Out of the Office: WP Engine Founder Jason Cohen on Why Enterprises Love WordPress

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Out of the Office is a new series on the WHIR where we set our out of office auto-reply in order to visit hosting and cloud service providers in their workplaces, learning first-hand about their company and their culture. If you’ve got an office we need to peek, email me at nicole.henderson@penton.com. Below is part one of a two-part series on WP Engine, a WordPress hosting provider based in downtown Austin, TX. Stay tuned next week for more on how WP Engine has created a company culture where employees live and breathe WordPress, talk to an employee about how his passion-project became his career, and the interesting impact its core values have had on diversity.

When you walk into the Austin office of WordPress hosting provider WP Engine, it’s hard not to notice that almost everyone is wearing a WordPress or WP Engine-branded T-shirt. Even WP Engine founder Jason Cohen is wearing a company T-shirt and jeans.

“I do wear a WordPress shirt almost everyday,” Cohen tells me as we sit down in one of the conference rooms in the office located in downtown Austin. “People here are obsessive with our brand and WordPress.”

It has become sort of a uniform for employees, in part because it’s easy, but it’s also a reflection of what Cohen describes as a “strong company culture; it’s so strong that people want to wear it.”

WP Engine has more than 350 employees, and the company has hired 199 people since 2015. In the Austin office, there are employees in customer support, R&D, product marketing and HR. The company also has an office in San Francisco.

WP Engine office

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The Early Days and the Four S’s

WP Engine is Cohen’s fourth startup, which he created shortly after he left Smart Bear Software, the company he founded and subsequently sold in 2007.

While at Smart Bear, Cohen created a blog on WordPress with the intention that everyone at the company would contribute.

“No one but me wrote on it – ever, so it ended up being my blog,” he said. When he left Smart Bear to be a stay-at-home dad, blogging was a way to keep up with the outside world, he explains.

“It would get on link-sharing sites like HackerNews,” he said, which would drive spikes of traffic to his blog that would capsize it. Calls to blogger friends to see what they used to keep their WordPress sites online left him empty-handed; he ended up talking to 50 people over a couple months to see what they would want out of WordPress hosting.

“What it came down to was the 4 S’s: Speed, Scale, Secure, and Service,” he said, noting that those he talked to would spend around $50 a month if their WordPress host could promise these four things.

“Of course our view of what’s important in WordPress is much broader than that,” he said. “Now there’s probably a dozen people who claim that.”

From Mom-and-Pops to the Top: WordPress in the Enterprise

While WordPress’ strong community backing and ease-of-use have made it a go-to platform for small business websites and blogs, it was only a matter of time before the content management system took hold in the enterprise. This particular segment is where WP Engine sees a lot of new business, and because of its involvement in the WordPress ecosystem, it is sharing this success with developers and others in the community.

“Enterprise is a different world,” Cohen said. “It’s not the same as selling a website to a restaurant or a mid-sized business. A lot of folks don’t know how to do that or haven’t done that before. Even things like a purchase order or a RFP (request for proposal) is new.”

“From the WordPress community perspective really we’re seen as we know how to do that so we want to bring people along,” he said. “We don’t do any work by the hour. We’re not trying to compete with them in that sense; someone’s got to do the work.”

Read more: Is Managed WordPress Hosting Right For You?

Cohen said that rather than trying to capture some services revenue, which doesn’t fit with its business model anyway, it works with WordPress developers and others to do what’s best for the customer. Oftentimes projects for enterprises need a global approach, which “requires people who are local” and enables WP Engine to “be more global and tackle all sizes of projects.”

So, how does the enterprise find out about WordPress?

“A lot of times the marketing team wants to do something quickly and with a small budget, and so someone says, ‘I built a WordPress site last weekend why don’t we do it on WordPress,’” he said. “If you have the person who knows how to do the work and have something like WP Engine where it’s enterprise-grade, it is affordable for the enterprise do it.”

The Decision-Maker Shift: From IT Person to Marketer

One of the notable shifts for WP Engine is the fact that it’s “ultimate” customer has changed from an IT person to a marketer.

“We manage servers and we are a technical company but our customer’s actually a marketer,” he said. “It’s useful to ask what is their perspective and how do we fit into it.”

Read more: Agencies Plan to Spend More Time and Money on WordPress Projects in 2016

WordPress enables marketing teams to react quickly to changes, Cohen said, using Google Glass as an example.

“When Google Glass came out, within hours there were three plugins for WordPress,” he said.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that a marketer would run out and install them right away, that would be a little rash,” he admits, “but what it does mean is that you could decide ‘here’s a campaign where I am going to try it in a month’; you as the marketer are in control of when and how you’re going to deploy new things.”

To support marketers, WP Engine is currently working on an analytics platform.

What’s Next for Hosting?

“Just as virtualization ate up the metal, it seems like containers will be the future,” Cohen said, noting hosting providers aren’t moving that quickly in that area.

“Although that’s the future it’s unclear what pace that will go because it hasn’t been going that fast,” he said. “Haven’t we all been excited for Docker for 2 or more years? It’s not like everyone is on Docker now.”

Of course, there are companies who are working on it; Arizona-based Rancher Labs is one of them. It has created a platform that helps companies deploy and automate container orchestration. And then there’s startup KuberDock, which has launched a PaaS based on Kubernetes for easy orchestration of containers, designed specifically for hosting providers.

The nature of hosting has changed as it has become more global; you don’t see many traditional web hosting companies starting up.

“Infrastructure is very hard and you can’t do it in your basement,” he said.

So while infrastructure isn’t an area where hosting providers can necessarily compete, Cohen believes “we’re just getting started” at the application level.

“There are companies like Hortonworks that are three years old and going public,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s another Red Hat in the manner of Red Hat, but in the manner of Heroku, sure,” he said.

Stay tuned for part two on how you can foster a strong company culture like WP Engine.


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