Building Page.ly Part1: Identifying the opportunity
This is the first of a mulitpart part series where we aim to share with you some of the technical aspects of what powers the Managed WordPress Hosting system we developed here at page.ly, how we started, the recent server improvements and a bit on the things to come.
Way back in the internet dark ages; like pre-twitter Sally and I owned and operated a web consultancy shop in Phoenix Arizona. We served all manner of clients with your typical fare of web related services like site design (remember dreamweaver?), SEO, light programming and the like. Around late 2005 we started using WordPress to deploy client sites on. Even in the early days WordPress v1.2 showed promise of what it has since become.
Sally saw the time we were putting into custom sites and always wondered why it took so long. What she said in her words were : “I thought you guys just clicked a few buttons and added some images and the website appeared, why can’t it be that easy”. Well she was a prophet.
As our business grew and we started going upmarket, charging 10’s of thousands of dollars vs hundreds of dollars we were having to say no to our early clients that were coming back for more work. One day Sally overheard me on the phone telling the 3rd or 4th client that day “Sorry we just cannot do this work at that rate any more” and she said “Josh you said no to a few thousand dollars today, we are leaving money on the table”.
Identifying the opportunity.
So there it was, an opportunity staring us in the face. How can we still serve these lower-paying customers profitably? We had to automate, give them the power to build the website themselves. Page.ly v0.0 was born, or as was known then Flare9.com.
We did our market research and saw no one else in the space. As in, no one else had anything looking like an automated software-as-a-service approach to managing WordPress.org sites. There were consultants clicking buttons for people, but flare9 was the first of it’s kind WordPress Software-as-a-Service.
Under the hood of v0.0.
The first crack at our managed WordPress hosting solution was code written by our employee at the time Joshua Eichorn (now Director of Engineering at Stumbleupon and one of the most talented programmers I have ever worked with). He bootstrapped a slick little system that would intake and bill orders, send them over a socket connection to our ‘installer’ library which then ran around moving files, creating databases and restarting apache.
At the time we were using the Plesk hosting panel on all our web servers and we tapped into the Plesk SOAP API to handle much of the vhost and db config for us. The server was a simple dual core xeon hosted at EV1 (now defunct). A run down of the basics.
- 1 Server doing everything (PHP, MySql, Email, etc.)
- Simple code library written in the then brand new Code Igniter framework
- Used the Plesk SOAP API for vhost configs
- There were no ‘caching’ plugins
- There was no http acceleration like Varnish or Nginx
- No firewalls
- We did not use memcache, or APC
- Just php4, mysql, and apache
- No automatic WordPress or Plugin upgrades
- Real basic file and database backups.
It works, now how do we find customers?
The provisioning system worked pretty well and over the course of 2-3 months in late 2006 we had 40 or 50 paying customers. The “hosting” part was easy.
Ultimately the marketing was hard as this was pre-social media and the heyday of Google PPC. And of course no one knew what WordPress was. We simply had a real difficult time getting anyone to notice outside of our local business community. After a couple months we turned off active signups, and moved on to other things.
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So in 2009 with the economy in a skid and me being really tired of doing client work we decided to revisit this idea, we even had 70-80% of those old customers still faithfully paying their monthly fees. We started rewriting the code base and chose a better name and got to work on what would become Page.ly.
- Part 1 : Identifying the opportunity
- Part 2 : Managed WordPress Hosting
- Part 3 : Early Scaling and Security
- Part 4 : Scalable and Fast Managed WordPress Hosting
- Part 5 : Growing forward