Web Hosting Interview - AIHSP August 2008

August 2008
Web Hosting Interview - AIHSP August 2008

Paul Hirsch, President of the AIHSP Founding Committee

Virtually every key industry and field has created a professional trade association to stand up for its interests. Why, then has the Web hosting industry failed to create any substantive trade association to stand up for its interests? Where can the hosted services community turn if it wants a voice before lawmakers? Will a set of business standards ever be developed for an industry that literally lies at the center of electronic commerce? The Association for Internet and Hosting Service Providers (AIHSP) says it has some answers. Launched with much fanfare at this year's HostingCon, association has set out a 14-point agenda outlining what it will do for the web hosting industry. We caught up with Paul Hirsch, President of the AIHSP Founding Committee, to find out more about this timely, important and ambitious new initiative.

  • HOSTSEARCH: Paul - thanks for joining us today. Perhaps you can start by introducing yourself to our visitors.
    PAUL HIRSCH: Hi John. Thank you very much for having me. A little bit of background on me—I'm currently the President of the AIHSP founding committee, the group responsible for getting AIHSP off the ground and taking it to the next level. I am the co-owner of Equentity LLC, a Web design, development and hosting company here in Uniontown, Ohio, and I am a super-moderator for one of the largest online communities of Web hosts. I serve as the expert Web design blogger at theWHIR. I have been a part of the Web hosting community for years, both as a Web host and a vendor.
  • HOSTSEARCH: Perhaps the best question to start with is this -- If the Association of Internet and Hosting Service Providers is the solution, what is the problem? What are you trying to solve?
    PAUL HIRSCH: I think you hit the nail on the head. As we see it, the Web hosting industry is one of the only developed industries that lacks a trade association. The problems that result are wide and diverse.

    For example, on a macro level, our industry has no voice in Washington, D.C., even as lawmakers begin implementing costly Internet legislation. We have failed to communicate with lawmakers who have little understanding of our business yet will make very important decisions that will undeniably affect our future growth. Many of the big telecom companies will have a strong role in shaping this legislation, but we will be left out. Issues like Net Neutrality and DMCA reform need to be at the center of our agenda.

    In looking at specific issues, there are a lot of common sense things we need to be doing. For small businesses and independent consultants, health insurance is expensive and often difficult to obtain. Larger businesses lack business-to-business crisis coordination and ample access to research. End consumers and businesses lack the formal criteria by which they can measure the legitimacy of hosting providers and hosting-related vendors.

    As a whole, we lack standards/recognition for conducting good business practices. We also have incredible collective buying power that is untapped. We have the ability to leverage and negotiate pricing together that most businesses could not procure on their own. As an industry, we have the ability to speak to the public, to mainstream media and to our legislators with a strong, unified voice. All of this potential can be achieved given the proper organizational structure in which to cultivate it.
  • HOSTSEARCH: How did the Association come about? I mean, what were the stages in its development?
    PAUL HIRSCH: AISHP started as lunch discussion at HostingCon 2007. After deciding to move forward with it, we spent the better portion of a year interviewing Web hosts, software providers, data centers, media organizations, industry consultants, you name it, to get a really good sense for what was missing in the industry and ways in which an association could fill those gaps.

    We talked with people who attempted to create associations in the past, to find out why they were not successful, ultimately to help us strategize ways we could manage our own efforts most effectively.

    We launched AIHSP on the first day of HostingCon 2008 to much enthusiasm and here we stand today.
  • HOSTSEARCH: And apart from yourself who else is on board?
    PAUL HIRSCH: Our Founding Committee is also comprised of Dan Garon, of Press Advance; Michael Yablonowitz, formerly of uplinkearth, Dr. Tyrone Adams, Ph.D., of the University of Louisiana, Lafayette and David Snead, attorney and counselor in Washington D.C. We also have roughly a dozen active volunteers, and in the past few weeks more than 100 people have expressed interest in getting actively involved with AIHSP.
  • HOSTSEARCH: I have taken a look at your Web site and parts of it read like a political manifesto. That's not a criticism - someone needs to take charge and everything that is suggested on the site needs immediate implementation. Perhaps for the benefit of our visitors who haven't had the opportunity to visit your site, you could outline the objectives of the Association.
    PAUL HIRSCH: Most of our objectives speak directly to the issues I mentioned earlier. We want to use the collective buying power of our members to secure affordable health insurance and other professional services for contractors, consultants, small and medium size businesses.

    We want to introduce ethical standards for fair business conduct. We want to develop certification for the many technology related skills that currently go unmeasured (for example, what is a level three technician anyway?).

    We want to create and manage a research library for our members, with longitudinal studies, market research, consumer purchasing research and technology-related research, all indexed, current and relevant. We want to develop a large-scale crisis network that allows businesses to communicate issues to each other quickly and efficiently before they become industry-wide. These goals speak directly to issues raised by large hosting companies and corporate vendors.

    We want to influence legislation that affects our ability to do business, a goal endorsed by big and small businesses alike. We want to have a voice in the U.S. congress and in governments around the world. We want media to come to us when there's any sort of news about or affecting the Internet. We want the hosting industry to be represented with authority by the authorities who make this industry great.
  • HOSTSEARCH: Will the administrators and managers of the Association be full-time professionals, or is it going to be all strictly voluntary?
    PAUL HIRSCH: As we see things, there will salaried employees devoted entirely to managing the association, both at the executive and administrative levels. We expect the workload to be immense, we cannot rely solely on volunteers, and indeed it's not proper or feasible for a trade association like this to function without salaried staff. However, at present time, our Founding Committee members are volunteers and we have no intention of changing that.
  • HOSTSEARCH: How are you going to finance this? Will it run from professional membership fees?
    PAUL HIRSCH: This is an association for the hosting industry, made up of professionals in the hosting industry, funded by members who make up the industry. Funding will come primarily from membership dues. We are also exploring endowments and government grants, and when we begin accepting members we will be prepared to make public our budget.
  • HOSTSEARCH: And how will those running the Association be chosen?
    PAUL HIRSCH: Once the association is fully functional, we envision it being managed in a democratic, autonomous manner. Members will fill board and committee positions, and most decisions will be made from there. Our intention is for business matters to be conducted with relative transparency and with the support and input of the general membership.
  • HOSTSEARCH: How will the Association sit alongside existing organizations, for example, the Internet Services Providers' Association in the UK - ISPA UK?
    PAUL HIRSCH: Every trade association has benefits for its members, and it is up to those current and potential members to decide if membership benefits befit the costs. I strongly believe if we deliver according to our goals, the business case for becoming a member will be undeniable. If other trade associations have done the same thing, then they will have no problem with membership either. There is plenty of room for coexistence.

    That being said, coexistence is fine, but we can go a step further. I anticipate AIHSP and other associations may have mutual interests that can be better pursued through some degree of strategic alignment. This is a subject we have not spent too much time discussing, because we are concentrating our efforts on establishing ourselves first. But this is a bridge we will cross when the time is right.
  • HOSTSEARCH: Again, perhaps another obvious question, but one we should ask... Can it be done? Can you reign in the industry? It's been fragmented quite a long time? Also, are you really going to be able to pull in the legions of resellers and individual players into a professional organization? Surely, it's the freedom of creating their own world that draws people into this side of the industry?
    PAUL HIRSCH: I can't stress this point enough. AIHSP is not a small group of people exercising dominance over the industry. We are creating a system in which the industry as a whole can decide for itself how much mutual support it wants to bestow upon itself. AIHSP is not interested in taking away the individuality enjoyed by businesses and people in the industry. We're interested in offering ways for everyone to enhance their businesses in whatever ways are most beneficial to them.

    To use a common analogy, we're not trying to tame the Wild West, we're just trying to give all the prospectors better tools so they can dig for gold more successfully.
  • HOSTSEARCH: I am going to put you on the spot here. Although they probably weren't as well publicized, there have been similar efforts to this before. Why is this one going to succeed where they didn't?
    PAUL HIRSCH: Let me preface my answer by saying that this is a volunteer effort, and we have no intention of spending our time and money on something that is going to fail. That's why we have taken a lot of time to do our diligence and make sure we have it right.

    We've interviewed people involved in past initiatives to learn why they failed. Given what we've learned from their answers and our own experiences, I think I can sum up the answer in three points.

    First, previous efforts tended to favor certain portions of the industry, either by business size or type. Instead of bringing businesses of all sizes together, they had a polarizing effect. We've taken great pains to ensure the benefits of AIHSP impact the industry in a balanced manner. Anyone who seeks to do legitimate business with hosts and hosting customers will find real value in AIHSP services and its position.

    Second, we've taken an outside-in approach. The inner workings of the association are influenced by voices in the industry, instead of the outer workings of the industry being mandated by a few voices from the inside. We have found businesses and individuals are much more receptive to a trade association when they understand it's not a "few ruling the many," but a place where every voice can make a difference in the organization's policies and structure.

    We're not trying to impose rule. We are trying to empower. We've already received a very warm reception to this idea from pretty much everyone who has spoken with us about our efforts. The support we get is even stronger when people realize they're being asked to participate actively, not accept oversight passively.

    Lastly, this takes a lot of work, and the only way it can truly succeed is through the collective efforts of those who feel strongly enough about AIHSP to volunteer their time. Previous efforts typically involved a handful of people trying to fit a massive undertaking into their already busy schedules. We're pacing ourselves well and keeping the workload manageable in hopes no one will get burned out. Input will come from hundreds, perhaps thousands. Actual work will be done by dozens. Ultimately, the three of us who began AIHSP a year ago are simply volunteers number one, two and three.
  • HOSTSEARCH: OK - sold! Now the question is what do you need from the Web hosting industry to make this work? What should the average host do to help out?
    PAUL HIRSCH: We need Web hosts and vendors, consultants and media to speak up about the goals we've established, goals we have yet to determine and questions and issues they may have about our efforts. We need people to be an active part of this initiative. Anyone who's interested in being kept abreast of AIHSP activities is welcome to make their interest known here - www.aihsp.org/Yes. We encourage people to sign up on our online community - http://community.aihsp.org - to participate in AIHSP discussions. Opinions and suggestions of all natures are welcome. For those who are willing to volunteer some time, we encourage them to contact us through the contact page on our site (http://www.aihsp.org/Contact-Us.php), and we will update their community usernames so they have access to our volunteer section.
  • HOSTSEARCH: Being a website dedicated to web hosting, we often bear the brunt of people's dissatisfaction with a particular web host. I see that AIHSP is going to be involved in mediation. How is that going to work?
    PAUL HIRSCH: Mediation services are intended to address both business-to-business and business-to-consumer issues. Too often, disputes break out (often very public disputes) over issues that stem from miscommunication or misunderstanding on the parts of those involved. Mediation services do not replace the court of law. Matters that must be resolved legally will be resolved legally. We hope to help people find alternate means to resolve disputes, making for better industry relations and less needless public drama.
  • HOSTSEARCH: What has been the reaction to date? I am sure the bulk of people are wildly in favor of all of this. Any detractors? If so, what has been their concern?
    PAUL HIRSCH: The response we've received to-date has been overwhelmingly positive, but I suppose that's the natural result of having spent considerable time asking a whole lot of people what would be most important to them. You know, I wish more detractors would speak up, because we've heard very little in the way of concerns. The concerns that have been raised are mostly around how AIHSP will draft ethical standards. Everyone seems to agree our industry needs them, but people are a little uncertain of how they can be established fairly. This is why we encourage people to speak up, because we're only going to know the end results are fair when we know they came from the people who they will affect.

    Again, whether you hate the idea of a trade association or love it, we encourage you to bring your messages of concern and support directly to the collective, perhaps to even become a part of it yourself. Please learn more about AIHSP here - www.aihsp.org - and express your interest in participating here - www.aihsp.org/Yes.
  • HOSTSEARCH: Well, on behalf of HostSearch allow me to congratulate you on this initiative. It takes some brave people to take on something on this scale. Well done to everyone involved!
    PAUL HIRSCH: John, thank you again for giving us the opportunity to talk to you and your readers about AIHSP. I hope we'll see even more people wanting to participate in this important grassroots initiative as a result of reading this.

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