A lot of discussion has followed our HostGator shared hosting review and subsequent comparisons with other shared hosts. HostGator is indeed one of the most talked about hosting companies featured on Web Hosting Craze. I hope this interview with Brent Oxley will help you see why and spur yet more discussion. There’s a lot more here than bandwidth and disk space. Fellow entrepreneurs will both take heart in Brent’s journey from dorm room to executive suite. Thanks, Brent for sharing your experience and giving us insight into what’s ahead for HostGator.
HostGator has an interesting early history. Tell me about your founding the company as a college student.
I wouldn’t call the beginning all that interesting. I had always believed that I’d be successful at an early age and that by attending college I was essentially giving up on my dreams and admitting defeat. I spent my first two months at Florida Atlantic University as your typical freshman screwing off having fun. It was the first time in years that I wasn’t working 24/7 on some type of Internet venture.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that while I was having a blast I was wasting my time and accomplishing absolutely nothing to reach my goals. I found myself constantly conjuring up ideas that would allow me to drop out of college. With only a few thousands dollars to my name the only logical choice was the Internet. I was tired of the unstable advertising market and wanted a recurring revenue source, which is why I decided to give web hosting another try. There I was sitting at my crappy little dorm room desk pounding away at the keyboard in search of the perfect hosting domain name. I tried hundreds of domain names that all ended up being taken before thinking of and registering Hostgator.com. One name I specifically remember trying to register that was taken was hostlion.com. I sometimes where we’d be today had hostlion been available.
The dorm room made for terrible working conditions. My three roommates were very loud at times, the AC rarely worked, and worst of all the Internet had daily multi hour outages. I don’t think a day ever went buy that I wasn’t calling IT and demanding to speak with a manager.
Life was pretty boring with me being either in class, sleeping, or working on Hostgator. The funny thing is that I don’t believe I ever completed any of my homework in the dorm room. In my mind the dorm room was company headquarters and reserved for only official gator work. I was required to go to class so instead of paying attention to the teacher I’d complete all my work from my previous classes to give myself more time to focus on Hostgator. It wasn’t until the end of my first semester that business really started to take off and become difficult to juggle with classes. Halfway through second semester I was being woken up numerous times a night from both support and sales calls. I also rarely made it through a class without having to take numerous “restroom breaks” to take a call.
I finished out my first year of college with decent grades and was finally able to spend my summer months 100% focused on HG. The business continued to thrive with me investing a total of about $1,000 of startup money into it. Summer quickly came to an end and due to support volumes I had to make the decision of putting school on hold or closing shop. Dropping out of school was a no brainer to me since I was already making more than the average college graduate. When I told my dad about my decision he did everything he could to try to change my mind. He had trouble understanding why I couldn’t find someone to run the business for me while I focused on school. My mom was cool about it and pretty much told me that she had faith in whatever decision I made. The rest of my family and friends were very unsupportive. They argued with me saying I was making the worst decision of my life. Ironically many of these people are now the ones constantly asking me for a loan.
When did you start offering reseller hosting? And what was it like to launch that product line?
If I recall correctly reseller hosting was launched about the same time as shared hosting. It was dedicated hosting that wasn’t offered until years later. In the beginning I hated reseller hosting and for good reason! I wasn’t that technical of a person and unfortunately resellers were always asking me for support on issues I was clueless on. It wasn’t until I started experimenting with advertising that I fell in love with resellers. I did a $1,200 advertising campaign targeting shared hosting on yahoo, which generated zero signups. I then did a test run for reseller hosting and found that I was able to convert resellers at $80 a pop. I quickly carried the unlimited domain offering over from our reseller hosting to our shared plans. With Hostgator being one of the first hosting companies to focus on unlimited domain hosting business almost instantly exploded, and to this day we grow as fast as we can hire qualified employees.
Which of HostGator’s services are the most popular? What about the least popular?
The order of popularity from greatest to least would be shared, reseller, vps, with dedicated being our least. Our vps offering is only about a year old now, but it has already surpassed all of our expectations. The downsides to offering vps are that it’s a lower margin product and it has somewhat cannibalized our dedicated server sales.
What do you spend most of your time at work doing? How have your day-to-day responsibilities changed over the past few years?
The first two years in business I spent practically 100% of my time doing phone and chat support. The following few years I spent most of my time doing sales and support tickets. I now spend most of my time responding to customers that reach out to me as well as working with employees. We have over 400,000 customers yet our websites still says, “If you ever have a problem with the regular support, just ask that your ticket be assigned to Brent and he will personally take the time to give you the VIP attention that you deserve.” This is great as I’m able to help the customers who need it most, but most importantly it allows me to keep a pulse on the business. I have a theory that if just one customer reaches out to me with an issue hundreds if not thousands of customers are having the same issue.
Any host will say that they care about their brand, but most seem to look the other way when complaints appear on third party sites. HostGator has taken an active approach in confronting online negativity for years, responding to users on Twitter, WebHostingTalk, forums and elsewhere. How has this unusual approach paid off for the brand? Has it been worth it?
We realize that our reputation is everything and because of this we will do everything in our power to protect it. Anyone who is posting, is going to be very vocal not only online but in person about your brand. If you are able to reach out to them, apologize, and attempt to make things right you’ll usually turn a basher into a promoter. There’s no way to gauge how successful this has been for us, but I personally believe if we didn’t take this approach we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Customer service comes up a lot in our reviews at Web Hosting Craze. It seems an inescapable pain point for all web hosts. We don’t get very many complaints about HostGator, so you must be doing something right. How is HostGator’s customer service different from other support models?
The majority of hosting companies claim to have 24/7 phone, chat, and ticket support along with a 99.9% uptime. The difference is that very few companies live up to this claim as HostGator does. Another major difference is that no employee is too important for a customer to talk to. If a $6 account wants to talk to me or any other upper management they can.
Why do you think so many people looking for web hosting choose HostGator over the many other shared cPanel hosts? What’s different? Is it your aforementioned attention to the brand over the years?
To reiterate what I said earlier I once again can’t stress enough how important a great reputation is to any company. If we ever lose it we’ll be no different than the other monster hosting brands that have come and gone over the years.
Not too long ago, we moved to dedicated hosting after our “unlimited” host took us offline without warning for resource overages that originated from WordPress. How can a HostGator shared hosting customer monitor their resource and inode usage so as to ensure that they don’t violate your Terms of Service?
In our control panel we have a section that reports a customers cpu usage, memory usage, processes running, as well as inode usage.
Some web hosting companies use affiliate marketing as the main channel to acquire customers. HostGator seems to deploy a wide variety of advertising. Are you satisfied with the affiliate performance and do you have plans to spice things up for publishers?
We’ve done a horrible job to date managing our affiliate program. HostGator has been lacking a proper affiliate manager; affiliate software, as well as the billing software to do the job correctly. We have just hired Taylor Hawes and have entrusted him with the task of completely overhauling our affiliate program.
How is the SEO Hosting product working out? Have any search engine companies expressed concerns over the implications of a product that enables one account to potentially hide affiliated domains?
Seohosting.com has been a very successful brand for us that represents a significant amount of Hostgator’s revenue. We haven’t heard from any of the search engines and don’t believe we ever will. We are worried about IPv6 becoming the new standard and replacing IPv4. IPv6 could destroy the market, but it could just as easily be the best thing to ever happen to it. It’s very possible that the major search engines may decide to put more relevance on legacy IPv4 ips.
Are there any new products or services in the pipeline at HostGator?
Windows shared hosting is very close to being launched.
We have been working on a new backup storage offering that will be launched in the coming year
We will be launching a new brand under the name Launchpad.com that will offer discounted domains and hosting. The objective of this brand will be to compete with godaddy and more specifically go after their market share.
And last I’m sure we’ll be doing our own cloud hosting solution in the near future. I’m not a big fan of cloud hosting, but I do believe we’d be able to do it better than anyone, so I figure why not.
What do you think HostGator’s biggest challenge will be over the next few years?
I have no doubt our biggest challenge will continue to be finding the qualified employees require to keep up with our growth. We plan on spending millions on tv commercials but in order to accomplish this we need the man power to support it.
Okay, enough about hosting. What do you like to do for fun?
I enjoy traveling overseas, paintballing, floating the river, camping, pulling pranks, and basically anything else that gets me off the computer.