HOSTSEARCH: Mark - thanks for letting us take up your valuable time like this. Perhaps we can start in our time-honored fashion with you giving us an insight into WebHost Automation Ltd. and your role within the company.
MARK HALL: Sure no problem. Myself and my co founder Adam Saunders formed WebHost Automation Ltd. back in 2002. At that time we were running a hosting company in the UK and had become frustrated with the software available for hosts that wanted to use Windows. There were a few products on the market at that time but we very quickly realized that none of them would do what we needed - so we started to build out own. Fast forward 5 years and Helm is now used by thousands of web hosting companies in more than 130 countries world-wide. Adam heads up development while I focus on operations and sales.
HOSTSEARCH: And you are based in the UK. Any particular reason for that beyond being British?
MARK HALL: And what's wrong with being British? (laughs) Seriously, one of the huge benefits of working in this industry is that, with a business that's 100% online, you can be anywhere you like. We happen to be based in the UK and all our staff are located in our office in Bristol. By making use of technologies like VoIP it makes little difference at all to our customers. Some 60% of our customers are actually in the US but we also have customers all over the planet.
HOSTSEARCH: Perhaps for the uninitiated we could give visitors that don't know about HELM an overview of your flagship product and its development.
MARK HALL: Helm is a Windows-only control panel that automates the businesses of web hosts that offer hosting services to their customers. With Helm, hosts can delegate basic support such as updating passwords and creating new email accounts to their customers, massively reducing their support overhead and giving customers full control over their own websites. With Helm's inbuilt billing system web hosts can have new customers signup from their own website, pay by card, set up their sites and get online immediately - all hands free. With the launch of Helm 4 just 12 months ago, Helm now allows web hosts the power to automate almost anything, anywhere.
HOSTSEARCH: As the Founder of the organization, I think you are the only person qualified to answer this... If HELM is the solution, what was the problem?
MARK HALL: The problem, for most hosts, is the huge amount of work that they'd have to do if everything was manual. I can remember when we first set up our hosting company about 7 years ago and started without a control panel. We had to do everything manually including setting up new customers sites, billing and dealing with a huge number of requests for password resets, new email accounts, ftp details, etc. You could easily spend all day every day just trying to keep up with the number of support requests from your customers. And, given that many hosts start part time, that just won't work long term. So Helm's job is to automate all those day to day chores of running a hosting company and delegate a lot of the control to customers so that the host can focus on more important things like growing their business.
HOSTSEARCH: How do you market a product like a control panel? Isn't it the case that people fall in love with the first control panel they use and that was either recommended or part of a reseller package? How do you get a host to 'switch brands', as it were?
MARK HALL: It's true that most hosts' first experience with a control panel will be as part of a package from a larger host or a dedicated server provider. And that's exactly why Helm is bundled with servers from almost all the large dedicated server providers out there. I don't think it's true however that hosts blindly fall in love with the first product they see and never look at other products on the market. In my experience most hosts, and particularly Windows hosts, are highly technical and tend to know what they want from a control panel. We have plenty of new hosts coming to Helm from other competitors' products.
HOSTSEARCH: I notice from your website that HELM is a "carbon neutral panel". To what extent do such efforts really make a difference?
MARK HALL: More and more businesses are now looking for ways they can help reduce their impact on the environment. For hosts and data centers that are 'going green' it helps them to know that they software they're providing they customers is carbon neutral.
HOSTSEARCH: How much power can you put in a web host's hands - or an end user's hands for that matter? It seems to me that control panels seem to be able to do everything except matter transfer, so how much further can they go? Without giving away too many specifics, what sort of functionalities do you expect web hosting panels to be able to offer in the future?
MARK HALL: One of the most exciting things about the web hosting industry for us is that it's constantly evolving. We're on the bleeding edge of technology and what software can do so there's always something new that customers are demanding of hosts. Almost every month there seems to be something new and we're under constant pressure from our customers to extend Helm's functionality. Also, as the hosting marketing becomes ever more competitive hosts have to be constantly looking at what they're offering their customers to try to give them some advantage over the competitors. I can't see this changing any time soon so we'll be very busy for quite some time yet!
HOSTSEARCH: We reported earlier this year that you were working with partners to enable HELM to manage private label Exchange Hosting. How is that going? Is Exchange fulfilling its potential as a value-added service for web hosts?
MARK HALL: Exchange is just one example of how hosts are looking to extend what they offer their customers. We partnered with the leading Hosted Exchange provider GroupSPARK in a way that allows hosts to quickly and easily offer exchange to their customers if they don't have their have (or want to have) their own servers. As we move forward into 2008 we'll be starting to look at more and more value-added services that hosts can use to offer more to their customers and grow their businesses. Some examples are the provisioning of virtual servers, game hosting and other online services.
HOSTSEARCH: Again earlier this year we reported your company being involved in a charity run in support of a children's charity. How important is supporting good causes and maintaining a social presence to your corporate culture? What are the benefits of doing this?
MARK HALL: If I'm honest, the idea came about because I was turning 30 this year and thought it was about time I got away from my desk and did something a bit more energetic! What I wasn't expecting was the huge support from our team and in the end 10 of us ran the race in aid of Coco, a charity for Children. I wouldn't exactly say I was a natural for running but it was a great team effort to do something worthwhile.
HOSTSEARCH: It seems to me that you are to some extent playing with the unknown in your line of business. It is not like selling umbrellas where you just follow trends on popular colors and things like that. You are involved in bringing in technologies with features and functionalities people have never experienced before. What is the process for managing such a situation? Is the process led by the technology, or the people that use it?
MARK HALL: You're right. We're dealing with new technologies and new products and services all the time and that's what makes our job that much more interesting. We're very led by what our users tell us they need in order to improve their businesses and we have a system that allows them to request and vote for new features. This allows us to focus on the features and products that are important to our customers. Obviously, from time to time, we have a few good ideas of our own too!
HOSTSEARCH: From your perspective as someone supporting the web hosting industry, where do you see the industry in 5 years? What will it look like and what will WebHost Automation be doing for it?
MARK HALL: We're on the verge of some huge changes in the hosting market and, in particular, with what you might call the bread-and-butter hosts out there offering the basic hosting such as web, email, ftp, etc. In some cases these hosts have competed purely on price and driven the cost of hosting down dramatically. That's great (sometimes!) for customers but not for hosts trying to make a living! They are also coming under more and more pressure from the likes of Microsoft Live Office who now offer the same services for free. The solution is for hosts to expand on the services they offer and introduce more premium services that not only increase their profit margins but also give them something unique to market to customers. That's exactly why we've been focusing on value added services like exchange, game servers hosting, etc. Whatever happens it's going to be an interesting time for everyone!
HOSTSEARCH: Google Apps, MySpace, Facebook... these sites are taking on a good proportion of the personal website hosting activity web hosts would have picked up in the past. Does that worry you at all?
MARK HALL: As I said, this is yet another way that hosts are being squeezed out of offering just basic hosting and must focus on more advanced, premium services if they are to survive.
HOSTSEARCH: I have already mentioned you run for charity - what other sorts of things do you get up to when you aren't at the 'HELM' - sorry about that!
MARK HALL: Would you believe me if I said I've never heard that one before? No, neither would I! I do seem to spend a considerable portion of my time at a desk (at at least glued to my BlackBerry!). When I'm not working I like to spend time with family and, more recently, learning to dive.