Q1: Can you give a brief background on your business?
I created and operate ReviewSignal.com. It is a data driven review site. I call it that because it operates differently than what we traditionally think of as a review site. It pulls social media comments people are publicly posting and automatically sorts and analyzes them to see what people think about web hosting companies. Keeping in that spirit, I also do a lot of data driven blogging where I test and analyze web hosting companies. The most popular thing I do is my annual WordPress Hosting Performance Benchmarks article where I exhaustively test all the big names in the WordPress hosting business and see how well they compare against one another.
Q2: How long have you been working with WordPress and what peaked your curiosity about it?
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I’ve been working with WordPress for somewhere between 5-10 years. I’m not really sure when I first got started with it. I’ve been building websites since 1996 and used a huge variety of CMSs since then, WordPress had a simple appeal back when it started. For setting up basic websites it was really clean and easy compared to other options.
Q3: Is there anything you find surprising about WordPress?
How large the ecosystem has become. It’s amazing how many sites it powers, how many people create plugins/themes and simply make a living off an open source piece of software. It’s really fascinating to see the influence it’s had on the web.
Q4: Is there anything you find surprising about the hosting industry?
How generally terrible it is. I started my business because after a decade in the web hosting industry, there still wasn’t an honest web hosting review site that I would be comfortable recommending to people. And after operating my site for 4 years now, it’s very easy to understand why.
I get web hosting companies emailing me regularly trying to bribe their way into being rated the best. The worst part is, most of them aren’t even hiding it. This behavior is business as usual to them. So the most surprising thing to me is how regularly I am disgusted by the behavior of a lot of the companies in the space. That isn’t to say there aren’t some awesome companies out there, but it seems like they are the minority. The worst part about that is that these scammy/disgusting tactics are seemingly very effective and the real good guys are fighting an even worse uphill battle because of it.
Q5: How should the hosting industry work, in contrast to how it does now?
Innovation seems to have really stopped at the bottom end of the market. Having a cPanel hosting account 10 years ago feels the same today. We’re seeing an explosion in niche hosting solutions like WordPress hosting. We’re seeing huge improvements and changes in the developer hosting options, generally called cloud something or other. But the average consumer at the bottom, really hasn’t gotten much out of this yet and I’m not sure I see much innovation going on. The biggest challenger/innovator in the space may be the SquareSpace/Wix/Shopify/etc that are pulling people away from having their own hosting and getting pulled into a SaaS product instead. They are often providing a much better experience than simply being handed a web hosting account and a complex set of install-your-own-app options.
Q6: Any general advice for scaling an application, since you have worked with load testing extensively?
I love scaling and performance. The two general strategies are can I make it faster or can I parallelize this? Making it faster can be anything from coding optimization, what’s the Big O of what I’m trying to do, to caching to simply buying faster hardware. Caching often gives us the lowest hanging fruit in terms of performance optimization. But the whole thought process is, how can I make this run faster once or many times. Once you get past the basic speed improvements, it generally becomes more thoughtful in terms of what may make an application go faster.
The second strategy is parallelize. My application can do a task X in Y amount of time. In a linear world, if I need to do X 10 times, it takes 10Y time. If I can parallelize it and have two instances of the application it takes 5Y time (10X tasks / 2 instances). This strategy can be applied to a whole application, which you often see in load balanced web setups where multiple servers respond to website requests. Split the load between the servers, you can handle a lot more requests. It can also be applied to parts of an application if you can break up components that don’t depend on one another. But that’s a lot more complex and probably beyond the scope of discussion here.
Q7: Traveling seems to be your thing. What countries have you been to and which one would you go back to if you could only choose one?
I suppose I’ll get lumped into what’s being called a Digital Nomad these days. I’ve spent 4-6 months of each of the past few years traveling around the world. I’m planning to go on an indefinite trip starting next year. I’ve been to roughly 35-40 countries, so I won’t list them all. This year though I’ve been to Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.
As far as choosing just one, that’s hard. I’ll be headed back to Thailand to start my indefinite trip. There’s an island I absolutely love and have been going to for a few years now called Koh Lanta on the Andaman sea side of Thailand. It’s got a fantastic coworking space called KoHub, the best diving I’ve experienced in Thailand and wonderful beaches. I spent two and a half months there this year and simply loved it. So that’s where I’ll begin my adventure. Destination number two is Prague, Czech Republic. I love the city, it’s beautiful, interesting and affordable.
Q8: What is the tech/startup scene in Washington D.C. like? Are you involved with it in any way?
The nice answer would be to say it’s great and everyone should come to DC. But that would be a lie. It’s mediocre and going downhill I think. There are definitely some successful and promising startups in the area, but that’s to be expected of any area with a large population, a large number of universities, the most educated city in the US, and a lot of money. Given that it has all those things, I’m disappointed with how few hugely successful startups are coming out of DC.
The last ‘unicorn’ startup to come out of DC was Living Social, but that seems to be on life support after the deal bubble popped. There’s a bunch of security related startups that are quietly doing very well like Mandiant which sold for $1B last year. Another bright spot of the DC tech scene is the focus on social impact and civic hacking. Those two seem to be growing and are hugely important issues. Having a lot of smart people working on problems in those spaces in DC is great.
So a couple of niches in DC seem to be thriving, but it’s all generally connected to the government. But for the consumer/b2b tech startups I think it’s worse. The number of tech events where startup people are attending seems to be decreasing. There are fewer hackathons than a few years ago. We no longer have a DC Week which celebrated the tech scene in DC. Many of the companies and spaces that used to host large-scale events related to tech for free have stopped or want to charge huge fees.
I used to be more involved when I was a member and on the board of a now defunct coworking space. I would regularly host a couple monthly tech and startup related events like the DC Drupal Lab and DC NightOwls. These days, I attend a few events and help out friends who run some local events like Startup Weekend DC.
Q9: What does the future look like for the hosting industry?
The lower end will be a race to the bottom where your mega brands survive on scale. I think the middle-class providers who are still in the cPanel/generic shared hosting game will be slowly wiped out/stagnate. You will see more and more specialization of service providers.
WordPress hosting is only the start, I think you will see more and more competition for each type of niche hosting. I think SaaS/PaaS providers will pop up to support all kinds of niches. I see fewer and fewer people simply looking for ‘hosting.’ They want <something> hosting. WordPress hosting. Drupal hosting. NodeJS hosting. Ruby on Rails hosting. I’m not sure we’re ever going to see cPanel level coverage in hosting again where everyone has one solution. I think we’ll see smaller, specialized companies charging higher prices and (hopefully) providing better services while the mega hosts provide a basic level of coverage to much of these technologies at a price point low enough to keep enough people there.
Q10: What does the future look like for you and your business?
For me, it’s traveling and trying to find a community that I am happy and productive in. For my business, it’s looking at the data, telling data-driven stories and to continue trying to bring big data into web hosting reviews.