This week, award-winning IT company Byte celebrates its 25th birthday. Executive Director and Founder Robert (Ramin) Roshan—who came to Australia as a refugee—shares how he created a successful digital technology company from scratch.
‘I always wanted to build something,’ says Robert, of his decision to start Byte. ‘And I wanted that to be a team effort. There’s a joy in coming together, striving towards a shared purpose.’ A firm believer in the saying ‘one plus one equals more than two’, Robert likens Byte to a mosaic, where everyone brings their different strengths and skills to the company.
In 1993, when Robert founded Byte, it was ‘just me’. Today, the company employs more than 100 people, with offices in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. Its head office on the ninth floor of St Kilda Road is a long way from its humble beginnings in a backroom in Kew, with a single three-day contract. Twenty-five years later, Byte is a leading digital technology provider, partnering with companies such as Telstra, Microsoft, CISCO and Citrix.
While Byte is at the forefront of digital technology solutions, people are at the heart of everything it does. ‘It’s certainly not about the money,’ says Robert. ‘Money is the by-product. A commercial entity has to make money to sustain itself, but it’s more about creating the environment for people to come together and achieve good results.’
The 52-year-old credits his community-orientated approach to key life experiences, such as coming to Australia as a refugee. Born in Iran, Robert came here with his older brother in 1985. Although their plane arrived in Perth in the middle of the night, a crowd of people had gathered to greet them. Their friendly faces made a positive, lasting impression.
‘At the time, Australia was such a welcoming place for refugees. It was very inclusive. I felt as if I arrived not as a guest, but as extended family. Within months, I felt as if this was my country, the place where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.’
The early assistance Robert received from the Australian government, refugee advocate groups and individuals established a sense of belonging that was necessary in order for him to thrive. ‘Most refugees arrive without their family. They have to be able to establish a sense of connection, a sense of trust, and that was established very early on in Perth.’
After nine months in Perth, Robert moved to Melbourne where he studied computer science and electronics. Upon graduating, he found it difficult to get a job. He soon realised that it was because of his given name, Ramin. It wasn’t that people had a specific sense of not hiring migrants, rather that they lacked familiarity with his name and its associated culture. ‘I understand that lack of familiarity,’ he says. ‘I don’t agree with it, but I do understand it.’ This led him to anglicising his name in order to find work. He encouraged his older brother to do the same.
Today, Byte makes a conscious choice to employ people of all ages and nationalities, including those unable to find work elsewhere because their English isn’t great. Receiving their resumes, Ramin feels a deep empathy. ‘When I came to Australia, I couldn’t speak English at all. So you know that their intellect is perfect, they’ve done the training, but they can’t communicate. Well, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a job.’
Inclusivity and investing in people are two of the company’s core values. Accordingly, Byte strives to integrate religious and cultural practises into the working day, to ensure employees feel at home. It’s not unusual for their Melbourne meeting room to be turned into a prayer room.
‘To me, this is about going a little bit out of your way and saying, “What is the picture of the future I want for myself and my children?” then enabling that. More than enabling that, you have to pursue it with a sense of passion and energy.’
It’s all part of being a company that cares about its employees as people, not as a number. ‘At Byte, we’re like family,’ says Ramin.
Long-time employee Phillip Stanford, who has been with Byte for 11 years, shares this sentiment. ‘A lot of companies talk about family, but Byte really delivers. It’s tangible, and it’s real.’ Phillip says Ramin genuinely cares about his staff and what’s going on for them, inside and outside of work. He has taken great care in selecting senior management who share this approach. Additionally, all team leads have open-door policies, making them accessible to staff needs.
It’s a leadership style that’s based on trust. Ramin describes a leader as someone people are happy to take direction from—not because they’re paid to, but because they want to. The structure of the company is team-based rather than hierarchical, and there’s room for movement between roles, sideways as well as up and down.
‘It’s all about building great teams; that’s what’s at the core of Byte. We know that when we have these great teams we can deliver extraordinary things. It’s purposeful, rather than idealistic—and I think we’re progressing well in that direction!’
After 25 years in the business, Ramin still relishes the many facets of IT. He loves the technology itself, the fast pace and the complexity. He loves the service aspect, and the team building. He especially loves problem solving. On his office wall is a framed print of Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction with the caption ‘I solve problems’. It’s an in-house joke that brings a touch of lightness to the workplace, because the logical brain can’t think laterally when it’s too stressed.
It hasn’t been all lightness over the years, though. Below the framed print, on a wooden sideboard, sits a pale blue glass lamp. The lamp is one of those frosted glass domes that were popular in the early 2000s. Today, it serves as a reminder that in business, as in life, not everything goes to plan.
Flashback to the 1990s and Ramin worked for Bonlac Food before branching out on his own. His strong will and his perfectionism—which he admits may have made him difficult to manage as an employee—proved essential when it came to starting a business. Byte was born, and the company grew quickly. In some ways, too quickly. Within five years, it employed 40 people. ‘That was the result of Byte acquiring a company for a seven-figure sum,’ says Ramin. ‘Two years later, all that was left of that company was that lamp.’
The experience was incredibly humbling for Ramin. ‘My wife said I was getting ahead of myself because I saw so much success early on. She said I needed to have an experience that told me, “Not everything will just come to you”. I do agree with her. I agree with her one way or the other—that’s a success of 26 years of marriage!’
Joking aside, the failure of the acquisition was a test of Ramin’s resilience. He says that in business, you have to have a very strong resolve. You have to view mistakes simply as obstacles that need to be overcome. ‘If you don’t have that mindset, I think you’re going to have a very tough time.’
It would take Byte five years to recover, but Ramin took the long view and at the end of the day, it was ‘only money’. He adjusted his lifestyle, changed his plans, and moved on. ‘You have to,’ he says. ‘You have to accept that out of the 10 decisions you make, two of them will not be good decisions.’ He laughs. ‘Unfortunately this was an important decision, and it went wrong.’
On reflection, Ramin says self-belief was critical to his ability to move forward. He credits this to the love of his family and the support he received from the Australian people when he first arrived here. That support has given him the confidence to face many challenges.
‘Most people who achieve have a strong sense of being loved and a strong community. That gives you a sense that you can achieve anything, because you’ve got the backing. It’s only a mindset; there’s not a lot of reality in it. It’s just how confident you feel when you’re out there.’
Today, the challenges are more about change management and work/life balance. Five years ago, Ramin appointed good friend and mentor Greg Embleton as CEO, and brought Stanley Havea on-board as Sales and Growth Director. This allowed the company to expand into both Sydney and Canberra. It also meant that Ramin could be more involved in the lives of his children, who were teenagers at the time.
Those who know Ramin know how important family is to him. He’s been married to his wife Ruth, an artist and musician, for longer than he’s been at the helm of Byte.
All of Ramin’s extended family now lives in Australia. ‘It’s a big family, as I have four brothers and one sister and their partners and children—about 20 of us! I love to spend time with my dad, who is 83 now. He loves a game of backgammon. When I ask him how he is, he always says, “I couldn’t be better!” I must’ve inherited some of his optimism… No one lives forever and I’m old enough to avoid regrets. Family and work are the competing priorities you need to juggle when time is the most valuable commodity.’
What is Ramin’s biggest personal challenge? ‘To successfully deliver to my wife and children, and to the staff of Byte. And to do a bit of exercise to keep all this perpetual motion going.’
Reflecting on the past 25 years, Ramin says he’s most proud of the relationships he’s forged with his customers, and the opportunities he’s created for his staff.
In 1998, Byte’s first major contract was with AMCOR (Orora Group). Today, the packaging company remains one of Byte’s valued customers.
Ramin sees himself as working with his customers as partners, rather than for them as a vendor. In the initial phase of a relationship, Byte overinvests to really work out what its customers’ needs are. It also automates as many systems as possible, to maximise face-to-face time. Accordingly, the company develops ‘very deep’ relationships with its customers.
‘We want the right customers who understand what we do. We want a partnership and a relationship with them; we don’t want a transaction with them. We require a lot of empathy and investment of time, from both parties. We don’t want to just sell something and go; that’s not our business.’
Relationships with employees are equally important. Ramin’s proud of the opportunities he’s created for people who wouldn’t have had them otherwise. ‘You want everyone who comes into an organisation to leave with far more than they arrived with. That is your job and obligation. That is one of the biggest achievements of this organisation.’
He also believes that building your organisation up to a level so that it can give back to society is fundamental. Byte’s success has meant it can offer internships, do pro-bono work and donate to charity. Events such as Around the Bay in a Day have seen Ramin combine his love of cycling with team building and raising money for various children’s charities.
‘Within a few weeks of me coming to Australia, I was given what was not a lot of money but a helping hand. And that concreted my sense of obligation that you have to give back to society in a way that’s inclusive.’
While the persecution Ramin experienced as a Baha’i in Iran is impossible to forget, it also gave him the opportunity to come to Australia and start a family here. He has fond memories of growing up in Esfahan, a city he likens to Melbourne, but Australia is home, and has been for a long time.
‘Australia can provide a lot of opportunity for people, but it has to see itself in that frame. Those of us who arrived in the seventies and eighties have done extremely well within the context of Australian society and life. That is because of the environment. It can’t just be due to us. We were offered the opportunity and the environment that made us feel like we can do what everyone else does.’
Looking towards the next 25 years, Ramin is keen to do more charity work (although he has no plans to retire). He says that in today’s ever-shifting business environment, change management and flexible leadership will continue to be central to Byte’s success. As will investment in its people.
‘The truth is what you give to people is what you get back as an echo.’