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"How Can We Help You?": NationalNet's Customer-Centric Credo

That's when we shine the most," confides Tony Morgan, owner of mega-hosting giant NationalNet. "When people come to us and say, 'All right, I've had enough of dealing with these low-cost providers. Help me!'"

What this illustrates for Morgan is NationalNet's customer-centric business performance, where the bottom line is not the bottom line. "We do more than just host. We act as consultants, confidants; they cry on our shoulders; we mediate."

In 1996, when the Internet as we know it was just a twinkle in the eye, Morgan developed an interest in all things cyber. "I started surfing and saw some people were already doing [adult-oriented sites], and I said, 'Gee, this seems like fun - and I might actually make a little money on the side!'"

So he opened his own adult amateur Website. "There were probably, at that time, 50 [members] over at YNOT." Morgan can't count himself as a charter member, but "we got in during one of the following openings for membership.

"I wasn't so much a one-man show, as... I still had my full-time job. I worked for a Fortune 500 company, as a general manager. I had about 200 employees in three states. They were shocked as hell when I left and told them what I was going to do!"

Navigating the industry was a far different thing in those days, but Morgan exploited every avenue he could. "We didn't have any resources. The YNOT board was just getting kicked off, and I learned a lot from the guys over there; I learned from watching what other people were doing, and I spent time surfing other peoples' sites.

"I always laugh and tell people, 'I never had an original idea in my life.'" This statement is, I learn, pretty typical of Morgan's pragmatic modesty. "I try to find out what everybody else is doing and do it better.

"I didn't know anything about Web design." Morgan heard about an acquaintance from high school who had learned how to build Web pages. "I called him up and said, 'Hey, if I get you a bunch of pictures of naked girls, will you build me a Website?' He was like, 'Sure - why not? That'd be fun.'

"To this day, he's still my chief designer."

In 1998, with a few sites and a couple of other employees added to the mix, Morgan was struck by opportunity lightning. "[There was] a company called National Internet Services, based out of Tennessee. A gentleman by the name of Tom Blanchard owned it. I knew Tom, I'd met him several times on the boards; I'd met him at a show I'd been to. The day before Thanksgiving, I got a call telling me all Blanchard's servers were down. I went to him, and literally in about three or four hours' time, had negotiated a deal to buy it."

However, a business based on Web hosting was about the farthest thing from Morgan's mind. "Our thought process, when we did it, was that if we could take care of the customers who were already customers, we could move our sites into [National Internet Services] and we'd have free hosting.

"Our own host was pretty expensive. We had trouble finding a good host; we switched hosts five times in one year. The service was lacking - dramatically.

"I hooked up with Bill VanVorst, who is a server genius when it comes to the technical aspect. I convinced him to come over and help us in exchange for hosting his sites. He said, 'Sure, because I need a good host too.'

"We took all of the servers, moved them to Atlanta, and started NationalNet as we know it."

Originally, Morgan & co. had no intention of taking on customers; but as the saying goes, if you build it, they will come. "When we took over from Tom, we had eight servers. We're up to, what, 5, 6, 700 servers now? I remember the first time we hit 100 megabytes per second; we thought we were gods. Now we're pushing several gigabytes per second, and negotiating some of the biggest bandwidth deals on the Internet.

"One of the jokes I tell people is, 'I own a Web development company, but I couldn't build an HTML page if you held a gun to my head,'" Morgan laughs, a bit ruefully. "We're probably the biggest hosting company on the Net, and they won't give me the passwords to any of the servers because they're afraid I'll get in there and mess it up.

"The reality is, what I've always done, in my [previous] professions and now this, is find the people who know what they're doing and let them do it - and stay the hell out of their way."

Of course, assessing a wave and taking the tremendous chance of riding it is its own kind of genius. Morgan employs his usual self-effacing manner while considering this, but will say that he knows how to take a gamble. "Right now, everybody's singing the blues. One of the things I've been telling people is that during every recession, there are always a few people who get really rich - people who aren't afraid to take a risk."

One of NationalNet's new developments is the release of a National data center. "We now have our own facility, and it's something that we completely control. We've taken away every single source of failure we have," Morgan confirms. "That's the biggest thing [to do] in our industry, to make sure that no one thing can take you down."

Another diversification is Morgan's acquisition of a domain registration service, NatNames.com. "People can register domains for as low as $10 apiece."

With all this success, is Morgan considering sizing down the NationalNet presence?

"No.

"We still make a very large splash at the shows. The reason why that's important is that it's already been established; our industry is very small, so too many people will take [anything as] a sign and make something out of it. Let's say I were to decide that at the next show we weren't going to do a booth. What would happen is, before the second day of the show, everybody would be coming to me, going, 'I hear y'all are having financial problems.' No one wants to look at their host and wonder if they're having financial problems."

NationalNet has never employed a sales rep, however, and there are no plans to acquire a sales department in the near future. "We get all of our business from word of mouth, and the biggest portion of that business comes from internal growth."

Morgan cites an example. "A customer who started out with us on a virtual account where his bill with us ran about $300 a month, now runs at $40,000. I can't tell you how many customers we have just like that."

NationalNet guarantees that it will fulfill any work order in 24 hours. "But our average turn-around time is 22 minutes," Morgan says. Once a customer experiences that kind of dedication, he adds," There's no going back.

"We're not the cheapest, and we're very up front about that: We never tried to be the low-cost leader. We're not going to compete on that line. You'll never see an ad from us saying we are the cheapest.

"We are the best, though."

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