By SUSAN LAHEY
Special contributor to Silicon Hills News
WP Engine co-founder Jason Cohen knew there was a market for what he wanted to build. Because it was exactly what he needed.
The founder of four companies and a dedicated blogger, Cohen often made the front page of Hacker News. And every time he did, his site went down. Having a sudden surge of popularity and traffic, he realized, doesn’t do you a lot of good if it causes your site to crash until the traffic goes away.
It was easy to assume that, with 15 percent of all websites and 22 percent of new websites in WordPress according to WP statistics, others were having the same issues. WordPress is a free and open source blogging tool and one of the web’s most popular content management systems.
“I needed to know what are the root pain points?” Cohen said. “Volume is one. Speed is another. It can often take three or four seconds for a page to come up. What about security? What about support? What about testing? Everything is live right now. Testing is where I can work it out and see it.”
Cohen talked to 50 people before starting the business, asking them: “Would you pay for this? What would you pay for this?” Once 30 people committed to spending $50 a month, he started to build his hosting company for the middle market, people with a lot of traffic “who aren’t CNN.” WP Engine launched in July of 2010. Cohen founded the company with Aaron Brazell, who stepped down last October to do consulting work.
When Matt Halfhill heard about Cohen’s infant company that hosted high volume WordPress sites, he said what so many of WPEngine’s customers say: “That’s exactly what I need!”
“That was my biggest problem ever in business,” Halfhill said. “So few hosts understand the nuts and bolts of how WordPress works. (WPEngine) breaks it down to the point where there are next to no inefficiencies.”
At the time he joined WP Engine, in 2010, Halfhill’s company NiceKicks had more than a million visitors per month. The site, which previews and reviews sneakers, was paying Rackspace $6,000 to $7,000 a month for the bandwidth to handle all its traffic. With WPEngine, it pays closer to $1,000. And its monthly traffic has more than doubled.
Rackspace spokesman Rob La Gesse said “While many providers choose to compete on price, Rackspace differentiates itself on service, which we call Fanatical Support®. With that being said, WPEngine and Rackspace have significantly different business models, products and pricing structures.”
Cohen has always been something of a prodigy. He was fresh out of college with his computer science degree when he was discovered by Jim Woodhill, a famous psychologist and venture capitalist who was on an email list of “random smart people” with Cohen’s dad.
“He is the kind of guy who doesn’t care as much about the idea as the team. He decides ‘I just need to collect certain kinds of people and I want you,’” Cohen said. The company Cohen started, however, didn’t create products but performed services. And though he was bringing in $1 million a year, the venture capital firm lost interest. Soon afterward, he connected with Gerry Cullen, a serial entrepreneur.
“He was young,” Cullen says of Cohen. “You want to know how young he was? He was so young I had to rent cars for him.”
The two created Sheer Genius Software.
“He was the genius software guy and I was the CEO lead developer,” Cullen said. “I was the leg guy and he was the brains….Jason was very fast on his feet. People asked him questions he just answered them, kaboom. I’d lift the flagstone up and all the little snakes would run and we’d get them. It was great happy times.”
For one order, the $750,000 big order, Cullen said, they were brought to London to develop a program for a government office. Cohen wound up having to jerry-rig a modem using ‘doorbell’ wire running from the building’s bathroom. And, because the monitors were so small and the offices so bright it was difficult to see the screens, Cullen created a little hut of foam board to make it dark enough.
“It was like we were showing weird porn in the government offices and we didn’t want anybody to see.”
They got the order.
After Sheer Genius, they started IT WatchDogs, which manufactured climate monitoring devices for server facilities. During that time, Cohen said, Cullen taught him all about the business end of startups. He taught him, for example, about the Stanford Test, a test he made up.
The Stanford Test is this: If you make something, can you give it away for free? Will people want it? Because if they won’t, there’s not much point in charging for it.”
IT WatchDogs demonstrated the Stanford principal. The first climate control monitor plugged directly into the servers. Server companies were horrified.
“They’re like ‘You’re not sticking that thing in my server!’” Cohen recalls. It failed the Stanford Test. Then they created a model that only plugs into the wall outlet and never touches the server. That model people wanted. They’d even pay for it.
Cohen and Cullen wound up selling IT WatchDogs. But about the same time they had started it, Cohen had, almost inadvertently, started Smart Bear Inc. He created a site online whereby programmers could submit code they were working on for peer review. It was an idea he was tinkering with that took off. He ran it until 2009 when he got an offer to buy the company that would give him enough money he never had to work again. After checking with some of his advisors—17 to be exact—he took it.
He took a sabbatical to stay home with his new baby. He began blogging almost obsessively. And then the idea for WPEngine arose.
He and Josh Baer, founder of Capital Factory and a serial entrepreneur in Austin who runs Other Inbox, put in a little bit of seed money and within seven months, the company was profitable. They hired two people and six months later it was profitable again. But all these baby steps were time consuming. So Cohen sought funding and wound up with $1.2 million last November. Silverton Partners from Austin led the round, which included prominent angels investors like Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup, Loic Le Meur, Dharmesh Shah, Jeremy Benken, Bill Boebel, Rob Walling and others. Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, also participated with a strategic investment.
WP Engine now has an install base of more than 30,000 personal and professional WordPress blogs. It recently dropped its base hosting price from $50 a month to $29. And it has plenty of room to grow. More than 71 million WordPress sites exist worldwide and WordPress.com hosts about half of them.
WP Engine is always tweaking.
Halfhill said the company is super proactive. They’ll call him to say “You’re definitely sucking up a lot of resources, we might want to reconfigure. There are no charges for that. It just feels like they’re taking care of me as a customer. It’s just like breathing.”
Cohen, though, is a startup guy. He’s constantly percolating with other ideas. Lately he’s been really focused on the idea of honesty, how honesty should be the bedrock of businesses. He might do something with that at some point.
“People asked me, ‘When you had enough money to live off forever, why do a startup?’” Cohen said. “It’s just in you…some people have to do companies.”
Disclosure: Rackspace is a sponsor of Silicon Hills News