Organic passion sparks OneTable’s Azure adventure

Ben and Judith Jackson had three young children; a son and twin girls. Like many new parents they found themselves on the GP merry-go-round as the children succumbed to ear and throat infections and eczema.

Eight years ago the family decided to embrace organic eating to promote better health and strip toxins from their diet. Today, Ben Jackson says; “We have had six years with no antibiotics for ear nose and throat infections,” which is impressive for a family with, now, four children aged 12 and under.

To sustain their passion for eating organically and avoiding toxins, Ben and Judith found themselves trawling farmers’ markets, sifting the claims on grocery items and reading the fine print. It was a way of life.

Ben was already a serial entrepreneur with four start ups under his belt. When he was looking around for his next idea he found it – quite literally – under his nose, in the food he and his family were consuming.

He and Judith wanted to share their experience, to make organic food more accessible and build a community of buyers and producers that was starkly different to the big business models that characterise most supermarket shopping. “We founded the company to make this more accessible,” says Ben.

OneTable was founded two years ago, though it’s in the last year that the business has started to scale – growing 500 per cent in a year, with 400 members and revenues of around $A2 million.

It has a line up of 15-20 trusted suppliers, and is starting to work with farmers. The range of organic product includes 100 per cent Australian grown fresh products, 500 certified organic grocery items, along with dairy, meat and fish.

Founded with family money from previous start ups and some seed capital, OneTable looks and feels like a classic startup – a good idea, passionate founders, and rapid growth.

This time however Ben has taken a radically different approach. With his last company – BagsUp, a social travel start up – Jackson had been accepted into the Microsoft Accelerator programme. His was one of ten out of 680 applicants to spend three months in Seattle at Microsoft HQ on a programme built to spur start ups and entrepreneurs.

“It was the cream of 15 years of being an entrepreneur,” he says of the experience. While BagsUp eventually folded, his entrepreneurial spark did not.

“And this time there was a different way that I set the business up compared to the past. It’s the lean start up movement – you don’t code the software, or agonise over the brand before you have a product or a service that people love.

“I spent two months on the phone first talking to people about what they wanted. When we first went out people were getting spreadsheets as receipts,” he admits. That constant iteration extends even to the corporate brand – originally dubbed GroupOrganics the company changed name and brand to OneTable this year.

He said that using the lean model meant the first year was spent scoping demand, understanding the industry, and working out how to keep the products fresh. The last year has been all about scale.

Cloud first

This time around for the serial entrepreneur, it was always going to be cloud-first.

“There was no question in my mind. With my previous start up we had migrated to the cloud because we had been running our own systems. This time there was no way I was going to get our own servers.

“When you don’t have your own information systems a whole layer of complexity goes away – and you can scale, which is important because we are continuing to roll out new services – and we’ve also started to use Azure search.

“The start up rules are really; remove complexity, move quickly and evolve and adapt quickly.”

Although Ben had used the Microsoft stack for years in previous businesses, he nevertheless performed fresh due diligence on cloud computing when he and Judith launched the business and looked at both the Amazon Web Services and Azure clouds, selecting Azure because it was “easier to understand and easier to navigate.”

The company was then invited into Microsoft’s BizSpark programme designed to foster the next generation of startups by providing free software, hosting time on Azure, updates and access to start up events.

It has been an enormous help, as even with a robust computing platform that could scale on demand, Ben acknowledges starting a new business is challenging. “It’s a big experiment – you are trying new things daily and weekly. It’s a bit like jumping off a cliff and then building a plane before you hit the ground.”

And the building’s not just about the business model. OneTable had to build a warehouse system, a website, an order picking and fulfilment platform which connects to Surface tablets in the warehouse, and logistics systems to schedule its trucks and drivers efficiently.

OneTable has built its warehouse management system and consumer ordering platform using Azure Web Roles over SQL Azure. It then uses Worker Roles to power the back end data processing and label printing functions, with Schedulers and Alerts to manage 2 way SMS communications and finally Azure Sites to host its blog.

OneTable’s cloud first approach will also help it with its ambitions to expand geographically. Currently focused on Sydney Metro and the Blue Mountains, Ben says; “We’d like to radiate out around the country, pick and pack from here for Canberra and the North and South coasts, then out to Melbourne in the first half of 2017.”

Ultimately, says Ben, the company structure and its computing foundations have been built to support an “environment where we can connect more authentically with the growers and makers of our food” and have a genuine and transparent conversation with like-minded people who want to eat well.

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