Tag: Heather Brunner

WP Engine Revs Up on WordPress

Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Photo courtesy of WPEngine

Photo courtesy of WPEngine

It’s Ticketpalooza Day at WP Engine, the Austin-based company that offers managed hosting services for WordPress-based websites.

About 30 members of the company’s support staff are gathered around two long tables fielding calls from customers having problems with their websites.

The support reps tap on their laptops, lean over to look at a neighbor’s computer screen and offer words of advice. They score prizes, devour company-provided lunch and seriously reduce the number of calls.

The idea of Ticketpalooza is to close out service tickets to customers’ satisfaction as quickly as possible, said Austin Gunter, part of the company’s marketing department.

He said WP Engine’s customers appreciate the draw down on the service queue and the staff likes the collaborative yet competitive process. “We’re all just having a lot of fun with this.”

Customer service is an essential part of what WP Engine offers. Its services help its customers’ websites run faster, more reliably, more securely and with the capability to grow.

Heather Brunner, CEO of WP Engine

Heather Brunner, CEO of WP Engine

In 2013, WP Engine experienced what CEO Heather Brunner called hyper growth of its own, saying that revenue and the number of customers and employees all tripled.

Now, with a $15 million venture investment and a complete executive team in place, the company, which has offices in Austin and San Francisco, is geared to keep growing.

The investment, announced in January, came from North Bridge Venture Partners, which has offices in Waltham, Mass., and Palo Alto, Calif. A previous round of $1.2 million in 2011 came from Silverton Partners and several angel investors.

The WordPress universe offers rooms for growth.

WordPress started as an open source blogging tool and has grown into a content management system that powers about 20 percent of websites and 20 percent of the biggest websites.

Brunner said WP Engine has 14,000 customers, ranging from individuals and small businesses to bigger clients such as the Country Music Association, HTC, Williams-Sonoma and the Bonnaroo music festival. The company’s customers run more than 120,000 different sites with about 40 million unique visitors a day.

Entrepreneur Jason Cohen was responding to the frustrating performance of his WordPress blog when he developed the technology on which WP Engine is based in 2010.

The foundation of WP Engine’s technology is the cloud-based infrastructure that started with Cohen’s coding.

“Now with 3 ½ years under our belt we’ve been able to architect our cloud infrastructure for massive scale and traffic and the ability to scale up and scale down,” Brunner said. “We have unique IP that runs the cloud infrastructure for our business and WordPress.”

Next is a layer of software that provides security, speed and other functions. “We’ve created a whole caching technology that is unique to the market,” she said. “There are specific innovations that are unique to us.”

A third layer includes the customer interface, user tools and a dashboard that allows the customer to make websites change and updates easily and quickly.

The top layer is WP Engine’s support team, which Brunner said is drawn from the WordPress ecosystem, developers and consultants. The support team interacts with customers over the phone, through Twitter and chat.

“We have a tremendous amount of expertise in our support customer-facing operation to help whether they have a proactive question or have an issue they need help with,” she said.

In its interactions with customers, WP Engine can track what’s working and what’s not and make changes.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes to their service over the years,” said Brandon Dove at Pixel Jar, a WordPress development company that uses WP Engine. “They’ve added developer-facing things like git integration for deployment, backup postings with an instant restore feature and built-in staging servers for active development cycles.”

Dove said he appreciates WP Engine’s honesty and transparency when there’s a problem.

“No host can offer you 100 percent up time,” he said. “Knowing that you can trust your host to have your best interests in mind when something goes wrong is crucial. They have an SLA (service-level agreement) in place that keeps them accountable for downtime and other support-related issues.”

Brunner said the company will use part of the $15 million investment to continue to improve and expand its technology and services. That includes adding self-service functions to make it easier for the customers to help themselves, she said.

“That’s a big, big part of our focus for 2014, extending the market leadership we have and continue to invest in things that mean an even better experience for our customers,” she said.

Brunner became affiliated with WP Engine in early 2013 as a board member. She became COO in the spring and CEO in October, all of which were planned moves. She had been COO of BazaarVoice before joining WP Engine.

Other members of the executive staff who came aboard in 2013 are April Downing, chief financial officer; Matt Schatz, vice president of sales; and Tina Dobie, vice president of customer experience. Cohen, who founded the company with Ben Metcalfe, shifted from CEO to chief technology officer.

The company has three basic pricing plans, from $29 per month to $249 per month. Beyond that is a premium level, in which pricing is based on factors including the number of sites, the amount of traffic and number of functions.

“We want to have a really fair exchange for value,” Brunner said. “So we’re delivering this innovation, we’re delivering fantastic expertise, we’re creating an incredible experience. That’s our aspiration for our customers for them to say, “This just works.” And for that we want to give a fair exchange. That’s what we’re looking to create.”

WP Engine is one of several companies providing managed hosting for WordPress websites. Competitors include San Antonio-based Pressable.

WP Engine does well in several comparisons online. Cohen and Pressable founder Vid Luther noted similarities and differences on Quora.

“We definitely have competition, it’s a dynamic space,” Brunner said. “But there’s no one single company we’re going head to head against.”

Brunner said the company practices what it preachers and uses WordPress for its website. It refreshed its brand and rolled out a new website in October.

“It’s all built on WordPress and shows you the best of how you would use WordPress to build a corporate website, get your message out as well as use thought leadership within your website such as blogs for content.”

For WP Engine, that’s the ticket.

Women@Austin Provides Insights on Startups and Fundraising

The steering committee behind Women@Austin, photo by Sara Peralta

The steering committee behind Women@Austin, photo by Sara Peralta

Founder of Silicon Hills News

The Capital Factory in downtown Austin smelled like roses and perfume on Thursday night.
Red heart balloons, roses and heart-shaped doilies decorated the tables, walls and windows of the main presentation room.
The tech accelerator and incubator hosted more than 100 women for the inaugural Women@Austin event, which kicked off with networking over wine and hors d’oeuvres. The event sold out in five days, said Jan Ryan, its founder.
“I think we hit a nerve,” she said.
A steering committee of 16 women began meeting last fall to plan for Women@Austin which aims to triple the number of women-funded companies in the next few years, provide more mentoring and increase the visibility of female entrepreneurs in the community.
“This is the debut of a new mission-driven community to really accelerate women in Austin,” Ryan said.
Josh Kerr, co-founder of Written.com, was one of the few men in attendance. He was one of the first ones to sign up, Ryan said.
Usually, Capital Factory is teeming with a lot of men working on startups. Kerr’s company is based there. But on Thursday night, the women took over except for the first speaker, Bill Wood, general partner at Silverton Partners. Laura Kilcrease, founder of Triton Ventures and founding director of the Austin Technology Incubator, introduced Wood. She said he was the first person she met when she moved to Austin in 1984. And he was the first person she consulted when she decided to become a Venture Capitalist and to establish Triton Ventures.
“He gave me insightful information,” Kilcrease said.

Advice from Bill Wood, general partner with Silverton Partners

Bill Wood, general partner of Silverton Partners, photo by Sara Peralta

Bill Wood, general partner of Silverton Partners, photo by Sara Peralta

And Wood provided insightful information about raising venture funds in his talk. Increasing the number of women-backed ventures is something he said he feels very strongly about.
“Women are under-represented and they add such a different dimension,” Wood said. Having women involved in startups leads to better outcomes, he said.
Women have “lifestyle obstacles” but those can be addressed and handled, he said.
Wood gave basic information on the different stages of how startups raise money from friends and family to angels to seed funds and then early stage funds and lastly, growth equity.
“We are a classic seed stage, early stage fund,” he said. “We’re the first institutional investor in our deals, but there are almost always angels where we invest.”
Venture capitalists look for a validation of a product’s market opportunity when they decide to invest in a startup, Wood said. Everything is driven by data and metrics today, he said.
“Business has gone from judgment and insight and wisdom to metric-based decision making.” Wood said. “That’s just the way it works…It’s all math. We’re looking for some validation in the numbers.”
The expectations also go up dramatically when a company gets venture capital, Wood said.
He also said there are lots of great businesses out there that don’t make sense for VCs.
“Don’t get your feelings hurt,” he said. “If you don’t raise VC money, that means you own more of the company. If it’s successful, good for you.”
VCs are looking for outcomes in the $100 million range, Wood said. It’s not just that the business is a really good business, but it has to be able to get to a size where it can provide a big return to investors, he said.
Silverton Partners only invests in Austin companies and most of its investments are in the software industry or consumer applications, Wood said.

Three Female Founders Give Startup Advice

From left - Jan Ryan, Patti Rogers, Heather Brunner and Erica Douglass, photo by Sara Peralta

From left – Jan Ryan, Patti Rogers, Heather Brunner and Erica Douglass, photo by Sara Peralta

Following Wood, a panel of three female founders took to the stage to share lessons they learned raising money and running companies. The panel featured Patti Rogers, founder and CEO of Rallyhood, a productivity platform for groups, Heather Brunner, CEO of WPEngine, a WordPress hosting company, and Erica Douglass of MarketVibe, a blog marketing startup.
Ryan asked them what challenges they faced launching their businesses and the lessons they learned.
“When you’re starting something new, every day is a new surprise,” Rogers said. “Having tolerance for that is super important.”
Douglass recounted how Josh Baer, co-founder of Capital Factory, told her that no one cared about her $1 million exit and that she shouldn’t mention that when she pitched investors because they think it’s too small. She cried, she said.
She did go on to raise $640,000 as part of the TechStars Austin program and she’s getting ready to raise another round soon, she said.
Women@Austin, photo by Sara Peralta

Women@Austin, photo by Sara Peralta

“Fundraising is something that takes all your time,” Douglass said. She recommended putting together a list of 125 active investors and spending a month or two just focused on fundraising. It’s important to find out if those investors have written a check in the last year, she said. Austin has a lot of people who say they are investors, but they never write checks, she said.
“You don’t want to waste your time with people who aren’t active investors,” Douglass said.
On the personal side, founders have to get used to rejection, Brunner said.
“Get used to the fact that not everyone is going to love your story,” she said. But make sure to get feedback from them, she said.
Brunner also recommended vetting venture capital firms and investors to find the right fit for a startup’s industry and for those investors who already had investments in that space. That will save time, she said.
She heard from a lot of investors who loved WPEngine’s metrics and were in love with the story, but it didn’t fit their investment metrics, she said.
Ryan also asked the panel how they coped with stress running a startup. Brunner and Rogers do Yoga a couple of times a week and Douglass plays games on her mobile phone with friends.
Lastly, Ryan asked them to give advice to other startup founders.
Rogers said it’s important to really know your story.
“And to continue to refine it and craft it and repeat it and make it better all the time,” she said. “And deliver it with clarity and confidence.”
She also recommended reading Steve Blank’s Startup Manual.
Brunner said it’s important to “know who your hero customer is and find as many of them as possible and talk to them. Make sure you really understand their psyche.”
Douglass told the founders not to opt out. She recommended reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.”
The crowd at the Women@Austin event by Sara Peralta

The crowd at the Women@Austin event, photo by Sara Peralta

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