It’s been just over two years since I signed my first web hosting client in October of 2015 and a lot has happened since then. Saying that 2017 was a bizarre year is putting it as lightly as saying Zack Snyder may have botched Batman v Superman somewhat. In the microcosm of my own economy it’s actually been a very fruitful, productive year
Starting Off Strong
2017 kicked off with the usual flurry of post-holiday leads, sales pitches and in person meeting but I noticed something that was different. I had far more meetings scheduled this January than I had the prior January. It was my first indication that after the first full year in business this was model that could scale well despite my largely functioning as a one man shop. I mapped out a list of current potential customers and how likely everybody was to sign, and after doing the math, I was already on track to sign clients at nearly a rate that doubled my prior year – a trend that would continue throughout 2017.
I’m a realist, and many of these clients would eventually officially sign with me much later than when they officially said yes or that they were interested, but it nonetheless set things off to a very promising start. Especially now that my first generation of clients had entirely stayed with me past the one-year contract. Throughout the year I had only a few customers cancel their service with me entirely for logistical reasons: One was selling a business, another unfortunately had to close their doors.
This was vindicating to me on a number of levels; I’d been coached and instructed when I first graduated that you needed to have annual lock-in contracts in order to keep businesses as customers. I always found the concept of forced business gauche, and it was good to see that old fashioned means of making customers happy in order to retain their business is still very much alive.
Face To Face Marketing
One cannot live on referrals alone, especially in the web media business. This was also the year where I started getting more regular about what I call “selling without selling.” I had attempted some letter writing and digital campaigns the prior year with some mixed success, so at the time I opted to try something a little different: Simply walking in and offering to leave a card. No selling and no pitching. The first time I did it I was so terrified that I kept frantically wiping sweat from my hands before the enthusiastic store owner shook my hand. Though he eventually did sign on as a client.
The famous “Do one thing every day that scares you” quote from Eleanor Roosevelt stuck out at me from high school, and I opted to follow the advice. So this year I ramped up business card drop-off substantially. It was mostly a matter of luck of the draw; sometimes I spoke to a business owner, other times I just got an employee. A rare few times an employee actually went to find the manager or owner for me.
Most times they politely accepted the card and I thanked them for their time. I’m under no illusion at how many of my cards got lost in paperwork or were simply tossed out, but at least my name was in front of people. A few times they asked me for more information or scheduled a meeting. I had one very rare instance of actually signing someone on the spot. I dropped off hundreds of cards this year and I only had five people decline to take a card. These usually came with caveats; one gentleman barely spoke English, another flat out admitted to me that the store was closing in a month anyway.
As the year went on and I honed my not-selling technique I established some ground rules:
- Never, ever walk in while the store is busy with an actual customer. Even if it’s only one.
- Only start selling when asked. Otherwise, go in and get out; do not waste their time.
- Patronize the business if you can while dropping off a card. If nothing else, even when I never heard back from places I discovered some great lunch spots.
Did I ultimately make thousands of new customers with this method? Of course not, but I signed more than a few amazing customers who I’d have never met otherwise, and the ones that did sign helped supplement my referrals keep the number of prospective customers coming in on a regular basis.
The New and Improved Server
My increasing growth was leading to an issue. By June I was rapidly outrgrowing my limited disk space and bandwidth caps on my shared server with HostGator. At the same time I had long since gotten weary of HostGator. Due to their acquisition by EIG HostGator’s quality bar had plummeted sharply and website loading speed had taken a substantial hit. I had been planning on leaving for a while anyway, but this situation brought a new sense of urgency. I had more customers ready to sign and I was running out of room.
I spent a solid three months vetting prospective web hosts; police detectives conducting murder investigations aren’t as thorough as I was. I had been with HostGator since 2011 and the prospect of moving servers with as many customers as I had at the time was daunting, and if I was going to move I was going to select the right provider. Most importantly, as I outline in that EIG article, I wanted to make absolutely sure I could select a web host that didn’t fall under EIG’s umbrella and wind up as a husk of what it used to be.
InMotion first stood out to me when I conducted my second online chat with them. I had asked them some initial questions and was pleased with them. When I spoke to a new chat rep, he asked for the E-mail I used to first contact them, asked for a moment, and then promptly transferred me to the original chat representative I had spoken with. I’d never seen that happen before; needless to say I was very impressed. InMotion’s reviews were stellar and they hit all the right notes: cPanel usage, independently owned, very professional team and highly recommended by colleagues. Gradually they won me over.
After another week of getting reassurance on the process, I finally pulled the trigger. I placed the order for a dedicated web hosting server through InMotion Hosting, and thanks to the phenomenal work of InMotion as well their instructions, there was zero downtime for any of my clients.
Instead, my new server gave everyone free SSL certificates (saving some of them as much as $150 per year), enough disk space and bandwidth that I was able to offer an unlimited amount to everybody, dramatically faster website speeds (six times faster, going by my timings) and more flexible options for services and security against intrusions. It felt like upgrading from a reliable mid-range car to a Ferrari, and I haven’t looked back.
I even shifted my model somewhat; with a dedicated server I started pitching to businesses with existing websites based on the direct benefits hosting on a dedicated server (free SSL, faster website speed, better search engine placement) and got a surprising number of leads based on this.
Starting in late summer I decided to investment in new equipment and software. Without detailing this too much, business was at a point where I had enough clients that I could justify both hardware and software that improved quality of videoconferences and video tutorials that I was putting out, as well as automating certain features and buying specific software licenses. The short version is that this made me much more productive, and gave me some long overdue tech upgrades.
This had been happening for a while but I realized at this point that business was paying for its own scaling. This was a pretty stark change from my prior business model and a welcome one, and yet another sign that things were on the right track. The fact that my time was no longer tied to my money on a consulting model meant there was much less pressure and that I could devote more time to clients when they needed it without fixating on the clock.
Beefing Up Security
When the holidays rolled around in November I noticed several automated attacks on my web server. Despite my security precautions a few SQL injections got lucky and latched onto a few client cPanels; thankfully the server itself was never put at risk due to the malicious files immediately being quarantined. I had to take a few websites offline; thankfully both clients were understanding and they were both back up within half an hour.
I consulted with InMotion Hosting and other security specialists. One friend in particular noted that some attempted intrusions had come from IP addresses associated with malware bots that specifically targeted large servers with enough websites on them. In other words, I was viewed as “worthy” of attempted hacking in the same way burgulars look at a home and perceive it as being full of valuables to be “worth” robbing.
Another developer also noted – and I suspected this – that attempted intrusions by malware bots skyrocket during the holiday season, where malware bots try to install spammy backlinks to benefit shady web companies. The timing between my server becoming more recognized and the holiday season just created a perfect storm.
Anonymity was no longer a line of defense, so I beefed up security across the board, both on my server and from each website to minimize points of entry. I also developed a much more elaborate backup system that I won’t detail too much.
Just to be on the safe side I reinstalled WordPress and the respective themes the affected client sites were using, and made sure to enforce strong, lengthy passwords. A few clients had to adjust to the much lengthier passwords, but the results were hard to argue with. There were no more successful attacks after that point, and my security scans were quieter than ever.
Part of my reinvestment in business was a more powerful microphone and pop filter to compliment my webcam. On paper it was mostly so I could do Google Video tutorials for clients without relying on wireless signal strength, but it gave me another idea.
I went to Walgreens, bought a Santa hat with an accompanying fake beard and recorded a two minute video thanking everybody for their support at the end of the year. I wasn’t sure how well this would play, but it was an effort to inject a little flavor and be more than a web hosting company. Thankfully nobody questioned my sanity and I got delighted responses from everybody who replied. It’s given me a lot of ideas on how to occasionally fire up clients, not to mention staying in touch with the ones I don’t see as often. In a weird way, my lessons of being a quasi-YouTuber are applying to work and coming full circle.
2018: History Repeats Itself?
When I set out to start this business the idea was to provide the type of small-scale web-based services that a lot of businesses would benefit from without selling extravagant web + marketing + video packages that I see from a lot of marketing and web companies. I also realized that I needed to stand out in a media field as crowded as up and coming YouTubers. I’m constantly gunning for more growth, I’ve taken to heart the words of some of my mentors who remark on the accomplishments of what is essentially a new business. Most businesses fold after a one year – I’ve experienced double-digit growth (if by comparison) instead.
I started 2016 with a single digit batch of clients, and I started 2017 with a more stable if still comparatively small company. In 2017 I have a client foundation that’s much more solid than I would have expected, helped in no small part by a snowballing number of leads. More than anything I can’t thank my current customers enough for your continued support, especially those of you who took a chance on me back in 2015 when I had an empty server to my name and some case studies from my prior work!