On 6 years in business and 2100% growth

Picture of a growing plant

A few weeks ago, Matt Connor, the CEO of SSD Nodes, and I stumbled across a number that impressed even us: since the beginning of 2016, SSD Nodes has grown its user base by 2100%.

With that number in mind, and with the 6th birthday of SSD Nodes imminent, I thought it was a good time to chat with Matt about how SSD Nodes got started, what he's learned from an already busy 2017, and what he thinks about the future of the company.

Matt ConnorHow did SSD Nodes get started?

I started the business back in 2011 with just a handful of users. A few friends signed up, and they referred their friends, and so on. I was working another job at the time, but was always focused on SSD Nodes being a big part of my future. I always believed that I could make cloud hosting a better experience for users of all types, and I’ve been working toward that goal ever since.

In the beginning, the company grew slowly by design. I wanted to ensure it was always a profitable enterprise, mainly because I wasn’t particularly interested in going the venture capital route—I didn’t want to create my own company only to have another boss again. The company has always been 100% bootstrapped, and I’m proud of that, despite the general trend in technology companies to pitch themselves to VC as soon as possible. Having complete autonomy allows me to focus on building the business while also providing the best possible experience.

One thing that’s changed since 2011 is the type of user SSD Nodes focuses on. In the beginning, it was all about the enterprise—they were among our first users, and have been our most loyal along the way (thank you!). I also realized that SSD Nodes could focus on small businesses, startups, and even individuals who wanted to do more on the cloud. That’s been a significant shift in philosophy, and one that makes the company better for both kinds of users.

We’ve talked about that 2100% increase in users, but the company has grown in other ways, too. What are the most significant, in your eyes?

The company has changed a lot since the beginning of 2016! Probably the most significant change, internally, is the new talent I’ve brought onboard to help manage our processes, keep things running smoothly, and build out new features.

The administrative technology behind SSD Nodes has changed immensely. It’s hardly even comparable. I’m not ashamed to admit it, but when we started in 2011, we did all provisioning by hand. When someone signed up, or wanted a new server, someone created their server, logged into it, set up the network, and did configuration to the user’s liking.

Needless to say, that’s not how it works now. We’ve come a long way with automation, and that not only helps us grow, but also creates stability through repeatable, auditable processes.

Our engineering team continues to grow so that they can focus more energy on building out new platforms, like the KVM preview. Adding new features and more stability are high priorities, and the bigger team will allow us to get there much sooner. Same goes for more data centers and, soon enough, more automation tools.

The marketing team is continuing to improve our redesigned website, add more tutorials and informational pieces to our blog, and dream up advertising campaigns to bring in even more users.

Technology is a big part of this change, too. At the beginning of 2016, we had one platform: OpenVZ. Now we have our KVM preview and the containers preview, which we’re gearing towards a full release. We think that people have been pleased with these new platforms, and there’s a lot of progress to be made yet.

And in all that growth, what have you learned? What has the company learned?

Even back in June, before the KVM public preview launch, we had learned a lot about running a beta. Launching any new product is risky, but both containers and KVM have the potential to change our infrastructure completely, so the stakes were high.

We learned a lot about the importance of testing, and what kind of testing is necessary to ensure a stable platform for all our users. Since we had been using OpenVZ for years, and it’s a very mature platform, we jumped into Virtuozzo containers with a lot of assumptions that things would be smooth.

And, during the private beta, the containers were stable. Once we opened the platform up to all our users, we were exposed to some scenarios that we didn’t expect, which triggered some exceptionally rare bugs—that definitely reset my expectations a bit!

Luckily, Virtuozzo worked us quickly and diligently to squash these bugs and stabilize the containers. Even then, we had to edit all of our product timelines and adopt new approaches to beta testing. Because we know our users demand reliability, it became clear that moving a little slower and more deliberately was the way to go.

That said, we’re still ambitious about the rest of this year. Tons of improvements are coming, both in what users can and can’t see. And, despite all those stressful times, I still believe in this motto: We will always learn from the moves we make, but we won’t learn from the moves we don’t make.

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Can you talk some about the values of the company? It’s not all about low-cost servers.

Low-cost is still a huge part of it! I’m working hard to make every part of the business as streamlined as possible so we can keep our prices low.

Price is so important to us because low cost opens this technology up to more people. It seems like a lot of the other hosting providers have decided that they’re going to focus only on big companies with sprawling infrastructures, or only startups that are flush with VC cash. That leaves everyone else priced out, which is the same as being ignored.

We think it’s possible to appeal to a broader audience. Enterprise is great, and we hope to help host more enterprises in the future, but I also believe ordinary people and ordinary small businesses—the kind that is the backbone of any functioning economy—should have an option they can fit into their budgets, too.

You mention a broader audience—can you share some examples of what you mean?

I’ve heard from some students as of late, actually. A lot of college students, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, who are working on their Computer Science (CS) degrees and want a place to experiment with a Linux terminal and discover the basics of hosting websites and applications. These users are essential to me, and the future of this company, because they’re also the future of this industry.

In a way, I’m a little tired of telling people about how useful a VPS can be. I’d much rather pull them in and then show them. If a low cost is the way to pull them in so that we can do that showing, then that’s where I’m going to put our energy.

That’s part of the reason we’ve been pushing the blog so much this year. If we can provide better, more accessible resources for our users, whether they’re students or hardened sysadmins, we can reach more people and show them how powerful a VPS can be.

A while back, you mentioned that you started, and kept, SSD Nodes as a bootstrapped company. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for founders who are trying to decide between bootstrapping and VC cash?

I think the biggest question to be answered is whether you want a boss (or a bunch of bosses) again. For a lot of people, the point of starting a business is not to have a boss, so then turning around and taking VC cash seems like a strange move. They might not get involved in your everyday operations, but they might influence your company’s vision, or how it might change in the years to come. They can also fire you, in some cases, or push you to sell the company.

Of course, being handed a bunch of cash is fabulous, particularly if you’re in growth mode. You can develop new technology and scale it quickly, do a bunch of advertising, and hit the ground running.

I still think you, as a founder, need to figure out what your goals are, and then work backward.

What’s the longest-running server on SSD Nodes?

Looking this up was a fun little blast from the past! The second SSD Nodes user, from all the way back in 2011, has a server still up and running, six years later. That’s pretty amazing to me, and humbling. I’d like to believe that’s indicative of the relationships we’re building with our users.

How do you see SSD Nodes changing in the next five years?

I mean, there’s no stopping how essential web apps—not to mention the technology that makes them possible—are going to continue to be. That’s good for SSD Nodes as a business, but it also means we have to stay on our toes to be competitive with whatever comes.

Six years ago, when I started the business, SSD drives were still a novelty. I decided to embrace new technology and put them in all our servers. Nowadays, they’re standard issue, but I imagine that within the next five years we’ll see another shift or two in the underlying technology. No matter what that is, you can rest assured that we’ll be among the first hosting providers to embrace it.

No matter what, our goal is going to stay the same: fast, low-cost, and reliable services for a diverse cast of users.

For someone out there who has a VPS but doesn’t know what to do with it—do you have a word or two of wisdom for them?

Of course, as the founder of a bootstrapped company, I believe in building something! Whether that’s a personal blog, a portfolio to showcase your skills, or a small web app, everyone has to start with that first piece of the puzzle.

Beyond that, we love to see people replacing commercial solutions, like paid SaaS apps, with self-hosted, open source alternatives. That’s the beauty of a VPS—you can take control of your data and save money all at once. We have a growing list of these self-hosted tools here on the blog, too, which includes some pretty spectacular options, like Nextcloud instead of Dropbox, Ghost instead of WordPress, and making your own mail server with Mail-in-a-Box instead of relying on Gmail.

I also love to hear stories about people who have used a VPS or other technology to help automate some tedious part of their life. There have been some recent posts on Hacker News and Reddit on the topic, with people automating everything from watering their plants to monitoring their child’s asthma symptoms and air quality data to predict days he is most at risk of an attack.

The spirit behind these innovations is the same spirit that encourages me to make SSD Nodes even bigger—if my company can be a small part of these kinds of solutions, then that makes it all worthwhile.