This is a guest post from Roger Rosweide, co-founder of WPCS.io, on the genesis of his new business after his nearly-launched startup was made irrelevant by the pandemic.
We lost nearly everything when the pandemic reached the Netherlands in March 2020 and the Dutch government enforced a nationwide isolation period. We were on the verge of launching our startup, an app that provided B2C services for the hotel industry. From one day to the other, everything was shut down. The need for our app: wiped out.
During our one-year launching phase and for years up until that moment, we’d earned money as an online marketing agency. We were about to transition from an agency to a SaaS. Or so we thought. We had spent a year building our product, crafting our marketing strategy and preparing to launch. But then our value proposition became obsolete in the scope of a weekend.
When the isolation period started, and our app’s value proposition became generally redundant, our agency clients almost in unison called to freeze their marketing budgets. We had to lay off staff and needed a moment to think about our next steps. Personally, I had no idea.
Two weeks into isolation, I got a call from Wijnand, one of my co-founders and CTO. He said that he’d been thinking of what our next steps should be, and he concluded we’d probably focus on creating more websites.
Websites had been our bread and butter. As a product, it was by far the most in-demand. As a service, it was the easiest to sell. As a strategy, it was basically a foot in the door.
Our customers usually asked for WordPress websites, which we were happy to build. We all support open-source, adore the WordPress community, and understand a client’s desire to “own” what we create. Proprietary systems don’t afford you that luxury.
Most of our profit actually came from building a great website first, then offering the client several necessary marketing services as an extension of the new website. We’d been selling AdWords campaigns, search engine optimization, social advertising, content creation, email marketing, and even PR services as a result of first building a website.
We often agreed to build a website at a steep discount, simply because we knew we could sell these additional services after. They were the (almost) free (salty) nachos that enabled us to sell more margaritas, so to speak.
I agreed with Wijnand; selling more websites was probably the smart thing and the easiest thing to do. After agreeing, Wijnand continued and explained he had the vision to create a system that would enable us to multiply any website and manage them at an infinite scale.
Managing a thousand websites as if it’s only one
When you’re climbing out of rock bottom, you might as well aim big. As Bill Gates supposedly said (I’m paraphrasing): “If you aim for the moon and come up short, you still end up ahead of everyone with mediocre aspirations.”
As a developer, Wijnand’s biggest grievance was always that most of the time he was doing the same thing over and over again. Even though it was considerable money, creating a new website is comparable to each website.
Taking care of the domain, hosting, email server, spam filter, DNS, SSL, setting up CMS, backups, configuring plugins, and all kinds of other settings were basically the same for each client.
To create any website, we were doing the same thing 80% of the time, he argued. The last 20% was generally the design sauce that made the website stand out. Websites are like humans. Under the hood, we’re basically all the same. I couldn’t agree more.
For those that are unfamiliar, multitenancy is the dominant cloud infrastructure of SaaS companies such as Shopify, Wix, and Squarespace. It’s noted as the single most important reason why these companies can scale to become unicorns. Alternatively, Kubernetes has emerged as today’s leading open-source container orchestration system, allowing firms in every space to more cost-efficiently develop, deploy, and scale high-tech apps and services.
Using Kubernetes’ orchestration tools, we would set up multi-tenant containers to host the entire ecosystem that makes up a website or several websites. Being able to orchestrate this in the cloud, setting up new containers automatically, and therefore scaling it as needed, we could automatically generate new prefab-websites or website scaffolds from a single template. What’s more, we could manage and optimize all these websites as one.
The project drew together two concepts that were unmistakably successful in their own domains: introducing the dominant cloud infrastructure of SaaS to the world’s largest open-source ecosystem, WordPress.
Solving a BIG scaling problem for a clear niche
One of the main advantages to leveraging multi-tenant WordPress is that you can introduce proven SaaS methods for scaling web applications to your WordPress development. A WordPress multi-tenant platform is useful for any developer who wants to streamline a development workflow for scaling many websites, but one community with an urgent problem to solve is the WordPress Multisite community, which has been the subject of much recent debate on MasterWP. Especially those that build SaaS and WaaS (website as a service) offerings.
A Website as a Service is a website distribution model in which a service provider offers websites to customers, who subscribe to it as a service. This means that monitoring, maintenance, and technical updates are managed by someone else as part of a monthly plan.
It’s a business model and development style that mimics the success of SaaS and implements that to web development. The reason for that is simple: SaaS companies are generally highly scalable, lend themselves for focus and automation, and are very valuable.
WaaS and WordPress-based SaaS builders have often used WordPress Multisite as it enables you to manage multiple subsites from a single WordPress dashboard. However, the downsides of Multisite are frustrating on a WordPress level. These frustrations stem from the fact that a Multisite hosts any number of subsites under the same WordPress installation, uses the same filesystem, database, and server. The problem with this is that not all information is available to everyone: if you don’t know about multi-tenancy, then Multisite indeed seems the only way to manage a SaaS-like business model at scale.
Multi-tenancy is so much better than multisite. With multisite, there are plugin incompatibility headaches and then network chaos at scale.”Boun Vilailat, Austin TX
The next step was obvious: we switched from a project-based business model, which lay as the root of our frustration, to a product-based business model.
We realized that the only way to really scale was to adopt a product-based mentality. We had to approach everything from a position of scalability, in order to avoid getting bogged down by edge cases and custom contracts. It would avoid scope creep, reduce operational costs, and create synergy internally and externally.This SaaS offering would enable anyone to standardize their website proposition, have clear communication about the service, and create equality between all customers. Best yet, you can leverage multi-tenant WordPress to build an actual SaaS and draw from the 54,000 plugins in the WordPress ecosystem. At a rapid pace, we raised more than 700K from VCs and launched our WordPress multi-tenant cloud platform worldwide.