Interview with David Johnson '98, Founder and CEO of Atlas Digital Solutions

Interview by Howie Rhee '04 on March 9, 2011

Tell us about your time at Duke.  What were you involved in, what did you study, and were you involved in anything entrepreneurial?
I love Duke.  I had a phenomenal college experience and, looking back, made huge strides in personal growth and maturity as well as incredible, lasting friendships while at Duke.  
In my attempt to create a business degree, something not otherwise offered at the undergraduate level, I majored in Psychology and received a certificate in Markets and Management.  During my time at Duke, there was little focus on entrepreneurship in the offered curriculum or in extra-curricular activities. Personally, however, I made an effort to dapple in entrepreneurship through various ventures during my summers.  Since I was an undergraduate, it is clear that Duke has come a long way in terms of the entrepreneurial offerings, both at the undergraduate level as well as across the graduate programs, and it is exciting to see this vision and focus by the University for the future.    
Tell us about your career before business school.
I received some very good advice from my father to start my career path in sales.  Sales was critical for my professional development because everyone sells, regardless of the type of product (be it hard goods, services, themselves).  It was the best, and the most brutal, profession that I could have chosen.  Being a young guy (who looked even younger) and selling to experienced executives, who knew much more about the technology solutions that I was attempting to sell than I did, made a lasting impact.  As anyone who has tried working in sales knows well, it is sink or swim, so I very quickly learned the power of knowledge, confidence and becoming a semi-expert in the relevant field.  Still, one of the most important things that I learned is that sales is a learned skill that can continually be improved upon.
You went to business school from 2002-2004.  What were your goals in getting the MBA?
I had the passion to start my own business but understood that my skill set required some fine-tuning.  After seriously considering the tuition and opportunity cost, I went to business school with the mentality that it was (1) a job and (2) a launching pad to start my entrepreneurial career.  Once at business school, I focused on finance and strategy, met a lot of great people and positioned myself with the skills and confidence to go out on my own.   
Tell us about Atlas Digital Solutions.  How did you decide to start it?
I co-founded Atlas Digital Solutions (Atlas) in 2005.  Our company provides a comprehensive portfolio of fully-managed solutions that support low latency access to data, enterprise storage, business continuity, disaster recovery and the absolute protection of critical data to satisfy the compliance needs of our customers.  Our core clients are diversified across the financial, insurance, legal and healthcare industries.
Like most entrepreneurs, I saw an opportunity.  A friend started and built a great physical information management company with over 2,000 clients that focused on the storage and protection of critical documents and server tape backups.  My concept was to provide a digital information backup solution to his clients before someone else did it for him building on the notion that, if they trusted him with one type of information, we should be able to transfer that trust to another medium.  It took a lot of research and time convincing an established and successful businessman (yet another challenge I met with the tools I learned while working in sales) to move away from his core business but he is very happy and thankful he made the move. 
It is worth noting that the entrepreneur’s path is rarely straight and we are no exception as we have had to make dramatic shifts in service offerings to succeed.  That, however, is an entirely different question and interview.
A lot of Duke students debate whether to get work experience (and an MBA) before starting a company.  What advice would you give to students?
Many of my friends felt they had the necessary skills to develop their careers and an MBA would have been a drain on their financial and time resources (time being the two years away from working up the corporate ladder).  I would suggest that the student think long and hard about his or her career goals to identify if there are certain skills or types of knowledge that the student would need to accomplish those goals and whether those things are better acquired through work-experience or in the academic environment. 
Unfortunately, this is a complex and very personal decision with a certain amount of unavoidable risk – there is no easy answer.   
Many Duke students want to live in Washington DC, but more often we see students drawn to Silicon Valley to start a company.  What's your observation of DC (and Northern Virginia) as an area for students to be entrepreneurial?
My wife, Alexandra, (also a Duke grad) and I went to Georgetown together for our respective graduate school training and we had a tremendous opportunity to immerse ourselves in the community, both socially and professionally.  We both really enjoyed our time in the DC area and found it a helpful stepping stone to our ultimate career goals.  The DC community, including Northern Virginia, has made a significant investment to develop and foster an entrepreneurial environment.  In addition, many local entrepreneurs give back by teaching at the local schools and volunteering with local startups, which helps others take that leap of faith. 
Anything else you'd like to say to students?

Starting your own company is an extremely emotional process that lends itself to incredible highs and inevitable lows.  Neither of these things could have been replicated in a corporate environment and both have been critical to fueling my drive for Atlas’ success and my passion for my company.   For that reason, I would highly recommend every entrepreneur have, form or actively seek out some type of support structure (whether a significant other, business partner or fellow entrepreneur). 
The other great and simple piece of advice that I received before starting Atlas that I would pass on is that "There is no big secret.  Success will follow hard work and great relationships."  Bottom line:  if you want it badly enough and have the resolve, you can succeed as an entrepreneur. 

Read more profiles of Duke alumni entrepreneurs.  Click here