WP Engine’s Jason Cohen: ‘Integration is the future of the web’

11 May 2018

Jason Cohen. Image: WP Engine

Serial entrepreneur Jason Cohen went from writing a personal blog to a developing a global web hosting giant that serves around 500,000 domains.

With more than 20 years of experience in business and software development, Jason Cohen is founder and CTO at Texas-headquartered WP Engine, where he develops and refines the company’s technology and product roadmap.

He has built four technology start-ups that have each grown to more than $1m in annual revenue.

‘We looked all around Europe, and Limerick was the place where the whole city had a culture that was more or less parallel with ours’

WP Engine, a managed WordPress platform, recently raised $250m in funding from Silver Lake to fuel its international growth. That growth includes the company establishing a hub in Limerick with plans to employ 100 people.

Cohen is a founding member and mentor at Capital Factory, and is also a founder of Smart Bear and IT WatchDogs. He received the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2017 Central Texas Award for Technology.

What was the genesis for WP Engine?

WP Engine was my fourth start-up. My previous company was Smart Bear, which also has an office in Dublin. I sold it in 2007 and, for a few years, I was a stay-at-home dad. I found that writing was a good way to stay intellectually connected with the real world while in the haze of looking after a baby.

Since it wasn’t a business and I had no deadlines or goals except to just go do it for fun, the writing flowed and it became very popular and I found my blog appearing on sites like Hacker News because I was quintessentially writing about start-ups.

I was using WordPress and, every now and then, the site would crash if it was getting 15 hits per second. Nowadays that doesn’t sound like a lot because some sites now peak at 100,000 hits per second.

But, back in 2009, it was a hassle and I would call up blogger friends and say, ‘I just need WordPress to stay up and stay fast’ and their answer was always: ‘I don’t know but if you find out, please tell me!’

So, it was clear to me that there was a business opportunity. I reached out to 50 people and asked them would they pay $50 a month for it. They said if it was fast, scalable, secure and there was good service in place, then yes. That was all I needed to know and I decided that I would create a hosting service for WordPress sites that would have Rackspace service levels and would support everything, including plugins.

WordPress was 14pc of all websites back then. Today, it is around 23pc of all websites.

How much of the global WordPress community does WP Engine serve?

We have around 80,000 customers and host around 500,000 domains.

We work with website builders, agencies, designers and publishers. Individuals would tend to go directly to WordPress’s parent Automattic, or its competitors Wix or Squarespace.

In terms of the number of domains, we are bigger than all the rest combined. But, even combined with everybody else, we all account for 10pc of WordPress sites out there on the web, so there is a lot of hunting ground for everybody.

It is definitely true that a rising tide lifts all boats. It benefits us, the agencies, but also the people who make plugins – the entire ecosystem is very symbiotic. The WordPress community is generally very welcoming and the market is so big that there is so much more growth to be had.

How has WP Engine’s service evolved since it started?

Over time, we went from solely hosting to various things that our customers want. At this point, we have four layers and we organise internally along the lines of product engineering managers focused on the specific fields of hosting, dev tools, integrations and performance.

We focus on small and medium-sized organisations, agency and enterprise organisations.

Integration with other plugins and vendors is key. Amazon may be trying to do everything but that’s not us. Our attitude is that there are a couple of things that we could do world-class, and integration is how we do the rest.

For example, we won’t ever try to knock off New Relic and provide an ‘OK’ way to solve code problems; we should integrate with New Relic, who have the best way to do that.

We are not going to make testing tools either, but we sure do want to integrate with the best in the business.

All-in-one products are never good at anything. If you want something to work well online, do good integrations with those who do things well.

How big is WP Engine and do you ever plan to build your own data centres?

We employ 500 people in the company, we are at 80,000 customers and we do 6bn requests a day on the service.

We don’t have our own data centres; we use Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google. We are the top-tier partner with both of them. Both AWS and Google do very different things with different architectural attributes. They are good at different things that reflect their specific engineering cultures.

We thought about building our own data centres. And it came down to cost control and control of what we can build. Both AWS and Google are reliable and their pricing is good enough that it doesn’t make sense for us to go down the road of building a data centre.

And, since there is not an overwhelming customer reason for us to go down that road either, then we are not going to.

What factors made you select Limerick as a location for your overseas expansion?

We are at 45 people in Limerick right now and the plan is to reach 100 people in the next year or two.

Our Limerick operation does everything but sales. We have a sales engineering office in London, but everything else in terms of support, engineering, product development, finance and legal is done in Limerick.

Our philosophy from the beginning when we came to Europe was that we don’t want to be that American company that is happy to take money out from revenues and not be putting it back into the economy. The right way is to say that we are building our business here. Our subsidiaries pay the taxes and we try to do everything right. Engineering is done in Limerick. It is a fully fledged employer and there are no contractors.

Growth is one of our core values and we have a culture of growth. We have a learning and development team whose job is to ensure that people in the company are developing, are earning right, are learning, being trained and are moving up the ladder.

We looked all around Europe, and Limerick was the place where the whole city had a culture that was more or less parallel with ours. We decided it would be easy to find people there that would be a fit, and that there would be a steady pipeline of talent and we can train them.

What are the core lessons you have learned about managing growth given WP Engine’s meteoric success?

A bad thing that a lot of people in business do – I think, accidentally – is that they take their eye off the development of people and their financial expectations, and that’s how they lose people.

You could have someone who worked their way up to being a manager but is making 30pc less money than they should. Why? Just because they stayed and because they are loyal. And yet they get penalised?

You are the CEO of your own life. You should be paid properly and, if that requires doing something else, you are responsible for that.

You can’t pay some people more than others simply because some are better at asking for it. It should be the opposite; people should be rewarded for loyalty. We are devoted to diversity and equal pay, and we have a full-time person that does nothing but focus on compensation and we have an employee experience department.

There are people who are very comfortable asking for raises, and then there are people who are not, sometimes because they are afraid to or assume that if they do good work, they will be noticed and rewarded. But that’s not always the case. That’s why you need someone focused on it.

What are your thoughts on the future growth of the web?

It’s funny; with technology, we add but don’t subtract. What I mean is that some of the platforms that come along tend to stay forever, despite people predicting their demise.

Everyone has been predicting the demise of email but we are all still using it.

Facebook didn’t kill the web. Everything that people link to on social media is invariably a website.

People predicted the death of WordPress. Guess what, WordPress is 23pc of the internet.

They predicted apps would kill websites. They didn’t.

Video is big and VR is going to be huge. I think it is going to get interesting with the internet of things, where sensors gathering data from things like electricity meters will feed into plugins on websites.

The same is true for analytics and machine learning. The whole tech world is really a bunch of different systems. The systems that integrate these systems are called APIs (application programming interfaces) to let these systems talk to each other. Integration is key to the future of the web.

Video is a specialisation and YouTube handles that expertly. For us, the key is that these utilities all talk to each other.

Are you looking forward to the onset of GDPR?

There are some things we know, there are some things we don’t. GDPR makes us semi-responsible as a hosting provider. We are taking it very seriously and we are interviewing our vendors and agencies about the impact of it.

With some of the right-to-be-forgotten stuff, it is difficult to know how it is going to turn out. For example, if a webpage has to be taken down for any reason, you have to notify the inbound links to also take their stuff down. But what if there are more than 10,000 of them?

So, we are still unsure how all of that will work. Needless to say, it will all go through the courts and precedents will be established.

Overall, the concept of the right to be forgotten is good but when GDPR becomes law, will it be over-applied or under-applied? We’ll have to wait and see.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years