TL; DR: Founded in 2003, AwardSpace was one of the industry’s first truly free hosts, offering ad-free services to clients looking to set up shop on the early web. Today, the company operates on a freemium business model, delivering both zero-cost and paid hosting for small- and medium-sized businesses as they scale. AwardSpace now hosts upward of 5 million accounts, providing customers with a turnkey set of web solutions, including hosting, domain registry, and design and development tools. With a forward-facing philosophy of matching technical expertise with market demands and plans to increase application integrations on the horizon, AwardSpace is set to continue to help modern entrepreneurs build web presence and drive profits online.
In late 2003, AwardSpace emerged as one of the first free HTML hosts offering LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) hosting. Prior to the social media explosion and the advent of content management systems, such as WordPress, this period would come to be known as “Web 1.0.”
AwardSpace followed in the footsteps of hosts, such as GeoCities and Angelfire, offering free subdomains. Pages were constructed in pure HTML and used for personal blogs or to promote entrepreneurial endeavors on the web before blogging became more mainstream.
However, running a free site in 2003 usually meant having a few plain-looking HTML pages splashed with host-supplied advertisements. Many providers at the time used ads to fund their free plans and encouraged users to upgrade to paid services to remove them.
“If you remember, GeoCities was an awesome brand back in the day, as a lot of people couldn’t afford a website,” said Raitschin Raitschew, Co-Founder of AwardSpace. “But all you saw was a lot of advertisements when you went on a page, with banners running across the top and bottom.”
These unsightly advertisements were a nuisance to visitors and sometimes resulted in information being blocked by overlays.
Since its inception, AwardSpace was determined to stand out from the crowd by offering free hosting that measured up to paid hosting standards.
“We’ve had 12 years on the market,” Raitschin said. “Back when we started, there weren’t a lot of options for free hosting. Everything that you would want on a paid hosting service, we wanted to offer for free.”
Today, AwardSpace still offers a free hosting service with modern tools, such as site builders, included at no cost. But the company has expanded its services to encompass premium shared, virtual server, semi-dedicated server, and cloud hosting solutions. And, according to Raitschin, no matter which route AwardSpace customers take, the company’s goal is to make the lives of web entrepreneurs easier and help them create successful online businesses.
Built From the Ground Up to Create Affordability in the Hosting Space
As is the case with many of the businesses it hosts, AwardSpace began as an entrepreneurial venture between Raitschin and a friend during their time at university. The project was entirely self-funded and self-constructed — hardware and all.
“None of us took loans to create the company,” Raitschin said. “With no external investment, we were forced to think differently. We assembled all the hardware by ourselves, so we didn’t buy any expensive IBM servers or clusters.”
While initial setup was challenging, this cheaper approach was what allowed AwardSpace to offer free hosting without advertisements. Using an unusual hardware configuration, Raitschin and his partner were tasked with creating a customized operating system that would run smoothly and work with limited resources.
Despite not using expensive equipment and software, AwardSpace was a DIY project that became profitable as time went on. Part of AwardSpace’s initial success was its timing. The demand for LAMP hosting without banner ads was immense around 2003, and AwardSpace was one of few hosts at the time to offer such a thing.
“Our idea from the beginning was to avoid relying on ads and actually offer free hosting without banners,” Raitschin said. “We wanted it to have a database and PHP support, so you can have scripts running on it and so forth.”
A Freemium Business Model That Nurtures SMBs From Startup to Scale
With little competition, AwardSpace tapped into a surprisingly lucrative market, becoming one of the top 10 free web hosts in 2005. Later that year, AwardSpace launched its first premium service for its growing eCommerce customers, offering a simple migration process with no downtime.
In the following decade, AwardSpace would continue to expand its services to offer plans that fit the diverse needs of clients.
“We wanted to offer free hosting so people could start working with it and educating themselves on how to best use it,” Raitschin said. “When they get a business site running and it starts growing, they can move to our premium plans.”
That’s what many of the businesses that partner with AwardSpace have done: use the free hosting to build their sites, grow ROI, and upgrade to the premium service once they can afford it.
“We have added a lot of products, such as virtual private servers, cloud servers, and dedicated servers, but at the very core, it has always stayed the same,” Raitschin said. “Having a robust, free hosting service, then the possibility to grow and obtain exactly what you need for your business or project.”
AwardSpace operates on a fixed-price approach, ensuring predictable monthly costs and making budgeting and other business decisions easier for clients.
Products That Marry Expertise and Innovation With Client Need
To stay competitive throughout its lifespan, AwardSpace has added new products and improved upon old ones. Today, AwardSpace offers shared, semi-dedicated, VPS, and reseller hosting, along with domain registration (including subdomains for free users) and SSL certificates.
Building off its original OS, AwardSpace also delivers a highly customized control panel.
“We really thought from the beginning that we should have something different,” Raitschin said. “We knew cPanel lacked some functionality and user-friendliness, and we wanted to change that.”
AwardSpace’s homebrew control panel was specifically created to simplify the user experience. The tool options are grouped into functional categories that make sense to users.
“We focus very much on having intuitive functionality, and we took something like a semantic approach,” Raitschin said. “For example, in other control panels, you have DNS on a different section than domain settings, and you have to go from place to place to change everything. In ours, you can manage it all in one section for all your domains.”
To offer clients the most user-friendly control panel, AwardSpace’s hallmark product was crafted from a combination of internal expertise and external customer feedback.
“We have this internal strategy where we consider what our product lacks and where we need to put more effort,” Raitschin said. “Then, when we hear what users are saying, we see what we might have missed. Now, we have customers saying our homebrew control panel is very easy to use.”
Giving Businesses Peace of Mind With Increased App Integration
In addition to its product portfolio, AwardSpace’s internal wiki is continuously expanded with feedback and ideas from customers, among other information. Raitschin told us the team meets at least once per week to map out project trajectories.
“When it comes to internal and external, you cannot isolate one from the other,” he said.
To further improve the user experience, AwardSpace plans to integrate with third-party apps like DropBox. And this long-awaited integration with external services represents the next major step for the company.
“One of the biggest features we’ve worked on for a very long time is integration with more services,” Raitschin said. “One feature we are launching very soon is an automatic backup for your hosting account with DropBox.”
DropBox can be fully synchronized with AwardSpace’s customer hosting accounts to include backups of all files, folders, and databases, ensuring peace of mind.
“You can have everything mirrored in your DropBox, so you will never lose your website,” Raitschin said.
Whether it’s customer feedback or third-party services, AwardSpace seeks to combine the best external influences with its internal strategy. In the 10+ years since its founding, the company has implemented new plans and products to help make the web more accessible to entrepreneurs.
Given that the company was built on a homebrew of custom hardware, AwardSpace has always sought to demystify the creation and maintenance of websites. An innovator from the start, AwardSpace, which began as a passion project to build a truly free host, continues to foster entrepreneurial spirit on the web.