23 April 2013
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How to Build a Web Hosting or Design Business with WordPress Multisite

Maybe you’ve had a talent for technology or design nearly all your life. Or maybe you just stumbled onto WordPress one day when looking to set up your own site. And then that one day led to another, and soon you were finding your way around the WordPress backend pretty well.

And then time and time again you started running into people who “wanted a website” but didn’t really have the first clue about how to build one. At some point it probably dawned you – Hey, I could make some money doing this.

But then you needed to actually get down into the weeds and figure out how you’d go about it.

This post hopes to help you with that “how to go about it” part — more specifically about how to run a business providing others with WordPress sites by using WordPress Multisite as your base.

Many others have done it. In fact, many are doing it right now. Why not you?

Web Host vs. Designer: Which is right for you?

The Structure of Your Business Model

First, there are two basic ways you might approach the services you offer. You can either be essentially a Web Host, as we’ll call it, or you can essentially be a Designer (while providing ongoing web hosting too).

We’ll use these terms “Web Host” and “Designer” loosely for convenience. In truth, to be an actual web host would be a little more involved than what we’re going to propose here (though you could still do it with WordPress with plugins like WHMCS MU Provisioning and WHMCS WP Integration). To be clear, however, those plugins are NOT necessary to do what’s outlined in this post. Also, we’ve chosen the term “Designer” here, but in reality, of course you’d be responsible for getting the whole site together, not just the design aspect of it.

Web Host

Web Hosts generally get more clients but at a lower price.

A Web Host (again, as we’re calling it here) lets anyone sign up to the Multisite installation. Maybe you’ll let them sign up for a free site and then charge for upgrades. Or maybe you’ll require payment even at the lowest level. While that might be a big marketing decision, as a technical decision, the two aren’t that different, thanks to the great plugins we’ll be talking about later.

Examples of the Web Host style would be WordPress.com and Edublogs.org. You can sign up for on those sites and then upgrade for more advanced features.

Markets for Web Hosts

There are different markets you might want to target, and so that’s a decision you’ll need to make. For example, you could go after only plumbers or roofers or lawyers. Or you could go after any type of business, of course. But specializing may help your marketing, and it would probably let you offer more complete solutions designed especially for that particular market.

The same is true if you went after bloggers instead of businesses. WordPress.com is going after the general blogger population. Edublogs.org is going after the education market.

Pros & Cons of Being a Web Host

Of course there are going to be pros and cons associated with anything you do. We’ll try to map out a few of main ones below. Considering these things may help you decide whether you’d rather go the “Web Host” route or the “Designer” route.

One other important consideration that we won’t really go into here is the type of marketing you would need to do for each. Going after many clients paying a small monthly fee is very different from going after a few clients paying a much larger initial fee.

Pros

  • No custom work required
  • Could charge extra for custom work if you liked
  • Inexpensive for clients, therefore possibly more clients (easier for your service to go viral)

Cons

  • Users must do some setting up themselves
  • Probably lots of support question (due to the D-I-Y nature of it)
  • Less money per customer – need lots

Designer (+ Host)

Designers provide custom solutions for a higher price, but usually have fewer clients.

As primarily a Designer, as we’ll call it (with ongoing hosting as well), your clients most likely will never even know that they are on a Multisite installation. The Multisite installation is for your sake much more than it is for theirs. The Multisite installation lets you easily access all your clients sites from one backend and keep them updated as well.

In addition, if using the right plugins, it allows you to easily use pre-made templates (not just themes) that you can then tweak and customize, cutting down your design time considerably. While pre-made templates can be used on the “Web Host” site too, again, that’s more for the convenience of the end user than it is for you. In this case, however, the templates are for your convenience as a designer. (We’ll talk about this in more detail later.)

Markets for Designers

Like a Web Host, the Designer primarily needs to decide if he/she will go after a niche market (only lawyers, for example) or whether the target market will be any type of business.

For Designers, however, there is typically another option that isn’t usually pursued by Web Hosts, and that’s defining your market by location. So, for example, you might sell yourself as a web designer for businesses in XYZ City. Because of the higher income earned initially on each site, you can afford to have fewer clients and give them more personalized service – such as showing up at their offices and teaching them face to face how to do something.

Pros & Cons of Being a Designer

Pros

  • More money per client
  • Once set up, work may be minimal
  • Fewer support questions because you do it for them

Cons

  • More time spent with customers initially
  • Customers may be harder to please due to higher expectations
  • Possibly harder to find clients due to the expense


Combination of the Two

Of course you could also structure your business to be combination of the two styles, letting customers do it themselves on the lower end or opting in to more custom designs and more hands-on attention on the upper end.  While that may sound like the best of both worlds, and it could be, there would be aspects about that to consider, such as how effectively you could market to such a wide range of client types.

Pros & Cons Recap

Just a quick recap of the pros and cons for each type of setup.

Differences for the Clients

In deciding which model to pursue, you should consider who your clients will be for each. While your communication with one type may be different from your communication with the other (email vs. phone, forums vs. face-to-face, etc.), you will still be dealing with clients no matter which you type you choose.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how these two systems differ for the clients. When you understand that, you’ll better understand what type of person is attracted to each system.

The Main Differences

There seem to be two main differences:

  1. A willingness to get your hands dirty
  2. Price


Web Host

Web Host clients are generally the DIY types.

With the Web Host set up, the client signs up and then must go about putting things into place – theme, menus, pages, widgets, plugins, etc. You can help them out a lot by setting up pre-made templates with many of these things already in place. (We’ll talk about this later.) But if they want something to be different from the template (as they probably will), they’ll need to do it themselves. This will most likely mean finding instruction for how to do it (best if provided by you) and then having the time and patience to follow those instructions.

In exchange for getting their hands dirty, they’re getting a high-quality site at a cheap price. They will also have more flexibility to change all those things they set up – themes, widgets, etc.

Pros for the Client

  • Cost less
  • More flexibility to change major parts of the site

Cons for the Client

  • Must do it themselves
  • No customized looks available beyond the themes’ default (i.e. they can change themes but not the looks of the themes)

Designer

Designer clients relax while you do all the work.

With the Designer setup, the client will talk to you directly about what they’re looking for. Perhaps they’ll choose a basic design from a set of choices, or maybe they’ll even point to certain site to use as a model. Or maybe you’ll even make suggestions to help them out.  It then becomes your job to build the site to their specifications, checking with them to make sure they’re happy.

In exchange for you doing the hands-on work in the beginning, they pay you for it. How much hands-on work you do after that is something you will need to work out. If you leave it open, you may have some clients requesting changes on a regular basis. And when we say “regular basis,” we mean very regular. If you attach a price to additional work, it will cut requests down, but it may leave some clients feeling somewhat handcuffed.

Pros for the Client

  • You do the work for them
  • More customization available outside of theme’s defaults

Cons for the Client

  • Cost more initially
  • Additional work costs more too

Setting Up Your System – Plugins for the Super Admin

One of the biggest pieces to the puzzle in setting up your system is to get the right plugins. As one of WPMU DEV’s specialties is Multisite plugins, we will be drawing on a lot of DEV plugins to get the system up and running. In some cases, such as with the Pro Sites plugin (which lets you easily charge for different levels), there are really no other options out there for WordPress.

In other cases, we may have a preference for our own plugins, of course, but we’ll also try to point you to plugins that aren’t ours as well in order to give you some other options.

Web Host vs Designer Plugins

Getting the right plugins are key to making your system work.

For the most part, many of the most important plugins you would use as a Super Admin would be the same whether you were running your business as a Web Host or a Designer.

The only exceptions to that are two plugins  that are critical for running a Web Host system – Pro Sites and Anti-Splog.

Pro Sites lets users choose from pre-determined packages, pay with a service like PayPal, and then get access to what they paid for immediately.  As a Designer, you will be talking to your clients one-on-one and discovering what their needs are. Therefore, the automated nature of Pro Sites isn’t needed.

Anti-Splog helps you protect your network from spam blogs. As a Designer, you won’t have your network open for just anyone to come along and set up a blog. Therefore, you aren’t going to be running into spam blogs.

Here’s a list of the main plugins you will likely need to set up your system. We will go over each in more detail below.

Pro Sites (Web Host) – DOWNLOAD HERE

If you’re running a Web Host setup, then the Pro Sites plugin is going to be THE key piece of the puzzle for you.

As mentioned above, this is the plugin that will allow you to set up different packages that users can subscribe to. For example, you can limit certain themes or plugins to certain levels. You can offer upgraded support for certain levels. Users can sign up to get more space, etc.

Take a look at the video below to get an overview of Pro Sites.

Putting Pro Sites to Work – Let’s say you’ve decided to run a Web Host system for interior decorators. Most would want to show a portfolio of their work. At one level, you could offer the default WordPress gallery. At a higher level, however, you could give them access to a premium gallery plugin that looks much nicer.

And of course it could work the same way with themes. Give them some nice themes at one level, but let them have access to even nicer themes at another level.

But Pro Sites gives you a lot more control than that. While  you can give a user free access and then let them upgrade, it isn’t required to have a free level. You can make even the lowest rung on the ladder a paid level.

Another very nice feature is that you can give access to any level you like for a limited amount of time. And of course it’s not required to have multiple levels, and so one strategy might be to only have one level packed with everything (all the best plugins, themes, etc.), but give users access to it for only three days. This way they could sign up, play around with things, get excited about building their site, but then they’d need to pay in order to actually continue.

Something else you can do with Pro Sites is to limit the number of Posts and/or Pages that can be created.

And there’s more on top of this. All the options it offers allows you to structure your offer most any way you’d like.

Anti-Splog (Web Host) – DOWNLOAD HERE

As mentioned, Anti-Splog helps you combat spam blogs. If you’re running an open network, it’s an absolute must. If you’re running a Designer type setup, then more than likely you’ll be adding new sites yourself, and you won’t have the need for an anti-splog tool.

Check out the video below to get an overview of Anti-Splog.


New Blog Templates –
DOWNLOAD HERE

New Blog Templates is one of my personal favorites. In my view, if used right, this is a plugin that can help set you apart from the crowd if you’re going in the Web Host direction, or it’s a plugin that will drastically cut down your workload if you’re going in the Designer direction.

First, a quick explanation. New Blog Templates lets you set up a blog any way your like – with Posts, Pages, widgets, the theme you want, menus, galleries, any plugin you can think of, etc. – and then it lets you turn that blog into a template.

So what does that mean in practical terms? Well, let’s look at an example. First from the Web Host point of view.

New Blog Templates for Web Hosts

Getting a menu to display correctly may be nothing for you, but it might be a chore for your clients.

Let’s say you’ve decided to target restaurants. You want to set up a site that lets restaurant owners sign up for $X-amount per month, and then they can build their own sites with the themes and plugins you offer. The problem, however, is that sometimes setting up something like a menu (either in a theme or with a plugin) can be a little overwhelming for someone not familiar with such things. Just reading the instructions gives them a headache, to say nothing of actually getting it to look the way it should.

With the New Blog Templates plugin, you can go in and set up a site for a sample restaurant and make it look just the way it should. And you could do that over and over again with a number of different “sample” restaurants. Maybe you have an Italian restaurant sample and a Chinese restaurant sample and a Sandwich Shop restaurant sample. Or maybe you only focus on sandwich shops, and you have ten different Sandwich Shop samples.

The client can then choose one of those samples and, in many cases, simply replace your sample content with their own content. They don’t have to learn, for example, that they need to create a “Menu” page and then place a special shortcode in it. They simply have to navigate to the premade menu and start substituting their items for your sample items.

Make the Simple Things Even Simpler

And the same is true for things that are even much simpler.

Even something as simple as getting a map to show can help your clients.

Many people have no clue how to do many things you take for granted, and they have no interest in learning. Even something as simple as installing a Google Map plugin and putting in a map to their place of business can be a chore. They don’t want to learn how to install plugins or even how to activate/deactivate them. They don’t want to go searching out what the right shortcode is for a particular plugin. They don’t even know what a shortcode is. All they want is a Google map on their site.

So in this case, for example, you could cut their learning curve down a ton by setting up a working example and having them simply replace the Google map URL. You set it up and then give them simple instructions (maybe even right on the page itself): “Go to Google Maps (link), put in your address, copy the URL, come back here and put it in the space where the sample URL is, and then delete these instructions and update the page.”

Set Up Themes and Make Them Templates

Many themes look great when you see the demo on the developer’s site, but then you install one on your own site, and you find there’s a lot of work to do to make it look as good as it did on the developer’s site.

You could do a lot of that work for your users by creating a sample site that just needs to have its “dummy content” replaced by the user’s content.

For example, if the theme you’re using has a featured spot on the home page for whichever category you’d like, go ahead and make up a category called Featured – Homepage, so it’s clear to the user that by putting a post in that category, it will show up on the homepage. In this way they don’t need to muck around in the settings of the theme to figure out how to get posts to go into the featured spot.

Set up a system, then let it work for you.

The more you dig into just about any theme these days, the more you’ll see little opportunities like this to make things easier for your users. And if you’re going after a certain niche, then you can set up special plugins just for them too, special Pages they may need, etc. Essentially, you’re building their site for them, but you only do it once. Then you just clone it and turn them loose with it.

This initial building will take some time, as will providing them with instructions. But keep in mind that you’re setting up a system here. Once it’s built, it will chug along more or less on its own.

*** IMPORTANT NOTES:

1. It should be noted that with this plugin you can only choose a template for NEW blogs – i.e. as the blog is being set up. (Hence the name: New Blog Templates.) Also, you cannot change templates once you’ve set the site up. In order to get a new/different template in place, you would need to create a new site on your network.

2. Of course users are not required to choose a template to start with. And even if they do, they will still have free reign to add and delete what they like as they would with any other site. As you might set up some templates to work with certain themes, however, this may cause some mismatching here and there if another theme is used. Users will need to be aware of that.

New Blog Templates for Designers

Designers can make their lives easier with New Blog Templates.

As we said the Pro Sites plugin would be THE key piece of the puzzle for Web Hosts, the New Blog Templates plugin is the THE key piece of the puzzle for Designers – assuming you’d like to drastically cut down your design time by automating large chunks of it.

One way to go about it would be to begin from scratch by working with some clients and building the exact sites that they want. This will be a lot of work, of course. But when the first few sites are done, you can turn them into templates that you can then use for future clients. Of course you won’t want all your sites to look the same, so you can make changes here and there – sometimes large and sometimes small.

The big advantage here is that you may find a nice combination of features that work well for most businesses you deal with. You can then set about including that feature set into a wide array of different themes. From that point you can make smaller tweaks to customize each site as the client likes. If you need to do any editing of the theme itself, you can use child themes.

An Example – Sites for Lawyers

Find the common features for a niche like lawyers.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re working with lawyers. After working in the industry for a while, you start to notice that a lot of the underlying structure of lawyer sites is similar. While the designs may be very different, the types of content is similar.

Let’s say they all pretty much have the following sections:

  • Areas of Practice
  • Location
  • Contact Us
  • About Us / Staff
  • Blog
  • FAQs
  • Disclaimer Page
  • Testimonials / Awards
  • Widget for badges, etc.

And so you can make up a basic starting point template for law firms. From there you can customize and design on top of that structure.

And of course you might even start to specialize for different types of lawyers. When you do, you begin to notice that on top of the basic structure above, they also have sections related to their specialty. For example, let’s say you begin catering to real estate attorneys. You notice many have the following sections, each with some general information and links pointing out to places of authority, such as government statutes.

  • Real Estate Closings
  • Real Estate Contract Negotiation
  • Title Insurance
  • Short Sales
  • Foreclosure Services and Representation
  • Loan Modifications and Restructuring
  • Distressed Property Workouts
  • Commercial Leasing

With this in mind, you can create a special Real Estate Law template.

Domain Mapping DOWNLOAD HERE

The Domain Mapping plugin is going to be another must for most people. This plugin maps the user’s site on your network (e.g. xyzplumbing.mywebhost.com) to their own domain (e.g. xyzplumbing.com).

Although it’s possible to set up a site like WordPress.com or Edublogs.org and have people be willing to pay for upgrades without having their own domain, in most cases money will be made with clients that want their own domain. This, of course, applies to both the Web Host and the Designer model.

Another domain mapping plugin option is the WordPress MU Domain Mapping plugin found in the WP Plugin Directory.

Ultimate Branding  DOWNLOAD HERE

Your client may or may not know that they are working on the WordPress platform. You may want to use that as a selling point. Or you may want to leave that fact out of the conversation altogether. That’s up to you and how you think it might affect your marketing efforts.

Either way, the Ultimate Branding plugin will let you easily wipe traces of WordPress’ branding from your system. Replace all WordPress logos with your own. Customize the Admin area. Use your own favicons. Write your own help content. Set up the dashboard the you like. And more.

Take a look at the video below for an overview of Ultimate Branding.

And here’s a look at some of the settings to give you a more complete idea about what you’ll be able to change with this plugin.

A quick look at all the things you can change with the Ultimate Branding plugin.

Easy Blogging DOWNLOAD HERE

The Easy Blogging plugin takes rebranding to another level. Easy Blogging changes the look in the backend completely, making it both more attractive and much much simpler.

Have a look at the following video for an overview of the Easy Blogging plugin.

The Easy Blogging plugin is also flexible. At the “highest” level, you can let users choose to turn the Easy Blogging mode on or off. Or you can make it mandatory, thereby making sure you can control the complexity of the backend. You can also use it in conjunction with the Pro Sites plugin and make it mandatory only for free users, for example.

Know what your clients need ahead of time, and do it for them.

In addition to making things simpler, Easy Blogging also makes it easier to point users toward the things that will be most important to them.

For example, let’s say you have an “Announcements” section on the homepage of one of the Blog Templates you created. In order for the user to change the message in the Announcements area, they will need to go to a page which you conveniently created for them called Announcements.

Instead of making the user dig into the Pages section and find the page for Announcements, you could put a button right on the sidebar that goes directly to the edit screen for that page.

Quick technical note: You would do this by building the page, and then copying the last part of the URL and putting that into the URL box. For example, if the page you built for Announcements in your template had an ID number of 43, then the URL you would put in the box would look like this: post.php?post=43&action=edit.

This way, no matter what the user’s domain, that menu button would always go to the edit screen for the Announcement page (providing they’ve started with the template you built). For example, the same menu item would go to these edit screens on these three example sites:

  • siteabc.com/ wp-admin/post.php?post=43&action=edit
  • sitexyz.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=43&action=edit
  • site123.com/ wp-admin/post.php?post=43&action=edit

To give you a better idea of how the Easy Blogging plugin changes the appearance of things, take a look at the edit screen under Easy Blogging.

Easy Blogging – the new post screen in the editor.

And here’s a look at the dashboard with a custom widget put in place. I’ve added a bit of HTML to show you a little of what it can do.

A look at the Easy Blogging dashboard with a custom widget.

In addition to the above, another very nice feature of Easy Blogging (especially if you have clients that aren’t technically savvy) is the Wizard. This feature lets you create a step-by-step wizard guide for your users, taking them through whichever pages/screens you assign to your home-made guide.

This is especially useful if you have set up a custom-made site – whether you’re using it for an individual client or as a template.

Users can easily switch back and forth between Wizard mode and regular mode with the click of a button.

Create guides and take your clients by the hand. Show them exactly what they need to do and where they need to go.

Video Tutorials DOWNLOAD HERE

And finally we come to the last plugin we’ll recommend as a “must have” – Video Tutorials.

Whether you’re setting up as a Web Host or a Designer, you’re likely to be dealing with a number of clients who aren’t familiar with WordPress at all. These white label video tutorials will be a lifesaver for both you and your clients. They integrate right into your backend, providing on-the-spot support that will show your users exactly what they need to do.

Take a look at the video below for an overview.

Other Plugins to Consider

The plugins mentioned above are recommended as “must haves,” but there are lots of other great plugins you’ll find at WPMU DEV to help you do exactly what you want to do. We’ll give a short rundown here of some others that may serve you well.

Support System – Set up a comprehensive support system with an FAQ and Support Ticket systems available to all your users via the WordPress Admin.

Admin Help Content – WordPress default help may overwhelm your users. Create your own. WP Help will also allow you to make up your own support documents.

Terms of Service – Places a Terms of Service box on the signup form. Especially good for Web Host setups. Multisite TOS is another option for you.

Default Theme – Allows you to easily select a new default theme for new blogs.

(Note: if you put in a default  theme and you also choose a template, the template will override the default theme)

Multisite Analytics – Offer users individual stats for their sites through Google Analytics. At the same time, get site-wide stats for yourself.

Affiliates –  Allow your users to become affiliates, send you referrals, track their clicks and sales, and get paid.

Custom Press – Especially useful if going after a certain niche and making special post types for them. Custom Post Type UI is another easy-to-use option for you. And Types is yet another.


Even More Plugins & a Technical Note

We’ll stop here with the plugins, but you should know that WPMU DEV’s Multisite plugins don’t stop here. You can find plenty more by searching the Multisite plugin directory.

Also, if you need to deal with bringing already existing WordPress sites into your Multisite Network, this post on importing to and exporting from Multisite should help.

Thoughts? … Comments? … Ideas?

As mentioned, this idea of running a business based around WordPress Multisite is not new. Many have done it. Maybe you have too. If so, we’d like to hear about your experiences.

If you’re thinking about doing this but haven’t done so yet, maybe you have questions that you’d like to put out there. Please do so in the comments.

Or maybe you just have a good idea you’d like to share. Let us hear it.

The post above is by no means a be-all and end-all. If anything, it’s only a possible beginning.

Photos: Embedment, Blue Strips, and Gears from BigStock. Photocredit: server.

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