Interview with Bryan Muthig, CEO and co-founder of A2 Hosting
There are a few hosting companies with a truly technical foundation. Many people start hosting companies established by entrepreneurs, but not many of those companies are established by those with the true chops to hack a Linux server...or to bring one up from the dead. That's why it was a pleasure speaking with Bryan Muthig, CEO of A2 Hosting, who comes from the world of systems administration and now is CEO of one of the most tech-savvy hosting platforms out there.
Can you tell us about how A2 Hosting started as company?
My background is as a UNIX systems administrator. Together with my original business partner, a developer, A2 Hosting began as a hobby business when we started hosting for friends and family in 2001. We pretty much grew organically from there. We put up a website a few years later once we decided to expand and stumbled upon search engine optimization which helped us get customers we didn't know. We were one of the first hosting companies, if not the first, to support PHP 5 with cPanel. This differentiated us and our technical backgrounds made us focused as a hosting company. We found other channels as well, and in 2006, my partner and I were able to start working full-time in the business. A few years after that, I ended up buying out my business partner. After that, I decided I was really going to dedicate myself to growing the business further. That's what we've been doing for the past 8 years.
Can you tell us a bit more about A2 Hosting?
We are a hosting company with a strong technical focus. As we've grown, we've added a lot of non-technical elements as well such as good customer service, and are continuing to work on improving our customer experience. Certainly, one of my passions is the technology. That flows into some of the next few questions you have, too. That really is what our differentiator is, in not offering standard commodity hosting. We developed a backend system to be as fast as possible. For example, our turbo hosting package includes caching technologies that most shared hosting providers don't offer: memcached, OpCache, and APC. All our servers are SSD, RAID-10. We offer at minimum 12 cores, 64GB of RAM and 10gbit networks. From the ground up, we wanted to know how to make things as fast as possible, not cutting corners.
The second thing is that we've also tested everything to make sure it is faster than our competitors. The SSD updates created significantly faster load times. When you add APC, OPcache, and the other technologies, it cuts PHP execution time in half on average. TurboCache is on par with a Varnish caching solution, but much simpler for customers to setup and use. We've also developed a one-click solution for many applications to make this easier to enable for those who prefer not to do it themselves.
We also studied the software configurations that go into making the software work. Having the platform is great, but if you're not tuning the applications to take advantage the technologies, it won't do you much good. The A2 Optimized plugin is one of our technologies, a cPanel plugin that lets you turn on these plugins in the applications themselves by just clicking a button. This is all available for the biggest applications we host (WordPress, Drupal, Magento, Joomla, Prestashop, OpenCart) with just a click. You don't have to know what the settings are or what to do - we've programmed it to optimize for you. When you do the auto-install that we provide, it's already turned on. The technology we created pre-configures these apps to be optimized for performance and security. Our default WordPress install includes CAPTCHA and plugins like W3 Total Cache that are also preconfigured for our specific hosting environment. Of course, if you prefer a stock install, that is also available as a one-click installation and then you can configure it however you prefer yourself.
What exactly is the SwiftServer platform, and what makes it better than other platforms?
It's the all encompassing name for the platform we developed, all the way from the network, hardware, and through to the application stack and our various caching technologies we employ. The TurboCache option takes all the processing off the web server. Page loads that are up to 20x faster than if they executed the PHP, hit the database, queried the data, and delivered the website.
What has gone into the selection of the datacenters that A2 Hosting uses to serve its clients?
We started off in Michigan and most of our servers are in local data centers. We look for great connectivity and are a few milliseconds from Chicago, a major Internet exchange point. Having a lot of bandwidth and being centrally located is big. We also base our selection on security, redundant power, UPS, diesel generators, and climate control. At the end of the day, we aim for stability. Similarly, we use Equinix datacenters in Singapore and Amsterdam, offering high bandwidth connectivity at major Internet exchange points.
Can you tell us a bit about the types of clients you serve, and where they are typically based?
We have a growing global presence, but the majority of users are in the US and Canada. We've seen a lot of growth in Europe and Asia, and even growth in India since we have a Singapore datacenter. We have 24/7 support so we can support all those European and Asian customers just as well as our US customers.
We tend to find that a lot of our customers are looking for that "next level hosting experience." We get "new to hosting" folks, and we offer some nice things such as preinstalled and preconfigured WordPress. We weren't targeting that when we developed it but it ended up being a really nice feature for customers who just want it working out of the box. Primarily, a lot of our customers are coming from EIG and other brands and are sick of slow servers, slow support, and not being able to have technically oriented customer support and company culture. We're very tech savvy. We get what customers are trying to do and we've built a platform to basically beat the pants off of our competitors as far as performance and load speed is concerned. If you want to make sure your site's up, stable, and loads quickly, that's what we bring to the table - that's definitely our strongest differentiator and we have the data to prove it. We've tracked site load times before and after migrations from competitors and over 90% of the time we see a significant improvement in load times once they are on our platform.
How would you say you first built momentum, and how do you continue to grow in the hosting space for visibility and awareness?
A long time ago, SEO was the biggest part of it. Affiliate channels are another area we've definitely been growing significantly as we built brand awareness. We've been around a long time and have been under the radar perhaps due to the fact that we're so technical in nature and less marketing in nature, which is why we recently hired our VP of Marketing to get our brand out there. It's also been through partnerships--partnering with software providers and developing those to get in front of their customers as well. Word of mouth has also been a big part of it as we have grown and customers see the huge improvements we bring to their sites.
Love your A+ BBB rating! How do you maintain such high standards for customer service? What is the culture that is fostered in the company?
We try to make sure that we're customer focused in all of our departments. We always try to maintain high standards. For our support department, we have implemented performance reporting so that we can see how things are going and customer feedback is a big part of that. Having a more technical culture tends to draw good talent as well. Our support team and sysadmins are generally tech people. First and foremost, I'm a tech person myself, not a suit. It's really culture. Having that as a base makes a lot of other things work better. Ultimately, it's all about having good people, the right people, and doing your best to treat them well.
Where are your offices situated and how many employees are at your company?
We have over 50 employees now and are hiring rapidly to keep up with our growth. We're based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That's where the name A2 originates from.
We have support members throughout the United States, but most are based in Michigan. We go into the office for staff meetings, sprint reviews and planning. All of our developers, engineers, and sysadmins are local.
What does it take for someone to turn themselves from System Administrator to company CEO?
Well starting your own company means you get to be CEO, so that's one quick way to start! My journey has been very interesting. I would call myself an accidental entrepreneur, being that we organically grew into this business. Like anything, you don't know what you don't know until you go out and decide to learn. I wanted to learn the ins and outs of the business world and marketing and other areas I wasn't familiar with. That means going outside of your comfort zone. That journey started for me about 5 years ago when we had this nice small business and we were 10-15 employees. I didn't have the business background to understand how to handle the growing pains, so I had to admit that I didn't know what I was doing when it came to management and basically said "I'm going to go and going to learn. I'm going to meet people who have done it before and learn from them." I joined Entrepreneur's Organization, a group of other entrepreneurs. For several years, I learned from others and through their experiences, but also did a lot of reading. This, coupled with my own experiences, got me to the point to leveraging that to accelerating our growth from 10 employees to 50+.
If someone today contacted you about creating a website, what would you tell them to sign up with?
WordPress is a great platform to start off with. It's definitely our biggest platform that we sell. Start off with a pre-installed, pre-configured A2 Optimized WordPress base to start from, pick a theme, pick some extra plugins if you need them, and go from there.
Do you have advice for people wanting to start their own companies?
Learn your industry. Learn your market and read everything you can about business. Many entrepreneurs know what they are good at but are not necessarily business people. It really does require a change of your mindset so be open to that. I was very naive for a very long time, but I think it's important to get out there, network, learn from others, learn from books, learn from trade magazines, and really figure out exactly what the environment is that you're getting yourself into, because there are people who know a lot more than you and who can point you in the right direction.
Are you finding people becoming more interested in SSD and Cloud technologies? How is A2 Hosting responding to these?
We were one of the first hosting companies to go SSD. That was one of our big turning points about 3 years ago, making the decision to start offering SSD. It was very expensive but worth every penny for our customers. There was a huge improvement in speed, performance, server reliability, and we made that part of our SwiftServer platform. SSDs are better than previous hard drive technology in every way, shape or form. It's helped make our uptime, reliability, and our performance incredible.
As far as cloud technology is concerned, yes, we've seen people interested in that as well. There are some performance issues to be aware of when using cloud technologies. That seems to be the dirty little secret of hypervisor based virtual servers that nobody really tells customers. We are moving back to bare metal and cloud container based technology because it offers most of the benefits of virtualization without the performance hit. It's important that the cloud provider you choose has really developed the full stack. It really needs to be developed from the bottom up for high performance--those are the things we've been working on for the past couple of years, so when we come out with new technologies, we're not losing that performance.
Are you finding much of a challenge in terms of DDOS, and if so, how are you managing these?
DDOS is definitely a problem for everybody out there. We've had our share of attacks as well. We have a DDOS protected network tool and we're always working on improving that. It's become a bigger problem in the last 2 years in terms of the size of DDOS that can sometimes cause network problems, but we have the solutions in place to help mitigate those. We continually work to improve those tools.
What are your plans for the next 5 years?
Keep growing and enjoy the ride! We're going to be expanding and extending our cloud container platform. We also want to continue to make sure that we're keeping up with the fastest performance possible in the hosting environment. We're also interested in making sure that we're helping customers manage applications so that they don't have to worry about configuring things. Things should just work out of the box!
One of the pushes we want to make is really going international. We opened the other data centers this past year and we're working right now on internationalization of our website and supporting international customers better.
Is there anything else you think our readers need to know?
One of the more important things is that we're a founder-owned company, which drives a culture of innovation and pushing for a positive customer experience above just the bottom line. Having myself there to drive the important things as a company and being able to live that on a daily basis gives us an edge over the bigger and more established hosting companies that don't have that luxury anymore given their size and ownership.