Softlayer: The Story Behind An Industry Leader

(Special cPanel Edition) – I’ve always thought that the greatest sin in life was to be average. So throughout my own life, I’ve strived to be anything but. From high school to law school to my professional career, I’ve always been drawn to people who think exactly that same way. People who believe that achieving success means living outside your comfort zone.
As someone who has always relished the role of devil’s advocate (I was trained as an attorney, after all), I want to challenge the conventional wisdom and ask “why is this done that way?” If the answer I get is “because that’s the way it’s always been done,” then it’s time to start thinking down a new path. And that’s where innovation truly comes from.
For me, being an entrepreneur is genetic. My parents had always owned their own businesses, and their parents had as well. When I was just a teenager, my first job was at Walmart, and I knew even then that working for someone else in the corporate world simply wasn’t for me.
Starting a business is about more than a desire to make money—it’s about having a desire to create. When we began SoftLayer, we really felt that we could change the world. It wasn’t about personal wealth, but inventing new technologies.
I got my first exposure in the hosting industry when I was working my way through law school. I started out in customer support for a company called Dallas Internet, and I loved it. During my law school career, I worked my up through server administration to eventually become the company’s operations manager.
My experience at Dallas Internet and later as VP of Operations at The Planet, coupled with my educational history (I have degrees in accounting, finance, and management in addition to my J.D.) gave me a well-rounded background that I draw upon every day as CEO of SoftLayer. I understand the technology behind our products and services, and I understand the legalities of running a company and negotiating contracts. And thanks to my parents and grandparents, I have that gene that allows me to accept and embrace risk. It pays tremendous dividends when piloting a company through an ever-changing market landscape that rewards innovation and leadership, but when I go to Vegas, not so much.
SoftLayer Technologies was started by 12 guys sitting around a living room. Some of us were experienced veterans of the IT industry. Others were young Turks only a few years out of school. But we all agreed on one thing—the hosting industry was ripe for change.
Several of us had worked at conventional hosting companies, ones that were centered around products and proprietary technologies. There was no company in the hosting space that was truly customer-centric, that was listening to what their customers were saying.
So the 12 of us took a step back and began with the notion that the customer is our ground zero. We filled up countless whiteboards, night after night, outlining customer needs and requirements and brainstorming solutions to address them. Of course, for every problem there was at least one massive technological obstacle and sometimes several. For every desired feature set there was a reason why it couldn’t be implemented.
After dozens of these late-PM-to-early-AM sessions, we had hit upon this concept of creating a Network-Within-a-Network topology. Basically, the idea was to create an outer, public-facing network that ringed a highly secure, private inner network. This would allow network administrators to securely transfer data and manage servers without sacrificing public bandwidth. It was a pretty revolutionary concept, something that really had never been tried before, and we were ecstatic and energized.
But there was a very significant problem with the idea. When you create two networks, you basically double the personnel required to manage them. This was the big sticking point, because when you double your personnel, you essentially double your costs. Creating a Network-Within-a-Network was a great idea, but we worried that it would be financially untenable. The cost issue could be a concept-killer.
Then one evening, we had our “aha” moment. We struck upon the idea that remains SoftLayer’s strongest point of competitive differentiation today—server automation. Quite simply, SoftLayer would try to do with machines what other companies were doing with people. By automating system configuration, we could provision literally thousands of servers every day without hiring a commensurate number of employees. We could leave the humans to do what humans do best—strategic thinking—and leave the rote provisioning to our automated systems.
This was our breakthrough moment, the point at which we knew we had something unique that could reinvent the information technology and hosting industries.
I was convinced our technology and business model would work. But I also needed to convince 11 other people that they had the talent to make the idea a success, to take a leap of faith in themselves, and change an entire market. After countless conversations and over countless bottles of beer, they listened and took that leap with me.
In 2005, we became SoftLayer Employees 1 through 12. We had a vision, we had a plan, we had maxed out all of our credit cards and we had a solution that was going to create a sea-of-change within the hosting market.
What we didn’t have were customers. We made our first sale in January of 2006, but the next six months were very hard going. Our solution was unique, a game-changer. But we needed to educate the market, and that took time.
After about a year of countless sales calls, presentations, and marketing conferences, the market started to “get it.” We really caught traction, and our growth simply exploded. Today, we employ some 650 more individuals who work together to generate in excess of $350 million in annual revenue. And we haven’t looked back.
Success comes from putting the power to the people. Today, I see so many chief executives at other companies who under-hire even at the very top levels of management. They continue to hold on to this notion that they have to be the smartest guy or gal in the room. Of course, that is a recipe for disaster.
One of our corporate mantras is that “authority and responsibility are taken, not given.” Every employee is empowered to be their best and grow up within the company. I try to hire and surround myself with people who are smarter than me (it’s not all that hard, really) and who have no fear when taking on a challenge.
SoftLayer’s commitment to our employees is echoed by their commitment to SoftLayer—dozens have tattooed the company logo on their bodies and have painted baby cribs in the corporate colors of red and black.
It’s a level of devotion that may be a bit out of the ordinary. But that’s okay, because as I have always said, it’s a sin to be average.
About SoftLayer Technologies
SoftLayer is the innovation leader in Cloud, Dedicated, and Managed hosting, with 11 data center locations serving customers around the world. The company integrates and automates all IT elements, empowering customers to manage and control Cloud, Dedicated, and seamlessly integrated computing environments through a single Customer Portal and API. SoftLayer has received numerous awards for its industry-leading solutions and rapid growth and success.