My story starts with a single customer who was not happy with the service he received. In 1999, I was an ordinary internet user who needed to host a few hobby web sites; naturally, my local ISP hosted them. The quality, uptime, and attitude of the provider towards customers were unfortunately pretty shabby. Since it was unreasonably expensive for such a bad service, I had to change my provider; I found peace in another one that specialized in web hosting.
The new provider I found asked for a one-time fee of $200, and nothing more than that. They even offered a control panel, which was such a luxury in the year 2000. And the best part? They offered a reseller package of ten accounts with a 50% discount. Since I had six web sites at the time, this option was perfect for me. It was not hard at all to sell the extra four packages - short post in a local internet forum later, and they were gone. As I cannot promise eternal heaven to anybody, I decided to sell them on an annual basis.
People started to ask for more accounts. I used to tell them it was an accidental business and I didn't have more accounts for sale. But when they wouldn’t stop asking, I thought I might as well give the people what they want, so I bought another 50 slots with an even greater discount. While it was normal for me to respond to customer questions immediately, these customers marveled as if this was a novel concept. Apparently, no one else had ever answered their questions so fast before. Once an order was placed and the payment processed, I was creating the account within а minute or two, and was calling the customer personally to inform them that their account was ready. Everyone was beyond happy with my service. So happy, that I had to continually buy more hosting slots. However, something was bothering me: I used to respond to customer emails within minutes, but whenever I had to address an issue to my provider, it would take one or two business days for them to respond to me - drastically slowing my response time towards customers. It was a weak link in my one-man assembly line that was making me sad.
One day I noticed that my web hosting provider placed a banner ad over the control panel for my customers. This was really strange. Based on my experience with internet advertising and estimating how often a customer would log into their control panel, timed by the number of customers they claimed they had, I knew this banner would make roughly 20 dollars a month. I wrote an email to my provider, kindly advising them to remove it. I even offered to personally give them 20 dollars a month, just to get rid of this ad - not only for my customers, but for everyone else they were hosting. A laconic answer came within the usual two business days: “DO NOT TEACH US HOW TO DO BUSINESS!”.
Everyone we meet is our teacher - or can be, at least, if we’re able to admit that we always have something to learn. There is infinite potential for any person - no matter who they are - to teach us a valuable lesson by simply expanding our life experience. We should be thankful to everyone we meet, no matter the type of encounter, no matter the kind of lesson. It’s a pity when instead we write off an experience - particularly a bad one - as something separate from ourselves, reflective of nothing. That is a wasted opportunity. In my limited experience with web hosting, that provider was the best I knew. At the same time, they were far below my standards for what I dreamed my service could be. So the year 2000 gifted me with a valuable realization: mankind was severely suffering from abysmally low standards for web hosting service.
I was done suffering, so I had to disrupt this widespread condition we’d come to know as normal.
I did not reply to their brusque email. Instead, I stood up from my computer, grabbed some cash, put my shoes on, and walked to a nearby computer shop, where I bought my first server. Two hours later I was a proud tenant of a 1/8 rack, where my server got online the same evening. I had no idea that a few years later, my team would be operating 500+ servers, but I was certain the time for the customer service I’d dreamed of providing my customers had arrived. Two days later, all my 300 resold customers were migrated to my own server.
My volume of work was increasing day after day; raving word of mouth reviews were gaining momentum. However, 2002 came with a problem: work days grew as long as 24 hours, sales were increasing in geometric progression, and I found myself with no time for sleep. Literally. I didn’t guzzle energy drinks or pop pills to keep me awake or give me more brainpower. So one night, I decided to listen to loud music to keep me from dozing off, but I needed headphones. The problem was that the nearby shopping mall was at a five-minute walking distance, and choosing the headphones would likely tack on 20 minutes more. Leaving my computer unattended for 30 minutes meant a long queue of unanswered emails and unopened accounts - which I was unwilling to risk. So it took me about two weeks to find the right moment to sneak away. I did it as fast as possible and got the headphones. They were my saving grace; the next time I got the chance to sleep more than an hour within a 24 hour period was June 11, five months later. I cannot imagine anything stronger than the human body and mind - trust me, I’ve witnessed it firsthand.
When it became obvious that business was a moving train that couldn’t be stopped, I had to hire and train staff: a programmer, a system administrator, and four customer support specialists. It was a tricky moment for me. In the beginning, the customer support team was not making my life easier because I still had to do the job myself while simultaneously explaining each step to them. I pushed the limits of my stamina to crazy levels. Even they wondered when and if I ever slept. Luckily, I was blessed to find really good employees: very loyal, hardworking, and motivated. It was not hard to inspire them since business was thriving even from day one.
New customers created most of the workload for the customer support team, as these customers had to create their web sites and make them work themselves: content, databases, mail accounts, permissions, FTP accounts. Sales were increasing, but each new sale brought more work for the support team, and that was difficult to cope with. One cannot find, hire, and train new staff overnight, so we feared our success was about to be the cause of our failure… by decreasing customer support’s speed and quality. As I was never focused on the money I earned, it was not hard for me to find a solution: we suspended the order page on our website. Instead, the page was a letter to visitors explaining that we had too many new customers and we had to concentrate our little resources on serving them, while hiring and training more staff. It got an unexpected response - everyone understood our actions, no one was angry, and we found that hundreds of visitors were reloading the page continually in hope to see it restored. After a week of no sales, we restored it and got tons of new orders. A customer from Canada told us that he saw this story in the local newspaper. A few days later, we had to post our heartfelt letter again. When the order page was restored once more, we had more trained customer support team members. By the end of 2002, we had over 25,000 customers.
It was never my plan to be rich, so each time I saw profit blooming, I increased salaries and gave more bonuses to my colleagues, such as company cars, team buildings, catered free food in the office, extended holidays, and limited working hours to 32.5 working hours per week. In exchange, I received the best employer/employee relationships anyone could ever dream of. Of course there were exceptions - some people let this exceptional treatment go to their heads, which poorly affected their work and relationships - so I had to consistently prune the team and rehire better fits. I know a company hiring constantly traditionally is not the best of signs. Outsiders were quick to assume that working conditions were bad and that even a good salary could not justify the workload and “crazy boss.” However, new candidates were always in large supply, and my employees that were in it for the long run knew they’d get out whatever they put in. It was an HR puzzle. Slowly, year by year, the missing pieces of the puzzle were found. It became a solid manifestation of the vision I’d had for the company. We had become a well-tuned instrument - a well-oiled machine.
Spirit was always high, but my colleagues started wondering why we did virtually nothing to market ourselves. No marketing since 2001, seventeen years straight! If anything, that could have been our motto. My colleagues were concerned about this simply because they loved their job and didn't want to lose it. I was telling them from the beginning that we would push sales only if I saw everything else working perfectly. I never wanted to advertise something that had room for improvement. And I’ve always believed that everything could be improved. We were the best in the industry even in 2002, and always thereafter, so they were not able to understand what “perfect” meant to me. Why did I stay idle while competitors did everything they could to grow?
Even without any advertising, our customer base kept growing, and I was concerned that workload could impact quality. Once the number of customers reached 80,000 in 2012, I had to take action. I suspended our affiliate program - the one and only marketing tool we had. As a result, growth ended, and the number of customers started to diminish slowly. Web sites and businesses have their lifespan, and time takes its toll, as it is with people. On many company meetings I was attacked by questions: "Why are we doing no marketing to increase sales? Can’t you see that our number of customers is dropping?" I told them that I did not care about the number of customers; what was more important was quality. Just as I never focused on the money or harbored a get-rich scheme of my own, I remained focused on the process - never on the result. The process is what we take pride in.
My team was nervous. The only reason they did not panic was the fact that I started this from zero and managed to keep it working well (for my customers, for my employees, and obviously for myself) for so many years, so they believed I knew what I was doing. And still, the revenue was growing.
We kept revenue growing by presenting more sophisticated, but also more expensive plans. The result: fewer customers, more revenue, bigger salaries, unbeatable quality. One day in 2014, I gathered the system administrators and asked them to assemble the most powerful server possible: no budget limitations, the best of the best features on the market. They responded with a $20,000 server - amused to see my reaction. It came with 24 processors, 24 SSD drives, 1 TB of RAM, able to accommodate 20 First Class accounts. After my calculations, I told them it would be $299 plan. As we had just $6 and $10 plans, everyone watched me with pity in their eyes as if they were witnessing someone lose his mind. I asked them to add two more racks and to purchase 12 of these servers: 10 production servers and two spare ones. Our rule is to always keep one empty spare server in each rack. Doubtful colleagues commented, “they will stay empty forever.” Ironically, we had to order more “First Class” servers later because there was such a strong demand for this plan. Four years later, when I decided that an even bigger plan was needed, we went through the same process. I asked them to assemble "Tzar Server". This time though, the process looked a little different - no one labeled me crazy because I’d earned their faith. In fact, when I told them that the cost of the Ultimate plan would be $999 a month, no one objected and one of my colleagues even expressed concerns that $999 ($499.50 after discount to resellers) may be too cheap for the resources and quality we provide. We got the first customer for the Ultimate plan the same day we released it, even before it was listed on our No-Marketing-Since-2001 corporate web site.
Pages of the calendar were falling off one after another, for 216 straight months, without a scrap of advertising. Colleagues were getting older with a boss - yours truly - who kept telling them “The moment for pushing the sales has not come yet; there are many things we can improve before we advertise.” I admit that I am a perfectionist. I’m nearly never satisfied. I want a perfect world so deeply that I can’t help but focus on all the problems, scratches, and glitches standing in the way of it. While that sometimes feels like a curse for me and for my colleagues, it is also what makes tens of thousands of customers happy.
Suddenly, one day in the middle of 2018, I realized that these men and women had accomplished the impossible. I could not find any problems in their work, in their service, in their products - so my mission was complete.
Here is where I lift the hood for you and show you how ICDSoft works: all cards on the table, so everyone - even competitors - will be able to see what we do and how we do it. I am aware of the risks, but I do believe that the potential gain for the world far outweighs them. Consider this my contribution to lifting the standards for service quality and human resource management higher. Though I continue to head ICDSoft, I’ve since delved into other fields as well. This site is a place for exploring all the places I’ve been beyond web hosting as well - but remember our teachers are everywhere and everything, so no matter the details or semantics, there may be deeper value for you here. The lessons I’ve learned reach beyond the realm of business. I hope they might for you too.