aviation Authority is a particular coup, as it will be used right across the States.

But back in 1988, there were no customers and just the germ of an idea.

Mr Symeonides says: "I was working in IT, in charge of operations at John Menzies’ retail division, which has now been sold to WHSmith. I left with a view to capitalising on this great idea that I had.

"I could see from my own experience in IT management that there was a need for sophisticated service management software, to manage different IT products.

"I knew there was no co-ordinated product available on the marketplace."

Leaving to start the company was a little nerve-racking, he says.

"Yes, it was a bit scary, I suppose, but if you don’t take risks, nothing will happen. You find your own luck."

So Mr Symeonides went to work. He designed the Assyst software himself, and then hired two programmers to work on it with him. It took two years, during which he worked as a consultant to bring in money to create the finished product.

And once it was completed, he had to learn how to sell. He says: "We had no sales people in the company, so I had to wear many hats myself for a while.

"I’m not a natural salesman, but I developed the skills. Initially, it was a very technical sale and so I could do it. We got our name on to the tender list for government and local authority tenders and we began to win every single government tender we went for.

"Since then, we’ve grown organically. My philosophy has been to manage the growth, as opposed to being aggressive and then risking the business."

It wasn’t until 1995, with 15 members of staff packed into the Eskbank house in both the attic and some of the bedrooms, that Axios moved.

It first went to Walker Street and then, last year, when it outgrew the Walker Street offices, to the large Georgian building in Melville Street where the company is based today. With its high ceilings and bay windows, Mr Symeonides says the elegant boardroom makes quite an impression on clients.

In 1993, Axios made its first overseas sale, to the European Commission in Brussels. "We just found out about the tender, and won it," he says. It gave Axios the taste for overseas expansion and its first overseas office was in Holland. Mr Symeonides says: "Five years ago, we tendered for a system for Rabo Bank, and we won it. We had been competing against a local Dutch company selling a US product. After we won, the Dutch company came to us and asked to sell Assyst instead."

Three years ago, the Dutch vendor moved on, and Axios set up its own office. Mr Symeonides says: "We have a lot of Dutch customers now.

"And it’s given us a taste for globalisation. And you have to be a global player if you want to properly compete."

Especially if you want to move into the US, where buyers can be wary of unknown, foreign vendors. Axios has managed to break into the North American market and establish a couple of reference sites, and hopes to expand further.

Axios can win contacts ahead of even the largest US software companies by offering a reliable, helpful service, Mr Symeonides says, adding: "We’ve had to work hard to prove our credentials, and to counter the idea that you should buy American. All of the big software companies tend to be American. But we offer consistency and reliability and we have been winning customers."

Being Scottish, he stresses, is a complete irrelevance. There’s no "soft spot" for the country, just a hard-nosed business attitude that looks at whether a company can deliver to the right price and will still be around in a few years.

There’s certainly every sign that Axios will still be around. The company now has a turnover of around 12 million a year, of which the US counts for 15 per cent "and growing".

The UK accounts for 70 per cent of sales, but that will change as the overseas offices grow.

A second office was set up in Australia in May by the Symeonides’ son, Andros, and two Australian deals are in the offing.

Other new deals signed recently are with Toyota Canada and Daimler Chrysler in Graz, Austria. Winning business like this, in a small part of a larger organisation, is the ideal way into the larger business, Mr Symeonides says.

After winning business within the asset management side of French oil giant Total, for instance, Axios has now won a company-wide deal.

Large companies are the most suited to the Assyst software, with the ideal customer having more than 1000 IT users.

Born in Cyprus, 55-year-old Mr Symeonides moved to Glasgow when he was 12.

He came to Edinburgh in 1974 and now lives in Eskbank with Ailsa.

His two sons work in the business - Andros developing foreign channels, such as the offices in Australia, and Markos in internet marketing.

"A website is vital for marketing now," Mr Symeonides says, "and Markos is a whiz kid when it comes to the internet."

Daughter Tara has just graduated from university where she studied computer science. While Mr Symeonides would clearly like her to come into the business, he says it is still too early for her to know what she wants to do. "She has to make up her own mind," he says.

As for the future, Mr Symeonides hopes to keep growing the business and product range, and improving the Assyst software.

The latest version, released last month, includes greater functionality and an improved web interface, something that’s becoming increasingly important to customers, Mr Symeonides says.

The company’s professional services team will also grow in future.

A recent user group meeting in Edinburgh has heartened Mr Symeonides. More than 150 customers came to Edinburgh at the start of October and gave good feedback on what the company is doing.

"We have a great desire to make the customer happy," Mr Symeonides says.