Interview with Jason Cohen (WP Engine)
WP Engine provides premium WordPress hosting for clients of any size.
I interviewed Jason Cohen, WP Engine co-founder and CEO to find out more. This interview is the sixty first in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Jason for the interview!
How would you describe WP Engine in under 50 words?
WP Engine is the premiere managed WordPress hosting platform. Our sites are speedy, even under massive traffic loads, and guaranteed secure. And our support staff is knowledgeable about WordPress.
You host over 30,000 websites, when did WP Engine begin to gain traction?
I had three dozen customers before I had a product, a team, a website, or even a company name, so in that sense “traction” came before the product. We’ve grown every month since inception, and the growth *rate* has also grown every month, so there wasn’t a specific point where we suddenly had traction.
As a premium host, you use top of the line hardware and provide expert support. What else differentiates you from other web hosting companies?
(1) We’re the fastest, as measured by Pingdom, a 3rd-party service.
(2) We have larger sites than anyone except WordPress VIP, which means we know how to scale better than almost anyone.
(3) We guarantee security, in the sense that if you’re ever hacked, we’ll un-hack you for free.
(4) We have more WordPress-knowledgeable tech support staffers per 1000 customers than anyone, which means we have the time to solve your special problems.
(5) We’re the only hosting company who lets you try us for 15 days, free.
(6) We’re the only hosting company with an investment from Automattic, which doesn’t automatically mean we’re better, and doesn’t mean we’re “favored” — Automattic is great about NOT favoring any one vendor — but it does mean we have the support and assistance of all the smart folks there to help us make the best service we can.
(7) We give you a staging area where you can test changes to your site before making them live.
You didn’t start WP Engine until you had 30 people saying they WILL give you $49/month. What are some of the other ways you can validate a business model before starting up?
Personally that’s the only method I like.
If you can’t find people who are willing to part with money, you don’t have a business, you have an idea that might be cool and might someday become a business. But that’s not validation! That’s a stab.
Even if you want to do the freemium model, it’s not a business unless some of them convert to paying customers, so you need to validate that *those* people exist.
You closed $1.2 million in funding November 2011. Why did you decide to fund WP Engine after bootstrapping previous startups?
WP Engine started self-funded (really a small set of folks who knew each other — not at all a formal “round”) and we got profitable in 7 months. We hired two people and got profitable again in another 6 months.
At that point we could have just grown at a certain rate and been profitable, or we could have double-downed and see whether we can grow much faster, but with the cash resources to do that with a better and better service and more offerings. We decided that would be interesting, fun, and warranted.
Either path would be a rational choice.
What do you make of startups like CloudFlare which are improving performance and security on low cost shared hosting for free?
I love CloudFlare and similar companies. The more options people have for more fast, scalable, and secure sites, the better.
Fortunately we’re partners, not competitors, with those companies. In fact we push people to use CloudFlare all the time.
The reason is that these things — speed and security — are a never-ending battle where every piece along the stack matters. Having a CDN matters, but CloudFlare only puts about 50% of your static content on their CDN, so having our CDN makes a big difference. And CloudFlare doesn’t cache HTML, whereas we deliver it on average in 70ms, so that’s a big difference in page-load time. But CloudFlare has some cool tools for on-page optimizations that we don’t provide, and that helps too.
Same with security. CloudFlare blocks a bunch of stuff — that’s awesome, why not use it? But what if other people on your shared hosting environment get hacked, and the hacker gets into YOUR site? Happens all the time. So you need security from your hosting provider too.
So again, it’s not that any of these services are “bad,” it’s just that none of us — including WP Engine — is complete, and the more stuff you have the better (to some limit).
What are some of the challenges you face as CEO on a day to day basis?
Currently it’s getting myself unbound from daily operations. I built the original architecture so I’m still involved in that, for example, but I shouldn’t be still logging into boxes to download a log file.
We’re growing fast — adding several new employees a month — so my challenge is to stay ahead of that, help train everyone, and get away from being required for any one task.
Of course the goal isn’t to become idle! But rather, to have the freedom to work on whatever project is most valuable, or even jump in on an emergency, rather than already being bound to lots of tasks.
Does WP Engine have any big features in the pipeline?
Tons! Part of the rapid staff-up is to get the mental bandwidth to do strategic work.
We already have portal.wpengine.com where WordPress consultants can manage multiple blogs, but it’s just an MVP right now and needs lots of features.
We’ve built a self-serve snapshot/rollback mechanism which is awesome, but next we’re going to connect that with Github so you actually have “Heroku for WordPress.”
There’s a bunch of other things too!
You’ve started four companies, all profitable. Your last exit was Smart Bear, which you bootstrapped to millions of dollars in profit and sold in 2007. Are your exit days over or are you working towards an acquisition with WP Engine?
I don’t believe it’s healthy to “work towards an acquisition” even if you want one.
In my experience the best way to get a valuable exit is to build a solid company that’s growing fast, with an undeniably awesome product (the market says so) and team (obvious from cursory interactions), and with good profit margins. Bonus is the growth rate appears independent from any external factors (e.g. remains a smooth curve even with economic issues, competitors appearing, employees leaving, etc).
Of course that’s because that’s a healthy company! Which you don’t even have to sell. And which is awesome to work for. Which is why it’s the most valuable.
One of your investors is founder and CEO of DreamHost, Josh Jones. How did Josh get involved? Is there any conflict of interest?
He got involved because we hired away one of his top WordPress support guys! :-)
Josh is awesome and has already been very helpful. Although it may appear that we’re competitors, in fact the segment of the market where we overlap is small, and even then our two value propositions are quite different.
What failures have you had as a startup founder?
This is a loaded question, but I’m asked it during almost every interview.
On the one hand of course I fail all the time. Constantly. At everything from handling personal situations to marketing campaigns to dealing with a customer to engineering choices. You name it.
On the other hand, all my companies have been successful, so it’s disingenuous for me to really talk about failures because the reader has to think “yeah but it can’t have been that bad.”
The key is to make your experiments, your tests, such that it’s not too expensive to run and you’re keeping your *honest* eyes open to whether it’s working. Then you can correct failures before they’re fatal.
For example I had a “great” company idea (before WP Engine) which I did customer development on for two months and finally decided it was not great. Being honest about the fact that my baby was in fact ugly kept me from wasting more than two months on it.
Your blog has over 30,000 subscribers, do you have any examples of opportunities that have been created from A Smart Bear?
People think a blog gets you customers — it doesn’t.
It does get you influence and connections, which means for example when I raised money I built a dream-team of investors.
It also gets you credibility, which I use for hiring. Working for WP Engine means working with me, and if (that’s a big if!) you read the blog and LIKE what you see and want to pick up this stuff by osmoses, then this is a great opportunity, and we can pick up talent who of course has many other options.
It also gives you an overinflated ego, if you can’t already tell, which I have to work at not clouding my life.
Can you convince the reader to move their WordPress site to WP Engine in under 50 words?
For $29/mo, why wouldn’t you get access to awesome tech support, a super-fast site (so people don’t bounce off and SERPs go up) and don’t worry about your site going down when you get great press? Since you can try free for 15 days, see for yourself.
Finished reading? Check out WP Engine!