Rick Knudtson is a co-founder of Flywheel, a WordPress hosting and management company built for designers. In this interview he talks about building a brand for startups, getting customer feedback, and humanizing web hosting.
Rick Knudtson, welcome to the show. If you would, tell us a bit about who you are.
I’m a co-founder of a company called Flywheel. My background is rooted in design and technology. Before Flywheel I was designing websites for small businesses all over the world—for the most part I was building them on WordPress.
I’m sure your audience knows what WordPress is, so I won’t go into that whole spiel. But it allowed me, as a designer, to build very dynamic sites without being terribly technical myself. At the end of the day I could hand the website off, and my client would be able to manage the content—though few of them ever did.
I put these websites on very technical hosting platforms. I was expected to manage the security, speed and stability of the servers. WordPress allowed me, as a designer, to build to build these technical things with ease, but the technical side of hosting never changed—Flywheel came out of that idea.
Flywheel is a premium WordPress hosting company, which was founded a year ago. We sell primarily to creative agencies. Our idea is to abstract all the complexity of hosting away. In today’s world there is no need for a designer to worry about their site being fast or secure—we can handle all of that for them.
Before you started Flywheel, you worked on a few different products. What was your path to getting here like?
Out of high school I made a very conscious decision to get into technology. I went to school at the University of Nebraska Omaha, and studied computer science. I probably should have studied design, but it did give me an interesting perspective on application design, user experience design and human computer interaction type of stuff.
In university I was probably the only one in computer science with a passion for design. We would build projects in class, and people would lean on me to make sure that looked good.
Rick Knudtson and Co-founder Tony Noecker working in the Flywheel office.
I also got my first experience with entrepreneurship in college at this student run startup. We were building a competitor to Microsoft Excel. It was a data visualization, financial planning type of thing. We were building it in Flash, which isn’t supported by anything anymore.
Out of college I got my first job at a startup here in Omaha. As an entrepreneur, you learn really quickly that you make a horrible employee. You’re always thinking about what you want to build and not what you should be doing during the day.
I quit that job and started building sites for clients. About 99 percent of those were on WordPress—that kind of brings us to where we are today.
One of the things I find interesting about Flywheel is your branding. Earlier this month you wrote a post about building a brand that humanizes hosting. Can you explain what that means?
We knew exactly what we wanted in a brand before we knew exactly what the product was going to do. We were going to sell hosting to creatives, which is a unique idea anyway.
The current model of marketing in hosting doesn’t resonate well with designers. Hosting is traditionally sold with server racks, high-level concepts of technology and these acronyms that designers don’t understand.
Our idea behind Flywheel was to put together a brand that humanized hosting. How do we focus on the creative people using the software instead of the technology behind it? We hope that people trust us that our sites are online and that there is speed and security.
Handmade care packages were sent out to early users who signed up for Flywheel’s beta.
We are focusing on people—the people using the software and the people behind our company. I want customers to know that the people behind Flywheel are just like them—that you can call and talk to us. Most hosting companies don’t list a phone number on their website. We do videos that introduce people to the creative team behind Flywheel, which allows customers to get to know us.
We launched the beta for Flywheel in March of this year, and sent out handmade invites. We added a sketch book, which designers love, along with a hand-written note inviting them to try Flywheel for the first time. You can imagine the response when someone signs up for a hosting company, and they get this package.
That is what we want to do—the human touch— focus on the people using and behind the software instead of the technology running it.
How would you describe your relationship with your customers?
That is a good question. We are a support-driven organization. Our product could be amazing, but if support sucks then we wouldn’t exist. We live and die by how good our support is.
Most hosting companies are out trying to sell services to people like my mom. We sell to creative agencies, the people actually making decisions for their clients, instead of end users. This means that we get to know most of our customers by name.
How did you get in touch with these agencies? What were those first conversations like?
Any entrepreneur knows that finding the first customer is the hardest and most rewarding thing ever. Before we ever wrote a line of code on Flywheel we talked to 20 design agencies around Omaha.
Because I’ve been involved in the design community, a lot of them were friends of mine that ran agencies. Some of them were complete strangers. I’d cold email them, and ask them if I could sit down and bring them a six-pack of beer.
As an entrepreneur, you learn really quickly that you make a horrible employee.
It kind of snowballed from there. We launched a website and asked people to signup for a beta and see if anyone cared. Luckily, it got shared quite a few times.
As stroke of luck, the site landed on a lot of design galleries. The only people that troll these design galleries are designers, which ended up being an awesome advertising tool. It was just like a big banner ad that said “WordPress hosting built for designers.” We saw thousands of people sign up coming from those design galleries.
We also do some high touch stuff where we demo to agencies, which is a way of interacting with potential customers on a very personal level. I don’t think there are too many hosting companies with a “Request Demo” button at the top of their website.
One of the things that is great about your brand is that people feel like they are purchasing from you guys—from real people. How do you scale and keep that personality?
A lot of companies try and act like they are bigger than they are. I’d love to have 100 employees, have people call and think that there are only three of us.
The reality is that it can’t be that way forever. There is no way to scale the way we want without loosing some personal touch. I will say that the brand will always be about people that are using the software and the people in the company.
One example of how we can continue to have this personal feel is by having everyone do support. Customers aren’t going to get the standard line of defense, and receive an automated email. I’d really love to see everyone touching customers.
We’ll always have a phone number. I want people to be able to call.
A customer of ours described us as a boutique hosting company. I’d love to be a boutique hosting company that is hosting 100,000 websites, and I think that is possible by focusing on the right branding efforts.
You guys have some pretty unique features. One of the things that caught my eye was that you would migrate WordPress sites for your customers. You guys make it easy to transfer payment from an agency to their client. I’m curious what other features you have on the back burner. Are there any that you can share?
We allow designers to easily collaborate with other designers and developers. The old way of doing things was by having a client sign up for hosting and have them send their account information to the designer and developer. What ends up happening is that designers and developers end up keeping an excel document with all of their clients user names and passwords. You end up with this extremely insecure and inefficient workflow.
Flywheel allows you to login and collaborate with others using just an email address. You can think of GitHub as an example. Everyone has an account and you are invited to work on projects.
We allow designers to start WordPress sites for free. We call these demo sites. This eliminates the need for a staging server, because you can develop on top of Flywheel for free. Once you are ready to go live, you can transfer billing to your client. They get an email, enter their billing information and that is all they have to do. It is all very fluid, and is a great experience for your client.
Our next feature will be bulk plans. Right now every site on Flywheel is tied to a plan. We find that designers don’t always want their client to own the hosting. A lot of designers want to resell hosting. If the designer owns the hosting, they can mark it up and bill their client for it.
Entrance to The Mastercraft, a former furniture factory that is now comprised of small technology companies.
We are focusing on people—the people using the software and the people behind our company.
Bulk plans allow designers to host 10 or 25 sites under one account and get a bit of a price break. This means that they can’t transfer billing, and that they are owning the hosting experience.
We’ll also be launching an affiliate program, because a lot of designers are asking about that. When you transfer billing to your client we’re going to count it as a referral, and your client won’t even know that is happening. You won’t have to pass them a slimy affiliate link or anything like that.
There are a million things we want to build, we just have to get there.
You aren’t really competing with hosting companies like GoDaddy and Rackspace, you’re competing with companies like WP Engine. Why should somebody choose Flywheel vs. WP engine?
You’re right we probably aren’t competing with some of the larger companies as much as companies like WP Engine and other managed WordPress hosts.
I’d love to know the market share of managed hosts as a whole—it is far less than 1 percent. We may not be competing directly with HostGator, but that is where we are getting most of our customers. I think people are realizing that you get what you pay for, especially with hosting.
Rick Knudtson is also Flywheel’s user interface designer.
If you are looking at Flywheel vs. other managed WordPress hosts, I’ll say that we focus heavily on software solutions. I think that some of these hosts focus heavily on the hosting side. They are really just another hosting company, and just happen to do hosting really well.
We’re going to continue to make sure that your site is fast, secure and stable. We’re going to make sure that your site is online and available. But you can take it as a promise from me that we are going to continue improving the workflow of designers and agencies.
You’re the product designer. What are some of the specific design challenges at Flywheel?
Over time things become more complex. Workflows become convoluted. How do you boil it down to a simple process?
We sell our company on great product and design, and how we abstract much of the complexity of hosting away. For example we didn’t launch Flywheel with database access, which is kind of a funny thing for a hosting company. Most WordPress designers never touch a database, but some people like the security of knowing that they can. So we’ll want to make things like that available.
The challenge that we see at Flywheel is keeping a simple user interface as we build out the features that we want to build.
What is your design process like? What do you have to do to start designing stuff?
I’m lucky to have two founders, both technical guys, that believe strongly in design.
We start on a whiteboard with a workflow diagrams, and figuring out the user experience. I’m the only UI designer at Flywheel—at that point it goes quickly from wireframes into Photoshop. I also do font-end development.
Our process is collaborative. Its not like I work on it, and then throw it over the fence to the developer. I work pretty closely with him to make sure the experience is—dare I say—exactly like I wanted.
Does customer feedback effect the design decisions that you make? If do, how does it effect the design decisions for your product?
It plays heavily into our decisions. Not only does it help us determine what will be built next, but how it will be built.
We spot trends in support tickets—everybody may not be asking the same questions, but they are asking questions that imply a specific problem.
As any hosting company you see some turnover, and some of that is because people want more control. That isn’t our value proposition. We’re not going to build a hosting architecture where you need to hack on Linux—that is not going to happen.
So customer feedback drives our decisions, but it won’t force us down a road we don’t want to travel.
When a customer leaves how do you respond to that?
I just frown.
[laughter] But what do you say to them? Do you try and get feedback? When a customer leaves what happens?
As an entrepreneur you’re obviously going to have customers leave at some point. The key is to try and capitalize on those moments.
Today we released our first version of “How to collect data” when someone cancels a subscription. In the past we’d get a report when people would cancel. I’d email them personally, and ask them for feedback or what we could do better.
Obviously it is difficult to scale if I have to email everyone, so we’re going to start to automate that a bit. Starting today there will be a page with a few questions that will appear when someone cancels their account.
Our goal is to learn. What caused them to leave? Can we solve that issue?
Reaching out to people—the reason I found you was because you followed me on Twitter. I saw what Flywheel was and realized that I needed to get in touch with you. Why did you follow me on Twitter?
I’ve not been a major user of social media in the past. When you launch a company like Flywheel, you want to reach out to people in the realm of design and creative work.
I’ve started getting on Twitter and following people that are interested in the same stuff that I’m interested in—I’m just trying to make connections with people like you. We do the same thing with the Flywheel Twitter account.
Also, when you signup for Flywheel we ask people to tweet about it. People care about the product enough to do it.
Flywheel leverages their happy customers on their site. The about page features Cremalab CEO George Brooks.
We want to be a company that lives on social media. We monitor Twitter. We tweet at our customers, and congratulate them if they get a design award. I think there are a lot of companies that don’t look at their Twitter account as a persona, and don’t inject personality into it. Flywheel will continue using social media in that way.
We have an Instagram account. How many hosting companies have an Instagram account? Flywheel does. It has a bunch of picture of animals around the office, and other cool cultural things.
The key is to show that we are just people at the end of the day. We’re not a black box hosting company. Social media has been a huge part of that strategy.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs?
You have to trust yourself. If you truly believe in something, just do it.
Everyday I have people pitch ideas to me, and that conversation always ends with—just build it. Put your head down, and build it. You’ll wake up a year from now and You’ll be employing someone, which is extremely rewarding.
My one piece of advice is get out there and build something.
I wish I had more answers, but I’m still learning myself. I’ll be watching and learning from your interviews.
Rick, where can people find you?
Thank you very much for having me Sam. This has been a lot of fun.