Interview with Jonathan Gafill, CEO of CloudAccess
Jonathan Gafill is a fun dude who has a cool service that has attracted users from all over the world. He's also an unmanned aerial vehicle pilot, so it was fun to learn more about the personal side of him. His company is doing quite well and it's amazing to see how far they've come. Here's his story.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how CloudAccess started?
I like to use the term that "CloudAccess was born from Joomla." In 2010, CloudAccess was conceived and built the Joomla demo program which resulted in fantastic growth: we built a tool that created 30 day trials of Joomla that were automatically provisioned upon sign-up a. Back then, this was super fancy; we competed against big companies and won the RFP to do it. After the demo contract, we brought WordPress into the platform and began offering a free hosting option to replace the demo program. On top of that, we have worked to continually improve our services and to refine our product.
In regards to myself, I started in 2011 and started as Project Manager and worked my way up to COO. Over the coming years I continued to show my value and was made CEO in 2014. The best part of my job is working with such a great team and with clients from all over the world.
What does CloudAccess do? What services do you provide?
We provide products that cater to website owners and developers and also offer services to enterprise clients who need additional help and a managed hosting environment for Joomla and WordPress sites. Some say that we provide Joomla and WordPress SaaS which always seemed an oxymoron to me, but there is truth in it. Our mini plan is for people who don't require support but want the features of our platform. Higher level plans offer even more time-saving features and application support that help them and save them from a lot of Googling. We have seen all the ways people can break a Joomla and WordPress website; if someone breaks their site and can't figure out why, we investigate and always bring the sites back up. We give a great deal of value to our clients.
We offer professional services and you can order them right through our Cloud Control Panel. If somebody needs a styling change or a header to be bigger or to research an extension with certain bits of functionality, we offer it. For us, our goal is to provide solutions to our clients. If something is beyond our capabilities, we point clients to partners who can solve it.
What experiences did you have to position you as CEO of CloudAccess?
First and foremost, it's a challenging job. It's never a dull moment and I'm really fortunate to have such a great team standing alongside me working toward the same goals. That said, some of the things that I have learned and have brought me to this point: a lot of this stems from being understanding in regards to employees, in respecting that everybody is different. Everybody has their own methods and things that motivate them. Understanding that and finding how to get the best out of each person is a big important part of leadership.
You'd also need to have a handle on everything, in every aspect of the business. I throw the phrase out "jack of all trades." That is really where you need to be to make informed decisions, to jump into a role and see how operations work and see what needs to be fixed to work on them better. You also need to understand the marketing and merge that with the business gracefully to manage the demands of the client and maintain the business itself. A lot of people think of hosting as "set it and forget it” but there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes.
I've learned a lot. It's taken me a lot of steps and many years of work. I was once in our client's shoes as a developer and that is important that I maintain their perspective.
I also noticed you're a part time UAV/UAS (unmanned aerial vehicle/unmanned aircraft system) instructor. Can you tell us more about that?
I've always been into robotics and RC stuff. The college in my area was starting a program a few years ago and they saw I was into drones and robots so they offered me a flight instructor position. The program is growing rapidly and it’s great to be a small part of it. A few hours a week I get to teach people how to fly some high end "toys" as I call them. (Side note: I'm in the process of getting my pilot's license right now.)
Is CloudAccess completely cloud-based? Where are your servers located?
Yes, we are cloud based and we do not outsource equipment as many providers do. Our primary datacenter is outside Detroit and our second is outside of Grand Rapids. We have a fancy AnyCasting DNS network that announces our IP address around the world. When you talk about cloud based, it's not necessarily about each individual site, you look at the orchestration of all the sites. We can do fancy things with our sites, moving from server to server with the click of a button. We can scale the resources to individual sites as needed. Our platform offers a great deal of flexibility.
I see you run webinars. Can you tell us more about those?
We used to run live training webinars in the past but our pre-recorded videos had more attendance (because of the ability to pause, rewind, etc). We offer video training, giving training content to anyone on the web and it remains one of the best ways to bring new clients in the door. A lot of people have learned how to build from our free training materials.
Did you create a proprietary control panel? Tell us more about Cloud Control Panel 2.0.
We are serious about listening to our client feedback. One of our main concerns was that cPanel and other control panels weren't user friendly and didn't have all the features to provide what our clients needed so we created the Cloud Control Panel. It's custom and it speaks to the needs of the users. We have built in staging/production replication tools, failed plugin scanners, broken link checkers, Google Analytics integration, database profiling tools and lots of other things you won't find in hosting control panels. It is proprietary but we don't typically use that phrase. We're big fans of open source, though, but in some cases you build your own proprietary stuff to have an edge in the industry.
Tell us a bit about your customers - it seems you have more than 20,000 websites.
Our customers are from every corner of the globe. Talking to people from all over the world is fascinating to me--we cater to anyone who uses Joomla or WordPress. That's also why we switched to 24/7 support back in the day because these clients call in at all hours. Our client base ranges from “mom and pop” shops to Fortune 500 companies. In regards to the number 20,000, the amount of sites fluctuates wildly because we have a free site hosting platform. You can sign up for a free site, use it for as long as you like, then it just cancels if you don't renew it. At any given time, we have thousands of people utilizing those sites.
How did you market your business to grow to be so big?
I love this question. We've grown our marketing without traditional paid advertising. We've grown through word of mouth, affiliate relationships, offering free training courses. These are organic ways of facilitating growth.
How has the cloud technology evolved to give you this edge, and what are you seeing in the industry at the present that is showing even more promise for the evolution of your company?
Without cloud technology our products and services wouldn’t be feasible. As we see cloud technology become more seamless I hope to see things like application portability and HA capabilities filter down to the CMS’s that we work with. Ultimately these technology behind the applications needs to grow along with the cloud technology.
Is your focus only on Joomla and WordPress? Do you have any future plans to support additional CMS technologies?
WordPress and Joomla are our primary focus but we're always on the lookout for other solutions for our clients. WordPress is "medium" in terms of complexity in terms of the functionality of the software. Joomla is harder but more flexible. Someday we may bring on an easier to use drag and drop builder. There is talk among our team on bridging the gaps between these CMS’s to provide a seamless experience for our clients. We want to allow people to move their content "up the chain" basically. We see a lot of people move from one CMS to another for more functionality or more usability - so we want an all encompassing environment that is easy to use all the way to fully flexible CMSes and everything in between.
Can you tell us a bit about Bolt DNS?
Our infrastructure includes an anycasting DNS network. Clients who have their DNS through us have advantages of faster routes; the IP addresses are announced from the closest geographic location to their request.
How do you intend over the next few years to stay ahead of the curve and continue to grow your client base?
I see the demand for DIY website building continuing to increase over the coming years. One of our tactics will be to cater our services to the varying degrees of knowledge that a particular person or company has. We will have one product to offer a mom/pop pizza place, and another product to offer an enterprise institution. Of course clients will continue to scale the amount of support as needed.
Is there anything else we should know?
We have seen a lot of people building custom sites that catered to niche markets. We have an API that lets people build a preconfigured site that they can provision to their customers on demand.
Let’s use the example of a developer who builds sites specifically customized for lawyers. They would typically just make copy after copy of this site as the sales roll in for the product. Instead, they can use our API to create a deployable package that law firms can buy directly. This allows the developer to automate a large portion of the business, taking them much closer to turning their custom built website into a SaaS business model. Lawyers are just an example here.. We see lots of success in building for one of thousands of small niche markets.
Another example we have is a client who is a template provider. Their client will purchase a template and say "I don't know what to do with this." The failure rate is the challenge as the end users don’t always know how to get it configured. The same goes for plugins. It takes a long time to install and configure so that something even displays on the page. Our API allows the template provider to click a button to create a custom deployable package of their template demo. The template providers customer now gets instant access to their own pre-configured site.. Instead of jumping through hoops.