Interview with Michael Ashworth, Co-Founder at Nublue
Michael Ashworth's history sort of mimics my own -- except I'm a writer and he's a cofounder of a company that has now been around for more than a decade. His company, Nublue, offers design and development services with web hosting, which is exactly what I was doing when he started his company. But he's continued to be very successful, winning awards and growing his business to 42 employees. Here he is to tell us his tale.
Can you tell us a bit about Nublue’s history and how you started the company?
The core idea behind Nublue was really to bridge the gap between our customers and the geeky web stuff that we work with! My brother Tom had previously worked for a large hosting provider in a support role, and he’d seen first-hand the problems customers were facing in trying to understand the hosting technology and make it work for their business, and we saw an opportunity there. So we started up Nublue in 2005 with some savings and a small loan, and set up shop in InfoLab at Lancaster University. Our aim has always been to create a company that uses proven, solid technologies, and to really help our clients get the best results from those technologies.
Our first year was pretty challenging, since we were learning how to run a business as well as trying to build a reputation as a hosting provider. Before long though we began to gain some traction, winning a number of coveted industry awards in the UK and gaining some really exciting national and international clients. From there the company has grown year on year, and we’re now heading up an awesome team of 42 dedicated professionals who make Nublue a great place to work – and we’re doing some exceptional work that we’re all really proud of.
What services are offered by Nublue?
We provide two key digital services: web design and development, and managed web hosting. Our web design team works predominantly in Magento ecommerce, partnering with established brands who are making considerable investments in their online presence. Our agency offers an end-to-end service of discovery, planning, design, development, testing and ongoing support and innovation. Coupled with our superfast hosting and our ISO9001 quality process, this is a strong proposition for our clients.
Our web hosting team deals in a range of managed services across a number of high-performance platforms, from our entry-level shared hosting through to VPS hosting, dedicated platforms and our more complex bespoke configurations for our enterprise clients. We’ve also recently launched a CDN solution to improve load times for the high-traffic websites we host, and for customers who trade internationally.
What types of clients do you serve?
We predominantly serve UK clients, but we also provide services for a number of international clients. The vast majority of our customers are ecommerce merchants and web developers working in the ecommerce space. We tend to work more at the enterprise end of the spectrum, with clients who are looking for a long-term partnership with the expertise to help them achieve their online goals.
Would you consider hosting a core component of your business, or was that added because your clients needed hosting support on top of the design services you offer?
Hosting is very much a core component of Nublue – we actually spent our very first day as a company driving down to our data centre with a brand new Dell server, ready to be plugged into our first rack! Right from the start our vision was that a good website with a solid hosting environment should be the backbone of any online business, and if we could provide both of those things well then we’d be able to build a strong business around that. These days we host thousands of websites and online stores and bring new clients on board every day, so our hosting base is growing constantly.
Tell us a bit more about your hosting services. Do you work with your own data center, or do you provide hosting as a reseller?
Our hosting is our own. We own the hardware and the network, and all our hosting is managed in-house by our Systems Administration team. We use a privately owned data center in Manchester, which provides a secure, controlled environment for our hardware. We decided when we launched our business that the reseller model wasn’t for us, because we don’t really feel that this offers any value to the customer – since customers often end up paying an inflated price for what is often a bargain-basement product from a faceless provider. By owning and controlling our own setup we can be flexible in what we offer, and have access to everything we need in order to help our customers and deliver extra value.
Can you tell us more about Nublue’s affiliate program?
We launched our affiliate program a few years into the business, since one of our main sources of sales was actually via referrals from happy customers. In response we wanted to put something in place that would reward them, and so we set up our scheme which pays out a fixed fee to referring affiliates for all the hosting customers they send our way. This has proven to be very popular with our most valued customers, and it’s a nice way to give back to the people who have really helped us to grow the business over the years.
You offer domain names, SSL and CDN services. Can you talk more about those? Is it a big part of your business?
SSL and security in general is a hot topic for us. Most of our customers are engaged in ecommerce, so almost all of them utilize SSL certificates on their websites. I think all hosts are battling against the ever-present threat of application vulnerabilities, online fraud and malicious attacks. So we’re working hard to ensure that our platform is as secure as possible for our customers, and looking at new products that we can offer to provide extra security and confidence.
CDN is becoming a bigger part of our business too. It’s still a relatively new product, but we’ve seen our customers really engage with it and use it to its full benefit in the lead up to Black Friday and Christmas as a way of reducing loads on their servers and improving load times, to provide a better user experience for their own customers. The feedback has been great so far, so we have high hopes for this product in the future.
What can you tell us about the experience of creating a business and growing it? Do you have any advice to give would-be entrepreneurs who are looking to start their own companies and agencies?
The experience of starting and growing a company has been an incredible learning curve. It’s been both extremely challenging and hugely rewarding, though it’s important to remember that running a business is naturally full of highs and lows. But ultimately it’s just great to step back sometimes, and to stop and look at what’s been built. I couldn’t be prouder of the team we have, and the quality of the work we do.
I think if you have a good idea, and you’re prepared to put your heart and soul into it and never give up, then go for it. Bring in the best people you can find. Never compromise on your goals, but be prepared to listen and learn – and be flexible about how you get there. And remember to enjoy the experience!
Any struggles you can share about your experience growing your company, and takeaways?
I think the biggest struggle for us was scaling the business when we first started. It’s hard work to find those great people who will drive the business forward with you, and equally challenging to put in place the right balance of process and creativity to ensure that you’re always producing innovative work that’s built to a high standard. There’s no rulebook for it! For me, people are the most important part of any business. Bring in the right people in the right roles, and your business will thrive. I’d suggest to anyone who’s at the start of that journey to really think about the skills that are vital to your business, and what sort of workplace you want to establish. Getting both of these things right will create a strong foundation for any business.
Are there any projects you have worked on that you love to talk about?
We recently finished rebuilding three large ecommerce stores for one of the UK’s biggest (and oldest) jeweler retailers, T.H. Baker. The websites, thbaker.co.uk, thejewelhut.co.uk and houseofwatches.co.uk are all built using the Magento ecommerce platform, which we’ve worked with since its launch. We’re very proud of this work, and the websites have been shortlisted for a number of ecommerce awards over the last six months. But best of all, our client is really happy with them – and the new sites have dramatically increased traffic and ecommerce conversion rates, which is really what it’s all about! All three websites are hosted on an Nginx load-balanced cluster, which we manage for our client too.
What are your plans for the next 24 months?
We’re an ambitious company with big growth plans for the next two years, and we’re going to be introducing some exciting new products in that time. Primarily we’re looking at innovating around our existing products and also creating new products, specifically aimed at the enterprise end of the market where demand is high for well-managed, well-supported bespoke hosting which can handle the big traffic levels and spikes that many established online retailers experience.