October 2010 sees 34SP.com turn 10 years old. As co-founder of the company, I was asked to write something for our blog to commemorate this proud moment, and for a while I struggled to think of just one item that stood out in my mind. So much has happened, it seems unfair to pick just one thing out. We’ve grown tremendously over 10 years from simple website hosting into virtual servers and dedicated server hosting as well. Then someone asked me what was the biggest thing I’ve learned in the past 10 years. Then the lightbulb went off, a moment in our very earliest days shaped 34SP.com irrevocably.
For me, the biggest lesson we learned about web hosting was within the first few weeks of starting the company. Way back in the mists of time, when 34SP.com started up, we hosted all our sites on dedicated servers within the United States. Server appliances were all the rage, and 34SP.com hosted websites on the long forgotten Cobalt RaQ servers. Back in 2000, U.S. dedicated server and bandwidth pricing was streets ahead of anywhere else; the U.S. was the only sensible place a new cost conscious business could look towards.
34SP.com was registered, we had our server, we’d advertised, and one by one new customers started to trickle in. Every new day was full of excitement as our first dedicated server slowly accumulated hosting accounts. We were in the hosting business! You can imagine our complete dismay then, when within only a few weeks of clients signing up, our main hosting server died. Completely died, all sites offline, including our own. The first step was to go through the fraught process of contacting our host. Hanging on the phone for what seemed like an eternity trying to get an answer, only then to wait for a call back while engineers investigated, for what seemed like forever. Finally we found out the hard disk had failed in the server. To say we were gutted would be an understatement. The hosting company offered us only a few options. They were more than happy to offer us a new server, with blank new disks, but couldn’t help with the failed disk. After more than a little pleading, they agreed to overnight ship the failed disk from the United States to the United Kingdom. Maybe we could salvage something ourselves.
In those scary few days, we had a crash course in the unhappy reality of web hosting: things break. As a completely new company with no track record we realised this could put an end to the company before it had even begun. We did the only thing we thought was reasonable, and contacted all our clients and explained the situation 100% honestly and openly. We sent emails, made phone calls and waited. The response we received was phenomenal. Virtually no clients complained, shouted or quit the service there and then. The vast majority were understanding, calm and thanked us for the information and honesty, and keeping in touch.
Over the next days we received the hard disks and (thankfully!) managed to salvage the data ourselves. We restored all the data to a new dedicated server with no data loss. We managed to get everyone back online. Over the three or four days this took to complete we kept in touch with clients and never once flinched away from the truth, even though it was painful and uncomfortable. Customers continued to appreciate the openness, and by the time the emergency was over, 34SP.com would never be the same.
We’d learnt that things will break. It doesn’t matter how many levels of redundancy are in place, at some time, some place, some one thing will break. And its going to be just at the wrong time too, probably on Xmas day, at lunch time. Probably during the queens speech too. Things break at the most inopportune times.
While you can’t stop things breaking, you do have control over how you respond, how you communicate to clients and ultimately how you learn and move forward. This simple understanding has been with us since our first few months in business. It’s a mantra we continually live by, and grow our business by. To this day we try to be as open as we can be with our clients. Every new member to our team is drilled in this approach to customer service. Our clients are only reason we are in business, and they deserve our respect and honesty on a daily basis. Nothing less will do, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult that is for us.
We’ve also been customers of other hosting companies. We’ve had failures, and we know the terror a dead service can induce. So when you host with 34SP.com you know we’ve been there, been in your shoes and we appreciate all the highs and all the lows. I know it sounds completely clichéd and something a marketer would use to sell our company, but I (and others who work here) personally feel every single fault and failure our clients suffer. Not because it might lose us customers, but because we’ve been there before.
So when I’m asked whats the biggest lesson the last ten years have taught me, its communication. Simple, honest communication: something we will continue to promise and deliver for as long as our clients need our services.