Dan Thompson comes from a farming background and has been working as an online entrepreneur since the late 1990s. Paula Brett trained and worked as a successful TV, Radio and Theatre actress for a number of years before moving abroad to sample life in a different country, running a restaurant and nightclub. How exactly did such diverse paths cross, and lead to a partnership in the UK web hosting firm D9 Hosting?
While Dan Thompson and Paula Brett were always confident D9 Hosting could become a successful small business, they could never have predicted the growth that was to follow. D9 Hosting has gone from having a handful of local web design clients, to hosting tens of thousands of websites for clients in over 50 countries. Dan Thompson took the time to describe a bit about what goes on behind the scenes at D9, and what he and Paula have learned during their years of webhosting.
HJ) D9 Hosting prides itself on its unlimited plans: unlimited domains, space, bandwidth- You’ve said that D9 began out of frustration at available hosting providers. Were arbitrary usage caps a part of that?
Dan: When we first started D9 Hosting back in 2007 “Unlimited” hosting plans were very much in their infancy and yet to saturate the market as they do today. Some of the bigger players back in the day were starting to drift towards the “Unlimited” model, but rather than selling the Disk Space and bandwidth as “Unlimited” they would put huge, unrealistic, arbitrary usage caps on the Disk Space and Bandwidth, but in the main, most of the Web Hosts that we were looking to compete with still had realistic usage caps.
Our frustration with providers didn’t come from their Disk Space and Bandwidth limits, but with the network quality and customer service that we were receiving from them. Servers and networks would be going down on a weekly basis and the most basic of Customer Service requests would go unanswered for days. We figured that if these companies were able to get business by providing a shoddy service, then surely we’d be able to take some customers from them if we could provide a more stable hosting experience with top quality customer support.
Going back to the arbitrary usage part of the question, when we originally launched D9 Hosting we did so with just a single hosting plan. Rather than try to cover every aspect of the market (Shared, Reseller, VPS, Dedicated, etc) we provided a single Shared Hosting plan aimed at your average home or small business user and decided to focus all of our efforts on making that one plan the best it could possibly be. It allowed the customer to host unlimited domains on the one account (which was very much out of the norm back in 2007!) and provided them with 2 GB of disk space and 20 GB of bandwidth.
For the first couple of years this proved to be very successful, but as time moved on more and more of the bigger hosting players were moving to the “Unlimited” hosting model, and we found that whilst customers were more than happy with our service, a lot of them were leaving to these bigger “Unlimited” hosts as they were in the belief that they were going to be receiving a lot more resources than we were providing them with.
So in mid-2009 we took the tricky decision to join the competition in moving to the “Unlimited” business model. And whilst I’m sure many of your readers will turn up their nose at such a model, I think it’s important for any business to be able to adapt to market conditions and do what is needed to keep with the times. I can honestly say if we didn’t move to the “Unlimited” model when we did, then we may not be in business today.
HJ) Speaking of beginnings, D9 doesn’t have the most typical backstory. How exactly did the two of you become business partners, and what sparked the transition to webhosting?
Dan: Paula and I have known each other since late 2004. We actually met on an Internet Marketing forum where we were both Administrators.
Paula was working from home selling books on eBay whilst looking after her two young children, and I had just finished 4 years at College doing a Higher National Diploma in Business Information Technology. We were both looking for something different to do in the way of a job, and found ourselves on the previously Mentioned Internet Marketing forum providing basic Web Design and Script Installation Services to members who were uncomfortable with the technical side of things - this is where we both got our first taste of the terrible service that some Hosting Providers were able to get away with!
Providing our own Web Hosting Service was something we had often spoken about whilst we were both finding it hard going dealing with uncooperative Web Hosts and in 2007 we decided to put our heads together and go for it.
At the time (and still to this day), the entry costs to the Web Hosting market were very low, it’s not unrealistic to say that anybody sat in their bedroom today with a spare $100 could go out and start their own Web Hosting business….that’s not to say they should, but it’s very low risk financially, so we decided we had nothing to lose and in the Summer of 2007 D9 Hosting was born!
HJ) We like to get a feel for corporate philosophy in these profiles- what goes into leading a company and growing a business. What would you say is the corporate philosophy of D9 Hosting?
Dan: Our philosophy is the same today as it was back in 2007 – provide the best levels of service that you possibly can. If you can provide better levels of service than the competition then you should be able to not only take customers from them, but also retain them as clients for years to come.
HJ) What does the future hold for D9? In your bios, it mentions that you could’ve never predicted the runaway success of the site. Are there big plans for growth in the future?
Dan: I’m always slightly nervous when I hear about companies in any sector that come out with phrases like “big plans for future growth”. I think a lot of companies try and grow too big too quickly and whilst it may result in a nice cash windfall for the directors it normally goes hand in hand with service levels deteriorating.
This is very much the case in the Hosting World, almost overnight you could see who you previously thought were rock solid providers getting a lot of negative feedback about service levels deteriorating and in the main, this is due to those providers not having the infrastructure (in terms of network and/or staffing) to be able to cope with the big growth that they’ve been aiming for.
With D9 Hosting we have seen a more gradual growth over the years, mainly due to our high customer retention rate along with word of mouth getting out about the quality of the service we can provide. Whilst we are obviously a lot bigger than we when first started out, the gradual customer base growth has allowed us to gradually grow our own infrastructure at the same pace which has helped us to grow without sacrificing service levels.
I’m a firm believer in “if it aint broke, don’t fix it”, so our plans for the future are simply to keep doing what we are doing!
HJ) Another topic HostJury focuses on is consolidation. D9 is a sizeable host in its own regard, but some of the biggest names in hosting are acquiring like there’s no tomorrow. Is this a possibility for D9? If not, what makes independence so important to you two and your team?
Dan: Whilst it’s very kind of you to suggest it, I’d say it’s highly unlikely we’ll be getting a $300m takeover offer any time soon!
Neither myself nor Paula have any current plans to part ways with D9 Hosting, we still enjoy the day to day running of the company and would struggle to find something else to pass the time; I’d pick helping a client with an obscure Server issue over sipping Cocktails on a Beach any day….probably!!
It’s not so much the independence that is important to us, but more the knowing that you have built something from the ground up that has gone on to be a success. It’s almost like having your own child and watching it grow over the years; sometimes you’ll love it and sometimes you’ll hate it but it’s ultimately still your creation and it’d be very difficult to give it away to someone else!
HJ) We’d like to hear a little bit about each of your histories with hosting. Can you pinpoint an individual success that has really stayed with you throughout your career?
Dan: I think it would have to be the very first sale we ever made. When we first started out we honestly didn’t know if we’d ever get a single customer so when we both saw that first sale come in we were over the moon.
I actually kept the “Order Confirmation” email we received from that very first order, it came in on the 13th May 2007 and it was for the grand total of $35.85. If that sale didn’t come in, then who knows what we would both be doing today.
HJ) And in that vein, can you share an example of a failure or a setback that you learned an important lesson from?
Dan: I can think of quite a lot! If you’re going to start your own business then setbacks are one thing you need to accept, it doesn’t matter how good you are, how much planning you have in place, eventually something will happen to give you a good old kick in the nuts!
I can think of a few fairly big hardware failures we’ve had over the years, but these are par for the cause in the Hosting world and you do end up learning a lot from them, but the one thing that I think set us back more than anything was taking advice from a 3rd party when I knew in my head that it was really the wrong thing to do.
I can’t remember the exact year, but it was probably sometime around 2010 and we were having issues with our then Datacenter, so we were looking to move elsewhere.
When doing the costing for a move we found that a lot of our servers were underutilized and we were advised we would save quite a lot of money in both hardware and licensing costs if we were to virtualize our servers.
So for the example, if we previously had 12 servers all underutilized, we’d purchase 3 or 4 powerful nodes and move those 12 servers into a Virtualized environment.
At that point my experience with Virtualized environments was quite limited, but I knew enough to see that we would potentially run into CPU bottleneck issues.
I voiced my concerns to our “expert” but was reassured things would be fine, but almost from the word go we were seeing performance issues with the new set up that no amount of server tweaking was going to fix. This, coupled with the “expert” miscalculating how much disk space each of these Virtualized environments would need meant that for the first time in our history, we didn’t actually feel comfortable taking on new customers since we didn’t have the infrastructure in place to deliver the level of service we wanted.
We soon ditched the Virtualization and moved all customers back onto Dedicated Hardware but this whole process set us back a good 6 months, if not more.
The lesson learned is to always trust your own judgement, by all means take advice from others but at the end of the day it’s your business that is on the line, so you need to be the one making the final decisions.
HJ) What advice would you give to a pair of young webhosts starting their venture today?
Dan: Try to be different!
The hosting market today is much more saturated than when we first started out, so it’s much harder to get your foot in the door so you’d need to come up with something to make you stand out from the competition.
As I mentioned in a previous answer, when we first started out we allowed customers to host unlimited domains on the one hosting account and whilst it’s very common now, back in 2007 we were one of only a few hosts to offer it and it made us stand out.
So it’s all about finding that USP that would give you the edge over all the other hosts out there. It’s also worth keeping up with the latest trends.
Take Minecraft as an example, when the bubble hit there was big demand for Minecraft Hosting Services, those that got in quickly managed to build up a good customer base in a relatively short amount of time. I personally think the Minecraft ship has already sailed, but who knows what could be lurking around the corner!
So just how does a background in farming or acting and media prepare one for the world of webhosting? Possibly it doesn’t. For Dan and Paula, the road may have had it share of twists and turns but it was never just about the destination. Rather the journey itself that was important.