Introducing Tom Fanelli
Tom is the CEO of Convesio, a new managed WordPress platform. Tom lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and four kids. Originally from Fort Myers, Florida, he served in the army right out of high school. After serving in the army, Tom went on to music school and then started his tech career in agencies.
Tara: This is Hallway Chats, where we meet people who use WordPress.
Liam: We ask questions and our guests share their stories, ideas, and perspectives.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is Episode 122.
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today we’re joined by Tom Fanelli. Tom is the CEO of Convesio, a new managed WordPress platform. Tom lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and four kids. Originally from Fort Myers, Florida, he served in the army right out of high school. After serving in the army, Tom went on to music school and then started his tech career in agencies. Welcome, Tom. It’s great to have you on Hallway Chats.
Tom: Thank you, Tara, and thank you, Liam. Really great to be here.
Liam: We’re excited to meet you and get to know you. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, please, Tom?
Tom: Yeah, sure. As you mentioned, it was really when I was in music school that I realized I was actually better at technology than I was the artistry of being a musician. And so I gravitated a lot towards computers and the application of computers and recording. I realized I was pretty good at it. Desktop publishing, Photoshop was still in its early days. I got some of those software packages, started playing around with it and I found myself working in a newspaper doing publishing of ads, scanning on drum scanners. I’m kind of dating myself here.
But eventually, that led to me becoming a freelancer. Then it led to me becoming an agency owner and grew that agency to like seven employees. Did that for seven or eight years, went through the dot-com first. I was building websites at that time using a product called Adobe PageMill, which was super early…I see your reaction, Tara. That was way before WordPress was around. Eventually, decided that I got burnout on the agency life a little bit, and then I went into work in a soft company.
I loved that because it married the ability for me to be technical and almost do some product type of stuff but also do marketing. And so I’m kind of one of these people where my superpower is. I’m a technical marketer. So I can code a web page, but I can also write really good copy. Really what wound up happening was I started my career in what I refer to as in house at these businesses.
Then after doing that for, gosh, I don’t know, maybe six or seven more years, I had a major pivot point in my life. And that was the opportunity to roll the dice on a startup in San Francisco. I relocated my family from Florida – I had two kids at the time – relocated them to the Bay Area, went to work for this startup. At the time, I don’t think I really realized the risk involved in that because I moved and relocated everything to come out here. As everyone knows, startups have a high rate of failure. So basically did that.
We got really fortunate. We had a great product and a great set of founders. We sold the company about a year after I got here. Then that company we took public that we sold it to. Within a couple years, I had this great success story of startup to acquisition to IPO. I continued to work at that company, which is a top 10 sass company – it’s in the real estate space called RealPage – and I lead a very large global team. I was the SVP of consumer marketing for them for about six years. Then that led to a larger company where I ran product for marketing and services tools. We can get into that. But after that, I founded Convesio. That’s my life story in a condensed format.
Tara: Wow, that’s a long trajectory. You don’t look like you’re that old. It looks like you’ve done a lot of things. I’m going to go backwards. We have actually spoken to a lot of musicians on the show, a lot of people who transition from music to code and music to tech. Talk a little bit about that and what specifically in music you studied, and if you still enjoy that and how that translated for you into this world of tech.
Tom: Good question. I’m a drummer. I feel like that’s a confession you have to make when you’re…it’s not right. I’m a drummer. I was going to school for just general music, and so I did concert bands and jazz bands. I basically ran the gamut as far as music curriculum. About two years into college doing music, I realized that this thing that I love to do for fun was becoming really burdensome. It was like I was in this grind of music education.
It was at that point that I pivoted my education to recording. My degree is in recording, and I spent a bunch of time in the studio. For a long time, I thought I was going to be a studio musician. But that pivot to recording is what really introduced me to technology because even back then being sort of a dinosaur in that there were still computers being used for very basic recording purposes. And so I got my hands on a computer. This was the mid-90s, probably late 90s – mid to late 90s. That’s what got me into technology.
Since I moved to the Bay Area, I don’t really play very much, but my kids have got the music bug and the theater bug which I was never a theater person. But they’ve got the performance bug. I’m happy to report it’s passed down a generation. So that’s good.
Liam: That’s awesome. I love that story. It was interesting that in your story you got picked up by a company out of San Francisco to the startup that ultimately was very successful. Fort Myers is a long way from San Francisco, and I just been done in a geographic way. Nothing more. What were you doing professionally or personally? Was it a friend of yours from a long time ago that says, “Hey, Tom, you want to come out here?” Had you done some work for a client and that drifted through? How did that connection come about? Because as you know, that’s not a “Can you come work for an agency up the street?” kind of way or “can you move up to Jacksonville?” That’s a significant change. How did that happen? How did you land on your radar?
Tom: This is a tremendous story about the power of connections. I don’t know if you guys are like me and you can do this. I meet people that are like, “Oh, yeah, I do this all the time.” But I can trace back the thing that has gotten me here in life. All the way back to some of the earliest people I knew 20 years ago making a connection of introductions in my life that had this amazingly influential effect on getting me where I’m at right now. Even through to my marriage. I mean, when I was in the agency, my business partner whom I knew is really the reason I met my wife. It’s amazing to trace back and look at your life in hindsight like this.
But to answer your question, I’d gone to work in the software company and they were in the field service dispatch space. Like air conditioners, electricians, plumbers. They did dispatching software inventory. But it was a dying company and they needed someone to turn things around. They had a legacy product that was on like Doss, they were late into the windows world, they thought it was a fad, it’s kind of comical, and they have trouble transitioning to selling a modern software product.
One of the things I figured out when I first got there was we needed to do a few things that really would move the needle quickly. One of those was integrating with QuickBooks. We were one of the first 10 products to integrate with QuickBooks. The timing was amazing. That’s another force in life that’s just tremendous is the right timing. Intuit had just opened its developer program and they were looking for various products in different verticals to integrate with. We were one of the very first products to do that, and we had tremendous success.
Through that connection, we went out to the Bay Area. I met people at Intuit. One of the people that I met was a dear friend of mine, Monica, who was a VP at Intuit. We became friends – we’re friends to this day – and she introduced me to the person who owned the startup that I went to work for. His name was Cena. Basically, I was doing some consulting on the side, and he needed someone to help consult on the early marketing and sales of the startup. We happen to hit it off, and we really became good friends. He got to know me. Eventually, the conversation turned into this “You’re a really smart guy. Why are you in Fort Myers, Florida? Come to the Bay Area. You need to come out here. This is where your people are.” Eventually, the timing worked out and I made the leap. That’s how I ended up getting to the Bay Area.
Liam: I feel like there’s a whole show just in that story alone, but I’ll turn it back over to Tara.
Tara: That’s a great story. As somebody who uses QuickBooks quite a bit, I can appreciate software that works with it because not a lot of things do. That must have been a victory to have that connection and make that work.
Tom: It was. It was a tremendous lift for us. In fact, I think in a year, we did an astronomical amount of sales in integrated QuickBooks bundling. It was a real turnaround for that company.
Tara: That’s cool. Tell us a little bit about having four children and moving from Florida to San Francisco. That’s quite a different dynamic. Raising a family there, tell us a little bit about what that’s been like for you.
Tom: This is a story in taking risks. Not all the time risk span out for us. But in this case, it’s funny, I always wanted to come to San Francisco because for me being a technologist and a marketer, it’s kind of the place to be for technology. I really thought for a long time I was going to make it out there, but I had gotten to a place in my career where I was really successful at this company. In Fort Myers, Florid there’s not a lot of software companies, as you can imagine, so I was already doing what I loved in a company I had tremendous success with. It was relatively a small company under 40 employees.
Basically, I had given up on the dream. And it’s funny how life has this way of things wind up happening when you let go of things. I had given up on this idea of going to San Francisco and it’s at that very moment the opportunity dropped out of the sky to go there. It was a hard decision. We sort of gave it a lot of thought. It was no financial upside salary-wise for me. In fact, if I were to write to you the pros and cons of this on paper, a huge chunk of people will be like, “This is too risky.”
I had to liquidate my 401k to move and to sustain myself. I pushed all of the chips in on this startup. The one big difference that I had gotten was equity in the company, which is very common in startups. I remember us thinking and rationalizing “Well, there’s a whole network of people we’re going to meet.” The kids were relatively young at the time. My oldest is 15 and my second oldest is 14. The second two are native to California. But they were still relatively young. There wasn’t a whole lot of turmoil in their lives.
But it was a big deal moving away from all of our support network. Our whole family’s there. My wife has got a really large family. She’s the oldest of five. There’s like 14 and growing grandkids, including ours. We left our entire support network to move to California and the first few years personally were really hard because it takes a while to develop roots in a new place.
Professionally, it was amazing. There was this sort of turmoil in my life for the first five years. It was hard personally to develop relationships and friends. I mean, we left everyone. But professionally, I was thriving. The challenge and just energy of working for a startup in San Francisco in downtown in the financial district, I used to walk to work in the morning and look at the buildings and go, “I can’t even believe that I’m here.” Because it was so different than Fort Myers, Florida. It was a great experience professionally. Eventually, we developed roots. Now we’ve got a lot of great relationships here and sort of it’s taken hold but in the beginning, it was hard and it was a lot of risks.
Liam: Yeah, there was a lot of risks there. You just keep on unfolding these great little stories and you’re doing a good job and keep keeping them succinct. But I feel like there’s a whole nother strand of conversation right there. Tom, I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about what you’re doing right now. We heard that you’re starting or in the process of growing a managed WordPress host. Maybe tell us a little bit about it, please.
Tom: Sure, sure. Sub thread of my professional career here since I’ve been in San Francisco, I’ve been working in businesses at a very large scale that have had marketing services and websites. Myself, last company was called Deluxe and it was similar to an EIG. They were sort of an aggregator of shared hosting. They acquired a lot of shared hosting companies. I, of course, have been hosting sites in some capacity for 20 years and I’ve always been really frustrated that there’s been a lack of product innovation in the hosting space.
Let’s face it. Most hosting providers are all the same. They all use cPanel, they all use Linux servers, they all use the same type of thing. Now, they do things in better ways. There’s managed hosting providers out there that do a better job, but they’re not doing anything technology-wise radically or revolutionary narrowly different. That’s the word. I’ve always been frustrated by this. And I’ve always looked at the enterprise space and go, “Man, enterprises got such great technology. They’ve got all this cutting edge stuff like redundancy and scaling and high availability, but it’s not trickled down into the small and medium-sized businesses.” And for those enterprise solutions, they’re extremely expensive. And so for the vast majority of agencies, they can’t make a markup on any of that. In some cases, they’re just way too expensive for them to sell to their customers.
I was plagued by this and was plagued for a number of years. In fact, I heard a great saying that said…someone asked, “When should you do a startup?” It’s when you can no longer not do it. I got to the point where I just had to see if I could fix this problem. That was a couple years ago. And so Convesio was started as an R&D project, not even sure if we could do it. But we thought, “What if we just wipe the slate clean and thought from the ground up? What if we could build a state of the art, fully redundant, all the modern technology, built on AWS and the Google Cloud infrastructure stack for hosting WordPress that’s radically different than all the rest of the solutions out there?”
That has been the journey that we’ve been on. This is another one of those places in life where I’ve really pushed all the chips in on this business. And so we are in I call it almost out of beta stage. We’ve got about a thousand sites we’re hosting on the platform. We’ve been working on it continuously for the last couple of years. Our team is about eight people.
About six months ago, I came to the conclusion that we’re going to need some additional capital to do this. So, like any good Bay Area startup guy, I was like, “Let me go see if I can raise VC money.” I had a buddy of mine come to me and say, “You should look at this new funding method called Equity Crowdfunding, which is sort of like this Kickstarter meets investing.” We’ve raised somewhere around $1.3 million in equity in VC money. I call it venture capital, but its equity crowdfunding capital. About almost 850 investors have participated in it. So it’s small investments. We’re really excited to, in 2020, be taking this product to market. I would say we’ve validated really great product market fit with agencies. The agencies that are using the product, love it. So I’m super excited about what 2020 is going to bring. You’re going to hear a lot more about our company and our product throughout the year.
Tara: What’s your main point of differentiation and who is your target audience? Agencies, you mentioned?
Tom: Right. I mean, we feel like the problems agencies have with traditional hosting is compounded because they manage a portfolio of 50 or 100, many hundreds of websites. The differentiation on our platform is we have a much more streamlined interface for managing your sites. We just did a little bit of a research tally on this. On the sites that we’ve been monitoring, on average are about 239% faster than where they moved from. We’ve migrated people from all the leading hosts Kinsta, SiteGround, Pantheon, CloudWave, Flywheel, WP Engine. And the list goes on and on. So we’re faster, we are easier to use for agencies, and we do auto-scaling, which is probably one of the unique things that we do.
The way our platform works is your WordPress site runs in a container. A container is like a microserver that just runs WordPress. Every site on our platform sits behind load-balancers. So we have the ability to be able to scale your site up in seconds to replicate it and then distribute the load over multiple servers. And we do this in a very cost-effective way. Our initial packages started $15 per site per month, and you only pay for what you use. Let’s say you’ve done a marketing campaign, you get a surge of traffic, traditionally, your site might slow down, it might crash. Let’s say you do a newsletter blast and you get a lot of people that are clicking all at once on your newsletter. These are moments where traditional hosting providers will either lack in performance or they’ll just hit a wall and something will crash.
In our platform, you don’t pay for that excess overhead all the time. You only pay for it when you need it, and then your site automatically scales back down. I’ll give you a great example of a use case everyone can really understand. Churches. I love this one because it’s so clear cut. A lot of churches are streaming on Sunday mornings, and basically, they have a surge of traffic Sunday morning, and a lot of people online but then nothing on Monday night. This is a great example where a church doesn’t have to invest in a large server or large hosting package and not use it six days a week but use it only when they needed on Sunday morning. They can get us and then just scale up when they need the capacity and then they scale back down. And overall it’s cheaper for them.
Liam: That sounds very exciting and yet again, there’s a lot to talk about. But I want to swing around if I can. We’ve talked about taking risks. We’ve talked about starting businesses. We’ve talked about growing businesses. And all of this is leading me to think about success. I want to ask you, what is your definition of success? Is it about personal definition or professional? Maybe a mix of both. Can you share that with us?
Tom: Sure. This is a question I’ve thought a lot about. I think if you look at it from just generic worldly standards, you would see my career path, at least definitely over the last 10 years I’ve been in California and you would define it as very successful. But since I’ve started working Convesio, which is really…I would always tell you in the past I loved what I did. I never had a moment where it was like, “I dread going to work.” But the ability to give back to the community and the WordPress community, how it bands together and supports people, has been so rewarding to me professionally that I’m kind of going through this identity crisis of what I think successes. Because I would have told you success would be how much money you make, how many people report to you, how much revenue you’re responsible for. I got really high in that – hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue responsibility in my last company, 300 people globally in my organization.
Now that I’m in this startup, because it’s a product that I believe in, and I’m solving a problem I’m passionate about, there’s this whole other more rewarding aspect of success that I’ve been sort of awakened to. If you guys have ever met those people that are serial entrepreneurs or serial startup people, I used to hear them talk about this and I used to think, “Why are you so addicted to being in a startup? It’s not all that great. I’m in a big company. I’ve got all this money and resources.”
What I now realize that people are addicted to is the magic of when you see people fall in love with your product, and they want to actually use it. That is such an amazing feeling that it’s sort of redefined what I think successes. And so I think success now is building something people love and participating in a community of people that you are like-minded with. That’s so reflected in what it’s like to build a product for the WordPress community.
Tara: I love seeing how passionate you are about that. It must be a great motivation to go to work every day and work on something that you feel great about. Not to be a downer, but I guess when you’re working on a startup, they’re probably days where you wonder, “Is this really going to work?” Or “Is it just me who loves it?” Or those types of questions? Can you share with us some of the challenges that you have in starting up a business like this a product?
Tom: Sure, sure. Absolutely. I think one of the challenges that people have just in a material sense is being able to bootstrap something either with your own money. I was fortunate enough to have had money to be able to invest in the business to get it started. But I think one of the challenges as we grow, it’s not necessarily the grind of going to work every day, but it’s the fear of letting down all the people that have invested and believe in what we’re doing.
For me, I’ve had almost moments where you could call them sort of micro panic attacks, I guess, where we’ve raised money from 850 people, a huge chunk of which are my closest friends and family put in a huge majority of that money. And I look at that going, “Oh my gosh, there are moments where you just out of the blue, you worry about, “Am I going to do this? Is this going to be successful?” I’ve had other founders tell me that’s normal, and it’s natural, and if you weren’t concerned about that, there’d be something wrong with you. I think that’s probably one of the more mental challenges of running a startup is realizing that, you know, if this thing succeeds or fails, ultimately, it’s all on me. I’ve again, put all my chips in on this business and I’ve convinced a bunch of people I really care about to put their chips in on it. That’s a bit of a weight to bear. It’s a responsibility really.
Tara: Sure. I’m not sure I can do that. That sounds very stressful.
Tom: Well, if you have something you really believe in, it makes it a whole lot easier. That’s really been the thing. I’m a huge believer in this product. It’s been fortunate that we’ve been able to get such really good validation in what we’re doing early on. I know some people build products, and they believe in it so much, but they don’t get the validation from external sources, therefore, they go to market to raise money on something that possibly isn’t something that’s viable. I’ve been really excited. That’s one of the things that excites me is to see how much our customers love the product. That makes it a little bit easier.
Tara: I think a lot of the things that you’re telling us include some advice to people who are listening. Can you share with us some advice that you received and implemented in your life?
Tom: Yeah. I think that the biggest advice that I try to follow in my life, and this isn’t something that I’ve received in terms of no one’s really sat down and told me this, but I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really great leaders that I look up to and admire, and they do this. This is really the advice I’m mimicking that I see people do. Which is to really be transparent in your relationships you have. What you see is what you get with me. This is who I am if we’re sitting down alone having coffee or if I was up on a stage in front of 3,000 people.
I think that when you can learn to be true to yourself, it really will help you in the business world. Now, I will put a little plugin. I think another thing I’m really good at is casting a vision and communicating to people. Another skill that I’ve picked up from watching people. I think that’s an extremely powerful tool to have in our arsenal. If you’re good at rallying people behind a vision, that’s really a great skill to have.
Liam: I think transparency, particularly in today’s world, is undervalued. But I couldn’t agree with you more. Tom. I think that’s a major factor of happiness at work, particularly at home, and certainly out and about in the community. It’s really important. So thank you for sharing that with us.
Liam: Sorry, Tara and I are going back and forth. “You said something. I have a question.” I want to ask you just briefly. I’m looking at the clock and realizing we’re almost out of time, but maybe you can share us a little bit…You talked about the excitement of being involved with the WordPress community. Tell us a little bit about how you are involved.
Tom: Good question. It’s funny. I’ve been involved in WordPress for a long time but I’ve never really been involved in the community up until the last year. My first WordCamp was last year. I went to WordCamp US, and we’re going to be attending WordCamp Phoenix and Miami and a whole long laundry list of new WordCamps.
One of the things that I was really just taken aback by WordCamp US was the open friendliness and inclusiveness of the WordPress community. We’re pledging our time as a company to WordPress. So we’re involved in hosting groups for WordPress, so we’re participating and contributor days. I’m planning on being an organizer at some WordCamps this year. That’s one of the things that I want to do. I’ve also submitted to speak at several WordCamps. I’ve been working with a team of people about how can we either get a message out about business in your agency.
The two talks I’ve submitted that I’m sort of pitching to WordCamps is a basic beginner’s guide to hosting and then how to raise money for your WordPress startup using crowdfunding, which I think is a unique thing that we’ve done that I haven’t seen really any other WordPress business raise money through that. And so it’s been really successful for us. And if I can help other people and WordPress do that, that would be awesome. But really, it’s participating in WordCamps, organizing them, participating in meetups, contributing in the hosting group, and really just starting to build what I call her extended friends and family in the WordPress community.
Tom: And podcasts.
Liam: And podcasts, for sure.
Tara: I look forward to meeting you in person at a WordCamp this year.
Tara: It’s great. Well, we are out of time. This has gone by so quickly. And it’s like the end of the day so everything feels like it gets compressed. I’m glad we were able to take our time to chat with you. Thanks so much for reaching out and for joining us. Where can people find you online, Tom?
Tom: They can find us at convesio.com. They can find me on Twitter, @tfanelli or LinkedIn. I’m happy to answer any questions or have folks connect with me. I’d love to meet you.
Tara: Great, thanks again.
Liam: Thanks, Tom. It was a real pleasure getting to know you a little bit. Have a great day.
Tom: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Liam: Thanks for listening to the show. We sure hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.
Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.
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