ACT News


High flyers out of the basement

It's all about the execution, not the dream, for today's young entrepreneurs, PHILLIP THOMSON reports

AT AGE 13, Michael Hazilias got his first job and had a golf handicap of eight.

At age 16, the son of hard-working migrants registered his first business and a few years later achieved a university admission index of 98.

At university, he and some friends developed a computerised rostering system that would let workers know their shifts via text messages.

Now he has customers across the world and, this financial year, it is expected his business will turn over $1 million or more.

It is a huge milestone that coincides with another landmark on the often difficult entrepreneurial journey travelled by Mr Hazilias.

At age 29, he is about to move out of his parents' basement.


In the past six years since leaving university, Mr Hazilias has poured the vast majority of his time and money into his business - the basement was, at one time, his office.

Experienced observers in the world of start-up businesses say there are two types of people: entrepreneurs and want-trepreneurs.

The latter category does a lot of talking but for the serious guys, such as Mr Hazilias, who drives a modest car and had his first taste of business in his parents' Fyshwick takeaway, it's all about the execution.

His is a story of perseverance, the one character trait he has needed above all others to survive up to this point.

''I've probably lost $100,000 along the way because of mistakes,'' Mr Hazilias, a Canberran and former Daramalan College student, said.

His business, EasyEmployer, now helps medium-size businesses organise their rosters and payrolls as well as cutting down on their administration time. Some of them pay $3000 a month for his cloud-based software, which has come a long way since a clunky prototype was demonstrated inside a university lecture theatre. Employers now use a combination of EasyEmployer's systems and social media to communicate with staff.

When Mr Hazilias started fixing and building computers as a teenager, he did not realise he was learning lessons that would help him later, although he admits he always had an interest in monetising his skills and running his own enterprise.

''I remember slapping the first invoice I ever did on my cousin's desk when I fixed his computer. He said: 'What are you charging me $60 for, I'm your cousin?'''

During his final year of a four-year (software engineering) degree at the University of Canberra, he and two friends had to think of something they would build for a practical assessment.

While their classmates were building robots, they could think of nothing better than a streamlined rostering system.

''I thought it was a crap idea, but we couldn't come up with anything else,'' he said.

The idea worked and the trio decided to go into business and make millions. ''The naivety that comes with entering business,'' he said. ''You need to have a bit of that, otherwise you might get turned off.''

Two of his partners dropped out, however, leaving Mr Hazilias on his own.

It was a stressful time. The business had received a $50,000 grant from the ACT Government and goals linked to this grant - as well as a separate bank loan - had to be met.

''The wog culture is hard working,'' he said.

''My parents have always struggled. Dad came here and couldn't speak the language when he was 12 years old. Mum came here when she was just a baby.''

Friends came into the business with him but all of them found the enterprise had stalled. They were working day jobs to keep cash coming in while trying to launch EasyEmployer.

After some advice from his family, Mr Hazilias borrowed money using his parents' home as security. He used the loan to support EasyEmployer, moving the office out of home and into a proper office.

At that stage, the business had five customers and turned over $20,000 to $30,000 annually.

Since then it has grown steadily and today it employs 10 people plus numerous contractors.

Sheets of paper strung together on the wall of the Mitchell office tell the story of the business. New staff members are added to the narrative as they arrive.

''Most of our employees are in their 20s, and work from home a couple of days a week,'' he said.

Clients include AFL headquarters in Melbourne and Westmead Hospital.

''We've gone from 'where does the next sale come from?' to 'how do we service the 10 sales we did last month?'''

Fellow Canberra entrepreneur Anthony Bortolotto said relationships were the key to a growing business and, in his words, problems did not only occur when an idea was launched.

In the years following, businesses experienced growing pains when they tried to move from small to medium in size, he said.

Mr Bortolotto, 32, is slightly further ahead in his journey.

He began Infinite Networks - which connects, designs, develops and programs websites - in 2003 and it is now turning over more than $2 million a year.

''Canberra is an exciting place to be, the entrepreneurial spirit is very strong, particularly with the graduates from the University of Canberra and the Australian National University,'' he said.

One of these people - yet to finish his degree because of business commitments - is Mick Spencer, 22, founder of OnTheGo. Mr Spencer said his business cut back on much of what it did to focus on its strengths.

He started his business - which designs, manufactures and distributes custom-branded sportswear - from his parents' garage with $150, of which $142 was spent on registering the enterprise.

As the operation was in the process of cracking the seven-figure turnover mark, it was also reducing the sports it serviced, now focusing more on sports such as soccer, cycling and rugby union.

His enterprise was born out of setbacks. Despite loving to surf and mountain bike, he has a heart condition, which nearly killed him last year (his heart was restarted because of its rapid, irregular rhythm), and severe short-sightedness.

''When I was younger I felt like an outsider and I had to think for myself,'' he said.

After his first $200 sale when he was 19, he bought a printer. Soon after, he lost $2700 of his $3000 in savings to a corrupt supplier.

''Sometimes I jump before I think.''

His break came when he supplied 250 cycling jerseys to Goulburn Mulwaree Council in less than a month, a risky contract no one else would take on.

''I was unique at school. I failed a lot of subjects. Some teachers didn't like me because I was disruptive.''

Usually, he was a distraction because he couldn't see the board and was talking to classmates to get information. Today he uses the same skill, only it's called networking.

Like many entrepreneurs, these Canberrans will most likely spend the rest of their lives continuing to seek out ways to service a market and make a profit.

Mr Spencer wants to build a Virgin-style company, for example, with OnTheGo seen in many different sectors.

Mr Hazilias is already involved in two other top-secret ventures with some of the smartest people he has met along the way.

When I ask him what these plans involve, he only hints: it's web-based and it involves problem solving at the root.

He quotes Henry Ford: ''If I'd asked them what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.''