Tenko Nikolov is the CEO and Managing Partner at SiteGround, a leading web hosting company that hosts more than 700,000 domains. Tenko has been obsessed with technologies from an early age. Although he has a law degree, his path and interests led him to SiteGround where he’s focused on growing the company and strengthening its position as one of the top web hosting providers worldwide. Along with SiteGround, some of Tenko’s passions include tennis, photography, fast cars, and anything Star Wars-related.
Tell me about your early career.
My interest in technology started well before I was even thinking about a career. When I was around seven years old, my granddad bought me my first computer and I was fascinated by it, as well as the technology behind it. I was so impressed that I started spending, literally, all of my days exploring it. That stuck with me and I continued to develop my tech skills throughout the years, parallel to my studies. Even though I studied law and I come from a family of lawyers, my heart has always been in technology and computers.
My professional career started two months before my first day of college. I started looking for a job, ever since I was accepted, because I wanted to combine both studying and working. The first job I had was as a technical support agent at an Internet service provider. It was suitable for me, at that time, because I had night shifts which allowed me to attend classes regularly. My first contact with SiteGround was during my second year of law school. I joined the company as an employee several months after it was created. Now, thirteen years later, I’m glad I made that decision.
How did the concept for SiteGround come about?
The company was founded in 2004 by my partner, Ivo Tzenov, and a few of his friends from college. After one summer job abroad, they all decided to start their own business and build their own company the way they wanted it, doing something they enjoy with the people they liked. Somehow, they got the idea that it was very easy to create a web hosting company. With an adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit, they went for it, and started SiteGround from their dorm rooms. I joined the team a little later and I really liked their enthusiasm. Surely, it turned out that managing a hosting business is far from easy.
How was the first year in business?
Within the first year, we were focused on building the product itself. We were a team of no more than ten people, and we had tens of thousands of competitors. In order to stand out from the rest, we had to find our unique differentiator. There were three things we truly believed in from the beginning and they ended up incorporated in our company DNA: 1) building everything in-house, 2) being innovative, and 3) doing it all with care and attention, for our team, clients, and our partners. We stuck to these values and two years later, SiteGround became a recognized leader in the hosting sector.
What was your marketing strategy?
We try to take the unbeaten path in everything we do. We were one of the first in our field to start leveraging smart SEO and content marketing tactics before they became popular. While most competitors were optimizing their sites for the common keywords (hosting, web hosting, etc.), we started building separate pages for each solution we provided. This helped us gain a large amount of organic sign-ups which was extremely valuable during the early days of our business, when landing pages were not even a thing yet.
The next big jump was when we focused on boosting content marketing. Ten years ago, we began writing helpful, free content for anything hosting-related. We started producing website templates, guides, tutorials and webinars with industry leaders. Back then, almost no company was paying attention to content, and it helped us gain a following and convert at a rate far better than the competition.
Today, on top of all of the above, we concentrate on supporting open source software communities. We attend, sponsor, and speak at various events worldwide. Each year, we visit around eighty events and we have a dedicated team working only on organizing and preparing for them. I think events are an excellent way to connect and engage with communities and like-minded professionals, and build a long-lasting relationship with clients and partners.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
In 2004, when SiteGround was founded, we had no more than ten people on the team and we offered only one hosting plan, and at the end of the year, we had around 1,500 orders total. Over the next year, we began working on new solutions, offering more hosting plans and services to clients. In 2006, we continued to expand our services by developing custom-made solutions for WordPress, Mambo, and later on, Joomla. In the next year or two, we grew steadily, while investing in SEO marketing and we even got a Google PageRank of 9. I don’t believe any other hosting company has managed to do that, even to this day. Today, we are a team of more than 400 people in thirteen countries who work either remotely or from one of SiteGround’s four offices. We host over 700,000 domains and are entering a new, local market every two years (Spain in 2015, Italy in 2017). We’ll continue to explore new regions in the future.
How do you define success?
I think the best way to define success is by measuring how happy the people are around you. And by that, I mean family, friends, and colleagues. From a business perspective, success is best measured by clients’ satisfaction and the value you provide them. I’m extremely proud that every year, SiteGround has over 96% client satisfaction rate.
What is the key to success?
I believe SiteGround’s success is the quality of our services. We have literally turned hosting and infrastructure into our craft and we are constantly improving our services. I keep meeting clients at events who have been hosting with us for over ten years. Actually, a lot of the people we meet at events now are already our clients and they come to our booth just to tell us how happy they are with our company. To me, this means we keep doing things right, thirteen years on.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
One of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned is that you should pursue and do what you are most passionate about. When you love what you do and you are persistent enough, it really shows and makes a difference for your clients and the people you work with.
What are some quotes that you live by?
Some beliefs that I try to live by are:
“Hard work never hurts.”
“Dream big and never give up.”
“Never take yourself too seriously.”
What are some of your favorite books?
Contrary to common trends, I actually don’t enjoy reading entrepreneurial and business books. Since my free time is scarce, I do whatever I can to take my mind off work, whenever I get the chance. I find this actually prepares me for work far more efficiently. I am an avid reader of techno-thrillers. My favorite author is Michael Crichton, and some of my favorite books are Next and Airframe. Lately, I listen to a lot of audiobooks, since I have a lot of free time during my daily commute.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Unpredictable, hard situations are something we encounter all the time as the business grows. Back when the SiteGround team was starting in the hosting business, there was no textbook about building successful businesses online. We were building an airplane, while flying. But even though we work in tech, the hardest decisions are always about people. So, if you think computers are hard, wait until you start managing a large, international team. Human interaction and connection is still underlying everything we do, and rightfully so.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Overall, I’m a very optimistic person and I enjoy solving problems. But, when faced with adversity, the one thing that keeps me going is my family and the people I surround myself with, the SiteGround team included. They support me in all I do and are my biggest inspiration.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with people smarter than you and aim at goals which others perceive as impossible.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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