How to Build a Hosting Business with WordPress Multisite

How to Build a Hosting Business with WordPress Multisite

Here at WPMU DEV, we’re huge fans of WordPress Multisite. It powers our vast Edublogs network of educational blogs and our CampusPress business designing and hosting sites for schools and universities.

And if you’ve read any of my posts on this site, you’ll know that I’m personally more than a bit of a fan too. I use Multisite to host personal projects, demo sites to accompany online tutorials, and my clients’ sites too.

Multisite has the potential to support a successful WordPress business because it lets you or your clients add as many sites as needed to one WordPress installation, which makes managing all those sites incredibly easy – and much cheaper than creating multiple installations.

Editor’s note: This post was first published in 2013 but we’ve updated the content so it’s now current for 2017. Enjoy!

edublogs home page
Edublogs hosts millions of sites on one WordPress Multisite installation

But if you’re thinking of launching a business powered by Multisite, you might be wondering what the options are. In this post, I’ll outline the three models you can use to build a business on WordPress Multisite, and help you identify which is for you, or whether you’ll be better with a combination of two or three of them. I’ll also give you some tips for making it work and point you in the direction of some plugins that you’ll need to help you do it.

So let’s get started!

Building a Multisite Business: The Options

I’ve worked with three different models for running a WordPress Multisite business, with varying degrees of success. You may find that there are elements of each that work for you, or that you want to combine all of these options. But understanding them better will help you make the right decision for you, your market and your business.

The three options are:

Option #1: Hosting client sites you build

This is what I do with my agency, Compass Design. It means developing client websites and then hosting those sites on your own Multisite installation. You create the sites and develop or customize bespoke themes and/or plugins for them, maybe using a theme framework.

Option #2: Letting users create and tweak their site

This means providing a page from which users can set up their own site and then giving them some options for amending their site’s content and appearance. Using the Customizer is key to this – and it helps if you can add your own customization options to your theme(s). My Edupress business works like this – there’s one theme which users can tweak via the Customizer, and a three-tier range of site plans with different content types.

Option #3: Letting users create their site and activate any of a range of themes and/or plugins

Our Edublogs network works like this. Users have a choice of themes and plugins they can activate on their site, with additional ones available for a fee. It gives users more control but is less suitable for users who don’t know what they’re doing and prefer to leave it to you.

You’ll notice that the three options give your clients or users different levels of control – the first gives them no control over the site configuration, just letting them add content, the second gives them more control and the third gives them almost as much control as if they created their own WordPress installation from scratch. The fees you charge for each will, therefore, be different for each, with the first option being the most expensive and the third the cheapest, reflecting the development work you’ll have to put into your network and your clients’ sites. If you go with the cheapest option, you’ll need more clients, while if you go for the most expensive you’ll need to invest more time in each of them.

Let’s take a look at each of the options in more detail.

Option #1: Hosting client sites you build

I’ve been building WordPress sites for clients for seven years now. When I started, each client had their own WordPress installation using reseller hosting. As time passed I noticed a few things that were (or weren’t) happening:

  • My clients never accessed their hosting admin screens, preferring me to do it instead.
  • Most clients never made any changes to their site configuration and many didn’t update their content either, hiring me to do it instead.
  • I tended to install a core set of plugins on every site, meaning I had to keep them updated on every site.
  • I developed my own theme framework and used a child theme for each site. This meant keeping the framework updated on every site.
  • Every time WordPress was updated, I had to update every site, which became more time-consuming as I grew my client base.
  • After a hosting problem, I switched all of my client’s email accounts to Gmail, meaning I didn’t need the email functionality on the reseller hosting.

I decided that my business model wasn’t very efficient and that it could be improved if I switched to using Multisite to host client sites. I spent a (laborious) weekend moving all of my client sites across to one Multisite installation. Only a small number stayed on their own installation, either because the client needed separate access or the site wasn’t compatible.

Compass Design website
My Compass Design agency is built on Multisite

This made life easier for me (only one set of themes and plugin to maintain) and my clients (no hosting provider to deal with) and freed up more of my time for working with clients, developing sites and writing. Managing updates is the main area where I’ve found efficiencies – this takes a fraction of the time that it did in the past.

If you decide to go down this route, then it helps if your sites have at least some of their code in common – maybe a shared parent theme or theme framework and a bunch of shared plugins. This will limit the number of themes and plugins you’ll need to maintain.

Option #2: Letting users create and tweak their site

This option gives your users more control over their site but still limits the number of themes and plugins you need to host on your network.

You can let your users tweak their sites in two different ways:

  • Via the Customizer. This is my favorite way to do this. By adding advanced Customizer integration you can let your users upload logos, add content to their header and footer, and amend the colors and/or layout on their site. All without having to install a new theme. You can either add the Customizer integration in your theme or via a plugin, which is what I do, to keep things separate. You can learn how to add this by following our tutorial on the Customizer.
  • Via child themes. Install a parent theme on your network that controls most aspects of the site design, with child themes that add custom colors, fonts or layouts. This is an alternative to using the Customizer and can be used to achieve the same thing. This would give your users a “menu” of themes they could select from, instead of the ability to make their own tweaks via the Customizer. It gives users less control but helps to ensure the design consistency of the sites on your network. It’s also a bit simpler for clients.

Alternatively, you could use a combination of these – maybe giving users a few child themes to select from, with different layouts, and then using the Customizer to let them tweak colors and fonts.

The benefit of this is that it gives your users an incredibly easy way to create and configure their site if they’ve never done it before. By using the Customizer they can see exactly what changes they’re making, and the limited number of options means that you can ensure design quality for all the sites in your network. The downside is that clients might not like to have an identikit site, especially if you’re marketing to a small niche who don’t want their site to look like those of their competitors.

Your clients can use the Customizer to tweak their sites

This can work well if your users aren’t too worried about having a distinctive brand. Some years ago I built a network of sites for politicians, (unfortunately it flopped), many of whom wanted a very similar design to other users from the same political party. This approach could also work well in markets where customers have limited budgets and technical skills, such as freelance writers.

Option #3: Letting users create their site and activate any of a range of themes and/or plugins

This final option is the one we use for Edublogs. With a free Edublogs site you have a choice of hundreds of themes and plugins, and this expands for premium users.

edibles plugins page
Edublogs includes hundreds of plugins

As Edublogs has over three million users, this sort of flexibility is crucial. I’m an Edublogs user and I’m pretty sure my blog looks different from the millions of other blogs out there – in fact, I know there are lots that look way better than mine!

This third option gives users an experience which is similar to what they would get if they were to install WordPress with their own hosting provider, but without the hassle of arranging hosting and doing the installation. You can choose how many themes and plugins your users have access to, and where you get them from, and you can offer some themes and plugins for free and others as premium, with extra ones available on higher priced plans.

Deciding This Option is Best For You

So these are the three options available to you. But, having decided you want to build a business hosting WordPress sites, how do you go about choosing which one is right for you?

Here are some of the questions you’ll need to ask yourself.

How Much Contact Do You Want With Clients?

You might see yourself working closely with clients and helping them build their online presence, or you may see yourself as purely a service provider with minimal interaction with clients. The first option is better for those who want close links with clients, while the third and second options are better for those who don’t.

Beware though – even if you go for the third or second options, you can’t hide from your clients. They will have questions and problems that they’ll need your help fixing. Which means you’ll need some sort of system for them to contact you for support. This could be via a support system on the site or via email or phone – personally I’d recommend a support system on your site (either in the front end, back end or both) as this keeps everything in one place and lets you track support tickets. Our Support System plugin does that job for you – more of which shortly.

Do You Have a Well-Defined Market?

If you’re working with a small number of clients and hosting their sites that you’ve developed, then it doesn’t really matter what market you’re working in. Some agencies choose to focus on one market or sector, but others (like my own) have a range of different clients.

But if you’re adopting a more hands-off approach that requires clients to find your site and set things up themselves, then your offering will need to be really well defined. And it will need to be squarely aimed at a market that you know well.

Forget about being the next WordPress.com. That opportunity is already taken. A niche similar to the one we’ve carved out for Edublogs is much more realistic. Find a market you’re familiar with and understand, and develop something that meets its needs. Then you can focus your marketing efforts.

How Big Is Your Market?

Be realistic with yourself here. If there’s potentially a significant market, and your research shows you that you’re filling a niche for that market, then a more hands-off option will enable you to take on more clients. If you’re not sure about the size of your market, you could try adopting more than one option at once. For example, my Edupress business offers both Option 1 and Option 2, meaning that clients can have a branded site using the Customizer, or if they pay for development time they can have a completely bespoke site.

WPMU DEV marketing course
Our marketing course will help you make a success of your hosting business

Follow our course on marketing your WordPress business.

Edublogs and CampusPress work a bit like this – they both work off the same Multisite installation. Edublogs customers choose and customize themes and plugins themselves, doing the heavy lifting when it comes to creating their site. CampusPress clients have a bespoke site developed for them, which they can then manage and update using the same admin system.

Do You Have Development Skills?

If you have experience developing bespoke sites, then you’re more likely to make a success of Option 1 than someone with no coding skills. If all you’ll be offering is third party themes and plugins, even if these are premium themes and plugins, then you won’t be adding much value for your clients if you charge them for installing those and setting up their site. Not that there isn’t a market for this – but my feeling from talking to developers and agency owners is that this market is shrinking in favor of developers who can build bespoke sites themselves.

So if your business offers people access to code you’ll be buying from another provider, the main benefit you’ll provide is in ease of use – in which case Options 2 and 3 are more likely to be appropriate.

How About Your Selling Skills?

The more hands-off your approach, the less you’ll be able to charge. And the less you charge, the more clients you’ll need. Which means selling to more people.

I’m someone who is happy selling a bespoke service to clients I can build a relationship with. I don’t have to go out and find clients as I get enough of them through word of mouth, which means I don’t have to engage in sales or marketing, something I don’t particularly enjoy. This is why my agency (on Option 1) has been much more successful than my website hosting business (Options 2 and 3). I simply don’t have the skills or inclination to spend lots of time chasing new clients and closing deals.

If you do have these skills, or can hire someone with them, then your efforts will be put into getting as many clients as possible rather than into servicing those clients, in which case a more hands-off model would work. This belies the myth that if you set up a hosting business you’ll never need to talk to a client again!

Do You Enjoy Working With Clients?

If you don’t enjoy working closely with clients and helping them to grow their online brand over a period of time (as opposed to simply building a website and walking away), then Option 1 probably isn’t for you.

If, on the other hand, you like to watch your clients’ businesses grow, to see how your work contributes to that, and to develop ongoing relationships with your clients, then a hands-on approach working with a small number of clients will be right up your alley.

Whichever option or options you go for, it’ll be more successful if you enjoy it, as you’ll be better at it and more motivated.

Making it Work: Top Plugins

So you’ve decided which option or options are for you, you’ve considered the fit with your skills and preferences, and you know what your market is.

There are a number of plugins that, in addition to a Multisite installation itself, will make it much easier for you to establish a successful hosting business. Some of them are free, others aren’t, and most of them are ours. There’s a reason for that – we’ve developed these plugins to support Multisite-based hosting and are experts in the field.

Here are the plugins I’d recommend for a hosting business built on Multisite.

Domain Mapping

Domain Mapping plugin page on WPMU DEV

If your clients need to have their own domains, then the Domain Mapping plugin makes this easy. You can either map your clients’ domains yourself (which you’re more likely to do if you’re building the sites) or you can provide instructions to help them do it (relevant if you’re letting them create their own sites).

You can make this free of charge or you can charge for it – it’s up to you. The premium version of your plugin lets you enable domain registration and payment right from your site, helping you make money from this option, while the free version doesn’t include that but still lets you or your clients map domains.

Read our guide to using Domain Mapping with Multisite.

Pro Sites

Pro Sites plugin on WMPU DEV site

If you’re running a network that lets your clients tweak or create their own sites, then Pro Sites will make this much easier.

The plugin lets you set different charging levels, charging for tiered plans that incorporate different plugins and themes, or it lets you charge for individual themes and plugins. You can also define things like memory use and uploading certain file types as premium offerings. Set this alongside a free option for your basic features and you’ve got a great business model.

Read our guide to using Pro Sites with Multisite.

Ultimate Branding

Ultimate Branding plugin on WPMU DEV site

You want your hosting provision to look slick and professional, don’t you? Ultimate Branding makes it easy. The plugin lets you brand your login screens and as many aspects of your admin screens as you want, as well as adding branding to some aspects of the front end.

With this plugin, your Multisite installation will stand apart from other ‘vanilla’ installations and make your clients feel that they are getting something unique for their money, something with added value.

Read our guide to using Ultimate Branding with Multisite.

Support System

Support System plugin on WPMU DEV site

Whichever of the above options you choose, you’ll need a way of communicating with your clients and users. Our Support System plugin provides you with an interface to receive, manage and respond to support tickets. Logged in users can raise tickets from the admin area of their site or from a page you create in your main site on the network.

You can also use the plugin to add FAQs to your site, answering commonly asked questions so that people don’t have to wait to raise a ticket. I use this system with my clients for everything from answering their questions to receiving content that I add to managed sites for them, and find it far easier to manage than the humble email.

Read our guide to using Support System with Multisite.

Plugins for Performance and Robustness

The Hub from WPMU DEV

The plugins above are my favorites for creating a Multisite-based hosting solution. But don’t forget to compliment them with our plugins for performance and security – Snapshot Pro for backups, Hummingbird for performance, SmartCrawl for SEO and Defender for security. Make sure you install these so that your client’s sites will be found by search engines, will perform well and won’t have the risk of security attacks or downtime.

Even better, The Hub brings all this together, letting you monitor all your networks from one place.

Read our guide to optimizing your Multisite network’s performance and robustness.

WordPress Multisite is the Perfect Solution for a Web Hosting Business

If you want to make money from hosting websites, whether that’s sites you’ve developed for clients or ones that they create or customize themselves, then WordPress Multisite will help you to do this smoothly and with the minimum hassle.

By offering a streamlined approach to managing your hosting it will make you more efficient, maximizing your profit. It will make life easier for your clients, ensuring they stay loyal and tell their friends about you. And with the right plugins added, it will provide your clients with everything they need to own a robust, effective website.

Editor’s note: This post was first published in 2013 but we’ve updated the content so it’s now current for 2017. Enjoy!

Rachel McCollin
Do you run a Multisite network or have ambitions to build a business with it? What obstacles have you encountered along the way? If you have any questions after reading this post, ask away in the comments below.