WordPress Multisite Success Story Interview – Harmony Coburn

Harmony Coburn

Today we start what will be a semi-regular series of interviews with Multisite owners to see how they’re running their businesses, what their challenges are, what their business models are, and even how much money they’re making.

Today’s interview is with Harmony Coburn of BetterWebsiteBuilders.com.

 
What are your sites?

http://betterwebsitebuilders.com (this is our primary multi-site)
http://extendedcarellc.org (this is our corporate client)
http://bettereverything.net (this is our seo blog platform – multi-site – that we hope to someday turn into a community of small businesses)

For purposes of this interview I will talk about BetterWebsiteBuilders.

 

BACKGROUND:

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself before you got into running your site? What is your background in?

I spent nearly 25 years in sales and marketing before discovering web design was my true calling. Web design has allowed me to combine all of my strengths and create a very healthy business for myself. You can read more about me here if you want more details.  (I am Harmony Coburn)

 

When did you start the site?

Betterwebsite builders was launched last spring – about this time a year ago.


Why did you start the site?

My business was founded in 2001 on the platform of offering a cost competitive “do it yourself” solution to truly small businesses that needed a website when designers were still charging 3k and up for “basic websites.” I knew there had to be a way for Joe Mom & Pop to leverage the web, and I did a lot of research to find a product that was developed by Trellix. It was a WYSIWIG website building tool that required no HTML knowledge to get a website up and running. I believe it is still offered by Earthlink.

After ten years, that product no longer met the growing needs of my DIY customers, so I knew I had to come up with something that would in order to avoid losing them and the recurring hosting revenue I make off of them.

I had developed several sites, as the designer/developer on WP for customers that are NOT do-it-yourselfers, and when I discovered how Multi-site works, I felt it would be a good replacement product for the old software.

 

 

RUNNING THE SITE:

Do you run the site alone?

Yes


How much time do you spend on it (per day/week)?

Two hours a day average.


How do you control splogs? / How much time spent? / Are they hard to spot?

I am not allowing instant access at this time.


How do you deal with people posting unwanted content? / Ever had issues?

We have a strict policy on inappropriate content. Since no one gets a site unless they contact us directly first, it’s pretty easy.

 

How do you handle your support issues?

Keep in mind, these are people that don’t have a clue (if they did they would be going to Weebly or some other “free” place, I’m sure). The people I get are people that like the personal contact (which is why I charge as much as I do). These are people that need their hands held. I offer a small amount of free support in the beginning – mostly by email where I direct them to one of the tutorials (if I’ve written it). If I have not written a tutorial, I will write one and then send them a link.

If they still can’t get it, they can buy phone support. In that case I will have them do a screen share using Join.me (free), or I will have them install logmein (I have an account with LogMeIn, so it’s easy to deploy).

I charge $65.00 per hour for support, but I only charge for actual minutes used. I have a “punch clock” installed on my computer so time tracking is easy. If they want to go that route I have them sign up for a billing account (I have hosted for years, so I have the AWBS billing platform) and make a deposit ($65.00 to $200.00 depending on how much help they are thinking they want).

Once we have established a working relationship, I will just invoice them monthly for the time used the previous month. What I have found is this model actually gets me more design and SEO clients than Do It Yourself clients – they start out wanting to do it themselves – then they find out how much work it takes and hire me to “just do it.”

I have decided to move away from the DIY model – I am going to just refer those people to Weebly (I am an affiliate). However, I plan to keep my Multisite for my own design business as well as a new “local” community I will be launching called DiscoverWhatsLocal.com … so many ideas, so little time.

Using multisite for my design clients saves a lot of time in the development process as well as the software maintenance. If WP Manage was not so pricy, I might go that direction instead of multisite – in fact I think I would much prefer it for the simple fact that I would prefer each client be installed on their own hosting account and not even need me for hosting.

When I started my hosting company, it was because shared hosting didn’t work for e-commerce, but these days I would just as soon let the client bring their own hosting. My passion is design and SEO/Marketing – I only became a hosting company out of necessity. A lot has changed in the last 12 years.

I started my business because I saw friends being “held hostage” by their web designer/hosting company – I never want my clients to feel it’s difficult to leave me. Of course, no one ever does leave me for that reason, but using Multisite does make it a little more difficult for them. What I mean is if they hire a new webmaster and give them their FTP info, there is a bit of “where the hell is my website” conversation that might have to happen… Is this really a bad thing? No.

Most of my clients have no clue their site is not “stand alone,” but I carry a small burden of guilt because I know the truth.

 

 

Do you use BuddyPress or some other type of community enhancing plugins?

Not at this time.

 

Do you focus on community/integration, or do you prefer to let blogs exist in a more private atmosphere?

Although we want to grow the community value of the WordPress Multi-site platform, we have not had time to yet, so each user sees themselves as a completely separate website.


What plugins do you use? (If you use too many to go into, what are some of the ones you wouldn’t want to do without?)

We use the following on every site:

  • Gravity Forms
  • WPMU Update notifications
  • Login Image
  • Remove WordPress Dashboard
  • Easy Buttons
  • Google Analytics for WP – multisite
  • Subscribe by Email
  • Display Widgets
  • Image Widget
  • Wp-jquery-colorbox
  • Unattach

We offer many others, but the ones we see used (and enable ourselves) the most are:

  • Portfolio Slidesho Pro
  • WordPress Shopping cart by Tribulant
  • WP-Property
  • Less Than Web Testimonials

 

 

MARKETING


How did you first attract people to the site when it was new?

We had a base of clients.


How do you attract people to the site now? Is it the same?

We get new inquiries via our primary website from search engine results for “build your own website” and many referrals.


What do you find works best for attracting new members?

Word of mouth.

 

 

NUMBERS


How many sites do you have on your install?

32


How many new sites do you typically see per day/week?

Not really applicable to our model.

 

What’s your business model?

We are a Web Marketing / development company focused on TRULY small businesses. Our niche is offering the kinds of solutions and results that other companies only offer to businesses with large budgets for lower costs by leveraging open source solutions and keeping things simple.

 

I see on your site that you let users create a free site for 30 days. How is that strategy working out for you?

The 30 days free works out well. I haven’t had a lot of takers, but the ones that do it have stayed on OR hired me to do their site for them, so I guess that would be 100% conversion. Basically, if they take the time to actually build a site, they don’t want to let it go.

Only one client took me up on the “multiple sites” option, and he recently cancelled one of them. That came from my old model where the client could EASILY add another site at theirsite.com/2ndsitehere. They liked this because they felt they could get more use out of their single hosting account. With Multisite and domain mapping I couldn’t figure out how to make that work. (They can easily add a site but it’s at betterwebsitebuilders.com/2ndsitehere instead of theirdomain.com/2ndsitehere .)

Is your site profitable?

Yes.


What are your expenses per month? (hosting + any other expenses)

My fixed costs for hosting and other tools we need (for example all of our email clients are run through the Google Postini spam filtering system) are around $1000 per month.


Can you give us an idea about how much the site makes after expenses?

Well, those expenses cover a lot more than the WP multi-site, so I would say that my multi-site is primarily profit – that would be about $640/ month on that site alone in net profits.

 

 

FINAL  QUESTIONS/ADVICE

What are some things you like best about running the site?

  • Ease of adding a new client.
  • Ease of updating the software.


What are some things you like least about running the site?

  • There are some challenges such as making sure the client logs in under the right URL to post so that the links in the emails sent to subscribers are correct and not at their sub site.
  • Keeping up with the tutorials – support is tougher than I thought it would be. What is easy to me is not so easy to my customers


What advice would you give to someone that is thinking of starting a multisite?

  1. Purchase a membership to WPMU
  2. Participate in the community at WPMU
  3. DONATE TO THE PLUGIN DEVELOPERS!!!

We are so fortunate to have these incredible developers that are willing to put themselves and their products out there on a wing and a prayer that they “might” get some money back for their time and effort.

I could not have such a successful business without Open Source!

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NOTE: Thanks to Harmony for letting us see behind her business a little bit. If you run a successful Multisite install, or you know someone who does who might be interested in participating in an interview, then drop me a line at [email protected] Interviews are conducted by email, so you can do them at your convenience.

 

Photo: vector retro studio microphone from Bigstock.