First up is Akshat Choudhary, the brains behind blogVault, a WordPress backup service that we are big fans of here at Wholegrain Digital.
Hello Akshat. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. Let’s kick off with your background? What were you doing prior to starting blogVault?
Thank you so much for doing this. I’m very happy to be here. I’m actually an engineer. I worked in a company called Citrix, which is completely unrelated to WordPress. I was doing kernel hacking and we were making a networking device called Netscaler which is a load balancer. It was completely, completely unrelated to WordPress, and it was a very big transition to the world of WordPress.
So how did that transition come about? What led you to get into the world of WordPress?
It was plain luck more than anything. Jeff Atwood, the founder of Stack Overflow, had a programming-related blog and he lost his blog to a server crash. And I started to think that if this guy who writes this amazing blog did not have a full backup in place, maybe there was a need for a backup service. Fortunately for him, his site was so popular there were enough cached copies of his data and he had enough help to get his site back online. But most regular people are not that lucky. So I figured there was a need for a backup service in WordPress. But back then I didn’t even know what WordPress was. I thought ‘Oh, it’s a blogging platform. It can’t be that complicated’. I thought it could be done in 2 weeks! But we’ve been working on this for over 3 years now, and we are still writing the software and trying to improve the backups.
So you literally came from knowing nothing about WordPress. How long did it take to build the first version?
I was still working at Citrix at that time. So I think it took 3 to 4 weeks, on and off. I wasn’t even sure if it was going to amount to anything. I made a list of a lot of the bloggers that I follow to do some customer development. I asked a lot of people if they would pay for a service like this. They said ‘yes, maybe’. A lot of people I follow in the blogosphere said it was very, very technical. But I thought I can manage this on my own and I had enough positive feedback that I thought it was worth trying now. I really did need a couple of people who have WordPress knowledge but then I got a slow and steady understanding of what WordPress really is and the great community around it.
That’s really the great thing, understanding what a dream community we have in WordPress. It was very, very friendly and that was the best part I think.
I didn’t leave my job for another year, perhaps more than a year. Because initially I wasn’t even sure what this would amount to. I was very unsure. After all I didn’t even really know what WordPress is, the type of sites that people were building with it because I came from an opposite world. It was a world where you are writing C and writing for the kernel and networking and all of that, and here people are making websites. It’s something I was completely unaware of: this community of people with designers and people building plugins, etc. It was a big, big learning from that perspective.
So how did you go about marketing it initially?
Frankly, I didn’t really do much initially, just wrote a couple of blogs. And somewhere down the line a couple of blogs picked us up and from there we got a few customers and after that it was mostly word of mouth. And I think word of mouth is probably the way we get most of our customers now. I’m really not a marketer, we don’t really know how to do marketing even now. I keep saying to myself that today I will do marketing, and then instead I spend the day writing code.
When you started blogVault, was it just you or where there other people involved?
It was mainly just me, although I had a friend trying to help me out part-time as it was a complicated system, and finally it was just me and I stuck with it. Initially we didn’t get much. I think we got our first paying customer after 6 or 7 months. Because we didn’t know anything. It sounds very strange but you can image how you tell people that you are trying to start a business selling small pieces of software and they didn’t even believe you at all. It was a very naïve approach to the whole thing.
And how big is the team now?
There are 5 of us now. Engineering, and one person doing the content writing and marketing. We are trying to improve our blog and write nice articles. Some of them have been quite popular. It’s the best form of marketing we are doing. We would love to expand this so if there’s anybody in Bangalore, we’d love to hear from you.
And how is that structured? Do you have a blogVault HQ?
We have an office here in Bangalore, and we’re all based here.
In your view, what makes blogVault special, both in terms of the product and your service, compared to some of the other services?
I don’t think I can compare it to others. I’ll tell you people say a lot. It comes down to 2 or 3 things.
The first one is obviously customer service. It’s not the most modest way of saying it but I believe that we should always try to give the customer the best service, to solve the problem fastest and ensure we’ve helped the customer to whatever extent possible. If you can help the customer with something, you should help them in the best possible manner. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are just doing the minimum. We have a big responsibility because our customers trust us with their backups. If something goes wrong, they want to make sure we can get it up and ready as fast as possible. In such a situation, customer service has to be top notch.
The other thing is trying to build the service up so that customer service is not really needed. Because people don’t really want to phone customer service, they want to be able to solve any problems on their own. We want to ensure our product works without any issues whatsoever. We want to make sure that the backups are perfect. We have 7 to 8 characteristics of backups which we think is necessary for any system to be backed up well. Things like ensuring that you have complete backups, daily backups, backups that are completely independent from the main site, the ability to test your backups and your backups should be encrypted. All of those things, we make sure that we do them well.
There are other plugins but for many of these characteristics they don’t even do it. So having an easy way to manage all of that is very important. Because if you miss any of the steps and then you find you cannot recover the backup, you’re stuck. You need to make sure you’ve covered all the bases. We’re in the business of providing peace of mind, and backups are about having the perfect peace of mind. That’s one of the focuses for us, and that’s what stands us apart from our competitors – ensuring that our customers have the perfect peace of mind, and they can concentrate on their blogs and running their businesses.
In terms of the future of your business, you’re obviously really focused on backups, but do you believe in specialism? Do you want to be very, very good at one thing, or would your long-term vision be to branch out and do other things?
I can only focus on one thing at a time. Some people can multi-task but I’m not that kind of person. I cannot do 5 things at the same time. I would end up not doing one thing properly at all, so by my nature I want to do one thing well. And we personally think that backups are very, very important, they need to be done right. There is a lot of scope for doing it better. I really enjoy working on backups, and maybe a little security too. That may be a branch out, but I think they’re so linked. So this will be our focus. I won’t say never, never, because who knows, but in the foreseeable future this is what our focus is.
How many customers have you got roughly now?
We have over 2,000 paying customers, and we’ve been doing the business for the last 3–3.5 years.
So since you started, how has blogVault and the WordPress community changed your life?
It has changed completely. I can now consider myself an online entrepreneur – somebody who makes money from the internet. I’m not really a community kind of person, but I really love getting involved with people who are so passionate about WordPress. It’s been a big learning curve for me. Seeing the way the WordPress community is, attending the WordCamps has been a wonderful, wonderful experience. A lot of people are very selfless, it’s difficult to explain. I love it.
Where have you attended WordCamps and other travels related to the WordPress industry?
I went to a couple of WordCamps in San Francisco. Last year I attended one in India and another in Europe. The WordCamp Europe was amazing last year; it was such an amazing experience. The organisers did a great job and they had a great party and a great set of volunteers.
So now you’ve started blogVault and had some success, have you any tips for other people considering starting a business in the WordPress community?
I’m more of a programmer than a businessman, but I think from the perspective of starting a business in WordPress I would say be patient. Patience is very, very important. Getting involved in the community takes time, but it really makes a difference. The community is the essence of the whole thing. The more you get involved and are successful, people will support you. It might sound obvious to many people, but to me it was not.
I think that Software as a Service in WordPress is a very interesting space. It takes time to ramp up your customer space, but once you do, you’ll see that the customers stick around, and they will talk about the service to their friends, and to everybody else. I think you can add a lot of value to WordPress if you have a service, because you can offer a customer support that’s much better than if it was just a plugin. The complexities are different. One downside is that it’s somewhat counter to the concept of WordPress, which is a completely free, independent system. And not free in the monetary sense, but because you are free, you are in complete control and you’re not tied to something. But with a service you are automatically tied to something. So it’s slightly different from the philosophy of WordPress, but I think there is a need for it. Especially in the case of backups. I firmly believe that backups cannot be done in any way other than a service; it’s incomplete if it is done as a plugin. It’s not good enough. Maybe that’s a bias I have, but I think a service in WordPress is not explored enough – it can be very basic. Services are there, but the number is much smaller than for plugins.
I think that’s a really interesting point, because there are about 40,000 plugins, but most of them are just plugins; there’s very little support and very few companies offering a service that plugs into WordPress.
So what are your thoughts about it? I know the costs will be higher because of what a service involves, but would you prefer a plugin?
It depends what it’s for. If it’s for something where you’re effectively just buying a piece of code rather than writing it yourself, then there’s no ongoing support required for that – you buy it, you plug it in, it does its job and you never think about it again. It makes sense as a one-off payment. But if it’s something that does require some ongoing support – hosting, backups, security – then it makes sense to pay for that because it’s an on-going thing. I think it depends on the nature of it. If it’s an on-going thing, the service makes a lot more sense. If it’s a one-off, it makes more sense just to install a free or premium plugin.
There are some plugins that have on-going subscriptions, but they don’t offer you anything for that subscription. It’s like a membership where you have access to more plugins, or themes, or something like that. It works for some people, but from our point of view as an agency, we’re quite specific about what we buy; we don’t want access to 500 plugins, we’ll just buy the one we want.
That’s interesting. Realistically, if you buy 500 plugins, you’re unlikely to find the best in the category in that 500 lot.
So what’s the future for blogVault?
At the moment we are really focused on backups. As I’ve said, we originally thought this was a 2–3 week project and 3.5 years and we’re still doing it. But we feel we can add a lot of value with this, including security and how we can make the lives of our customers better. There is a lot of difficulty in managing migrations and I think this problems can be solved by blogVault.
So will it always be just WordPress? Is there any scope for blogVault for Drupal or anything else?
We actually already work with Drupal and we have a plugin that can backup any PHP website. Unfortunately, we are so bad at marketing, so it’s taken a complete backseat. It’s really good and it can work with almost any platform.
That’s interesting. So that gives you a certain degree of scope to expand and business security. In the event of a new system coming along in 5 years’ time that becomes more popular than WordPress, then your backend system could be adapted to work with whatever the trend is at the time.
Yes. We’ve not thought five years ahead, trends move so fast that’s it’s difficult to foresee in any way.
Finally, what do you think is the greatest strength of WordPress?
Well the community. I’m a WordPress outsider and I can always find people to help and give advice and feedback. It’s very difficult for me being an outsider – I don’t use WordPress. I cannot use WordPress. If you asked me to write a blog post you would be shocked at how bad I am!
So thanks very much for your time Akshat.