Austin GinderOwner at Anchor Hosting
Jon PenlandCOO at Kinsta
In this episode of the Reverse Engineered podcast, Austin Ginder joins host Jon Penland to discuss his experience running his one-person WordPress hosting and maintenance business. Austin is the owner of Anchor Hosting, a company providing hassle-free web hosting services to clients worldwide.
Austin explains why he doesn’t do sales to get clients. According to him, everything you do as a business owner should attract customers, not the other way around. Austin’s perspective on marketing and sales might be different, but it’s definitely effective. He’s managing more than 1300 WordPress websites on his own.
If you want to hear about the future of web development, website hosting, and the advantages of open ecosystems, tune in to the latest episode of our podcast.
- As a business owner, you should attract customers in everything you do. Austin says he doesn’t do sales. The question is, how does a business owner that doesn’t do sales get clients then? In Austin’s opinion, even the idea of getting customers sounds wrong. Your work should be attracting customers to you, not the other way around. He explains: “I get back to the community whenever possible. I’ve spoken at a number of WordCamps, my local WordCamp, and I’m regularly hosting the local WordPress meetups here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You could call it sales or marketing, but no, it’s just helping other people. And when people see what you can do, they end up working with you. It’s just kind of a natural thing that happens.”
- The future of WordPress maintenance is automation. Austin admits everything he does, as a website developer, should be automated eventually. It’s just a matter of time before it turns into an automated tool, and the same goes for WordPress. “I spend a large portion of my time building tools that automate what I do on a day-to-day basis because I just envision in the future that WordPress maintenance is solved through a completely automated tool. And it would eliminate the need for not only my position but also for the ecosystem. It would be a huge net positive for everyone.”
- Don’t burn bridges when you’re transitioning into your own business. Looking back at this beginning as a business owner, Austin admits he had a rough start with sporadic revenue. But it was a good time to take risks. He learned from his experience that you should explore as much as possible and not worry about getting too focused right at the beginning. “One thing I did do to put myself in a good position is I did not burn bridges when I transitioned from one thing to the next. In fact, when I decided to go out on my own, I had like a six-month backlog of my own work waiting for me.”
Today’s Guest: Austin Ginder, Owner of Anchor Hosting
Austin has been a business owner and a solo developer at Anchor Hosting for 11 years. He likes working solo at the moment, but he might consider hiring employees in the future. He enjoys his freedom and feels blessed to be able to control his schedule.
Austin’s Transition From Being a Website Developer Into a Hosting Service-Oriented Business
“Transitioning from projects to a service made sense for me and what I wanted to pursue. The revenue aspect, going from a per-project basis to a revenue, maybe had some influence, but at the end of the day, they’re both really hard. They have pros and cons to both of them. Some people do great with projects, and they enjoy them. I think it would be foolish just to pursue a revenue-based business because you think you could make more money, and now they have their own challenges.”
Getting a Customer vs. Attracting a Customer
“One way people find Anchor Hosting services is word of mouth as the primary source. The secondary source is people that read my blog. So I figured out that the end customer is not really my target. Sure, they’re the ones that are paying the bill, but actually providing value for the person that refers them to hosting service is who I’m going after.
So it’s going after the agency; it’s going after the web developer because, at the end of the day, no one really cares where the website’s hosted. They just go with whoever was referred to them by the person who built them the website. So my blog on anchor.host is very technical, and it’s me just sharing my journey, and the ones that are going to find it most interesting to read are web designers, web developers, agency folks. And those are the ones that I want to attract.”
What Is the Future of Anchor Hosting?
“The future of Anchor Hosting is CaptainCore because, at the end of the day, I foresee software being able to solve a lot of what you need to hire a web developer for. It should be. Technology is great. It’s just a matter of setting it up to do what we want it to do. And a lot of WordPress’s ecosystem rough edges come because it’s an open ecosystem. Anyone can do anything.
And I think my approach of CaptainCore has been: how can we leave the door open for you to do whatever you want, not lock it down like a bank, but just use your website however you want and start whatever plugins you want and on a passive basis figure out and solve problems through better scanners, better identifiers, better-automated systems built into it.”
The Advantages of Open Ecosystems and the Open Approach
“Apple ecosystem is a closed system. It is smooth, and it is amazing, and it’s polished because it is closed. But long-term, closed systems will not be able to compete if an open alternative exists.
WordPress is the big proponent of an open ecosystem, the open web. And I just strongly believe that these types of problems should be solved in an open manner. A lot of times, it’s really hard to do because you can build a business around it not being open and create a closed product. I definitely see lots of great ideas, and I wish that more companies would just take an open approach to it.”
[00:00:05] Jon Penland: Hey, everyone. My name is Jon Penland, and this podcast is brought to you by Kinsta, a premium managed hosting provider. In today’s episode, I’m talking to Austin Ginder, owner of Anchor Hosting. Austin, welcome to Reverse Engineered.
[00:00:17] Austin Ginder: Thanks for having me. This is an honor.
[00:00:20] Jon Penland: Yeah. We’re really excited to have you here. To kick us off, can you introduce yourself to our listeners?
[00:00:26] Austin Ginder: Sure. I am a WordPress web developer and I run a service called Anchor Hosting. And I do managed WordPress hosting services for web professionals.
[00:00:41] Jon Penland: Yeah, managed WordPress hosting. So, you said the keyword there, and a lot of our listeners are going to immediately go, why is Kinsta interviewing another managed WordPress hosting provider? So clear up the confusion there. Tell us more about Anchor Hosting. What is it? How is it different from another, you know, hosting provider like say Kinsta?
[00:01:02] Austin Ginder: Sure. So, first of all, I should probably just say I run this… I’m a solo developer, open book, I don’t do the hosting services myself. Anchor Hosting is a reseller of other web hosting services. So, I like to think of myself as the web developer in-between the hosting platform, and to provide a hassle-free experience to my customers, which are mostly small businesses.
[00:01:36] Jon Penland: Yeah, so really the concept then is you’re really doing a value-add on top of another hosting provider. So, what are some of the values that your customers get? What’s the value-add that you’re providing on top of the hosting?
[00:01:54] Austin Ginder: Yeah, initially it was just that. You put a web developer in front of web hosting service and there is intrinsic value in just that, because, web hosting services is a very technical service for largely, a non-technical, customer base that needs the service, so a lot of folks that need web hosting services, they just want a website. They don’t really want to deal with web hosting, the backups, even things like a site monitor, like, they don’t want to deal with it.
[00:02:37] Jon Penland: Yeah. And I think that something that’s a little bit different. Correct me if I’m wrong. I think you deal exclusively with WordPress sites, right?
[00:02:42] Austin Ginder: Yes, that’s correct.
[00:02:44] Jon Penland: So, something that’s obviously different, for any of our listeners who may not be familiar, WordPress is software that you have to run, right? It’s not a site builder that’s run for you. You are responsible for the software. And I think while WordPress is very accessible to users who are not extremely technical, there is more technical overhead than using a site built with a site. Now there’s trade-offs there too. There’s a lot more flexibility and a lot more power. You’re getting what you are. There’s a reason to take on the extra complexity, but I think a lot of times when people think about WordPress, they don’t necessarily recognize that there is a technical aspect that has to be considered.
[00:03:34] And that, particularly the relationship between that software and the hosting that it’s running on, it takes some knowledge to know how to navigate that relationship. So, is that kind of how Anchor Hosting got it start? Is you saw this pain point between the software and the infrastructure, and you were trying to figure out how to bridge that for your customers, or how did Anchor Hosting get it start?
[00:03:59] Austin Ginder: So, I think like most folks, you had this shiny object of, “I want to web hosting.” So, there was some of that from the initial start, for sure. If I go years back, I transitioned from IT consulting to being a web developer and building sites. And I had enough inside knowledge to know, hey, WordPress is a great tool for a lot of folks.
[00:04:35] So I primarily built WordPress sites and I would require them to host with me. I would literally tell them upfront at our initial meetings, “Hey, I’ll build you a website, but if you’re not going to host with me, I’m not even going to do the project because I just know how it goes.”
[00:04:53] WordPress is great because it’s open. You can do a lot to it. You can extend it. But because of that, it does come with some rough edges, and I was trying to solve that for my own customers by just managing that for them. Yeah, initially it was just hosting for my own customers for a number of years before I even started Anchor Hosting.
[00:05:18] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. So, when you say that, you were telling your customers, you need to host with me if I’m going to build a site for you, was that… I can see two possible motivations, and so maybe it was a little bit of both, or maybe it was one or the other, but the two possible motivations I can see there is: one, recognizing that a website is not something that exists in a static state. It requires ongoing attention. So, there’s that angle, but the other angle is a recurring revenue angle where, if you’re building a site and then handing it off, that’s a one-time shot of income, and then that’s it. Whereas, if you’re offering hosting, there’s a recurring stream. So, is it a little bit of both or was it a one of the other, in terms of motivating you to move that direction?
[00:06:02] Austin Ginder: Yeah, definitely. Like, when I built websites, I’m a developer. I… how do I say it, just kindly… I enjoyed the technical part of building a website, but once the website was built, I didn’t really care that much about the business. So I knew I was very technical and I needed, so leaning into that, I think web hosting is more transitioning from projects to a service. Makes sense for me and what I wanted to pursue. Yeah, the revenue aspect, sure, going from a per-project basis to a revenue maybe had some influence, but at the end of the day, they’re both really hard.
[00:06:51] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah, for sure.
[00:06:51] Austin Ginder: They have pros and cons to both of them. Some people do great with projects and they enjoy them, and I think it would be foolish to just pursue a revenue-based business because you think you could make more money and know they have their own challenges.
[00:07:11] Jon Penland: Sure. Yeah, I know. And that’s actually one of the things that I’ve always respected about the way you approach your business, is that I think a lot of times in business people make choices primarily focused on, I don’t know, financial outcomes or the “this makes good business” sense.
[00:07:30] And it’s not that you ignore the business sense, but I get the impression that you have underlying values around transparency and around doing work that you want to do, that sort of trump, those business considerations. Is that accurate? Do you find yourself making choices, going “This probably isn’t the best business choice, but this is the right choice for me?”
[00:07:59] Austin Ginder: Totally. Like I, everything I do is because I believe in it. Yeah. In terms of open source and open… I’m an open book, and I feel there’s definitely more to be gained by being open and transparent to the vendors than the alternative. Yeah.
[00:08:29] Jon Penland: Yeah. Okay. All right. When we were looking back, when I was looking back, preparing for this, one thing that struck me is, back in 2014, you’re starting your hosting business, and you seem to ask yourself the question, as I enter this new slice of the web industry, I ponder how long will hosting services be around? Will Google or Amazon released something good enough for the masses? So, we’re now what, seven years later? And, is this still something you’re pondering, still something you’re concerned about happening at some point in the future, or has your perspective changed?
[00:09:00] Austin Ginder: So, the technology of the web hosting industry, it’s always changing and improving. Like, I love to talk about the future and imagine how things could be. That’s always part of it. For me, one thing that changed is, while I am a web host reseller, I’m actually really being a reseller of hosting services, not a web host, because it allows me to pursue more maintenance issues that oftentimes are, I feel it’s a different type of problem that is, what’s an ecosystem problem with the WordPress, the maintenance component.
[00:09:52] So, anyway, yeah, so I am curious how things will play out on the web hosting space, but me personally, I don’t have any intentions of innovating in that sector of it, because I want to innovate in a different way.
[00:10:06] Jon Penland: And I think that it’s not going to be super controversial to suggest that the level of service you’re able to provide your customers is something that Google and Amazon would have a tough time matching.
[00:10:20] Austin Ginder: Yeah. Right.
[00:10:21] Jon Penland: Okay. Another thing that really struck me as I was looking at the way that you’ve approached your business, is that you’ve really been transparent about the fact that you just don’t really do sales. As somebody, a business owner who doesn’t really do sales, how do you find clients? How does that work?
[00:10:42] Austin Ginder: Oh, that’s a great question. So, yeah, like this typical sales position, I have no intentions of ever hiring into that role, so I’m a web developer. I don’t like sales. I don’t like cold calls or anything like that. So, I primarily get my new customers through web developers and agencies that work with me.
[00:10:07] Jon Penland: Okay.
[00:11:08] Austin Ginder: So, that’s just word of mouth, but there’s a lot to unpack in this question because I feel like every, well, everything you do does attract customers. Like, even the idea of me getting a customer is, I think, wrong. Like, you should be attracting customers to you in everything you do, so there’s a lot in that meaning – a few things I’ve done, I’m open, I get back to the community whenever possible, I’ve spoken at a number of work camps, my local work camp and I’m regularly hosting the local WordPress meetups here, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And, yeah, so all of that, and you could call it, that’s sales or that’s marketing, but no, it’s just helping other people. And, when people see what you can do they end up working with you. It’s just a natural thing that happens.
[00:12:15] Jon Penland: Something you said in there that struck me, is the idea here of getting a customer is the wrong idea. And, I want to go back to that a little bit. So, what’s, I think I know what you’re saying when you say getting a customer is wrong, that concept is the wrong way to think about it. Can you unpack that a little bit? What do you mean when you say that that idea is the wrong way to think about it?
[00:12:38] Austin Ginder: Yeah. You want to attract customers to you, for sure. So, one way people find Anchor Hosting services is, again, word of mouth is the primary source. The secondary source is people that read my blog.
[00:12:56] Jon Penland: Yeah.
[00:12:56] Austin Ginder: So, I figured out that the end customer is not really my target. Sure, they’re the ones that are paying the bill, but actually providing value for the person that refers them to web hosting service is really who I’m going after. So, it’s going after the agency, it’s going after the web developer, because at the end of the day, no one really cares where the website’s hosted, they just go with whoever was referred to them by the person who built them the website. My blog on anchor.host is very technical and it’s me just sharing my journey. And the ones that are going to find it most interesting to read are web designers, web developers, agencies, folks, and those are the ones that I want to attract.
[00:13:49] Jon Penland: Yeah. And, I wanted to actually speak to that a little bit, and you’re getting into the answer to my next question is you have talked about the fact that the way that you attract customers is not by trying to attract the end customer but trying to attract the agency or the web developer that they’re working with.
[00:14:12] And, the question that came to mind is how do you build those relationships, with web developers and agencies? What are some of the things that you’re doing to try and build relationships with these folks who then refer customers your way?
[00:14:26] Austin Ginder: Yeah. So, I think this goes back to why I actually resell hosting services. Because, at the end of the day, the agency model does the exact same thing for the same reason as I do it. It is because they want to service their customers on the long-term and they know if the customers themselves tries to manage the hosting services, they’re going to get into trouble. If they don’t keep after updates and things could break, or just even basic things like installing who knows what plugin, and it breaks something else. And, they don’t know what to do. Agencies love to work with me because we are coming to the same conclusions about how we can best service our customers. Then, the question really comes into who is more efficient at doing it – an agency that might have 10 designers and two developers on staff versus an individual like me who is focused on just that small slice of the puzzle, and that is making sure the website is healthy.
[00:15:39] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, what’s interesting there to me is that I guess what I appreciate about that answer is that what I hear you saying is that you add value to the agency, and the agency then, in turn, is able to add value to their customer, and it’s actually more efficient, so probably in the long run, it costs less.
[00:16:03] So, what you’ve really been able to set up is a situation where the customer, in the end, is probably paying less than they would pay. They get better service from the agency because the agency is focused on the website, and the agency is now able to maintain that relationship over time because they’re keeping that customer happy.
[00:16:25] And, I think we all know that if you can work with the same agency with your website over time, there’s efficiency there as well. So, that’s a gain for the customer. That’s a gain for the agency. And then, obviously, it’s a gain for you, it’s a customer for you, but in the end, what you’re providing to both the agency and the customer, it’s all positive. There’s no hard sell. It’s like, “Let me save you time and let me save you money”, right?
[00:16:55] Austin Ginder: Yeah. Correct. It’s very easy to talk with agencies and for them to come to the same conclusions. At the end of the day, I’m a web developer, most of their developers on staff can do the exact same thing I can do.
[00:17:12] Austin Ginder: So, it’s literally just an efficiency call. The exact same thing your developers are doing for your 20 or your 50 or a hundred websites, I can do for a thousand sites. And, when you’re programming, and scripting, and automating, then a lot of those things are just, it’s, the efficiency increases exponential because I press a button I do it to a thousand sites, and you press a button you can do it to your 20 sites. And the issues on a day-to-day basis are all the same. It’s this bad update for WooCommerce has to be addressed. Well, in an agency, you have to address it for your customers. But for me, I can just address it in a single command for everyone.
[00:18:00] Jon Penland: Yeah. One of the interesting things you’ve said a couple of times, and you’ve said this two or three times, is that you’re a web developer and it’s sticking in my mind because I know some other folks who run similar businesses and I don’t think they would refer to themselves as web developers.
[00:18:17] I think they would refer to themselves as WordPress maintenance experts or… and they’re web developers in the sense that they could certainly put together a WordPress site, but I think something that you have struck on that we’ve talked around a few times, is that you bring a pretty high level of technical proficiency acting as a maintenance provider. And, I think that’s probably fairly unique within the space that you operate in. Do you think that’s unique or a bit of a unique wrinkle to what you offer within the particular space that you operate in?
[00:19:03] Austin Ginder: I know that there’s other folks that have a similar mindset in terms of automation and whatnot. But maybe, I guess it’s unique. I don’t really know.
[00:19:13] Jon Penland: You don’t really know. Sure. Okay.
[00:19:15] Austin Ginder: What I do know is everything that I do as a web developer should be automated eventually. So, it’s just a matter of when that happens. And I spend a large portion of my time building tools that automate what I do on a day-to-day basis because I just envision in the future that, that WordPress maintenance is solved through a completely automated tool. And, and it would eliminate the need for not only my position but also for the ecosystem. It would be a huge net positive for everyone.
[00:20:02] Jon Penland: Yeah. Talking about automation and efficiency, that’s the next direction I want to go. Before we get there, I want to provide a little bit of context ’cause I know you’re working on some things to help in that space. Before we get to those things, I think it’ll be helpful for our listeners to understand the context in which you’re working on these things. So, you’ve already said a couple of times you’re a one-man operation for the sake of our listeners, roughly, how many sites are you, just by yourself, managing?
[00:20:29] Austin Ginder: It’s close to 1300 WordPress websites.
[00:20:34] Jon Penland: Yeah. Wow. So, 1300 sites you’re managing as a one-person operation that includes applying updates, doing all sorts of regular maintenance, backups, being a point of technical support for all of those customers. Is there a point at which you think you’ll expand your business or bring someone else on, or are you really leaning on efficiency to say, “I’m going to figure out how to make this work without expanding the business itself, without adding new people to the equation?”
[00:21:05] Austin Ginder: I’ll add new people. I’m not opposed to that, but they have to be for the right reasons. What I don’t wanna do is what other maintenance providers do and they bring someone on to do the maintenance work. That’s not going to solve the maintenance problem on an ecosystem level. And I feel like bringing people on to just do the work is the wrong approach.
[00:21:32] So, yeah, like I want to bring people on, but also want to have the same split focus between building tools that solve our own problems, and doing the actual maintenance work. And, in my mind, I always try to keep it on a 50:50 split. Like, half of my time should be doing something that is investing in the future, meaning building scripts, or a better migration process, or a better site monitor or, and the other half of the time actually doing the work, that is addressing issues with my customer’s websites, make sure they’re up and running smoothly, keeping my eyes open on the ecosystem, like who are the host providers I want to work with, who are the other providers I want to use, like DNS providers and domain providers, and how I want to bundle that all together?
[00:22:26] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, if you’re not going to add somebody to do maintenance if you would add somebody, what would they be doing? Would they be working on the automation problem?
[00:22:37] Austin Ginder: I think the best developer that creates things is the one that’s in the weeds, so it’s always going to be a mix of developing because you are feeling the pain.
[00:22:47] Jon Penland: Okay. Yeah. Yeah. I hear you. So, it would be an expansion of the same thing, right? Like, it’s not like I’m not going to hand, I’m not going to hire somebody else so that I don’t have to think about the maintenance anymore, but if the work grows to the point where I need somebody else, I would bring them on, but they would be doing maintenance and development so that they feel the pain and they’re developing to try and solve that pain point.
[00:23:09] Austin Ginder: Yeah, as of the beginning of 2021, I have brought on someone help me out, part-time help. So, just nights and weekends, they fill in a little bit customer support and they can start to feel some of what I’ve been building, the rough edges internally. So, that’s been super helpful and yeah, I would foresee that expanding, but I do not have any fast-growth plans.
[00:22:37] Jon Penland: Sure. You’ve definitely been on a build a sustainable business path for a long time. That’s been right. Let’s build a sustainable business, seems to have been your mantra, your approach over the last several years.
[00:23:50] Austin Ginder: Yeah. And, I feel like I need to interject one piece. I don’t want to talk about my family life all that much, but you have to realize while I was building Anchor Hosting, and business, and whatnot, a lot of it was a completely secondary focus.
[00:24:14] My wife and I, we have six kids and three of them were by birth, and three of them we adopted through foster care. And, that was in a time span of three years while I was building the business. Wow.
[00:24:29] So, the business has always been a secondary focus because that was all hands on deck for both of us for a number of years. So, that’s maybe part of the reason why I’m still a solo developer running this and not a big team of people because I’ve just been growing, it’s bootstrapped, slowly or over the last number of years, and I don’t have big growth plans for it.
[00:25:02] Jon Penland: Yeah. And, I’m glad you brought that up. I actually did have a question jotted down here, so I’ll just dive right into it. I do know a number of small business owners, or I’ve seen people start businesses, and for the first number of years, or, sometimes indefinitely, folks will work a tremendous amount, just a truly tremendous amount. And, I’m just curious, as somebody who’s managing 1300 sites, is that true of you, or is work-life balance something you place a high priority on?
[00:25:29] Austin Ginder: So, work is what I do that fills in all the other cracks.
[00:25:34] Jon Penland: Sure. Okay. No, I like that. I like that. Yeah.
[00:25:37] Austin Ginder: And there is an aspect of my job that I’m always on call in a sense, meaning it would be very similar to a doctor that’s on call if an emergency happens. They have to get pulled in, if they’re like a specialist, same thing. If one of my sites has an emergency situation, I am technically on call and I need to be able to jump on it whenever. But these emergency situations are very rare, to be honest, because if you are doing things in a very proactive manner, you should not be running into emergencies on a daily basis.
[00:26:15] Jon Penland: All that frequently. Sure.
[00:26:17] Austin Ginder: So, yeah, my work gets sliced up a lot. It doesn’t look like what typical people’s jobs look like, meaning I might be dragging the kids, one of my children to an appointment and I’ll work 30 minutes or an hour on the laptop while they’re doing something, or picking up from preschool, or taking the kids to school, whatnot.
[00:26:46] So, I don’t know if it’s a balance, but it’s definitely a mix all around, and I’ll usually have some dedicated work time in the evenings, but I’m not working, like, 10 hours a day. I am working a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit there in, like, blocks of time.
[00:27:10] Jon Penland: Yeah, no that’s awesome. I’ve heard… when I wrote the question and used the term work-life balance, I wrestled with that term because that’s a term that has fallen out of favor for the exact reasons you described, right? Like, for most people or for many people, particularly people in technology, especially people running their own businesses, the idea of separating work from the rest of life doesn’t really make sense anymore. Like, it, work is something that fits in with the rest of your life, in whatever ways makes sense, in whatever ways are healthy. And, it does, it sounds to me like what you’re saying is that you have life priorities and work. Work is certainly important to you, but you fit it in with the rest of those life priorities. It’s not a balancing act so much as it’s just how do things fit together? What do I have time for today?
[00:28:02] Austin Ginder: Yeah, there’s a huge freedom, and I feel super blessed to be able to have a schedule that I control. Yeah, I’ve been working with, for myself since 2010 and then transitioned into Anchor Hosting in 2014. So, I’ve been in charge of my schedule since then, and, just the freedom to do it, like, we’ve already done trips as a family together where I technically didn’t take off work. It was a mixed approach and it works. Like, my wife will drive our van. I’ll get some work done during the day. Yeah, I guess maybe a little bit more healthy balance might come once I hired my first employee, and we can juggle some more active roles, passive roles accordingly.
[00:28:59] Jon Penland: Yeah. Nice. There’s a certain amount of risk as a customer and entrusting your site to a single person. And, I know this is a problem you’ve thought about cause you’ve written about it. So, how have you managed that risk for your customers? You’ve got 1300 sites and they all are resting on your shoulders. So, how have you managed that sort of business continuity risk for your customers?
[00:29:27] Austin Ginder: I have a bus plan, meaning here’s what happens in all the bad case scenarios possible.
[00:29:39] Jon Penland: If Austin gets hit by a bus, here’s what happens.
[00:29:42] Austin Ginder: So, you can actually read that over at anchor.host/thebusplan and, you see how I structured it. You can think of it just like a love-you-will for the business, what happens.
[00:29:49] So, first off pulling someone in, that’s the main risk people are most concerned about, like what happens ultimately if I’m pulled out of the picture. But if you break it down, having someone resell your hosting services, it actually can reduce the risk, because, at the end of the day, all of my websites are being hosted with other reputable hosting providers. And they have more staff that can have more eyeballs on their site than me. So, I am in most cases, just an additive service, and I’m not creating a substantially more risk if they’re using me.
[00:30:44] But, yeah, part of my plan is I have other colleagues that do exactly what I do. They also resell web hosting services and we share each other’s credentials. So in the worst case, I have access to their password management system and they have access to my password management system.
[00:31:06] Jon Penland: Yeah. What’s interesting, you mentioned the fact that you rely on other providers, and I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t pick up at this point and say, we, we actually have a policy for, what do we do if an account holder is otherwise unavailable to manage their account any longer like we have a procedure by which people who own websites can claim ownership and demonstrate ownership in some tangible ways.
[00:31:34] And then, we will allow them to transfer those sites to their own separate accounts. Now there’s, I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on how we do that, but we’ve thought through those problems as well. And if you’re working with reputable providers, hopefully, that’s happening across the board with all of your providers where they also have a plan for in a worst-case scenario, how could somebody reclaim a site if the account holder’s no longer available.
[00:32:01] All right. So, I do want to get back. You talked a little bit about tools and automation, and I do want to spend some time thinking and talking about that because I feel like that’s a major part of your focus, and you’ve referred to the fact that you want to solve the maintenance problem at the ecosystem level.
[00:32:15] And, I feel like you’re investing a lot of your energy there, so let’s start with thinking about this problem at the level of Anchor Hosting. So, you manage a lot of sites yourself. That means you use a lot of tools and automation to make that happen. If you were trying to install updates on 1300 sites, by logging into WP admin for each one, you would do nothing but install plugin updates. So, what are some of the tools and automations you’re using today to make your business work?
[00:32:45] Austin Ginder: Yeah, I should say, like, how it got started real quick. So, first off, there’s a free tool that GoDaddy makes. It’s called ManageWP. Awesome tool. I highly recommend most folks check that out, because a lot of what I’ve written was born out of some of the pain points or growth issues I had using ManageWP. ManageWP is awesome tool. You can connect 20, 50 sites, a hundred sites, and you get most of the features that you need. You can one-click install all the updates, put on schedule, whatnot. At my scale that I, yeah, I need a little bit more granular control, so I started writing bash scripts to do some of this, where it would just reach out and, in a sequential basis, talked to all my sites, do a nightly backup.
[00:33:49] That was the first thing I wrote. And then, at some point, that script got, kinda, complicated and I decided to actually give it a name to make it a separate project. It’s called CaptainCore and CaptainCore is at this point, it’s like a fusion of everything I’ve ever wanted.
[00:34:09] Jon Penland: Okay. Nice.
[00:34:10] Austin Ginder: It’s a hosting dashboard meant for resellers to use, like myself. And, it does some really crazy things under the hood. One of them, for example, is called Quicksaves and that feature does the daily scan of all my websites and it picks up any file changes and it puts it into a Git Repository. That’s a developer term, but basically, I see on a file-level basis, everything that is changing in a visual manner.
[00:34:47] Jon Penland: On a day-to-day basis. Wow. Yeah.
[00:34:49] Austin Ginder: It’s a huge asset to use, especially when troubleshooting issues. So, like, when something breaks, that is my first go-to. I check out my Quicksave and I can visually see, oh yeah, this and this plugin were updated, and the issue probably is within one of these two, and then I can quickly troubleshoot those issues.
[00:35:09] Jon Penland: Yeah, that’s awesome. The quicksave thing suddenly is like jumping out to me as… that’s something we could use at Kinsta, right? If our developers could, to make it a little bit easier. There are ways that they try to figure out that information using timestamps and whatnot, but to be able to see it, yeah, that’s awesome. So, anyways, you built this automation, this maintenance script in Bash, got too complicated, turned it into CaptainCore, and then you were talking about this one little piece of it, but I know it does a lot more. So, what else is in there?
[00:35:42] Austin Ginder: Correct, that’s just one little piece. And, a lot of these things that I’ve created, whereas either my own pain points, or also just things that didn’t exist or I didn’t see it happen. So, one of the other things I was doing, like most folks, was site monitoring. I was monitoring all my customer sites, and at the time I was using WordPress’s free Jetpack service which includes a site monitor. What would happen is, if there was a data center problem or an issue where all of a batch of my customers went offline for a short period of time, I wouldn’t receive, like, 300, 500 separate emails, and it was continuous because every time it would go off and on, each individual site would notify me.
[00:36:38] Yeah, I built a smarter site monitor, inside CaptainCore, to basically solve that problem for myself. It just checks all of my sites on a regular interval, and if there’s an outage, it sends me a single email that tells me…
[00:36:56] Jon Penland: Okay. Wow. And it lists all of them.
[00:36:59] Austin Ginder: And it lists everything. So I only ever receive emails every five minutes. Like, if there’s an ongoing outage because it’s just giving me the summary of what’s happening. And, so that’s hugely valuable for me. I can figure out, is it an individual site problem or is it a larger infrastructure problem. So, having that is hugely valuable.
[00:37:25] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, what else is in the CaptainCore Product at this point? So you’re checking file changes. You’ve got the site monitor working as well. I know that there’s a lot more in that project already.
[00:37:44] Austin Ginder: Yeah, there’s a DNS manager, which connects to my DNS provider. I use Constellix, a product by DNSMadeEasy. There, you can think of them as one of the last, smaller, enterprise-level DNS services in the space. And, I do backups, I do the automated updates. Within Quicksaves, there’s a rollback feature, so, if you need to roll back any individual plugin, it’s using your own files system to back up. So, that’s huge when you need to roll back a paid plugin and you don’t have the previous version.
[00:38:32] Jon Penland: Sure. Yeah. Wow.
[00:38:34] Austin Ginder: And, yeah, the scope of the project is pretty much whatever I want to build, I do. So, it’s never-ending. Oh, something I did recently was I started to collect screenshots of people’s websites, and right now, I’m just doing this for the homepage. It’s kind of an experiment. But, the idea is when something bad happens, like what did the site look like? I know there’s a lot of our services that you can use to monitor sites over time, but this is just something built-in. I don’t set up any of these features. I literally just add the site to CaptainCore and it gets all these cool things. So, that’s been helpful to see if, when a site goes offline, what did the site look like, from a forensics standpoint.
[00:39:26] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. Allows you to pinpoint, what did it look like before a plugin update, and after those types of possibly identifying what’s going on behind the scenes. Yeah.
[00:39:35] Austin Ginder: Yeah. And, I would love to dive into some of that smarter handling of updates eventually. But, from my perspective, I’m only going to pursue it if I can do it in one shot, meaning I build something that requires no setup or effort on my part. And, a lot of the tools out there can solve problems. Like, you can set up digital monitors to solve issues for you, but you really have to input a lot to get some value out of it. Most of the things I’m trying to build are things that I do once that I can get value out of and I don’t have to configure it.
[00:40:17] Jon Penland: Exactly. You would just want to be able to plug the site in and just everything work, right? That’s it. It’s a one-step integration. And, I’m curious about that because I know you use CaptainCore with Kinsta. For anybody else who’s listening, who’s thinking about checking out CaptainCore, what are the host requirements? What does the host have to offer for it to be able to use CaptainCore with that host?
[00:40:40] Austin Ginder: Yeah. So, CaptainCore is SSH-based, and you can do a lot with SSH. There’s a lot of power that comes with it, but it is also a limiting factor, meaning I cannot use CaptainCore with every host out there, because not every host provides SSH access. Most of the MurseHurst by now do, but it’s not as widely used as, let’s say, a ManagedWP approach, which just connects to the site by a plugin connection. So, that thing, ManagedWP will work everywhere. CaptainCore will not. CaptainCore will only work with host providers that have SSH access and the ability to change and configure the WP config file.
[00:41:36] Jon Penland: Okay. So, now you have to have SSH access. I assume that there’s a configuration file thing that has to happen because Kinsta is going to have website files stored in a particular way in this location, and WP Engine’s going to store them in this way in a different location, and hosting provider number three is going to have things a little bit different. So I assume there’s some fine-tuning configuration that users can do there to make it work in different environments?
[00:42:03] Austin Ginder: Yeah. So I’ve been building this tool for the last couple years. I’m the only user with the exception of one Alpha user. So, the tool works great with Kinsta because that’s is my host provider. It works pretty good with WP Engine because I also have previously hosted websites at WP Engine. In theory, it should work with any other web host with SSH access, but once it gets a little bit more polished, it’s not that polished quite yet.
[00:42:34] And, it’s also not something I am selling. Like, CaptainCore it’s completely open source. You can do whatever you want with the code. It’s licensed MIT, just whatever. You can even look at it for ideas on maybe how you want to solve maintenance. Eventually I think a hosted version of CaptainCore might make sense to figure out how to polish it up a bit.
[00:43:05] Jon Penland: Yeah. And, you’re getting to my next question there, which is, what is your long-term vision for CaptainCore? What if you can forecast five years down the road, if everything goes the way you’d like it to, what will CaptainCore be in the future?
[00:43:19] Austin Ginder: What, I could even ask that question, like one level up, what is the future of Anchor Hosting and the future of Anchor Hosting is CaptainCore. Because, at the end of the day, I foresee software being able to solve a lot of what you need to hire a web developer for. It should be. Like, technology is great. It’s just a matter of setting it up to do what we want it to do. And, a lot of WordPress’s ecosystem rough edges come because it’s an open ecosystem. Anyone can do anything. And, I think my approach of CaptainCore has been, how can we leave the door open for you to do whatever you want, not lock it down like a bank, but just use your website, whatever, however you want and start whatever plugins you want, and on a passive basis figure out and solve problems through better scanners, better identifiers, better-automated systems built into it.
[00:44:22] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, really, it’s an interesting, almost dichotomy that you just described where the openness of the WordPress ecosystem creates technical overhead, right? Because it’s not really strictly defined. People can do things in different ways. Every WordPress site is different. So, the openness creates a little bit of that technical overhead. And then, you’re using an open product to try and solve a problem created by openness. It’s just an interesting kind of dichotomy there.
[00:44:58] Austin Ginder: Yeah, like, that is the only way that this problem is going to be solved. Because, at the end of the day, every host provider out there is, either thought about this problem, or has even tried to solve it. But their attempts to solve an ecosystem problem cannot be solved by their on-ramp for their own customers because host providers have a business model of getting people to sign up with them. So, if they build a closed tool to fix some of this, all they’re doing is on-ramping more customers for the hosting platform. So, it has to be open. It has to be something that anyone can get into and use. Now, am I the person that’s going to actually build it and solve it? I don’t know, but on a fundamental level, it has to be an open tool that other host providers can integrate with and start to try to solve some of these rough edge problems.
[00:45:58] Jon Penland: Yeah. And that brings me back to something that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year, which is a move I see in the WordPress space in general, at the host level, and I’m not going to name any names because I don’t want to throw stones, but to pull in more and more tooling that’s not part of the Core. And, I just worry that we’re going to end up in a situation, a few years from now, where we have a whole lot of walled gardens, right? Where WordPress at host A is not the same thing as WordPress at host B and is not the same at WordPress at host C, because as you described, a WordPress provider might try to solve this problem as an on-ramp for their own customers.
[00:46:46] And if, I don’t know, I just see a long-term challenge there, in the space, which is the natural inclination of hosts to say, how can we have more customers? How can we increase our revenue? And, that seems to be in a little bit of conflict with the open philosophy. Do you see that tension, that conflict and it feels like this is almost a direct response to that inclination?
[00:47:10] Austin Ginder: Yeah, the solution is not to close things down. It’s a great way to make things polished. But, like the Apple ecosystem is a closed system. It is smooth, and it is amazing, and it’s polished because it is closed. But long-term closed systems will not be able to compete if an open alternative exists.
[00:47:40] So, yeah WordPress is the big proponent of an open ecosystem, the open web. And yeah, I just strongly believe that these types of problems should be solved in an open manner. And, and, it’s a lot of times it’s really hard to do because you can build a business around it not being open and create a closed product. So yeah I definitely see lots of great ideas, and I wish that more companies would just take an open approach to it.
[00:48:26] Jon Penland: Sure. I want to get back to something you said a little while ago, which is that most of what you do as a developer, should be done by software. And, so I’m just curious, you’re looking five years down the road, CaptainCore is the future of Anchor Hosting, what should developers be doing in the future, if the things that, if CaptainCore can solve the maintenance problem, like what does the developer do?
[00:48:54] Austin Ginder: Solve problems for larger issues.
[00:48:57] Jon Penland: Okay. All right. So, yeah, it sounds like…
[00:48:59] Austin Ginder: But, that isn’t easy thing. I’m never concerned about destroying my existing job. Like, that is, that’s crazy. Like, you’ve heard how many problems are out there that are just waiting for a developer to go solve? Just pick one. I don’t care.
[00:449:16] Jon Penland: Pick a different problem. Yeah. So, the idea, the idea here is, and I totally agree that mental capacity, brain power should be used on doing creative, new things, not on solving the same problem over and over.
[00:49:29] Austin Ginder: Yeah. Yeah. Like, on a small scale, when I was building a website, I was solving one problem for one customer. And, now it’s, like an individual developer solving a problem for a thousand customers, thousand websites, and it would be great if I could actually solve it for the ecosystem. That’s a dream. But, the idea is it, as a developer, you’re able to solve bigger and bigger problems for larger things. And that’s a huge amount of value you can add, but just keep pursuing new and new things.
[00:50:16] Jon Penland: Yeah. I have a couple of questions just about running a business. You’ve been running a business now for, I guess you’ve been really since 2010, if I’m recalling correctly, so 11 years or so?
[00:50:29] Austin Ginder: That was quite a different business back then, but yes 2010 is when I quit my job working as an IT provider for my uncle’s computer business and went full-time working for myself.
[00:50:43] Jon Penland: So, anybody who has run a business for as long as you have, has doubtless faced dark patches challenges, overcome hurdles. If I could get you to pick one or two dark patches or challenges you face, what are some of the difficult patches in Anchor Host or in your prior work, focused as a developer that you’ve had to work your way through?
[00:51:07] Austin Ginder: When you first go out on your own, the first couple of years are a little bit more sporadic in revenue. So, that was just, for me, it was a good time to do it. I just got married that year and it was the time to take a risk. So, anyone starting out, the first couple years, you can expect it, especially if you’re relying on word of mouth marketing.
[00:51:38] One thing I did do to put myself in a good position is I did not burn bridges. When I transitioned from one thing to the next. In fact, when I decided to go out on my own, I had a six-month backlog of my own work waiting for me. And, I had my support of my employer at the time, and so much so that, because I was transitioning from a technical sector to a web, there was no conflict of interest. And, he even promoted me to all of his customers to send me out.
[00:52:24] Jon Penland: Yeah. Wow. So, I feel like you hit on two valuable things there. So, one was time things properly, right? Like, you, you took this shot at a time when you could handle the stress, that you could handle that it was going to be financially challenging for a while, and, so you timed at the launch, at a time when that, that would work. And the second thing, I like that, don’t burn your bridges. You didn’t slam the door on the way out. I’m out of here, guys. You valued the relationships you already had, even if I would guess, that initially it probably didn’t cross your mind that your employer would promote you to their customers, and then, all of a sudden, here they are, promoting you to their customers.
[00:53:06] Austin Ginder: No, not at all. There was maybe a little conflict of interest in me pursuing my own business with them, but, at the end of the day, I was doing something completely different and they were onboard fit. So, that was hugely valuable, especially in these first few years.
[00:53:25] Jon Penland: Okay. So, if you were going to give one piece of advice to somebody else about to strike out on their own, launch their own one-person service company, as you have done, what’s a piece of advice you would give to somebody in that position?
[00:53:37] Austin Ginder: Yeah, for just starting out, I would definitely say feel free to explore, and don’t worry about getting too focused right at the beginning. I did a lot of things that had nothing to do with WordPress. The first couple of years I built some Ruby on Rails applications. I experimented with other types of things. I had a general direction of, I wanted to be in the webspace, web hosting, and it took a few years to figure out that. And then, when you figure out what you want to actually do, like just project that one thing. Like, you are going to be a generalist, like, as an individual, I am pursuing lots of different things, but you don’t have to project that chaos. Just project I provide XYZ for this and that’s all I do.
[00:54:36] Jon Penland: Yeah. So, start with some, give yourself free rein to figure out what you want to do. And then, when you figure it out, embrace it. Don’t fight the imposter syndrome, I guess. It’s the idea there once you figure out what that thing is that you want to hone in on.
[00:54:55] Austin Ginder: Yeah, you can even scroll back on anchor.host blog to my very first post, because that was literally the email that I sent out to all of my customers, colleagues, agencies at the time. I said, “Hey, I am doing a transition. Right now, 25% of my revenue is web hosting, 75% is projects. I want to do Anchor Hosting as my thing.” And, so I explained it. I took down my website that said I am available for freelance projects, and I put up a website that I’m doing hosting. I went all in on it.
[00:55:32] Jon Penland: Yeah. Really leaned into what you wanted to do in the long run.
[00:55:35] Austin Ginder: I think that clear communication is the key. Like you, people can only hold it in our heads so much about you as an individual, what you’re doing. You can do whatever you want on the back end, as far as pursuits, but project like that one thing.
[00:55:53] Jon Penland: Project the one thing. I like that, I really liked that idea. That’s powerful. So, as we come to a close in this conversation, I want to wrap us up with two questions. So, the first is, is there a resource that you would recommend to our listeners? This could be a blog, a newsletter, a podcast, a somebody to follow on the internet. Is there something that you find really valuable, a book, whatever, and you would say listeners to this podcast should check this out?
[00:56:24] Austin Ginder: Yeah, I’d definitely recommend reading the book by Sean McCabe called Overlap, and it was ironic because I read the book, and it was basically describing my last 10 years. And, it’s, talks about don’t quit your day job, but overlap into your next thing. So, it gives you some practical ways of how to get started with business.
[00:56:50] Jon Penland: Okay. Awesome. Okay. So, check out Overlap. And then, where can people connect with you or learn more about Anchor Hosting?
[00:56:58] Austin Ginder: You can go to anchor.host, and you can reach out via Twitter is a great way to get ahold of me directly. Twitter.com, Austin Ginder.
[00:57:15] Jon Penland: All right. Awesome. So, check Austin out on Twitter and then anchor.host. Austin, I really appreciate you taking a chunk out of your day to talk to me and talk to our listeners, let us know a little bit more about Anchor Host and the, the long-term goal of solving the maintenance problem in the WordPress space through CaptainCore. So, thank you for taking the time to chat with me today.
[00:57:38] Austin Ginder: Yeah, thank you. This has been a blast.
[00:57:41] Jon Penland: Awesome. And, thank you to our listeners. That’s all for today’s podcast. You can access today’s show notes at Kinsta.com/podcast. That’s K-I-N-S-T-A.com/podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe to Reverse Engineered. And, if you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or on the platform where you’re listening to this right now. See you next time.