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How Rocket.net Bootstrapped Our Way To $1MM ARR and Beyond
by Ben Gabler on
Everyone always loves a good startup story, right? Well today, I have one for you! I will warn you, if you’re looking for some big bragging right about raising a funding round you won’t find it here. What you will hear about is the true story of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into building a profitable bootstrapped business.
My presentation at Founder500 on how we took Rocket to $1mm in ARR
With 18 years experience in the hosting industry, Rocket was built differently. A true SaaS platform from the ground level up
Over the last two and a half years, Rocket.net has been pushing the envelope in the WordPress space by creating the World’s fastest and most secure SaaS hosting platform.
Now, I know what you’re thinking… “ya ya, everyone says they’re the fastest!” But the truth is, we did things differently. We built the World’s first all-in-one WordPress hosting solution natively integrated with an Enterprise CDN and Web Application Firewall in over 270 locations around the world.
What does that mean exactly? Our platform leverages Cloudflare Enterprise with full page caching and a number of other features to deliver WordPress as geographically close and secure as possible to visitors all around the world, all with zero WordPress configuration changes required by our customers.
While every one of our competitors were busy marketing the same solution “powered by Google Cloud”, we set out on a different path to provide an effortless solution that delivers WordPress faster and better than anyone. Or as I like it say it, we dared to be different! Those differences ultimately led to the growth you see below:
Now, when looking at the chart above, we’ve seen some incredible growth over the the last two years, with over 60% of growth happening this year alone. Things are only picking up from there.
The best part? It’s been mostly organic growth through word of mouth, partnerships, and a small percentage from our affiliate program. That’s right, we have not done any paid media on Google, Facebook, or other platforms to this date. Well… successfully anyways.
A peek behind the Rocket.net curtain and journey
Why this post and these slides? Great question! The answer is very simple: to help other founders. The initiative itself was put in motion thanks to an amazing company and founder – Nathan Latka, CEO of Founderpath.
As Rocket began to really scale in 2022, we started leveraging the Founderpath platform to track growth and have a line of credit available.
If you’re not familiar with Founderpath, you need to be. What Nathan and his team are doing for bootstrapped founders is simply incredible. I simply cannot tell you how many times I heard “Man… Founderpath really saved our business” at the Founder500.
After seeing Rocket.net’s growth, Nathan reached out about me about speaking at the Founder500 conference. I have to admit, I was flattered!
When Nathan and I first started discussing different topics for my talk, I said “what about our journey from $0-$1mm in ARR as a bootstrapped company?” Nathan said “I like it, but what kind of artifact can we get out of this beyond just the talk?” DING, I know! “How about a PR template that can be used for launching and building a new product and/or company?” Nathan’s response was “I love it! You’re in!”.
Over the next few days, I tried to summarize the entire Rocket.net journey into 20 slides or less for my 20 minute speaking slot.
Over my twenty minute session, I wanted to walk the audience through what worked and what didn’t work for Rocket.net in hopes of providing value and success for their ventures.
I focused on the three key areas for us where were:
- Geting to Market
- Building a Brand
- Growing the Business
Where did I begin?
The very first thing I do when building a new product and/or company is to start with a Press Release. A press release serves not only draw a line in the sand for our MVP, but to really think like our prospective customers.
When writing this Press Release, I always have to answer the following questions:
- What is the product? Who is it for? What problems does it solve? How is it different?
- Who am I? Why should someone buy this product and trust it?
- What benefits does it provide that the market does not today?
Ultimately, you will end up with a well written summary of what you’re setting out to do, aka your Minimal Viable Product (MVP).
The Mythical and Scary MVP
Everyone always talks about an MVP. “We need an MVP! How long for an MVP!?” Wait.. what is an MVP?! The answer varies depending on which Google result you land on, but the ultimate goal should be to get to market and validate as quickly as possible.
While defining your MVP, try to focus on time to market. The longer you spend seeking “feature parity” and/or the “perfect” product, the more opportunity you’re missing out on. In fact, if you have the “perfect product” then you’ve launched too late.
For Rocket, my MVP was getting to market as quickly as possible with our unique Cloudflare Enterprise solution, but also solving for the common features for WordPress Hosting (SFTP, Automated Updates, Staging, etc).
To find the common features across the industry I did an in-depth competitive analysis where I took the top 3 Managed WordPress providers and the top two commodity providers and created a matrix of features to compare side by side, with a Rocket column to fill in the blanks across the board.
Once I had my competitive analysis complete, I took the list of features we would absolutely need to go to market with and started working backwards on the easiest possible way to offer them. I applied everything I learned over the course of my career, and Rocket.net hit the ground running.
I knew we didn’t need to build some crazy complex Kubernetes platform. Not only do customers not care about that, but I’d argue it’s overkill for 99% of WordPress sites on the market.
We set out to built the World’s most powerful WordPress hosting platform with three major rules:
- It has to be Simple to use… and I mean super simple. Whether you’re in marketing or the CTO org, you should be able to get the job done on Rocket.net with the fewest amount of clicks possible.
- It has to be Fast and natively integrated with the edge. Yeah yeah, every hosting company says they’re the fastest in the World because of Google Cloud. Wrong. While GCP is great, it’s not actually solving a problem outside of the origin where WordPress is installed.
- It has to be Secure. Why should customers have to pay extra to secure their sites? When things get hacked, nobody wins. Support suffers, the platform suffers, but more importantly the customer suffers.
With these rules in mind, I asked myself “can I create a truly unique solution by combining existing tools and products into a cohesive and amazing user experience?” You bet! Rocket was initially built on all of the technologies you see above which have been around for years.
The difference is in how our customers interacted with them all within our Solution. For most companies out there, cPanel is their product. For Rocket.net, it’s just an orchestrator to deploy new sites.
After 72 (16 hour) days, we had our Simple, Fast, and Secure MVP and we were ready for customer number one! Great, how do we launch this?
How Rocket.net Launched Without Breaking the Bank
Now that we had our MVP ready to go, it was time to launch it. In order to compete, we had to be in as many data centers as possible… that would normally be very expensive.
Lucky for us, we found some incredible startup programs and platforms out there to help us get started with products/servers based on startup credits.
Through programs like Secret, you can save a fortune when launching a new company. Secret saved us a significant amount of resources on things like Zendesk, Pipedrive, Customer.io and much more.
When it came to infrastructure, we didn’t want to rely on public cloud such as GCP or AWS due to lack of real resource control and noisy neighbor problems. Instead we were looking for a bare metal provider that enabled us to create our own private cloud.
It turns out there aren’t a whole lot of bare metal providers out there these days. But after years of working together on other projects, I already knew we needed to work with Performive (formally Total Server Solutions). Not only do they have a global footprint, but they’re in the same data centers as Cloudflare which was crucial for us to maximize performance.
To finish it off, we leveraged the Cloudflare Startup Program thanks to some incredible people at Cloudflare. Cloudflare recently announced some major improvements to their startup program, I highly recommend checking it out.
So now, we have our MVP, we have our infrastructure, and we have our Enterprise Edge in front of it. Let’s get some customers!
How Rocket.net Landed Our First 100 Customers as a Bootstrapped Hosting Company
Getting your first 100 customers is always the most difficult thing in building a business. No one knows about you, no one trusts you, and you’re simply the new kid on the block. This is where strong branding comes in. And what does every company need?
A domain name.
When Rocket initially launched, we went to market with the domain name “onRocket.com”. Using a non-premium domain is a very common approach you’ll see startups take, because premium domain names are horrendously expensive. At first, I thought this was no big deal- that is, until we sponsored something and saw our logo listed as a sponsor, and realized the problem.
How will people find you? “I’m hosted on Rocket” or “I’m hosted on onRocket.com”… doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue. We could do better. So I reached out to Michael at VPN.com to help me find the perfect domain name.
After some searching, we came across Rocket.net. Even with its hefty price tag of $50,000 I knew we just had to make it happen, even though at the time Rocket was only at $14k ARR. So, we took a massive bet – And it’s one of the best professional decisions I’ve ever made in my life!
Great Name, but I Still Don’t Know You!
Earning trust, getting the name out, and scaling yourself can be extremely challenging, especially when you’re footing the bill. Plus, things had changed since my first startup. The last time I started a company, I was 21 years old and living at home with my parents. Fast forward to 2020: I was 35 years old with a family of my own. With so much at stake, it’s not so easy to jump off the cliff and build a parachute on the way down!
I started reaching out to my network of friends and family. Over the years, I’ve built some pretty amazing relationships, and I was able to convince those in my network (some of them even publicly traded companies) to leverage Rocket.net’s platform.
After landing some initial logos, we started doing some cold outreach to influencers in our space to simply give us product feedback. We had plans to kick up some marketing campaigns, but we wanted to be really sure about the product before playing the digital marketing game.
The feedback we got was overwhelmingly positive. It turns out that we met our goals and built a pretty unique and awesome product that solves a lot of problems! Not only did these users test our product, but they ended up becoming paying customers, some of them even became affiliates to refer friends and their visitors. A huge win for all!
To further embed myself into the WordPress community, I also got heavily involved in Facebook groups . Over the last twenty years I’ve helped power millions of websites on various platforms and really wanted to help anyone in need. My goal truly was to become a thought leader in the space and I continue to stay heavily involved in the WordPress community as much as possible.
Scaling the growth
In the beginning, I had to cover Sales, Support, Devops, and any other role you can imagine. I was a one man show. We had some amazing wins in the beginning, but customers were often nervous about the quality of support changing over time. They rightly wondered how I would scale myself.
Having solved these scaling problems before, I already had a plan. I knew I needed to make very strategic hires of seasoned web hosting veterans.
Some members of our team have been in the hosting industry even longer than I have which has been amazing. We’re all overly obsessed with customer success and are always the customer champion. I can truly say this is the best team I’ve ever worked with in my career.
We’ve built an incredible foundation at Rocket.net and I couldn’t be more proud of our team and product. Growth has been accelerating faster than ever and we will continue to drive innovation in the space.
We have so much in store for our customers and the overall WordPress market, I’ve truly never been more excited.
From more value driven partnerships (like our recent partnership with Atarim where we help streamline agency collaboration), to customer driven feature development, we have some amazing things in store as we roll into 2023 and beyond. We hope you’ll join us.