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I am Joshua Strebel the co-founder of Pagely, a student of business, and a professional rabble rouser. Ask me Anything.

Aug. 26, 2015

First a thank you to Vladimir for having me.

For a bit of background: I've never had a 'real job' post-college. I had an unpaid internship doing web design for a few months out of college. I came across the book "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" and decided to take the rest of our money from our recent wedding and incorporate our business, that was over 12yrs ago.

In that span we did 5-6yrs as a web design agency, failed at launching a social network in the event planning space ($100k I'll never see again), and invented what is commonly referred to as "Managed WordPress Hosting". For the last 6yrs (Pagely turns 6 in Sept) we've revenue funded (fancy word for bootstrapping) Pagely into a multi-million dollar SaaS and leader in the space. I am an average programmer, average designer, and average CEO. I like to consider myself an above average Dad and sports fan.

I'll do my best to answer any all questions as candidly as possible. Just a word though, we have never disclosed our revenues or # of employees and will not do so here today. I'll be available for the next several hours to ask questions, so let's do this: Ask me Anything.

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33 votes   Flag
Brian Krogsgard

What's the biggest threat to the WordPress hosting industry?

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Joshua Strebel

If there is a 'threat' I think it would be from within WordPress itself; As in will it maintain and grow marketshare. If WordPress falls out of favor then of course demand will drop and the market will contract. The non specific hosting players that do the generic type thing may weather it fine (although data shows the 'shared hosting' market grew at 0% in 2014), but uber specialized hosts like Pagely and their ilk may find they have fewer customers.

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Ben Fox

Josh, I'm not sure where you're getting the 0% stat from but I have read two reports from IBIS and Gartner that both show the shared hosting section of the market grew 5% in 2014. The overall prosumer hosting market has grown consistently at about 11% over the past 5 years and is predicted to slow to an average of 5.5% over the next 5.

Shared hosting is very much alive. The name may be changing for marketing purposes but it's still there.

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Joshua Strebel

Ben, I went back to find where I got that 0% number. It was from an analyst report, that re-reading, I got all wrong in memory. We'll go with your numbers. ;)

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Jonathan Wold

First, love the Rich Dad, Poor Dad reference. I read the book as a teenager and was certain I would go on to become a wildly successful real estate investor. Then I discovered the web and haven't looked back since.

So, my questions for you:

1. With your self-described "averageness", what would you say has been the key to the clearly above average success you've achieved this far?

2. I've been a big fan of "managed WordPress hosting" for years now, especially after dealing with the headache (and heartache) of compromised WordPress installs. The term "managed", though, is somewhat loaded and has different meaning to different folks. What does "managed" mean to you at Pagely?

3. What do you think is the place for "non-managed" WordPress hosts (the "norm" a few years ago) in the marketplace?

4. What are the pain points you see in the managed WordPress hosting space today?


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Joshua Strebel

1. Hard work and perseverance. So many times I could have quit. I could have quit when it was hard, or a new competitor launched to fanfare, or when I did not know how I was going to make payroll. Being dumb enough to think I could succeed eventually willed it into existence. People can out-compete you with money, talent, connections.. but you can always work harder with more heart.

2. It is a loaded term. At Pagely it means what it has always meant since we coined the term: We manage {the technical aspects of) WordPress. That starts from the server and stops at what could be called consulting (building a theme, adding content, deciding which plugin to use. Install). Further defined as Upgrades, Performance, and Security + focused and expert support/advice.That being said it has been commodified by the follow on companies. Is bluehost's "managed WordPress" even on the same par as Pagely? No, not in this universe.

3.They will always have a place at the table simply because they will provide a low-cost solution to a wide audience. I can't compete against their marketing budget and their low prices. They will package 1/10th of the true value Pagely delivers, at 1/20th the price, and call it "managed WordPress" and their customer likely won't know or care about the difference.

4. Pressure from market forces driving down prices and quality. We saw it coming a while back and so went up market, and we are still climbing higher.

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Deleted Account

Oh, is this today? ;)

1. As the head of a hosting company, are you on call 24/7/365 and if so, how does that feel?

2. Related, how do you balance work and personal life?

Bonus: Where do you get your hair cut?

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Joshua Strebel

1. I see all, and hear all. However the team took me out of active rotation months ago. To be honest as our platform has moved forward under the direction of our CTO and his team, I know less and less about the fine details of every connection and coupling that makes it all work. Therefore I became less useful in actually fixing things at 3am. We have very talented engineers that are on rotation.

2. For many many years I had no balance. I worked 12-16hr days year after year it seemed. Having kids forced me into balance. Also as the team grew I was directly responsible for less and less. Today at Pagely, our culture encourages and promotes a healthy balance: we pay folks above market, we encourage breaks through-out the day for exercise, coffee, whatever. We have a formal vacation policy of a min. of 2 weeks. Take more please, but I a team member is required to disappear for a couple weeks each year.

Personally I work from home, an average of 5-7hr days, stopping at 4 or 5pm no matter what as that is when the kids expect "Dad".

Bonus: Place down the street called M Salon. Ha.

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Deleted Account

Thanks, enjoying your answers...

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tudoutou

How does pagely train employees or do you directly hire people who already know a lot about wordpress?

Does pagely use same settings on all vps? If yes, what would pagely do if one customer got hacked?

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Joshua Strebel

WordPress is 5-10% of what we 'do' on a daily basis. We are more akin to a DevOps for hire outfit if you looked at it from 10k feet. So we look to hire engineers and developers from a variety of backgrounds that also have a strong WP understanding. We don't train/teach folks how to do their job, but more so show them how to use their skills within the context of Pagely. We have onboarding procedures and docs for new hires that focus on 'this is this, and this is how that works, and when this happens it's because of this and that is connected to this' sort of thing. Basically showing them how the plumbing is laid out.

We have a default instance we deploy for all VPS customers, and then we run a series of ansible scripts that are updated daily or even weekly to 'deploy' our stack and prep for the customers WordPress site. Periodically we use similar scripts to update the VPS and WP instance. In the case of a hack (which happens very rarely and in all recent cases I can recall from memory were due to malware already in the site that was migrated over) we do what we have ALWAYS done. Remediate the problem manually or with automated tools, identify and address/patch the attack vector, and educate the client on cause and best practices going forward.

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Jonathan Wold

I was introduced to the concept of managed WordPress hosting around the time WPEngine rose to prominence. At the time, as I spoke with representatives at multiple managed hosts and did limited research (reading reviews of folks who've moved from one host to another, etc) I got the _sense_ that Pagely wasn't a good choice and that there was a strong dislike of Pagely from other providers in the space. I didn't look beyond that sense to investigate for myself and, till recently, I simply excluded Pagely as an option.

I suspect that there are others like me. Within that vein of thought, then, here are some questions that come to mind:

1. What's your perspective on how you compare / differentiate from your peers in the space?

2. What advantages / disadvantages do you have from being "first"?

3. How do you relate to fellow providers in the "managed" space like WPEngine, Pressable, Flywheel?

4. Who's your target audience for Pagely?

5. How do you _want_ Pagely to be perceived?


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Joshua Strebel

Politics are strong within the WP community as in any community. So let's back up a little further...
When we launched Pagely in 2009, we actually got hate mail.. like real hate mail from WP community types that were 'shocked' we would dare charge for what they saw as 'merely installing WordPress'. It was a new idea at the time remember, and we had the idea that the famous '5min install' was still too long/complicated for the average person (what is a MySql?). Much of the community gave us the cold shoulder and the 'managed WordPress' was panned as a commercial ploy to corrupt the goodness of open source. So we essentially launched into a negative sentiment.

I certainly made mistakes early on not playing the game correctly; not culling favor of the influencers, speaking my mind, etc.

Secondly, I am protective to a fault. Despite whatever good thing or feature our competitors may have, I see them as un original knockoffs of our original concept. The 2nd and now 16th entry into a market category, in my eyes is always inferior. This is a personal fault, I welcomed all new players with a polite 'fuck you copy cat'

So where are in this story. 1. People did not like us charging for what they felt they could do themselves, and 2. We basically scorched the earth telling everyone to fuck off. Not the best start. What our competitors did better was culling the favor of the influencers, playing 'the game' as they say. They were at every WordCamp handing out free sites by the thousands, and tshirts for everyone. Made everyone feel important and awesome. This is when Managed WordPress became the cool thing, and then there were 3, 5, 10 companies 'doing' it.

6yrs later, hindsight has given me clarity in where we messed up, and what others did well. In my heart of hearts though I know we have the best product, the best team, and the interest's of the project more in line with our company goals then anyone else.
1. It's an easy answer: longevity = mastery. People > Corporations.

2. No real advantage besides longevity and fluffing my ego. It had huge drawbacks though as we discussed: It was easy for the 2nd and 10th guy to look at the mistakes the first player made with product, positioning, marketing and not make them. They all get to make their own mistakes, but maybe not as severe.
3. I don't relate. I dislike them, they probably dislike me. However, this is important: I respect each of them for something, Flywheel's amazing positioning and branding as an example. I respect WPE for busting the market wide open and managing to not implode when it looked like the wheels were falling off on several occasions. But I wont miss any of them when they are gone. There is an abundance of kumbaya in the WP community and rightfully so, but I wont have WPE over to dinner for the same reasons Matt wont have Chris Pearson speak at a WordCamp. It's okay to not like people.

4. We ceded the low end of the market a couple years ago. Let GD and Bluhost fight it out. WPE SiteGround and MT can fight over the middle market, We are focused on the top of the value pyramid. So our ideal audience are customers that demand and need the best in market scalabilty, support, and performance for WordPress. Knock knock VIP.

5. Authentic Partners. We're people, warts and all, and we are here to help. We don't claim to be anything but what we are: The originators of Managed WordPress and the most scalable and knowledgeable managed WordPress company around.


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Jonathan Wold

Thank you for your candor and the very thoughtful response! My respect for yourself and Pagely has increased.

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Ahmad Awais

OFF-TOPIC!
Hey, Jonathan! Just wanted to let you know, you were one of the reasons why I got serious in WP, way back then. Esp your article at SmashMag.

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Vladimir Prelovac

Crazy deep response. I know that in previously communicating with you I felt this 'moat' couple of times. I respect that in the sense that is who you are (as a brand). However many relations in business, in particular longer lasting ones come down to personal relations and this is where other factors come into play.

Btw, I've tried Pagely couple of times and strictly from product design point its hardly the best product. I am going to show you soon what I think a best hosting product looks like :)

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Dave Navarro Jr.

Now that other companies are jumping on the "Managed WordPress" hosting bandwagon, do you feel pressure to lower prices or offer more "bang for the buck"?

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Joshua Strebel

Absolutely not. We removed our lowest priced plan, and will be removing more soon. We are going up, not down. As a 'revenue funded' company we cannot survive on $1/yr profit per customer.

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Corey Pants

I'd love to use Pagely but I can't afford it. Any plans to offer a cheaper plan?

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Joshua Strebel

No Sorry.

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Brian Krogsgard

If Amazon's AWS infrastructure went away or deteriorated in quality, would Pagely be able to convert to something else, and how bad would it be for business?

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Joshua Strebel

We have abstracted the platform to a point where switching out the underlying provider, like AWS to Azure or something would be painful but not impossible. (we tried futureproof where possible as we learned some lessons when we did Firehost to AWS) However from a business sense I think it would be bad day for us as it would burn some brand equity and of course cash in development costs.

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Matt Medeiros

Question 1:

When the REST API becomes more prominent, I think we'll see more out-of-the-box app-like instances of WordPress. Mini "Rainmaker platforms" if you will.

What are you predicting will happen to WordPress core as we know it versus WordPress "flavors" in the future?
Are you predicting any fragmentation and how will you prepare your hosting offerings if they need to adjust?

Question 2:

What can WP agencies still flying under the radar do for larger enterprise or bigger portfolio clients that might knocking on your door, but not theirs? Can you identify a service gap a well-trained and staffed firm could fill? Aside from "do good work" of course :)

Question 3:

Are we golfing this year at PN4?

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Joshua Strebel

1. We have been forward thinking about this and engaging with the REST API team. In a nutshell you can flavor all you like and we want to support that new diversity. But those REST endpoints terminate at WordPress Core install that will benefit from what we do. I direct you to the work we did for OptinMonster on their API caching and such. The presentation layer changes, but scaling a WP backend is still vital.

2. The biggest gap I see right now is the niche co's like thewpvalet.com and wpsitecare.com fill. If I was to generalize our clientele they have dev staff, they have engineers (sometimes many dozens of them).. but when the WordPress site is launched and deployed the 'little ongoing things' like a custom plugin, tweak this or that (like sub $5k things) is left in the air as it is not important enough for Big Corp's engineers to do. So we refer those things out. As for full site development and all that.. Our experience is typically the customer already having an agency and coming to us for hosting. Not too often we have a customer who wants our hosting, and then asks us for a agency for development: it does happen though.

But the best piece of advice I can offer to the up and comer is: triple your prices (mega corp wont even consider you if you don't charge what they think it should cost) and then 'do good work' ;)

When we did design work 2003-2008, we raised our prices often, which seemed to always lead to bigger and better projects/clients.

3. Of course. Scotch at every hole.

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Codeinwp

Looks like all the cool people are playing golf on Saturday, what if I have no idea about it ? Can I come just for the scotch part ?

Ionut

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Ben Fox

Yes. We should play together so as not to hold up anyone that , you know, can hit the ball.

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Vladimir Prelovac

Good to have you here Joshua.

1. What do you perceive as the biggest threat to WordPress continuing to grow its marketshare?

2. Whats your final goal with Pagely?

3. Rich Dad Poor Dad is also a book I quote as the one that converted me to entrepreneurship. Whats your second favorite book?

4. How does your typical day unfold?

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Joshua Strebel

1. Legacy code.. I think every project no matter how big should get a full rewrite after 5-6years. WP is going on 10+. There will be breakage but maybe time to re-arch the whole thing and update it to latest design patterns. Also I think WP is too reactive of late.. adding stuff already made popular at tumblr (post formats) or what not. When you are on your heels playing catch up, it's hard to innovate and get ahead. Think what WP should be in 5 years and only code to that.

2. Let's be honest, #profit. So the more nuanced answer though is that there are 2 ways to extract value from your business: 1 as ongoing consideration (your salary, dividends, etc) or 2. sell it. All business owners do it for different reasons, but at the end of the day they are all trying to pad the balance sheet. So I want pagely to make an impact (which I would argue we have) and at some point find a good home with another party. Could that be next year, or 5 from now? Hard to say.

3. Hard to say.. and 12yrs later I see RDPD as like 'entrepreneurship 101'. It is more mental than practical, but it was the start I need to decide to take my future in my own hands. Currently I am reading "Team of Teams" which is a great book on management.

4.
6:30-7:00 kids wake
7:00-8:30 breakfast and family time
9:00 - 12 Work.. typically sales or bizdev related, but I still make commits to our repos in spurts. Once a week or so I get out for a long mountain bike ride during this time.
12:00 - 2 Lunch, and help with naps for the kids
2-5pm Work sprint, typically try to finish what I started earlier, I dont like loose ends if I can help it as it may be days or weeks before I get back to something specific.
5pm - 7:30 Family Time, Dinner, Kids Bath + Stories + bedtime
7:31pm SCOTCH

In the evenings I sometimes work some more, sometime veg out to some HBO or work with Sally on PressNomics. Lately though I've been remodeling our laundry room making it more functional. Laid some tile Monday night, and will grout it tonight.

11pm-2am Fall asleep sometime during this period.


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Andreas Nurbo

Given your many years of experience with hosting WordPress and so forth here comes some questions about WP performance etc. Questions overlap and are somewhat technical but its AMA so here it goes.

1: Have you noticed any changes positive or negative regarding WP performance and the demands on your AWS instances over the years?

2: Do you think that WP is going in a good direction regarding the demands you have as a managed hosting provider? Are your needs met so to speak.

3: Are there any specific parts of WP where improvements would benefit you as a hosting provider?

4: Have you guys done any testing with hosting PHP7 vs HHVM and how it affects your ability to squeese out more bang for the buck on your AWS instances etc? If so which "future" looks the most interesting for you as a provider?

5: Have you played around with or read about Hack and PHP7? If so how do you find Hack compares with PHP7? Personally I think Hack looks more promising than PHP7. (not that WP ever will be php7)

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Joshua Strebel

1. Negative: Abuse of wp_options and more recently wp_postmeta is a performance killer. wp_options is the dumping ground for everything, and it defaults to all auto-loaded. Hello latency. The current fad of using custom post type's (wp_postmeta bloat) for EVERYTHING is a performance killer as well. Come on guys, no one is going to call the cops for creating a single or 2 properly indexed tables to manage your ecom customer and order data.

Positive: So 6-7yrs ago everyone was a cowboy, and the average skill set of the a "WP Developer" was low... A self taught person that learned on WordPress. Today, we've come a long way baby. Code is better, and more efficient. Performance snafu's are fewer and farer between, but due to scale when they happen they are more impactful.

2. We have no demands.
3. Muliti-master database support out of the box would be awesome. ;)

4. This is a shocker, but our margins are large enough that we don't have to worry about jamming more sites onto the same hardware to make money. HHVM is cool, but not stable enough for production in the real world, we have supported it for a long time. PHP7 show more promise though. We have not compared php7 directly to hhvm though, as we are ready to toss HHVM into the trash bin as soon as php7 is ready.

5. I have not personally, feel free to ping our CTO @jeichorn on twitter. He'll be happy to talk tech in depth.

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Mike Schinkel

JOSHUA: HHVM is cool, but not stable enough for production in the real world

ME: That quote surprises me given that Facebook is now running 95% of their former PHP code on HHVM. Can you elaborate, please?

JOSHUA: ... as we are ready to toss HHVM into the trash bin as soon as php7 is ready.

ME: Hmm. Hack has a lot of really useful features that PHP7 is not slated to have that we'd like to use in some of our future projects, especially considering the fact that you can mix and match PHP and Hack code. Have you not considered people wanting to use HHVM for Hack instead of just for speed?

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Joshua Strebel

Everything you say is true, but also an edge case. Pagely, and most managed WordPress works because of the standardization of environments. We wont support everything that a developer wants to tinker with.

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Joshua Strebel

Good fun. Thanks. I'll check back periodically over the next day or 2 if any more questions pop up.

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Nemanja Aleksic

Seems I'm a bit late for the AMA :)

I like your answer about the early days and dealing with all that righteous fury from the WordPress community. Nowadays you have a respectable list of brand ambassadors - did you have to pivot your marketing strategy at some point to achieve this success, or did you just keep holding the initial course until people realized the value of your business?

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Joshua Strebel

Great question,

It was a little bit of both. I would not say pivot, but more like we refocused the messaging to a more specific customer type, that resonated. It is a bit like you say though, stick around long enough and people will at least begin to respect and notice that you have staying power.

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Ahmad Awais

Good to have you here, Joshua!

I hope, I'm not too late.

I appreciate what you have done in Managed WP Hosting niche. With WP REST API and ever growing themes/plugins market, would you advise someone new to start offering Managed WP Hosting Services? I know I'm literally asking if you would wanna have more competitors, but my question is kinda more driven towards the fact that how hard is it to bootstrap a hosting business in relation to WordPress, what are the pain points? What does one need to know — as we call —before jumping the ship?

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Joshua Strebel

I would advise the next guy to find the next "blue ocean" (great book btw). I think Managed WP will see some refinements around the edges but as a category is likely filled out. But go find the next thing.

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Ahmad Awais

Hey, Joshua!
It doesn't really answer my question. I actually wanted to advise a friend who is in WordPress Hosting business for last three years — not doing so great — well, still I get it.

Thanks for the book suggestion.

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Joshua Strebel

Well, It took Pagely 3years to 'get its legs' so maybe your friend is right at the turning point. Don't give up as they say.

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Ahmad Awais

Thanks Joshua for all the answers and your time. Will pass along your message :)

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