Interview with Pavel Guralnik, VP at ISPsystem
ISPsystem is a popular control panel that permeates the global market. They especially built traction where other control panels didn't exist. Today, ISPsystem is a popular company serving markets that seek reliable web management at low costs. It was really interesting to learn about the history of the brand by Pavel Guralnik, who is a VP at the company, and who gave me the low-down on how the company started and what products are served by ISPsystem. It's really good stuff, and you can tell he's passionate about his brand.
Have a read about the story behind ISPsystem.
Can you tell us a bit about the foundation of ISPsystem and how it all came about?
The company was founded in 1997 by a group of enthusiasts. One of those founders, Igor Chekushkin, is still actively with the company, and is the CEO. Back then, the company was 3 people and the only client the company had was a relatively large Russian hosting provider. We created a custom solution for this provider, a web hosting control panel, ISPmanager, which they could offer to their clients, as well as use internally to administer their servers.
As the provider grew, more of their clients were exposed to ISPsystem's product and they loved it. When they changed their services, they wanted ISPmanager, regardless of which provider they went to. So, we started working on making ISPmanager available to everyone, taking it public, and partnering with more and more providers over the years. This, of course, led to the solution becoming more universal.
While working closely with various providers, data centers, we started working on other solutions, enabling our partners to automate various sides and aspects of their infrastructural and operational needs.
Tell us about the software products you provide. I know there are a lot of them.
We're not a typical web server panel provider. We have a line of solutions and focus on hosting automation in general. For the solutions we have, we try to encompass all the needs of the industry ranging from end consumers trying to get their websites up and running to infrastructure providers, like datacenters.
After ISPmanager, our flagman web server control panel, several other solutions were born:
VMmanager, a virtualization tool to help automate creation, provisioning and control of virtual machines by providers, as well as their customers. In essence, it helps manage virtual environments.
BILLmanager, billing and payment automation, tariffs, contracts, ticketing system for billing, and client related stuff. A business automation platform, as we like to call it.
DCImanager, a solution we have for infrastructure management used by datacenters and colocation providers, which takes care of infrastructure monitoring, inventory, dedicated server provisioning, as well as allows control of networking and all other equipment in the facility.
As a result, the customer base we have is very diverse. We cater to the needs of end users who have a very specific goal (getting their website on the web), with basic questions such as "how do I get my files on the server?"
Then we have requests from datacenters who have high end needs, such as ensuring that DCImanager caters to their particular, and rather unique network set-up in the facility, or integrating BILLmanager with a country-specific accounting software for external tax reporting.
What's your most popular product?
It's hard to say which is the most popular because ISPmanager is the most mass market solution used by end users. But then BILLmanager and DCImanager are also very popular, especially in our home region which is Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (Russian speaking countries).
How did you grow your market share?
For different products, it's a different story. Initially, our popularity was due to the fact that we were pretty much the first control panel provider on the market. DirectAdmin was also a big thing that was popular in the US but didn't break into Russia just yet. We had local support which was extremely important in 1997. As the market grew, we grew with it. Right now, we have pretty much a whole generation of users raised with ISPsystem and ISPmanager as a solution. Nowadays, when borders are blurred and customers are free to pick whatever solutions they like, we're eternally grateful that they remain loyal to our solution and continue to use it.
Obviously, our pricing is an important factor as well. Part of our philosophy is that a control panel is an add-on to a server, a tool that allows the hosting customer to reach his end goals: to administer the servers, resell his resources, and get his website up and running. ISPmanager is a tool. It saves time. For us, it doesn't really make sense to overpay for that tool so we really work hard to keep our pricing as low as possible. That, I'm sure, factors into our popularity.
Also, of course, we are now trying to expand abroad. Most of our resources, marketing and business development resources especially, are dedicated to that. We work with price-sensitive markets like Latin America (Brazil specifically) and India where people really appreciate the pricing that we have. They love that they don't have to pay a great deal of money and yet they get a solution at a high premium level that is stable and secure and provides all the functionality they need.
With BILLmanager and DCImanager, we have a different approach. BILLmanager is very modular. The licensing, of course, allows startups and smaller providers to start using the solution for free. They appreciate that. As they grow, the solution can be scaled up in terms of functionality very easily; they get extra modules connected to it. I think that flexibility is what our partners and customers love as well.
Another important factor is that we try to be very flexible and agile in terms of our development. We really love feedback. We love to have a communication channel with our customers and partners. When they come back to us and give us feedback and want a feature implemented and want a function working differently, we are very quick to react. We have a release cycle of 2 weeks, meaning that every two weeks an update comes out, which contains new functionality, as well as any possible fixes. So from the point we get feedback to the point where customers can begin using a function, there's a very short period of time. Our clients and partners like this approach and rhythm (we hope), as they do not have to wait long to start taking advantage of a new feature for their personal or business needs. And we love that and it keeps us on our toes. It's very dynamic here at ISPsystem.
Who are your customers? What types of users are they?
The customers that we have are very different. We have customers for ISPmanager which are your regular hosting end users who want their CMS and website up and running. We have a lot of SMBs as well who have the same goals and want to get their online presence out there. On the other hand, we have a lot of providers working with us, where we work closely with that provide to help bundle ISPmanager as an add-on to their hosting offering, giving their customers more tools.
VMmanager is both for providers, who want to build their virtual infrastructure with our solution, as well as end users, who want to virtualize and manage their personal VMs. For BILLmanager, our customers are providers who automate their processes to support their customer base, so they dictate how BILLmanager evolves and develops. With DCImanager and the providers are the customers as well.
DCImanager customers are corporate and enterprise; the development is more high end and technical. The work we do for that solution is more complex. Development and QA takes a little longer.
We have dedicated teams for every product and sometimes the tasks overlap and it's really great to see how the teams collaborate and how different dynamic of one product transfers to the other and how they support each other.
Tell us a bit about the team - how many people are at ISPsystem? Where are your offices located?
Over the years, we've grown quite a bit from just a few people. Now, we have over 120 people. Next week, we have another 6 starting, so there's very rapid growth on our side.
Most of the people who work here are developers, QA, and technical specialists/technical support team members, because we've historically a developer company. The solutions we have are for developers and infrastructure engineers, as well as administrators. For example, 5-6 years ago, the company didn't see a need for sales, business development, and marketing. It was just a philosophy I guess. The paradigm has shifted, however, the company has changed, and now we are seeing growth on all sides, including product and project management, all the client related services, etc.
Next week, for example, we have a team of in-house UX and UI engineers starting, which, given the fact that this is something we used to outsource in the past, is another big deal!
The largest office is in Siberia where our headquarters is and we also have a small office in Moscow, which only has a few technical people supporting our internal needs. We have an even smaller office in Brussels, purely technical. As we are growing and expanding especially abroad, we are now in the process of setting up functional and operational offices in various areas. We have a new office planned for Q3. The idea would be to use that office to cover a lot more time zones.
Can you tell us more about your corporate structure? You told us before that it is somewhat unconventional. Give me some insights into this.
We are dynamic and try to move rapidly, whether it's development or features or a new partnership we're launching. As the company is growing, it becomes harder and harder to be that agile and this is something we really value and want to keep. Part of the structure that we have is that we try to keep it as flat as possible, so we don't really have a vertical corporate ladder where Igor is at the top and all the major decisions go through him. Instead, we empower different people and different teams to make decisions within their areas of responsibilities which still allows us to wear different hats and perform different tasks.
We have some people focusing in areas where they can really push forward, where they feel comfortable, and where they can excel. Igor is our technical visionary; that's where he's best at. He focuses on development, he drives the development team in terms of coding and he really keeps a close eye on the technological trends of the industry.
With me focusing on marketing, business development, project management, and finance, it allows him to dedicate himself to areas where he excels, whereas I excel at different things.
While I supervise different areas, we still have team leads, a lead product manager, a head of marketing, and all those department are pretty much independent and they have freedom to make decisions locally. They don't have to run the decisions through the high ranks.
Although a flat corporate structure is rather common in the US and Europe, a vertical hierarchy is still more common in Russia. So in a sense, we like to think of ourselves as pioneers.
How are you funded, how much have you raised, and what are your plans?
We're privately funded and have been from the get go. The investors bring in all the capital we have but we cannot disclose details. Whenever we need to attract additional funding for pushing in the market or going to a new market, we go to the investors we have. So far, we haven't needed external funds.
Tell me more about you - you've been at ISPsystem and you also had some experience at some other companies. What were those experiences, and what did you learn from them that helps you today at ISPsystem?
I have a banking/finance and financial engineering academic background. Naturally, I transitioned into banking at some of the largest banks while I was still at university and getting my Master’s degree. Then I transitioned into management consulting and then into the gaming industry which was closer to IT. Then I found myself at ISPsystem. All the companies I've worked for are very different in terms of their size, the market, and what they do and the industry they operate in.
I absolutely love the change in dynamic, wearing different hats and tackling different problems, whether it's financial or marketing or project management focused.
At ISPsystem, I get to do different things, creative things or technical things on the product management side. I believe all the experiences helped me adapt to that dynamic. They taught me how to move quickly, how to collaborate with different teams, how to collaborate with partners of different sizes, and how to be very receptive to external needs. As I mentioned, we are very feedback-driven as well. It's important to understand who your customers are and what challenges your customers are facing. The variety in my background, I believe, allows me to do that.
How do you see the industry changing and how do you plan to address these changes with your existing products?
The IT industry changes very rapidly every year. Since we have different solutions focused on different market segments in different parts of the industry, we have to keep an eye out on all aspects of it. If we look at the hosting industry, we see that the paradigm has changed over the years. Consumers for that hosting control panel initially were more administrators who wanted to automate some of the process, but now we're catering to some customers who are not as tech savvy. They're more on the "do it for me" side of things. They really want the control panel to be more intuitive and instead of automating administration related things, they want simpler functions that can help them work on their website and get their presence up and running in a minimal amount of time.
As expectations change, hosting providers have to adapt as well, changing offerings, pricing, communication methods, and tools they give to the customers. We have to change with the customers and the providers as well. That's why we have to be very receptive to the feedback we receive from providers, working closely to understand what customers need.
What we realized in our expansions to other markets is that we really need to localize the products. Customers in the US have different product preferences and expectations than customers in Europe, LATAM, and Russia, not just from UX and UI perspectives but from a product perspective: from integrations they want to see in the control panel to problems they expect the control panel to solve for them.
It's a similar thing for higher end products such as DCImanager. We see that many providers are paying a lot more attention to automating their processes, which is the core of the solution, but they also want to become more Green, for example, and provide a safer and more secure solution for their clients. DCImanager has to adapt to that by creating solutions that speak to those needs. It also means that our solutions become more complex and robust, allowing customers to keep an eye out on consumption and allocation of resources, whether it be electricity and traffic, or heat production, or anything else required by the provider.
Are there any new ISPsystem products on the horizon?
Right now, our focus lies with expanding the functionality and solutions that we already have, especially as we are dedicating a lot of our attention to user experience and the user interface side of things, while of course continuing to expand functionality. One of the trends we've seen in the industry is that providers and consumers want to see more modular solutions. They want to see platforms which encompass a whole line of solutions, so to say. That's the direction we want to take in the future.
Right now we have 4 solutions catering to 4 different industry segments, so, perhaps, in the future, we will move toward a single platform that serves the needs for all providers, whether it's IaaS, or SaaS, or PaaS, and end consumers who want to manage their online presence.
Or perhaps the industry will shift, as it frequently does, and a new trend will emerge, and then as always, we will adapt quickly, and present yet another great solution!
Is there anything else you think HostAdvice readers would like to know?
In our quest for feedback from users, which we gather to make sure that our solutions are the best it could be, we have introduced free versions of three of our solutions. This way, DCImanager, VMmanager, and BILLmanager are now available for free, without any time limitation. This allows users to really experience our solutions and play around with it at their own pace, and at the same time, let us know what we can improve, so that they would be confident in the relationship. So, if someone is looking for a new solution, or simply wants to give it a try out of curiosity – we are happy to help!