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Interview: Tina Peters of AffordableHOST

In the following interview Ethan interviews Tina Peters of AffordableHOST. AffordableHOST is a large webhosting company complete with its own datacenter. Tina Peters has had experience with webhosting since 1996 and built AffordableHOST into its current state.

Lowter: How did you get started with webhosting?

I started back in 1996, designing horrible websites for friends and family members who owned local businesses. We're talking spinning animated GIFs, annoying midi music and blinking text! The awfulness of my design skills cannot be matched.

Anyway, I would set them up with web hosting through the same company I had my website hosted with. After awhile, I found that I had about 100 customers with 100 different hosting accounts. So, I started thinking that I could increase my profit margin a little if I had my own server.

Since I'm obviously not much of a web designer, I found managing the hosting aspect of my hobby much more enjoyable. I started focusing on offering web hosting more and web design less. By 1997 I figured it was time to stop calling it a hobby and actually turn it into a business.

Lowter: Did AffordableHOST originally start out with its own datacenter? And if not, when did it?

I got my first server back in late 1996 and I've been adding more servers ever since. Approximately 2 years ago, I realized it would be much more cost-effect and give me more control over things if we setup our own datacenter. We're actually outgrowing our current location and have been looking to expand in 2005.

Lowter: Does having your own datacenter increase business? What (other) benefits does it have?

It allows us to cater to a bigger customer base.

Lowter: AffordableHOST has been around since 1997, how has the road to success been?

It's been a lot of work, a huge learning experience and very rewarding. I can't imagine doing anything else, at this point. We have some of the best and most loyal customers. We have a live support chatroom available and often customers will come in just for friendly chit-chat.

Lowter: Being in the webhosting market for some time, how has the market changed over the years?

It actually hasn't changed much. The biggest changes have been in the cost. We are now able to offer far more diskspace, bandwidth and features to our customers at a fraction of the cost of 7 years ago. I remember in 1997, the average 25 MB space and 500 MB transfer hosting package was $99 per year and gave you webspace and email capabilities only. Today, our free hosting packages offer much more than that!

Lowter: What operating system do you run on your servers? Have you had any experiences with other operating systems? And if so, why did you change?

Our servers are all Linux based. Back in 1999 we briefly offered Windows hosting. I don't want to go into the whole "Linux -vs.- Windows" debate, so I'll just say that Windows hosting wasn't for us.

Lowter: At the current time how many servers and clients does AffordableHOST serve?

We have roughly 100 servers and host an estimated 16,000 accounts.

Lowter: What quality of AffordableHOST do you feel has contributed the most to your success?

Without question, the way we treat our customers. It almost sounds cliché to say that, but customer service has always been my main goal with AffordableHOST.

I came into this business looking at things from a customer's point of view. I had very little technical background, when I first started designing (or mangling?) websites, but I had dealt with about a half dozen hosting companies. The thing I always found lacking was the detail to making the customer feel important. Let's face it, geeks aren't known for their people skills.

I've always stressed to our staff that we need to actually help a customer through a support issue, in a way that doesn't make them feel stupid or that they're wasting our time.

Lowter: What methods of support does AffordableHOST offer and how do they each contribute to quality support?

Our hosting customers can get technical support via our HelpDesk ticket system, IRC chatroom, phpBB message board and emergency phone support.

Most of our customers prefer the IRC chatroom because its instant access to a live person and they can copy/paste instructions and save them for later. Our IRC chatroom has been online for the last 2 years and it's really cut down on HelpDesk tickets and raised customer satisfaction levels. I'm surprised more hosts aren't using it.

Lowter: Over time the webhosting market has become very competitive causing the prices of webhosting to drop. How has this competition affected AffordableHOST?

We've dropped our prices and added a lot of extra features since 1997. However, we won't cut our prices to compete with some of the lower-end budget hosts. Keeping servers running smoothly and making sure we have enough support staff on hand to take care of our customers' needs costs money. If we cut our prices to the point of being able to compete with what I call "bottom of the barrel" hosts, then we also have to cut quality. I'm not going to do that.

Lowter: In a brief sentence can you tell us what make AffordableHOST better than any other hosting company?

I wouldn't say we're better than *all* hosting companies out there today. We are pretty darn good though and we have a lot of happy customers to prove it.

Lowter: In your experience, how do you form a firm clientele base? What's your method of getting new clients and holding on to them?

The trick is getting the first 100 customers. Once you do that, you're home free. Treat those first 100 customers like they are gold and they will bring in others. Word-of-mouth makes up probably 75% of our new sign-ups.

Lowter: What methods have you used to promote AffordableHOST? What results did they have?

I participate in quite a few online webmaster forums, with a small link to our site on every message I post. I do it because I enjoy it, not to get new customers, but the side-benefit is that the regular members of those groups know and trust me. Because of that, we get quite a few sign-ups from those groups.

Lowter: Do you have any last comments and encouragement to give to those who are beginning a webhosting company?

MAKE A BUSINESS PLAN!!!

Don't even start pricing servers or designing a website or thinking about how much you are going to charge your customers until you sit down and have a solid business plan on paper. If you don't understand what that means, don't proceed until you find out!

Lowter thanks Tina for her time in answering our interview questions, and be sure to check out AffordableHOST (external link).