Turning a personal challenge into a booming software business

nickjames

Founder Nick James built his “biggest lifetime achievement” with Atamis. Then it was time for a change.

Every business has a story. And if you ask a hundred entrepreneurs why they founded their company, you’ll likely hear a hundred unique answers.

Some are pursuing a lifelong passion. Others want to be their own boss. For many, it’s about solving a problem no one else can solve.

For Nick James, starting his software company Atamis was mostly about one thing: proving that he could.

It wasn’t enough to create a solution people wanted to buy. He also needed to do it on his own terms: no co-founder, no other investors or shareholders, no employees — at least not to start. Just one guy and what he calls a “personal challenge” to build a successful business.

Fast-forward nearly 15 years and it’s safe to say Nick has accomplished that mission — and then some.

Today, Atamis is a leading end-to-end strategic sourcing platform in the UK. The company employs around 40 people and its SaaS solution, delivered atop the Salesforce cloud, supports several large UK central government clients, helping them plan, source, analyze, and manage their spend.

Nick has since stepped down from his role as sole director of Atamis after transferring ownership of the business to Banyan and naming a new CEO. That might sound like a big deal for someone so self-directed. But if he felt any stress or regret over the decision, Nick certainly isn’t showing it.

These days, the former CEO is pursuing a Postgraduate Diploma in garden design. And he’s spending more time doing the things he loves: sitting on the board of two music organizations, playing piano and violin, getting ready for a big road trip through the Rocky Mountains, and planning the start of a new chapter with his wife.

This is the story of how he grew and eventually sold Atamis — scaling the business from a one-man show to a leading software solution, fielding offers from multiple buyers, and ultimately deciding it was time for a well-deserved break.

Building a team from scratch

When Nick founded Atamis in 2009, his focus was on a niche area of government strategic sourcing: spend analytics. But a few years into operations, the company’s main business partner got bought out by another firm, and that gave Nick the green light to expand his scope and vision.

Having worked for years with government clients, he was familiar with the challenges they faced partnering with multiple vendors to support different stages in the sourcing process — one for e-tendering, another for spend analysis, another for contract management, and so on. 

“The need for an end-to-end solution was really the catalyst that sparked the tremendous growth of Atamis,” Nick says. A comprehensive strategic sourcing platform would save government agencies significant time and money — and he seized the opportunity to fill the gap.

It wasn’t long before Atamis was winning significant six-figure contracts. And while Nick was keen to do everything on his own — “to not just be the technical brains behind the business, but also to do all the financing, the financial reporting and administration, and effectively be a sole director,” he says — landing new business meant recruiting “a lot more people pretty quickly.”

Hiring senior talent would have been the quickest way to support the company’s rapid growth, but there was a problem. Nick would have to raise external funding, breaking the ground rule he set for himself when he started the bootstrapped business: to do everything, including financing the company, independently.

Instead, Nick invested in emerging talent, recruiting a small but increasing number of junior people year over year. Several of Atamis’ early hires now make up the senior management team, including a developer he took a chance on around 2015. 

“He was actually a mathematics teacher who had done no software development at all, but I could see he was incredibly bright and had become a bit disillusioned with teaching. So I just gave him free rein to learn development,” he says.

Gradually, Nick moved the company’s development function in-house and today Atamis’ first developer is the company’s director of technology, responsible for all development and IT. “All the senior people I’ve taken on have stayed with us,” he says, a testament to the founder’s investment in people, culture, and the team’s long-term success.

“To be rich or king?”

From the start, Nick remained the sole director of Atamis and the onus for client and employee success fell squarely on his shoulders. As the company grew, he felt the satisfaction of his achievement, which had been greater than he ever imagined. And yet the booming business had also taken on a life of its own. Ten years in, his role had morphed into more responsibility than he wanted at that point in his career.

Nick says he knows “a lot of founders who want to be a powerful, controlling CEO — a sort of Bill Gates. But to me, it was all about proving that I could create a successful business and proving that the software I developed would be useful.”

He credits Ali Nasser’s The Business Owner’s Dilemma with helping him make the eventual call to sell. Posing a fundamental question for founders — “do you want to be rich or king?” — the book highlights the key decision owners ultimately face: hold onto power or opt for financial independence.

For Nick and his wife, freedom was the end game. Still young enough to enjoy their health and travel the world, and with their university-aged kids nearly out of the nest, the couple “started to draw out a landing pad. We identified the minimum value that we would feel comfortable realizing from the business and the maximum that we would expect,” Nick says.

Finding the best permanent home

Once the plan was set, Nick drew up an information memorandum and went to market. At the same time, he was laying the groundwork for senior managers to take on more responsibility for the business.

“I was probably fairly open about two years ago that my long-term plan was to pass the business on,” Nick says. “I wanted to build up a senior team that was going to be capable of running it.” That process included putting incentive plans in place for leaders, providing them with share options to build a sense of ownership and pride in the business, and giving them more responsibility for making decisions.

As for the path to finding the right buyer, it was far from straight and narrow. After getting three-quarters of the way through the due diligence process with one company, Nick realized things were headed in a bad direction for him, his team, and his customers.

“I realized they were basically trying to buy the company’s reputation and knowledge but ditch the product, probably ditch a lot of the staff, and build their own product on their own platform to expand into the space that we were working in,” he says.

The prospective buyer also “realized that they’d probably bitten off more than they could chew” when it came to the public sector landscape and the complexity of Atamis’ software.

As both parties mutually agreed to step away, Nick realized three things that were most important to him in the sale of Atamis: a positive outcome for shareholders, for the team, and for clients.

“This is effectively my biggest lifetime achievement apart from my children,” he says. “I wouldn’t feel satisfied if the clients felt that they’d been left abandoned. Or if staff didn’t feel they could continue on their career paths. One of the main rewarding aspects of the business was bringing people on, seeing them get married, buy houses, have children, become established in their careers, have their salaries double, triple — and really feel that they’re getting somewhere with the business.”

After putting the grueling search on hold for six months, Nick eventually fielded — and accepted — an offer from Banyan.

“The thing that impressed us most was the effort that Banyan went to explain the process to us, to make us feel at ease, to listen to us about what we wanted, and to make sure it was the right fit. And an awful lot of reassurance was given, which turns out to be completely justified, that they will be looking after the business for the long term.”

A future of freedom

In late 2021, Nick started working with Banyan Operating Partner Darren Harris to develop a succession plan that would allow him to step back from Atamis. Together, they recruited a new operations director, Phil Musgrave, who quickly proved himself capable of taking on the role of CEO.

In August 2022, Nick resigned as an employee. He continues to serve Atamis in an advisory capacity, providing handover support two days a week until the time is right for him to exit completely.

As for the sale process, Nick says it’s gone exactly as promised. “It’s been a really, really good experience with Darren. He’s been very understanding, not pushy in terms of recommending what the company does. He recognizes that we know how to run our business and he’s been very supportive and tried to minimize the amount of impact to the team.”

There likely won’t be any more software businesses in Nick’s future — “I’m looking to do other stuff now,” he laughs. Gardening, for starters, plus traveling, sailing, playing music, and enjoying his well-earned financial freedom. All with the peace of mind that Atamis’ clients, team, and software will be in good hands, long into the future.

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