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“People are the foundation”: How Athan Didaskalou and Richard Li built Smart50-winning travel brand

Following their Smart50 win in November 2022, July co-founders Richard Li and Athan Didaskalou jumped on the phone with SmartCompany from the back room of the luggage brand’s Sydney store. The pair filled us in on the resilience and people-first attitude that not only helped July survive the COVID-19 dropoff, but also come out the other end as Australia’s fastest-growing SME.


It’s a Smart50 winner, yes, but is July the smartest company in Australia? For co-founder and chief strategy officer Didaskalou, it has more to do with resilience. The fact July maintained the same core team from before the pandemic hit to now is a great source of pride.

“We have remained strong,” he said. “We have remained a unit and through it all, we kept each other not just professionally on track but emotionally stable as well.”

“Everyone felt secure in what we were doing and I think it just enabled us to knuckle down and get on with it.”

July spent the travel downturn of the lockdown years designing and trying new things, which resulted in many of the new products it’s releasing as restrictions continue to ease.

“We’re super resilient, that’s what helped us get through it.”

The pandemic delivered lessons and was a humbling experience. Both founders recall the confidence and fearlessness they had as a fast-growing business in 2019.

“The pandemic changed the way we think, how we run things; we want to stay lean, we want to stay organic, we want to be more sustainable,” said Li.

He mentions recent examples like the local shutdown of Deliveroo and Meta’s layoff of 11,000 workers. “We never want to be in that sort of situation.”

“So, as a business, we made a promise to ourselves and also to the company, that we will never grow the business at all costs,” he said. “This is the only way to be responsible to our employees, who are the most important people to the business.”


The focus on people is what Li says should be the number one takeaway for other brands learning from July’s Smart50 win.

“No matter what, at what time, you always need to look after the people around you. Whether it’s your family, your friends, your employees — everyone. Because people are the foundation of the business.”

It has paid off massively. In the 2021 financial year, July cleared $21 million in revenue, a growth figure of 640%. Li says the option to reduce headcount in the difficult years of 2020-21 would have helped the P&L statements at the time, but “coming out of the pandemic it would have been very difficult to build up the business again”.

The other lesson is to keep things lean and sustainable. Didaskalou compares July to big brands like airlines. “The difference is we didn’t over-expand when we were growing, which meant in tougher times we could actually retain the team.

“And so the philosophy of keeping lean, even in good times, actually helped us when times were tough.” Didaskalou and Li are wrapt with the win and are excited to go bigger still in the next year. “We’ve got our suppliers congratulating us, we’ve got partners congratulating us, we’ve got this really positive energy for a brand just coming out from two years of pandemic, we’re now heading into an even bigger 2023,” said Li.

It pairs nicely with the upturn in travel, which, as Didaskalou explains, is a slow boom cycle.

“We’re yet to see a lot of the boom coming through. I think the next 12 months are going to probably be the biggest growth for the travel industry that we’ve seen in the last five years.”

This article was first published in November 2022. Source: SmartCompany

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