Startup Diary Week 5 – Why OnBoardify’s Founders Are Not (Yet) Women


Some of my best friends are women. No, really.

It just so happens that none of them are at our startup, and this past week, as I was wrangling equity and stock options within the rapidly gelling OnBoardify founding team, I thought: Waitaminute. We’re just like Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Box. And sadly, I don’t mean in terms of revenue, users, or valuation. What we, a fledgling startup, have in common with these behemoths is that we, like they, have no women in our founding team. There’s a huge gulf that separates OnBoardify from these successful companies, but I suspect that, when they started, they had the same challenges as we do in attracting women to our founding team.

You’ve seen the recent media coverage about why many women don’t make it to the established ranks of a technology companies, with notable exceptions like Meg Whitman (eBay), Carol Bartz (Autodesk), Marissa Mayer (Google), and Padmasree Warrior (Cisco). The firestorm first started with Stanford’s Vivek Wadhwa taking Silicon Valley to task for its lack of women on its executive teams. , where he stated that “Silicon Valley is a boys club that stacks the deck against women and certain minorities.” This great infographic by Women 2.0 Magazine tells the story of Silicon Valley women managers and entrepreneurs. Women accounted for just less than 18 percent of directors at Standard & Poor’s 500 Index company boards this year, according to reports, and they start only 3% of technology companies in Silicon Valley.


According to the Census Bureau, women account for nearly half the work force but hold only 26 percent of science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) jobs, with 74 percent going to men. Yet, it’s not as if women are absent from science and math jobs, as the Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin study reports: “In 2011, women were only 13% of engineers, 27% of computer professionals, 41% of life and physical scientists, and 61% of social scientists.” In other words, women aren’t taking up engineering and computer science jobs as much. You can, likely, think of a lot more doctors you know who are women, than engineers.

As our team was beginning to form around the edges, and solidify into a committed group of startup engineers, I reflected on why the founding team was all male. It’s not as if we’re a homogeneous bunch of male brogrammers – we have team members who are African-American, Indian, and Jewish. We have native San Franciscans and immigrants. But not one of them are women. When I look back at the beginning of my computer science and engineering foundations, built at MIT, we saw a lot of women in engineering and computer science classes. In fact, in Fall 2012, 45% of MIT undergraduates were women. Yet, here we are, years later at a startup, and there are no women.

So here’s the unvarnished truth to why our founding team has only men – it’s the velocity of how we network to form startup teams, and not giving enough attention to ensuring that the team becomes gender-diverse. There’s a saying in Silicon Valley that, in the early stages of a startup, you have people who build (engineers) and people who sell (salespeople), and everybody else just gets in the way. Since I’m the salesperson, everybody else needs to be a software engineer, and when our network of engineers reached out to us, there were no women who came calling.

Really? No women at all in Silicon Valley for us to attract to the founding team? Well, not quite; there were women interested in joining us, but they were not software engineers. There are notable women engineers in Silicon Valley who have captured the imagination of the country. Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, has two computer science degrees from Stanford, yet she only worked as a software engineer for a couple of years – the rest was as a product manager, and then executive. Ruchi Sanghvi, VP Operations at Dropbox, has been written about in the New York Times, and celebrated as a tech geek. However, if you look at Ruchi’s LinkedIn profile, you’ll notice that, even with her two degrees in Computer Science from CMU, most of her experience at Facebook has been as a product manager, rather than a software engineer. So, while we would indeed be hugely lucky to get someone of Ruchi’s profile at our startup, the truth is that, at this early stage, we would want to hire not an “engineer turned product manager”, but “an engineer’s engineer”, somebody who has, up to the last 24 hours, been writing software code for most of the night. And not just any code, i.e., in addition to liberal arts majors who have become front-end engineers, we need guys and gals with computer science degrees who have remained software engineers for most of their careers, building software that eats the world.

Just this week, our VP Engineering asked me to mine my network of engineers on LinkedIn, because he needed us to attract to OnBoardify, a founding engineer who could design, architect, and build what is called the “back-end”, or the infrastructure and plumbing software that makes our product hum. I used LinkedIn’s (very tedious) Tag feature to categorize all contacts who looked like software engineers. Out of 80 engineers that I am directly connected to, I found one woman, and even she wasn’t the kind of software engineer we needed. On the other hand, I was connected to 400 women professionals, but none of them were software engineers. Almost all the computer science women that I knew at MIT had become marketers, teachers, or lawyers. I know amazingly successful women CEOs, marketers, PR professionals, athletes, management consultants, salespeople, product managers, and many other professions. Oh, and from the MIT classmates, I reconnected with the amazing and successful Anna Napolitano, who’s the founder and CEO of an established software engineering company in Greenwich, CT.

I believe that diversity in Silicon Valley companies pays off handsomely. It brings different perspectives. It teaches you how to work with the real world of customers. It makes for collaborative teams and a great learning experience for life. And I know that we will attract the right, diverse team. In time, we will need not just engineers, but also marketers, salespeople, and executives. What it means for us startup types is that we need to work harder to find a diverse team, especially women. There are hackathons and meetups out there, including Develop.Her, Women Who Code (SF) and Femgineers. We’re looking for that very amazing person. Contact me on LinkedIn if you are a woman, of any age, persuasion, color, ethnicity, or food-preference who:

  • Love the idea of building software to dramatically increase collaboration and user engagement 
  • Want to fundamentally change the way business users who use enterprise applications get work done
  • Are a guru in Java and open source technologies that run the back-end stack
  • Experienced with SQL/NoSQL databases, REST APIs, and public cloud stacks (AWS, GCE, etc.)
  • Are excited about building a product from (near) scratch and the share ownership it comes with
  • Eat Indian food as we have a Whole Foods approved chef who often feeds us (take that, Google and Facebook)

Day in a Startup series

The chronicle of our Silicon Valley startup:

Startup Diary Day 1 – Always Be Hiring
Startup Diary Week 2 – Share Your Idea To Acquire Customers Faster
Startup Diary Week 3 – Making Friends
Startup Diary Week 4 – Separation of Church (Web Site) and State (Email)
Startup Diary Week 5 – Why Our Founders Are Not Women

Startup Diary Week 4 – Separation of Church (Web Site) and State (Email)

STOP using Gmail. I don’t mean, literally. But definitely stop using email addresses for your business. I mean, really. It’s like a grown man wearing shorts, you know, all the time. Ok, since most of you read this because I blasted this to all 618 Facebook friends and 1728 LinkedIn contacts (I hope that proves to you, ex-boss, that I spend way more time at work than fun), you’re probably already tech savvy and asking if it’s necessary for me to… gasp… write a blog about how to get your own custom email domain, like,

I’d rather be smelling flowers like the guy below than have to go through the ordeal of working with custom email addresses, Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 again.


Truth is, if you’re a tech startup, you get that you need to have your own email address, i.e. an address like However, many business owners start with – and stay with – emails like My dad is a good example – he owns the best known Indian restaurant in the Baltics (to get there, start in Helsinki, Finland, take the ferry over to Tallinn, Estonia, where Skype was started, then drive what feels like hundreds of miles of flat terrain to Riga, Latvia, and then Vilnius, Lithuania). In fact, Nik Zennstrom and his Skype team would often eat at his Tallinn restaurant. The business is Sue’s Indian Raja, and has a website, but check out the email address – it’s a Gmail email. As it turns out, dad’s visiting us this week, and we’re going to change his email to

So that should be pretty easy, right? Wrong. It’s pretty difficult to do for your average business owner, or even her fledgling IT staff, which usually happens to be a high-school student recruited to keep things running for the tech-challenged owners. Getting a professional email setup is similar to setting up a business phone system – you could buy a home phone from Best Buy and put it in your office, but soon you will run up against its limitations and wish you had gotten a business phone. Need to have call forwarding when you travel outside the office? Send voicemail messages as email? You can’t do that with a home answering machine. Similarly, with email, you need to do it right to establish credibility with your customers and efficiency in your team.

So here’s how we did it at Onboardify, our startup that’s on Day 21 today. We wanted our web site and our email to be hosted by two different service providers. Our website – still in “stealth” mode – is hosted at Linode. Our email is hosted by Microsoft Office 365. For my wife’s company, Indian Bento, the email is hosted at Google Apps for Business. I’ll provide step-by-step instructions on how you can do the same thing, so that you can send and receive email at a custom email address such as

The next step for us was to separate church and state – our web site would be hosted by Linode, and our email would be hosted by Microsoft Office 365.

Set Up Web Hosting on Linode

This may be obvious, but if you haven’t already, you must register a domain name, e.g., GoDaddy makes it really easy, so I recommend getting started here. Then, you should sign up for a trial account with Google Apps for Business, or Microsoft Office 365. Next, you want to setup your web site to point to your web hosting provider. The web hosting provider can be GoDaddy, and that’s the easiest thing to do if you are non-technical. Since we’re techies, we decided to setup our web site on Linode, which I do not recommend for anyone who wants their next three evenings free. To tell GoDaddy to translate the address to fetch the content from Linode’s servers, we need to configure DNS name servers in GoDaddy.

  • Go to Godaddy and click on Log In on the right hand side of the page.Godaddy1
  • Right where it says “Hi, <your name>”, click on the down arrow.
  • Click on the Visit My Account button.
  • Click on the Launch button on the right hand side of Domains.
  • Click on your domain name and scroll down to the Name Servers section.
  • Click on Manage, and then enter Custom values as shown below.


Set Up Email on Microsoft Office 365

Microsoft Office 365 can manage your entire web site including email, but we didn’t try that. We explicitly wanted our web site hosting and our email hosting companies to be separate. For one, we didn’t want our web site to be hosted on Microsoft technologies like Sharepoint, preferring to use our own – this makes our technology choices more flexible. For example, if we decide to scale the ability of our web site to handle traffic, we could use cloud services like Amazon Web Services. Keeping our web and email hosting providers separate made sense for us, at this stage.

  • Log in to Microsoft Office 365.
  • Click on Admin and then on Domains.
  • Add a domain name, such as

Next, login to your web site hosting provider, Linode in our case, and go to the DNS Manager for your domain. Create MX, TXT and SRV records exactly as you see it in the examples below, except where it says “onboardify” replace it with your domain – e.g., if your web site is, then the domain would be “mysite”.

MX records


Once you make these changes, wait about 15 minutes or so. Sometimes, the process of DNS changes takes a little longer. If you have set up email addresses such as, test that emails sent from/to it are received/sent. With any luck, your brand new, custom, email domain should be working fine in Microsoft Office 365.

Microsoft Office 365 email addresses cost $6/mo, and a little less if you sign up for an annual subscription. One of the advantages of Microsoft Office 365 over Google Apps for Business is that with Microsoft, you can create shared mailboxes such as and, and you are not charged $6/mo extra for such mailboxes. These are extremely handy when you want your customers to email you at these corporate email addresses, but you want the mail to be received by a number of people.

If you are interested in having a similar set of instructions for setting up custom email in Google Apps for Business, let me know, and I would be happy to rustle up some instructions.

Day in a Startup series

The chronicle of our Silicon Valley startup:

Day #1 in a Startup – Always Be Hiring
Day #7 in a Startup – Share Your Idea To Acquire Customers Faster
Day #14 in a Startup – Making Friends
Day #21 in a Startup – Separation of Church (Web Site) and State (Email)

Startup Diary Week 3 – Making Friends

Like picture

Our friends sustain us in our personal lives. Some friends give you encouragement, others energy, and some help you open doors you wouldn’t be able to yourself. You help them and they help you. And so is it in business. I think of all my business contacts as friends, and I approach all relationships in that way. When starting a new business, I like to think of my contacts – the names in my Outlook, Gmail or LinkedIn databases – in ways that help us get to where we need to be.


First, a quick digression on contact management software. There are startups out there building software to help you manage your contacts in the cloud. Most business people use Gmail or Outlook, and one of the reasons we are doing a 30-day trial of Microsoft Office 365 in addition to Google Apps is because the contact management in Outlook is better than Gmail. In Outlook, you can sync your contacts with LinkedIn, and then edit the contacts to add more information, such as a cell phone number. Then there’s  Plaxo, the company that rocketed to fame a few years ago – see their latest post Plaxo Tips: Syncing Multiple Google Accounts. I am using LinkedIn contacts to sync my Outlook contacts, and then organize them into categories. Here’s how I think about my business friends:

The Friendlies


These are the friends who are your and your team’s cheerleaders. They like or share your blog posts, comment on your incessant posting of business stuff on Facebook, and generally cheer you on. They make the hard part of the startup life worth living, because they either like you personally, or they like something you wrote or presented to 2500 attendees at the O’Reilly Velocity conference. These are the people who influence others to join you, or introduce you to people who become your customers. It helps to acknowledge them, and thank them for their acts of generosity, such as @johnbpeterson and @rontele did when they favorited and retweeted my post - thank you guys!

The Godfathers/Godmothers

influencerThese are friends who have significant influence, and can make things happen for your business. Most startups usually think of these people as being angel or VC investors, but there are people with other skills who can help. We are broadening our outreach to also include strategic partners at companies that have an interest in our business. Let me explain by illustrating how we obtain partners. We are building a software product that helps enterprises make their employee social network really productive, by helping them help each other solve business problems in real-time. Cloud/SaaS vendors care about onboarding their trial users, because they are adding thousands of users a day using B2B marketing techniques, and converting tire-kickers to buyers is a revenue imperative. Social CRM vendors that build tools to connect employees with social networks care about this because we integrate with them, including Yammer Platform, Salesforce Chatter, and VMware Socialcast. I spend time every day identifying people among my business friends who are in leadership positions at these companies, because they can help. Their sponsorship of us as a partner makes all the difference that is needed to go from startup to being a company with substantial credibility. Speaking of people who have significant influence, Prashant Shah, previously of Hummer Winblad ventures, and now Managing Director at TIE, has launched a brilliant startup accelerator called TIE Launchpad - the deadline to apply is coming up on Nov 15, 2013, so apply now! Another person I admire is Debbie Landa, CEO of Dealmaker Media, who runs the Under the Radar conference – apply here to present at the next one.

The Gurus

guruThese are the friends who know how to scale the software you are building. They’ve done it before, and know how to help you scale up your business. Since we have spent 10+ years at big data companies like Keynote (Shawn White, VP Service Delivery,  runs an infrastructure that collects 800 million rows in a relational Oracle database every day, as well as Hadoop), we’re going to be managing data at peak scale. Ken Rudin is the Head of Analytics at Facebook, and the kind of friend who would know whether our plan to use MongoDB and Hadoop will scale to handle the number of users we need to. Jon Fox at Walmart Labs built a highly-scalable real user monitoring service using Hadoop, for his company Torbit, which was acquired by Walmart. Jon Adams is a performance guru at Twitter operations, and head of their security operations. I look to these friends for advice as we accelerate.

Cultivate your friends list using LinkedIn Contacts – this application looks promising, because I can tag the people with labels such as “Hires”. Our second week at our startup was spent cultivating friends and business partners, to help us with technical architecture and investor introductions. Please get in touch with me, Vik Chaudhary at LinkedIn, if you think I should talk to someone in your network – I’d really appreciate it!

Day in a Startup series

The chronicle of our Silicon Valley startup:

Day #1 in a Startup – Always Be Hiring
Day #7 in a Startup – Share Your Idea To Acquire Customers Faster
Day #14 in a Startup – Making Friends
Day #21 in a Startup – Separation of Church (Web Site) and State (Email)

Startup Diary Week 2 – Share Your Idea To Acquire Customers Faster

I’m chronicling what the first year of building a startup really looks like, from the inside. A week ago, I quit an executive job at a 500-person company, one that, as many of you reading know already, got acquired for about $400 million. On Day 1, I wrote Day #1 in a Startup – Always Be Hiring, where I talked about starting your day early, communicating with the core team, setting goals for the first 90 days, and why you should always be hiring. Here’s what Week 1 at our startup taught me.

First, the context. Like most early-stage startups, we’re not starting with very much tangible stuff. Yes, we have an office space that will fit 5 people if we installed corporate-style cubicles, which we’re not, so it can fit 10 with IKEA desks (and headphones to cut out the noise). The rest is intangible – expertise, mockups, software prototypes, customer contacts, investor contacts, advisors. Wait a minute – there’s a lot there already! Let’s take a look at what the team (any good team) brings to the table:

  • Decades of years of expertise in building and selling software to the Schwabs, Expedias, Facebooks of the world.
  • Mockups that have taken weekends and evenings of work to understand the user problems, the buyer’s intrinsic motivators, and the workflow.
  • Software prototypes that demonstrate that this team knows how to build the product.
  • Relationships with potential customers we know well, whose business problems we understand, and who would evaluate our product.
  • Conversations with potential advisors and experienced software guys at the Diwali party – Indian New Year – last night.

That’s a lot of intangibles, and it all adds up. So we’re starting with a lot, and so are you, if you’re starting your own company. Use this intellectual capital well – it’s the raw material, the diamonds in the rough waiting to be picked (excuse the mixed metaphor). This week, here’s what I learnt:

Keep the Focus on Building the Product. If you’re not building the product, and talking to customers, then you’re just an idea with a powerpoint. So build it. But build what, exactly? It can be a demoing prototype, a working prototype, or high-fidelity mockups. Something that allows you to get to the next level quickly, which is to have deeper conversations with potential customers.  Thanks to our very talented  head of UX, we have now advanced beyond the Balsamiq mockups that I highly recommend all startup CEOs use. We now have high-fidelity mockups with a clear workflow that demonstrates how the product will work, and work has begun on writing the software code and setting up the IT infrastructure. I can put the high-fidelity mockup in a deck that I send to a  customer. Speaking of customers, I spoke to a potential one our first week – a fast-growing and highly reputable SaaS company – and they agreed to try the product as soon as we had it ready!

Share Your Idea With the Right People. One of the delights of working in San Francisco is that you can feed off the energy of the City’s numerous cafes. The other day, I stopped by La Boulange de Hayes, a delightful cafe in Hayes Valley (it’s now part of Starbucks, but you’d never know it, it feels way different). Without Wi-Fi, it doesn’t have the mausoleum-like feeling of a Starbucks, because people are there to savor their food and drink, and talk to people they’re with – it has the vibrant feeling of a Paris cafe. There I bumped into a previous colleague and her boyfriend, and he (the boyfriend) asked if I would talk about our startup idea. Sure, I said, why not, and I talked about how we’re solving the onboarding problem for businesses, and provided a short description of how it would work. As it turns out, my friend works for healthcare IT, and I know that hospitals often launch new, complex applications without the tools to help onboard their users effectively. The boyfriend, who was a very creative sort, immediately threw out an idea that buyers would like, and as it turned out, we have that on our roadmap. So, I’ve been talking freely about the idea to people who I think would be able to help me advance it to the next level – introduce us to a customer, advise us on some aspect of running the business, or want to join the company (we’re hiring, folks!).

Understand Your Advisors’ Mindset When Taking Their Feedback. This week I spoke to two potential advisors. The first came from the ed-tech space, and he seemed to like the idea, and gave me some insights into what makes educational content work well. That was valuable, but I also recognize that I liked his thoughts because he agreed with me, so I tempered my enthusiasm – now I’ll wait until he and I talk the second time, and get deeper. The same first week, I talked to another potential advisor who really didn’t like the idea. So naturally I felt disappointed by his reaction, but I didn’t let that get in the way of learning what he was telling me. It turns out that he thought that the idea was solid, but he doubted any engineer’s ability to solve it. So now we have something concrete we can prove – by building the product. It also uncovered that he felt my answer about technical choices wasn’t robust enough, and we are sure to get this from sophisticated investors, so I made a mental note to understand my VP Engineering’s mind deeper, so I could be credible. So, you have to understand your advisor’s experience – the first person came from the domain so he liked it and can help us develop the content  better. The second advisor was  a pioneer who has a strong compass about his own vision, preferring that to customer feedback in the early days of a startup. We’re motivated by solving customer problems first, and we also believe in going after big markets. See also my friend, Head of Microsoft Ventures in APAC, Mukund Mohan’s post on listening to feedback from advisors.

Week 1 was about building the product and talking to customers, with new advisors added to take the idea to the next level of execution. Week 2 will be about following up with customers, and continuing to build the product.

Day in a Startup series

The chronicle of our Silicon Valley startup:

Day #1 in a Startup – Always Be Hiring
Day #7 in a Startup – Share Your Idea To Acquire Customers Faster
Day #14 in a Startup – Making Friends
Day #21 in a Startup – Separation of Church (Web Site) and State (Email)

Startup Diary Day 1 – Always Be Hiring

The first day of being 100% focused on your startup feels great! It really helps if you have a game-plan to structure the days of the first few weeks. Last week, I took the plunge to leave my employer, a safe and secure tech company that I had joined at 50 people, and left when it touched 500 and had been acquired for some cents short of $400 million. My days as an executive of a public tech company, where I managed a strategic team doing corporate development and product direction, was super-structured. Every day had the ritual of emails, calls with salespeople, meetings with various teams, 1-on-1 coaching sessions for my team, product reviews, market launches, analytics assessment, free lunches, the company gym, the weekly team meeting, the monthly company get-together, and so on. So how did I make the transition? Here are my learnings from Day 1:

Start Early — It’s super-tempting to think that, now that you’re at a startup, it’s ok to roll out of the house at 9:30 or 10:00, because, hey, you can always make it up late at night, right? My suggestion is to start earlier in the morning, because research says that early-morning risers are happier and healthier. I started my day at 5:30, probably 30 minutes later than I should have. I read the morning paper and got ready as if I leaving for work. I responded to all the emails that people had sent, congratulating me on taking the big step, offering their help, or asking when I was hiring. I even dropped the kids at school, and by 8:30 am I had a good 30 minutes to think about my first meeting of the day.

Touch Base With the Core Team — The vision for your product has got to be crystal clear to every member of the team, especially in the first week. We have a physical office space, but there are no desks or chairs, so everyone’s working out of home until we’re ready. At this critical time, you’re invisible to them and they to you. Make sure you check in with each of them to see if we’re all on the same page. I sent an email to our team, outlining the goals for the next 90-120 days. We had an email discussion, and then I called two people and we talked for 45 minutes each. There I discovered that we had a gap between what was in my head and that of one team member. So I now have a task to clarify a specific area of the product plan, that’s on the agenda for the weekly meeting.

Set Goals for the First 90 Days — Have 3 clear deliverables for the next 90 days. In our case, it was to build a free product, create both customer and investor decks, and hire more people. We setup a weekly meeting time, agreed on the logistics, and have tasks setup for that meeting.

Always Be Hiring — On my first day on the job, I met two potential hires for the company. Both are in-between gigs at the moment, and I have worked with them before. One was a former head of engineering, and another was my manager at my first startup (that later went public). These would be both great hires, both in attitude and skills. I spent time in assessing what was important to them first, and articulate what was important to us, at this stage.

Day 1 ended up being a reasonably long day for one that started at 5:30 – it was 9:30 pm before I put away the keyboard – and I felt that we had moved forward by setting clear goals for the team and laying the groundwork to attract brilliant people. Day 2 is going to be about the product and advisors – so more on that at the end of the day!

Day in a Startup series

The chronicle of our Silicon Valley startup:

Day #1 in a Startup – Always Be Hiring
Day #7 in a Startup – Share Your Idea To Acquire Customers Faster
Day #14 in a Startup – Making Friends
Day #21 in a Startup – Separation of Church (Web Site) and State (Email)

With Customers, Question Everything

There’s the old adage that “The Customer is Always Right”. If you run a company, a division, or manage a product for your company, I would recommend updating this truism to first start with “The Customer Believes They Are Always Right”, and it’s important to really listen to them, so you understand why they feel this way. It starts with understanding their frame of reference, and for that topic, I recommend Tony Robbin’s post on LinkedIn.

To fully  understand your prospect or customer’s point of view, start with getting really deep insights into their needs. Today I read an excellent post by Duct Tape Marketing on how to ask the right questions of your customer or prospect. You can read it at Why Good Questions Always Trump Even Your Best Answers. Try these with your customers, and you will be amazed at the insights you learn. It will help you sell better, to build better products or deliver a better service.

Can we get specific?  – to sharpen the focus on a specific topic.
Is that a question? What does that mean? – If the conversation is rambling, or you want to get more specific.
Why is that a problem?  – to discover what pain they have, and understand how you can solve it.
How do you measure success? – If you can help them improve this measure, they will want to work with you.
What would you do if this were solved? You solve their problems, but find out what they want to do.
What do you enjoy most about your business? – Helps you understand what drives them, personally.
What would 10 times look like? Google always thinks about improving the status quo by 10 times.
Why is now the right time? – Tells you if there’s budget towards fixing a problem.

Ask the right questions every time you speak with a customer or a prospect - read the full article here.

Mirror Mirror On The Wall, Who’s The Fastest Web Host Of Them All?

Train SeriesEvery business needs a website fast website. If you’re like most small business website CEOs, you have outsourced the decision on how your website is hosted. “Ah, the tech guys at the agency I hired to build the website decide that, I don’t really spend time on stuff like that”. Oh, but you should. The infrastructure behind your website – i.e., the data center, power, computers, software, and people that make it possible for your website to run – can make your business hum online, or jitter uncontrollably.

The Web host – a company whose job it is to run your website software – provides a “hosting” service to you. Hosting is like dialtone – when you purchased phones for yourself and your employees, you probably had some say in whether it was AT&T or Verizon. You made the decision based on reliability, price and options like making conference calls. This article is about choosing a host that ensures that your website is F-A-S-T! According to Econsultancy, a market research firm that looks at digital marketing, 67% of consumers cite slow websites as the reason they abandon those sites. According to a New York Times article on website speed, “Remember when you were willing to wait a few seconds for a computer to respond to a click on a Web site or a tap on a keyboard? These days, even 400 milliseconds — literally the blink of an eye — is too long, as Google engineers have discovered. That barely perceptible delay causes people to search less.”

Keynote, a company that monitors the speed of websites using a cloud of computers and mobile phones, has tools to help you measure your website’s speed, and make the right decisions about hosting. Companies like Yottaa also provide a free service to help you keep an eye on your website, and Google engineers have built a free service called WebPageTest to help you measure your website speed. We used Keynote to test the speed of the exact same food website, hosted on two different Web hosting companies’ servers – Bluehost and Linode. Bluehost charges a paltry $6.99/mo to host your websites, and this cheap price means that your site shares the same computer as thousands of other sites. This means traffic to your site can affect other sites, or vice versa, causing frequent congestions. What this means is that your site begins to appear sluggish. To be fair to Bluehost, they have great customer service, and it is rare to have your site completely offline. Linode plans begin at $19.99/mo, and uses a more advanced technique called virtual private servers, essentially a “sandbox” that separates your websites from that of other websites running in the datacenter. We tested the exact same website – one that was written in HTML, JavaScript, PHP and uses Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (what developers call the “LAMP stack”) by hosting them on Bluehost and Linode. Early results show a dramatic increase in website speed, as the graph from Keynote below shows. The top graph line shows that the website takes between 2-4 seconds to load when hosted on Bluehost, and between 1-2 seconds when hosted on Linode.

Bluehost vs Linode website measurements
Your website is significantly faster on Linode than Bluehost (source: Keynote Systems)

This was all the proof we needed to know that Linode was a much better choice for a small business website (one where you want to spend less than $100-200/mo in hosting costs) than Bluehost. Note, however, that Bluehost takes on much of the technical configuration issues, and their customer service is superb, which means that you will spend less on having your outsourced IT staffer debug technical problems. Linode essentially gives you an empty box, and you have to, as their tech support person said to me, “configure every little thing to make it work”. And if there’s a technical problem, you will need to get an IT person involved. For instance, this website’s order cart refused to function, and it took an entire day of tinkering and then posting on Linode’s community forum, before we were able to discover and fix the problem. Time is money, so be prepared to have a top technical person on your team, or available on call, if you host with Linode.

At the end of the day, though, you should make the decision based on who is the most reliable and fast Web hosting company, because your customers who visit your website are the ones that matter. Having a fast website makes a real difference to your business, as it improves the perception of your brand, makes visitors breeze through the pages, and causes them to do business with you, online or offline.  Choose the Web hosting company with the fastest site speed characteristics – this is dialtone for the Internet age. In a later update to this post, I hope to be able to compare many different hosting companies and give you some guidance on which one is the fastest Web host of them all. That’s for another time, but for now, Linode is a winner.


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