The Art of the WordPress Startup: Part 15

Scalable Hosting

This post is part 15 of a series on how to launch your startup on WordPress. Last time I talked about what to look for in a co-founder and how to find one. This time we’ll talk about how to start out with scalable hosting infrastructure and not let that aspect of your business end up being your achilles’ heel.

Don’t End Up Like Achilles

In Greek mythology, when Achilles was a baby, it was predicted that he would die young. To prevent his death, his mother Thetis took him to a river named Styx, which offered powers of invulnerability, and she dipped his body into the water. But because she held Achilles by his heel, it was never washed over by the magical waters. Achilles grew up to be a warrior who survived lots of great battles. However one day a poisonous arrow lodged into his heel, killing him swiftly. Many startups are just like Achilles in the sense that they have everything going for them but one major area of weakness. Their hosting infrastructure and ability to scale. In fact, it’s so common of a problem that many startups have popped up to address it yet it still happens all the time.


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Why Does This Happen?

It seems pretty obvious to worry about the scalability of your hosting and infrastructure but when you’re a startup founder it’s easy to skip over this critical step. You’re excited to launch and hosting seems boring. You’re focused on your product and customers. Maybe you’ve built stuff for clients or small applications that were more like hobbies and had fun/success doing it. But have you ever built a really popular application with a million plus users? If the answer is no then you likely need to slow down for a minute and think long and hard about how well your setup will scale. Don’t let startup excitement and euphoria cloud your judgement.

The Short Answer

The way to solve this problem is like any other such as retirement or figuring out how to put your kids through college. Don’t wing it, and instead plan ahead. Ask yourself specific hard questions… are you prepared for an immediate swarm of 100,000 visitors if you hit the homepage of Huffington Post? Are you prepared for your BuddyPress social network to have 100,000 users at a time pinging your DB like crazy? What does your infrastucture look like at 10,000 users, 100,000 users, 1,000,000 users and maybe even 100,000,000? Start drafting a plan so you have the pieces in place, whether they be experts in scalability or hardware resources.

The Long Answer

The pragmatic way to tackle this is to assume your startup is going to blow up in the media, and then figure out a way to get affordable infrastructure and systems in place now that can scale up to handle that. That means regular shared hosting is probably out. It doesn’t scale very well, and migrating to dedicated hardware is a pain; there’s potential for downtime, and most shared hosting caps your # of “workers” which means your users will get timeout errors or the site might go down if you’re getting serious traction.

Now going out and leasing a cluster of servers for $5000/mo on your credit card is what the poor folks in the olden days had to do. When I talk to people who founded companies in the late 90s and early 2000s and they tell me what their infrastructure costs were I literally can’t believe it. There wasn’t “virtualization”, “grids”, “containers”, or any of this other cool stuff. It was go big or go home. Fortunately a lot has changed since then.

Your best bet is to start out with a VPS with a dedicated DB. By having a VPS for WordPress, you have enough dedicated resources and horsepower to handle the traffic waves you’ll get starting out. Combined with a dedicated DB it’ll take you confidently up into the low 7 figures in terms of visitors. Because you have a dedicated DB, you can then scale that up along with your VPS resources so that they can grow together. Amazon is the most popular place to host for scalability these days, and for good reason. If you’re built on top of WordPress then we’re an excellent choice since we’re layered over top of them. If your startup isn’t built on WordPress then you can use something like Heroku, which makes Amazon more user friendly. Running direct on Amazon isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Their pricing calculator alone is enough to make most non-sys admins want to faint.

Full Series — Click here to see all articles in this series.